The problem with recording vocals in a professional or home studio is… Well, just that… The act of recording vocals.
There is nothing natural about it. The human voice is the most complex and finicky instrument there is, and it takes quite a bit of technical outsmarting and finesse to effectively capture an accurate representation of the audible vibrations emitted from an individual's’ vocal chords. Unlike recording a guitar, acoustic OR electric, a piano, or almost any other instrument, vocal recording presents a few unique challenges, namely, the critical nuances of the tracking process in regards to the direct effect on the captured performance.
I’ve written lots more technical and procedural articles on Vocal Recording Tips here.
But while most of the articles online focus on the recording process from an engineer’s perspective, which IS important, in this article I am going to speak more from the singer’s vantage point and deliver advanced tips that will hopefully be very helpful for singers/home recordists and perhaps even provide some insight and techniques for engineer/producers as well.
In about 9 years of producing vocals in my home studio, I must have tried about everything…
I’ve tried all kinds of tracking methods. I’ve tried many microphones, many mic positions, all kinds of acoustic treatment solutions from reflective filters to absorbers, to hanging duvet-vocal-booths, to every kind of plugin across many many manufacturers. I’ve tried out several schools of thought, and I’ve brainstormed what I’ve found to be the most critical pieces of advice that I could give in regards to Recording Vocals in a home studio.
I’ve condensed that knowledge down into five primary points - that if utilized effectively would give anyone with decent preamps and a low budget condenser mic-the ability to record professional vocal tracks in their home studio.
The 5 Keys To Professional Vocal Recordings:
Do ALL You Can With WHAT You Got
One of the challenges about producing music in a home recording studio, especially for those without much experience or perspective, is that you can easily go to extremes… Either on the OCD, technically perfectionistic.. Must. Be. Just. Right. But. never quite is… Or on the other hand, get lazy… All the way down to procrastinate. Either way, not getting things DONE.
I’ll definitely admit to having done both…
But the key, to keeping your chops fresh on the recording side, as well as getting the best sounding vocals for each song-is that you are active with each song.
You have to try stuff out. Tinker and explore. Everyone always harps on Mic Placement, but how can you can’t find the SWEET spot in a room if you don’t curiously experiment with it? You should really be familiar with and know how to maximize the best qualities of each component in your rig. Don’t settle for the “this is just the sound of my room,” or “I just don’t have the tools yet,” excuses…
If you have great preamps get the majority of your signal pumping out of THEM, if you’ve got way too much reflection and echo, go and sew two duvets together and attach to the joists in your ceiling (or something) with hanger-wire in a circle. Smooth sounding vocal tent in several hours. It works like a charm for the $40-50 cost of fabric from target.
Knowing the microphones strengths and weaknesses, as well as the singer’s voice type should go without saying.
The key here is that you are creatively learning how to use everything you have, most effectively.
I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how important the vocals are, and how powerful a well produced vocal performance can have on a song. Not only does it significantly impact the emotional response the listener will have, but it can easily mean the difference between a Film and TV placement or not.
Get Your Mic and Vocal Tracks Prepped First
As I’ve covered in other tutorials in much more depth, this is the name of the game for capturing the best performances for EACH song.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve kicked myself for not ironing out the details and doing my prep-work before capturing the best vocal performance for a song during a one off scratch performance that was inspired, and which I did not capture properly.
Choose the mic for the song, get the levels adjusted, understand the arrangement and/or strip down the headphone mix for the song, have it ready to go. So when you get that brilliant melody idea or record that scratch performance that turns out to be PERFECT, you can proudly transition into the mixing phase with a satisfied smile on your face!
The VOCAL is the Most Important Piece of Equipment
That’s right, the VOCAL. Thus, take care of the vocalist! We can be fussy about nuances, but cut us some slack, so are engineers, they just don’t have to listen to themselves back on record!
Singers, you must remember this… You are playing an instrument. Your voice must be well maintained and you’re instrument tuned and warmed up. It is 90% performance, and 10% everything else that chisels and polishes the first 90%.
