Recording the perfect vocal is not a perfect science. It can be extremely subjective and often depends on the sound you’re looking for on your track.
It can also be far more difficult than you might expect when you haven’t done it before, so read on to learn more about the basics of recording vocals at home from experienced producer Rich Lewis.
The kind of vocal sound you’re looking for can alter the recording, mixing and mastering process hugely.
If you’re recording a solo voice that accompanies an acoustic guitar or a full on, balls to the wall indie rock song, or even a choir, you’ll have to alter your approach to mic placement, recording chain, processing chains and the mic you use – to name just a few of the variables.
This guide is for beginners, so I’ll keep it fairly simple and stick to the basic tips for musicians on a budget. That way hopefully you’ll get the fundamentals right and learn from some of my usual practices. So with that in mind, let’s crack on!
Recording Vocals at Home: The Basics
Choose the right microphone
There’s a whole world of different microphones out there, from USB mics, condensers, dynamics & ribbons all ranging from the very cheap to the ridiculously expensive.
So, which one should you use? Well, that depends. Different mics work better in different situations and on different voices.
With vocals, you might find that a £200 mic suits the voice your recording better than a £3,000 one, so try not to get too carried away with expensive gear. Just because you’re using a more expensive mic doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a better end result.
When recording a lead vocal, I always go for a large diaphragm condenser microphone as they tend to be clearer and more sensitive than dynamic mics. They’re perfect for capturing the detail and nuances that make a vocal unique, and that’s what makes a vocal recording great. Not to say dynamic mics can’t work with vocals, but generally they’re used in live situations because they’re generally a little more robust.
There’s so many on the market within the £200 to £500 range that are amazing quality, so you don’t necessarily have to break the bank. I’ve found that an SE Electronics Gemini 5, which is around £500 sounds best on my voice. Before that I used the Rode NT1 which was less than £200.
Large diaphragm condenser mics are perfect for capturing vocals
Position the microphone
I’ve tried so many different places to position the mic in my career. Fifteen feet away, out in the hallway, 2 inches away with a towel draped over my head; but I’d say anywhere between 6 and 10 inches away is a good place to start.
It’s not too far that you’ll pick up room reflections than you can’t control, depending on how lively your room is. But it’s also not too close that you’ll end up getting a bass proximity effect that sounds like you’re doing a voice over for a Hollywood trailer. Unless of course you want either of those things…
Create the ideal recording environment
Most people don’t have an acoustically treated, soundproofed room or vocal booth at home, so room reflections can sometimes be a bit of an issue.
However, as long as the room you’re recording in isn’t covered with giant mirrors or windows, and doesn’t have ceramic tiled floors, then you should be able to find a spot in the room that works, but do try out a few different positions. Oh, and also make sure your washing machine isn’t switched on!
You’ll also need a Pop Shield to stop your ‘Ps’ and ‘Fs’ from muffling your recording. They’re not particularly expensive, but if you don’t have one, then try a pair of tights stretched over a coat hanger, that’s what I used to do!
Pop shields are cheap, easy to use, and essential for recording vocals
Mic gain and front end processing
A lot of people still like to record at very high levels (-3 to 0 DB) but you don’t need to do this anymore as even a fairly low input level (-15 or -20DB) will come through with little noise now that everything is digital. I like to go between –15 to –7 DB as it’s a nice middle ground.
If your singing volumes don’t differ too much, then once you’ve set it to one level where the loudest part isn’t distorting, then all should be fine. Unless you’re singing a really soft, delicate verse and then a loud shouty chorus you shouldn’t need to change your gain level for different sections.
A lot of engineers use Pre-amps, compression and EQ when recording into their DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). These can be hardware or software, though don’t go over the top with any compression on the way in, as you won’t be able to undo it later on when mixing.
I usually have no more than a gain reduction of 3 - 4 DB and with a fairly slow attack and release which will give a nice smooth transparent sound to it. With the EQ, I’d recommend you just take out the very low end to clear any muddiness up and have a play with making small tweaks to improve your tone. Again, don’t go over the top as you won’t be able to undo it once it’s been recorded.
Don't add too many effects before recording, as you won't be able to undo them
Use double tracking and backing vocals
Double, triple or quadruple tracking your vocal parts is one way of thickening and widening them up and helps them stand out in your mix.
You should be picky about where you do this though. If you do it the whole way through your song, then it’ll have less impact than if you do it in only particular parts of the song.
Often, chorus sections are a good place to use this technique, and by panning the extra tracks left and right you can create a nice wide vocal effect.
Also, try double tracking your backing vocals as it will give them a ‘chorus/modulation’ type effect. Cutting away some of the high frequencies will help them sit further back from the main vocal and create a sense of depth to your mix.
Make sure the timing of the singing is consistent when double tracking otherwise it will sound very messy. When making a stripped back arrangement, double tracking might not work well, so be wary of what sort of vocal sound you’re trying to accomplish.
Double track your vocals on the chorus for a bigger impact
The mix processing chain
Although it isn’t part of the recording process, it’s important to mention that the recording process alone won’t give you the finished article.
Once you’ve compiled all of your takes in your amazing sounding dry vocal, there are several things to consider when it comes to processing.
I use two EQs. One to clean up any frequencies that are bugging me, take out any low-end rumbles or high end hiss that were missed in the recording stage. The other is to give some nice character and tone – maybe an analogue emulation plugin.
Use compression to level off any transient peaks and also bring up any breaths and nuances you want to hear. The bigger your arrangement is, the more you’ll probably want to use compression, is as it will be fighting against a lot of other frequencies. Also, try using volume automation as this is a common way to make sure the vocal level is more consistent throughout.
I find that even a touch of analogue or tape distortion can make vocals pop out in your mix and make the general sound a lot better. Play around with it to find a great sound, from a hint of tube warmth, all the way to full-on cabinet distortion for crunchy effects.
Use this to add depth and width to your mix, but remember, it’s easy to get carried away in the moment especially as it seems to add “talent” to your performance – so be careful.
My advice would be to make it sound good to your ears, then back it off a touch. This always seems to work for me. I also tend to use two types of reverb and/or delay. A little bit of room reverb to soften the edges and another bigger delay or reverb for nice depth effects.
I could talk all day about the processing chain, but the 4 points above are generally what I do on every vocal mix in some way or another.
Final thought: Remember, when it comes to recording vocals, there's no absolute right or wrong, just general guidelines. Always test different techniques and find what works for you, your equipment and your recording space.
This is a guest blog by Rich Lewis, a partner at Track Spark with 13 years of professional experience in broadcast composition, production and sound design. He's composed extensively for BBC, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, Disney, and Warner Brothers among others and for brands such as Sony, Orange, Honda, Virgin Media, Nissan and Levi's.