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17 Top Vocal Recording Tips

17 Top Vocal Recording Tips

The delivery of a vocal is arguably the most important aspect of a song and at times can be one of the most challenging aspects of the recording process, but with a little preparation and the right equipment, it is completely possible to record superb sounding vocals in a domestic environment.

1. Take time to get the headphone mix right to make the performer as comfortable as possible. A little reverb on the vocal in the ‘phones can help with pitching notes, a good headphone mix can really bring out the best in a performer. Also, try to make the performance area warm and inviting as this all helps in a subtle way.

If you’re using a DAW, then you’ll need to set up the headphone mix in such a way that the singer isn’t hearing an obviously delayed version of their performance in their headphones. Either use very small buffer sizes to minimise the round-trip time, or set up a zero-latency/direct monitor mix for the vocalist using an external mixer, or the appropriate functions on your audio interface or preamp if they offer them.

2. Always use closed back headphones to prevent your backing track leaking into the mic and play the cue mix back at an appropriate level that balances getting a good performance out of the vocalist and minimises spill.

3. Make sure that the vocalist is well rehearsed and knows the song inside out before the recording session begins. Provide a rough mix so that they can practise and don’t have the added stress of learning the track at the session.

4. Depending on your recording setup, a little compression when recording can be useful to control dynamics and help smooth things out. What we are trying to achieve is to record ALL of the vocal performance which, when recording a vocalist with a massive dynamic range, can be tricky.

A little compression helps keep a good level but be gentle. Too much compression on the vocal during recording can make a singer push and strain the delivery as well as choking out the dynamics of the performance. Use no more than 8db gain reduction on the loudest peaks. Control, not kill (Sounds a bit Orwellian).

That said, if you are recording digitally at 24 bit (take a look at the settings in your system), there is generally no need to compress on the way in due to the increased dynamic range offered by the longer word length. Even with the meters peaking at a headroom-friendly -12 or -10 dBFS you should be absolutely fine.

5. Always, I repeat, always use a pop shield as ‘plosive’ pops and bobs can and almost certainly will ruin your vocal take and little can be done to edit them out after the fact.

6. When recording multiple takes, be sure to keep the vocalist and microphone position constant, as altering this will alter the vocal’s tone and make editing difficult. As with everything mentioned here a well-structured recording process will result in less hair loss later in the project.

7. Encourage your vocalist by staying positive and upbeat throughout the session even if it’s not going so well. There are many tales in the music hall of fame of vocalists struggling to get the perfect take who have then gone on to nail it, so you are far from being alone.

8. Obviously, you’ll want to use a good quality microphone. In recent years, microphone quality has gone through the roof with superb mics coming in at a quality to price ratio that makes older engineers wish they had been born 30 years later. A really great mic may seem expensive but unlike that new iPad, it will never become obsolete.

9. Choose a suitable acoustic environment to record your vocals, a reverb and reflection free room is ideal. Start by positioning the vocalist as far from the walls as you can, but without putting them in the exact centre of the room.

If you are in an overly bright room, damp down the acoustics with foam, duvets, thick curtains etc. A heavy duvet behind the vocalist is the first thing to set up –you can set this up easily with a couple of mic stands- as this should stop the reflected sound entering the mic on its most sensitive axis.

Consider using an sE Reflexion Filter. It’s now an industry standard product as it takes a lot of the pain out of recording vocals by taming the room’s acoustics and therefore making vocals sound tighter.

10. Consider using a dedicated, external microphone preamplifier if you are looking to achieve a first-class sound. Desk and audio interface preamps will get the job done for sure, but they are built to a price point. A nice preamp is designed with absolute audio fidelity and one purpose in mind… to give the absolute best sound possible.

Many preamps also have DI’s built in so you can record keyboards, bass etc., and others feature a complete ‘channel-strip’ of features such as compression and/or eq, so they are a very worthy addition to any recording and mixing setup.

11. On a slightly philosophical note, keep the session fun and don’t overwork the vocalist. If they have had a long and tiring day in the studio this is likely to come out in the final recording. Remember that it’s the vocal performance that will carry the message and emotion of the track and will ultimately make the song a hit.

12. If your mic has an HPF (high pass filter) use it, as it helps to keep the audio track clear of foot thumps and other vibrations that may travel up the mic stand.

13. Some singers, it seems, have to hold the microphone to deliver their performance so this is the time to crack out a trusty Shure SM58 or SM57. A high-quality dynamic mic is probably the best for this application. Make sure that the vocalist’s hand is not covering the back of the mic basket and again filter out mic noise by cutting the low frequencies (HPF).

To cover all your options there’s nothing to stop you putting up a stand mounted condenser in front of the vocalist and recording both mics so you can have the best of both worlds.

14. Make sure the room is quiet. Keep computer fans, mobiles, humming fridges, drunken neighbours, garrulous parrots etc. to a minimum.

15. Mic proximity and positioning are very important. With a close mic position (2 – 4 inches) more bass, lip smack, mouth noise and detail will be present which can be very effective if you are aiming towards a very intimate, warm and breathy sound, but unlikely to be useful if you are recording Motorhead.

Close micing a vocalist is one of the sweetest taboos in recording, so proceed with caution. A fairly typical working distance would be around 6 – 10 inches which provide a good level and plenty of warmth and detail.

16. Don’t go crazy with EQ when you are recording, use as precious little as you can get away with. You can always shape the sound later in the mix. The same goes for adding other FX, as once they are recorded you can’t take them off. Record clean, process, errrm, dirty.

17. When mixing, the vocal is generally the most important part of the song so the position in the mix should reflect this. Mix the vocal up front and confidently, but not so it overwhelms the song. Use some reference tracks in a similar genre and compare the vocal levels with your own balance and adjust accordingly.

About The Author

Red Dog Music

Dawsons Music is delighted to announce that the Red Dog Music brand is now part of the Dawsons family. This is an exciting opportunity to bring both communities together and create a stronger, wider network of people passionate about music gear. We both share a common heritage to support musicians throughout the UK and Dawsons want to support Red Dog Music customers in their continued musical journey.

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