If your voice, (or if you are producing someone else's) is not respected, massaged and coaxed to inspire and facilitate the best performance of that instrument, then you are not doing your best to create the best record you can.
Now, you know this.. You have heard it… But you cannot hear it enough, because it really is the performance that makes the record.
Key Vocal Frequencies
Before we get into setting suggestions and tips, what you should know is where your voice shines best. Both in and outside the mix of a song. My voice shows off a cutting smoky crispness between 2100-2400khz, and a smooth and balanced body is brought out around 750hz.
It’s helpful to know these, but it’s much more of an exercise of becoming aware of these frequencies, and seeing which key vocal frequencies sound best for the song.
I mean, for most it’s no mystery that the real trick to vocal production is to slot the vocal by finding and highlighting the frequencies that make the vocal standout and sound best, and then cutting those frequencies from other secondary instruments which are competing for them. Vocal takes priority, always. Find where it sounds best, and carve that space out in the mix.
Tracking Setting Suggestions
Ahhh, here we go. The moment you’ve all been waiting for… Well I might as well heighten the anticipation by saying that it’s taken me a long time to find this “Magic Formula,” that if followed, step by step, will immediately get your records play on the radio and make you millions! And now I shall unveil it to you, free of charge… Lol. Sorry folks, I couldn’t resist! :)
The fact is that when I started tracking vocals many many years ago, I recorded naked. No effects added. After tracking with every kind of compressor, with and without EQ boosts, tape saturation plug-ins, special abbey road plugins that boost 8k… I was searching for anyway to somehow give me that elusive little “Extra,” or special technical trick that would make women's panties instantaneously drop upon listening…
I found out what most seasoned seasoned producers and engineers are probably already grinning about now…
It’s all about a transparently great performance. No effects, just good old mic placement, mic technique, and a high quality singer.
Now, I don’t mean to sound so melodramatic about it, it wasn’t like I was bloodthirsty for some elusive crack pipe that would turn into a genie and grant me eternal happiness…
But I’m smart, I’m technically savvy, I’ve got an audio production and engineering degree, and I’m a singer with a home studio… So i can experiment and will surely find some little trick that makes me sound - golly gee unfathomably GREAT, every-time, without trying!
Well, it’s kind of a boring answer, and you’ve heard it before… But it’s best to just track a clean performance that sounds good prior to any added effects.
Anyway, there are tricks like parallel compression, highly compressed stacked whispering support tracks, and such…
But the real trick… IS a well prepared vocalist, good mic selection/placement, great gain staging, and an INSPIRED performance.
Disclaimer: There are of course some people who are going to prefer to use a little bit of their favorite compression, and you can roll of at 100hz give or take a few, there is nothing wrong with this, and in fact you should test everything out for yourself. Certainly, and other people’s mileage may vary, but let’s not go there. Pro’s know what i’m talking about, regardless of whether or not they track with a bit of compression on their next project.
If it doesn’t sound great without any effects, than you need to work on your mic placement and/or mic technique.
If you think you NEED compression for tracking, you haven’t properly setup your gain structure.
Again, rolling off the low end is something I do frequently, and 100hz is a good rule of thumb.
*I know the “technical” objections to the Reflexion Filter, but I tried one, and I love it. Very nice and easy to get an accurate crisp recording. Great on both vocals and guitar.
Recording with a Stripped Down Headphone Mix
This last one is-like all of these, nothing new, but I’ve personally found it to be a real jewel for recording better vocals.
Strip the mix down to simply the bare essentials either in a headphone mix, or if it’s just you, by muting and decreasing levels. Just the main instrument guitar/piano, and whatever else is needed to help define the groove.
It makes it sooo much easier for me to hear myself and not drown in the sea of sound my ears are steady trying to swim in as I sing. For most of us, singing is much easier and much more natural when we can hear ourselves naturally fill a room. The stripped down mix makes it much easier to track, and you can always “one ear out it” with your cans. :)
So there you have it. Maybe that’ll even save you a couple of years. It really is all in getting really good at the basics.
But I want to hear from YOU! Do you agree, is there anything you’d add, or are there any tips you’d like to share with us as well? What are the real jewels for your vocal production?
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