The quality of your vocals is decided when recording, and fixing poorly recorded audio in the mix is almost impossible. With that being said, the most important part of your track will sound amateurish if you don’t nail the recording phase. This post breaks down the process of recording vocals like a pro!
Choose a room that is treated
Acoustic room treatment aims to control the sound reflections in a room in order to allow for better recordings. This is the most essential step to ensure an ideal recording environment.
If you’ve ever walked into an empty room and clapped your hands, you’ve probably heard a series of distinct echoes. Sure, an empty room generates echoes to an extreme but they will occur more or less in any room every time you speak or sing. The goal is to reduce those and prevent them from being picked up by a recording microphone.
Luckily, treating your recording environment doesn’t have to be an expensive journey. Sure, well-known sound absorption traps and panels are expensive and a full set could cost you $800 or more. However, there is a lot you can do with household items.
So where should you start? You would want to reduce reflectivity, meaning cover any hard surfaces with soft and dampening materials. The walls are the biggest issue and hanging up a nice decorative tapestry is a good starting point.
The next step is to cover your windows. Hanging a set of heavy curtains will dampen the room and make it less reflective. Simply draw the shades before you start recording!
Last but not least, the floor. Hardwood floors are often overly reflective no matter what you do. What you need is a big heavy rug or a carpet that extends over the full floor space.
You’d be surprised how much these common items can reduce reflections.
Pick the right microphone
There are tons of microphones on the market and they come with different capabilities and features. There are two types of microphones that dominate the home studio landscape: dynamic and condenser.
For now, we won’t go into heavy detail about how they operate. The key difference is that condenser microphones are more sensitive to delicate high frequencies and require phantom power to function correctly. Most audio interfaces and preamps have built-in phantom power, commonly designated as +48V or P48.
Then there are microphones with different polar patterns. Polar patterns refer to the microphone pickup pattern eg. where it is most sensitive to the sound. The best microphone for recording vocals usually has a cardioid polar pattern. Why? They are unidirectional and reject sounds coming from the sides and back.
Even if you’re recording in a room with non-ideal treatments (which is often the case in bedroom studios), a cardioid microphone can limit the damage caused by bad acoustics.
Mic positioning errors can ruin any recording, no matter how expensive gear you use. Also, It can be a nightmare to remove disturbing popping sounds or crackles in the post-production process, and you could end up with a worthless vocal recording. It’s fair to say that correct mic placement is the cornerstone of a good recording.
So how should you position the microphone?
First, avoid recording from the center of the room. This could cause standing waves which occur when the sound waves get reflected from the walls and are in phase with the original direct sound. Try to position the microphone just off the center of the room, not too close to the walls.
What about the singer’s position? For the perfect setup, the vocalist should sing approximately 6 inches away from the mic’s capsule. The key is to experiment. Remember, all singers have different tonal capabilities and power in their voices. Always do a test recording before the actual performance.
Choose a high-quality preamp
The output signal of a microphone is actually very quiet. In short, we need to boost the mic level to friendly record-ready volumes. This is where the preamp steps in. Most audio interfaces have built-in preamps so you don’t have to buy additional gear. If you’re using a USB microphone for vocals you don’t need an external preamp as they are designed to be an all-in-one solution that plugs straight into your computer.
A high-quality preamp can boost the mic level without drastically increasing the noise flood or compromising the audio quality of the recording. If this would occur, you’ll have a hard time removing unwanted noise from the recorded audio.
Preamps can also be a colorful creative tool as tube preamps can add harmonic distortions to the sound before it enters your DAW. These harmonic distortions usually add some clarity and smoothness to the sound, making it stand out in the mix more easily.
Record at Proper Levels and Resolution
So you’ve positioned the mic in an acoustically treated room and plugged it into the preamp on your audio interface. Time to hit the record button? Not quite yet.
The last step is to make sure that the recording levels are set correctly on your interface and any outboard equipment. Have the vocalist sing directly into the mic as if you were recording and keep an eye on the dBFS level in your DAW.
Your dBFS level should be averaging around -18dBFS while peaking around -10dBFS. Also, have the vocalist sing the really loud parts to make sure that no distortion occurs.