How to record vocals

So, last issue I went through some tips for recording acoustic guitar. This time it’s one of the trickiest and most important recording tasks – vocals. You might feel that a great vocal sound is out of your range without a massive collection of valuable mics and preamps, but even the modern home recordist can achieve a tasty vocal sound if the basics are properly followed. So, fetch that old duvet out the cupboard and let’s get started!

Which type of mic to use.

For vocal recording, you really need to use a large diaphragm condenser mic. If you’ve been using a battered old SM58 to lay down vocals, grab yourself a condenser with some of that left over Christmas money. You’ll be amazed at the difference in clarity and detail compared to a dynamic mic. Many come with a couple of switches such as a low cut for reducing rumble through the mic stand and a pad switch for use with high level signals. The more expensive models also carry a response pattern switch to change between cardioid, omni directional and figure of 8. As mentioned in the last article, a cardioid pattern is adequate for most situations in home studios.

If you have the luxury of a selection of mics, make sure you try as many as you can on your singer. Different mics have different characteristics so it’s worth selecting one which suits both the vocalist and the material. A stereo bar could help you save time by testing two mics at once. Oh, and don’t forget the phantom power switch!

(For a complete overview of the choices you need to make when buying a mic, check out our recording microphone buyer’s guide).

Poppin’ and boomin’.

We’ve all seen footage of singers in studios with a bendy metal arm infront of the mic. That’ll be the pop shield. These are pretty cheap to pick up and are essential for recording vocals. Condenser mics are very sensitive and the blast of air pressure from a ‘p’ or ‘b’ sound is too much for the poor little diaphragm to cope with. A pop shield disperses the air and protects the mic from these plosive sounds. Try placing the pop shield around 10cm from the mic and get the singer close to it for a more intimate sound or further away for a mellower and less direct sound. And if you’re a cheapskate, you can use a metal hanger and some stockings!

Vocal booths.

Many professional studios have a separate vocal booth for recording vocals. But you don’t have to shove your singer in a cupboard to get a clear vocal sound. The aim is to get as ‘dry’ a sound as possible by reducing room reflections going into the mic. This produces a clean and accurate recording and a blank slate for your mixing. One useful techie invention of the last 10 years has been the Reflexion Filter, originally made by SE Electronics although there are plenty of other versions available now. These can block out your room reflections so you don’t need to build a booth but it’s always a good idea to have some absorbent material behind the singer too. A thick duvet hung on the wall or over a door will so the job nicely and stop reflections off the back wall from going into the mic.

Getting the right performance.

Singing is a very personal and expressive process. I’ve had plenty of confident singers but quite a lot of shy ones too. It’s always important to think about the overall performance in advance and warm up appropriately. If it’s a slow dreamy song you’re recording, chill your vocalist out with a cup of cocoa. If it’s an energetic rock epic, crack out the red bull and whip them up into a frenzy! Having the right energy will make a huge difference to the performance.

It’s also worth deciding on which recording approach you’re going to use before hitting the record button. I’d usually do the first take all the way through so the vocal chords get warmed up, then split the song into sections and do a few takes of each. You can then compile the best bits into the best take, selecting the versions which you and the singer decide they like the best. Make sure you check with them because you don’t want them to end up with bits they really dislike!

From a distance.

Everyone loves a bit of backing vocals on a track but how can you make yours stand out? Remember, lead vocal is the most important so make sure you don’t cover it up. At the recording stage, try placing the mic a few meters away to add some space. This works particularly well for group ‘chant’ style backing vocals and separates them from the lead without resorting to drowning them in reverb at the mixing stage.

REMEMBER – trust your ears and sonic glory will soon be yours.

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Alex Fenton is an experienced sound engineer and music producer who started out by setting up his own company, Fentek Audio, after gaining an honours degree in Music Technology. Alex has helped many local bands enhance their status with the likes of White Heath and Birdhead gaining label deals off the back of his recordings and creative production style. He now runs Swanfield Studios, a custom built studio in Leith offering recording, mixing and mastering as well as training in music technology and recording techniques.

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  1. […] already written about how to record a great vocal, so that perfect take should be sitting in your DAW, ready to go, so let’s crack on with the […]



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