Learn how to record and mix vocals in your own studio. Achieving high quality vocal recordings can be confusing at the best of times. Having clear and prominent vocals with the right processing can really enhance your mix and add a serious boost to your production skills..
The tips and techniques shown in this article will help you achieve the results that your music deserves.
Choosing The Right Microphone:
First of all, you need to decide if you’re going to use a Small or Large diaphragm microphone. Your choice of microphone for a singers particular vocal tone can have a dramatic effect on the final mix.
Typically, in today’s industry, large diaphragm microphones are the standard. They offer a certain warmth and smoothness but can also lend your singer an airy/sizzly tone. Cardioid-Pattern Capacitor Microphones are the most common for any type of Pop or Urban recordings. However some singers prefer to use dynamic microphones such as some ‘Shure’ models because it brings out a certain tone in their voice.
Valve/Tube condenser mic’s have also been popular over the years with their added warmth as the valve in the mic gets driven and adds a mild harmonic distortion that is pleasing to the ear.
A favourite of mine is the 90’s model of the AKG Solidtube which was a particularly ‘colourful’ mic. I used this mic to record the acoustic guitars for our Acoustic Guitar – Steel String Essentials V1 loop pack. It’s also a great vocal mic and works surprisingly well as a room ambience mic for drums.
Although the make and model is important, the tonal characteristics and overall sound is key! This is much more important to the singer than a lot of producers and engineers can appreciate.
Most singers don’t care what microphone patterns, make and model is used, just as long as you can bring out a good sound in their vocals. There is nothing more frustrating to a singer than knowing they nailed a perfect take, only to find out the recording doesn’t do it justice.
This also ties in with ‘Choosing The Correct Microphone’ section above. It’s important to take the polar patterns of certain microphones in to account when purchasing your next microphone.
Cardioid-Pattern Microphones are the industry favorite because they generally exclude most off axis sounds, such as room reflections, spill from other sources and the home studio nightmare of the computer fan / cooler!
We would recommend not using an omni-directional pattern microphone unless you have a vocal booth. Omni-directional microphones are equally sensitive all round and will pick up a lot of unwanted sound. If you do have a vocal booth you may find that this type of polar pattern can pick up a more desired vocal sound, or natural ambience.
Try testing out different microphones with different polar patterns and compare the recordings and see what you prefer. As long as you have a good ear for music, it’s all about personal taste.
Ribbon microphones are also worth mentioning. As of late, these microphones are showing up in more and more studios. They all have figure-of-eight polar patterns and deliver a very unique and bright sound. Figure of eight polar pattern microphones are equally sensitive to the front as they are the back. In a home studio, putting a sound absorbing panel behind the microphone can stop any unwanted sound to leak in to the vocal recording.
Last year I was in the market for a new vocal mic for some new recordings for Platinumloops, so I hired about 8 different condenser mic’s of varying qualities and price ranges. By setting them all up on separate mic stands behind a pro quality pop shield I was able to record lots of vocal takes on multiple mics.
I also rotated the mic positions so that each mic got a fair shot at recording the sweet spot. By doing this I was able to make accurate comparisons of recordings from each mic which yielded surprising results. Some of the most expensive mics didn’t sound as good as the less expensive mics. It was also good to try adding compression, eq and de-essing to each track individually to see how much that affected the tone of the mic.
I found that some mic’s required less processing than others in order to create a transparent, even tone.
In the end, the mic I eventually purchased was the SE Electronics Z3300A and to this day is my favourite all round vocal mic. This is the mic I used to record our popular Lush V1 – 12 String Guitar & Voice loop pack.
As I covered in my article on How to Record Drums, do you really need a Microphone Pre-amp?
The answer is No you don’t NEED them, but it would be nice to use the best Mic-pre’s you can get your hands on. My microphone pre-amp of choice is the Focusrite Liquid Channel which I use on pretty much everything I record. I like to tweak the “harmonics” knob on the Liquid channel just a little bit on the snare but this is only a very subtle enhancement.
Acoustic Problems And Treatments:
Unless your studio has been professionally designed by professional acoustic designers there will be reflections from lots of different sources in your recording room.
Why is this such a big problem?
Well, if you get the sound you’re after you will still have the reverb and reflections from the room layered over the vocal take. So when adding a nice reverb sound in the mix, you’ll essentially be adding reverb to an already reverberated signal. This is a huge problem in the typical home studio.
Home studios have lots of unwanted room reflections and prevent you from achieving a professional sound. Overlooking acoustic treatment is a big mistake. You could spend thousands on a great selection of microphones and equipment, but without a correctly treated recording booth / room you’ll have problems at the mixing stage.
If you can’t afford to do much acoustic treatment, many home studios simply hang a duvet, blanket or curtains behind the microphone and around the singer. This can go a long way and you’ll be able to notice the difference immediately. This will at least stop the ‘boxy’ type of sound you get when not treating the environment.
A rug/carpet rather than wood floor will also help tremendously.
If you can afford acoustic treatment there are various products available that won’t break the bank and will seriously reduce your room reflections. We recently treated one of our new mixing rooms with a Room Kit and Cloud Kit from Primacoustic and it seriously improved the sound of the room for less than $1000.
If you’re a lottery winner there are many professional acoustic engineers available to take your money and get your rooms sounding perfect. A quick internet search will yield many results.
