Vocal recording - How to record vocals
The first and most important phase in getting some nice-sounding vocals on your track is the recording of them. If you don't get the execution right at this stage, the sound will be hard to rescue later on. As the saying goes: You can't polish a turd.
Let's take a look at the most essential aspects of nailing a good vocal recording!
The microphone jungle
The wide selection of microphones available potentially opens up an entirely new rabbit hole to deep dive in. There are however some basics you should be familiar with before picking one, and the most significant factor in your decision will probably be your budget.
2 most common types of microphones
A dynamic microphone might be your first mental image when you hear the word “microphone”. It’s the stick your favorite singers hold when they’re performing live on stage. That’s because dynamic microphones can take a beating, their diaphragms are less sensitive than other mics and typically don’t pick up a lot of surrounding noise which is perfect for live settings where you want to avoid feedback and rumble. The drawback is that they usually lack a bit of clarity and detail which we want when we record vocals in a home studio.
Unless you have a really noisy room or are out of options the better alternative is to go for a condenser microphone. Condenser microphones are more sensitive to vibrations and are generally better at picking up the aforementioned clarity and detail in a vocal recording. Because they are, you also need to be more gentle with them. They should be in a fixed position attached to a mic stand, preferably hanging suspended in a shock mount that will help absorb unwanted vibrations moving through the mic stand - for example, the low-frequency rumble of a subway train shaking the floor.
Connecting your mic
There are three types of connections you need to be familiar with when preparing to connect your microphone to your audio interface.
¼” line/phono is the most typical connection for dynamic microphones. Dynamic microphones don’t need extra power to run, but you do need an input socket to connect them to your computer. Any audio interface will have a ¼” input but if you need a cheap hacky way of connecting it you can get a ¼” to ⅛” adapter and feed it straight into your computer’s microphone input.
XLR is the most typical connection for condenser microphones. Apart from the audio signal XLR cables also supply the microphone with electricity, also referred to as phantom power or +48v. Without power, the microphone will not work. To power it, you also need a pre-amp, which is usually built into most modern audio interfaces. You’ll find a small button on your interface that says “+48v” which will jolt it right up.
There are also microphones (both of dynamic and condenser type) that connect straight via USB. These will have a preamp built into them and double as an audio interface. They can be a decent solution but you should try them out before buying. They don’t always provide the best quality recordings and can conflict with other audio drivers which is not ideal. For example, you might not be able to control the volume of your headphones and speakers separately.
Having an audio interface when you want to record vocals is important because it allows you to connect microphones, guitars, and other audio sources to your computer, which will then allow you to record vocals. Many microphones such as condenser mics require phantom power, as mentioned above. That's what one of the pins on an XLR cable is responsible for - transferring electricity to and from the microphone.
Audio interfaces come with other advantages - such as allowing you to control the headphone volume separately and directly monitoring the input.
If you don't have an audio interface, you'll have to use a microphone that doesn't require phantom power. Your best bet may be a USB mic, but beware that there may be issues with conflicting audio drivers.
Your room will affect the sound of your recording tremendously. Simply put; the more reflective surfaces you have in your room, the less clean it will sound. Soundwaves bounce on hard non-porous surfaces, causing unwanted reverb and unnatural frequency buildups. Corners are especially notorious for this reason. Just imagine how much the soundwaves ping-pong back and forth in there.
You can perform a quick amateur test of the severity of the situation in your room by clapping loudly. Note if there's some "robot-like" feedback and how long it takes before it goes completely silent. The time it takes for every sound frequency to go completely silent is measured in RT60 (reverberation time). Ideally, you want an RT60 at around 0.25. We're not diving too deep into that topic now, but it's a fun fact to bring up when you're flirting with someone.
This is the reason you see these fluffy things called absorbents and these oddly shaped things named diffusers in recording studios. They're actually not meant to isolate sound from leaking out from the room, but to calibrate and control the sound in a room for recording or mixing.
Absorbents literally absorb sound and prevent it from bouncing on the covered surface, diffusers scatter the sound to avoid buildups in certain frequencies.
If, like most bedroom producers, you don't have access to an acoustically treated room you can make the best of what you have. Scratch egg cartons off the list, but some good thick blankets and mattresses can mitigate the absolute worst parts. Covering the area behind the mic is a priority. Try to give the microphone some distance from the walls if possible.
If possible, use a pop-filter and keep the right distance from the microphone to avoid plosives. Plosives are the puffing noises generated by pronouncing hard consonants like "P" and "B". Hold your hand out right in front of your mouth and try it yourself, compare pronouncing a "P" to pronouncing an "R" for example. It's essentially air blown straight onto the membrane of the microphone, and this is what we want to prevent.
If you don’t have a pop filter you can get creative and make your own. Make a fixture using a wire and skewer some form of cloth over it, for example, a pair of pantyhose or a sock. Attach it to the microphone stand and distance it at least 10 cm or 4 inches away from the microphone.
Your mouth should be 15-30 cm or 6 to 12 inches away from the mic. If you have a lot of reverberation going on in your room you can compensate a little bit by getting closer to the mic to get more direct sound and less room ambiance, but don't get too close.
It's a common tendency for singers to move closer to the microphone as they sing (rappers clutching the microphone head sigh), making for a muffled, distorted, and noisy sound. For this reason, it's a good idea to use the pop filter you've just made to regulate that distance a little bit. They/you will probably still end up kissing it when they get into the vibe but at least you have a safe zone to work with.
Make a test recording where the singer sings with the same amplitude (natural loudness) as he or she will on the loudest part of the song, and adjust the gain of the microphone input accordingly.
The key here is to have a strong enough signal, but leave enough headroom to avoid clipping (volume exceeding 0dB causing distortion). A good general sweet spot is to have the signal average around -3dB. Always make sure to double-check with a couple of rehearsal rounds.
It’s also important that the signal is not too low, because boosting it too much after recording may introduce a lot of noise.
Keep the dynamics of the vocals in mind here. If the most silent part is much lower than the loudest you may want to consider splitting the recording up into different takes, as adjusting the gain in real-time during recording can be difficult and unpredictable.
Bonus tip: Come prepared
If you're collaborating with a vocalist on the spot, make sure to be there to set everything up ahead of time. There's no inspiration killer as big as waiting around for the engineer to solve technical problems.
Save yourself some stress by being there 30 minutes early to try everything out to avoid awkward situations!
You doing your part will go a long way but it takes two (or more) to tango. So do yourselves a favor as a team and encourage your vocalist to prepare by rehearsing before showing up for the session.