Shock-Mount & Pop Shield:
While a Shock-Mount is not the most important aspect in achieving a great vocal sound, it will stop those annoying low end vibrations coming up from the floor. Most decent microphones will come with a Shock-Mount.
Before you can start recording, purchasing a decent Shock-Mount and Pop Shield is vital. Fitting the pop shield a few inches away from the microphone will stop the popping and booming problems you’ll get in the vocal performance. Certain words and sounds, such as ‘P’ will give that effect, using a pop shield eliminates the blasts of air (called ‘Plosives’) hitting the microphones diaphragm.
Now you’re finally ready to start recording the vocals. We would suggest not using much compression (if any) at the recording stages, and definitely no EQ. Recording the sound with no processing allows more flexibility and control at the mix stage.
Experienced engineers may use certain types of processing at the recordings stage, but this is risky. What might sound great when isolated might sound terrible in the mix and frequency spectrum. For this reason I would suggest recording with no effects or processing. A tiny bit of compression can work well, but make sure not to overdo it. You can always add more at the mixing stage!
The Headphone Mix
When recording vocals it’s important to help the singer achieve the best performance. For starters, setting up a good headphone mix can make things much easier for yourself and the singer.
The headphone mix must be well balanced, giving the singer a small amount of reverb or delay. It’s also a good idea to do a few test recordings and find out what headphone mix the singer likes.
They may want to be smothered in reverb if that helps make them confident. As we mentioned earlier you don’t want any processing on the vocals during recording, so even though you’re giving the singer reverb, make sure it’s not on the recording.
Simply add the effects and processing on the output of your channel as you send it to the microphone amp for the singer. You’ll want the flexibility to add different reverbs and see what sounds good later on. You always want as much freedom as possible at the mixing stage.
Your attitude as a producer / engineer can also be the deciding factor in the singer delivering a good vocal performance.
Try to be encouraging rather than critical about their performance. It’s usually a good idea to get the singer to sit in with you after recording a few vocal takes and let them listen to what they’ve recorded. They are usually their own best critics, so if they can assess problems themselves then it makes your job a lot easier.
Usually they’ll ask if they can do another take or correct a line in the song. If a singer is constantly not delivering a good performance then don’t keep them in the booth until they get it right. Give them a short 10 – 15 minute break.
This can work wonders. Remember, the best tool in having your singer give the best performance is confidence. Make them comfortable and let them adjust without telling them constantly what they’re doing wrong.
Spoiling them with green tea and honey can also help to make them more comfortable. A singer needs lots of fluids to keep their mouth and throat moist, so avoid alcohol which will just dehydrate them. Water is the best drink.
Mixing & Processing Vocals:
Once everything is recorded and you’ve compiled your favorite takes to create the master and cleaned up any unwanted noise and breath effects in the gaps, you can use a variety of processing and mixing effects to touch up the vocals to get the final polished sound.
When it comes to EQ there’s nothing set in stone. Although following the list below will help you start to clean up the sound:
Removing some of the 150-450Hz range will remove some low-mid range boxiness.
Boosting Frequencies around 8 kHz + can add a nice airy tone, and crisp effect to the sound. However, watch out for the ‘S’s and ‘T’s as any brightening will inevitably boost these.
When using EQ, make sure to boost and cut as little as you can get away with. Drastically changing the sound with EQ will give an unnatural sound to the performance.
This is my favourite part of processing vocals. A compressor works in 2 ways. Firstly the main purpose of a compressor is to even out the peaks and dips of volume in the recording. By squeezing the volume of the recording a compressor will make the loudest parts of a recording sound closer in volume to the quiet parts. This gives a smooth, even volume and is kind on your ears.
The second and more important aspect of compression is the musical energy that it gives to a recording. When used correctly, compression adds an immediate pressure and energy to very dynamic recordings that can really bring a vocal take to life.
Listen to a radio DJ and you’ll be able to hear the compression pumping away to keep the volume of the voice on an even level. Radio compression is excessive so as to protect peoples hi-fi speakers so I’m not suggesting you use such drastic settings, but experiment and you’ll soon discover that compression is the most important tool in processing of vocal recordings.
Aiming for about 6-9dB of gain reduction, using a ratio of between 2:1 and 7:1 on the loudest parts in the track should give you a good starting point. Make sure when setting the attack and release time you get an even sounding reduction. It’s important not to get that ‘pumping’ effect. You don’t want to hear the compressor working, you just want the vocals to sound even.
Reverb is really all about personal taste. While some engineers and singers use the smallest amount possible, others will use as much as they can get away with. A plate emulation is usually the common setting used when mixing urban vocals. Plate emulations are good and often serve to settle the vocal into the mix. Try these settings on your vocal sound.
- Plate Reverb
- 2.3 Seconds Length
- High pass Filter
- 0.24 Seconds Attack Time
- 2.10 Seconds Decay Time
- 6 ms Pre-Delay
- -44dB Reverb Volume
- 2.4dB Wet Reverb
To create that thick wall of sound vocal effect that just sounds huge, you’re going to want to double or triple track your vocals. By this we mean record an extra take onto a new audio track and play it alongside the original.
This often smooth’s out any pitch imperfections and adds a ‘chorusing’ type of effect to the voice. The differences in the two different takes combine to make a lush, dense sound that you’ll already be familiar with.
If you decide to double track the vocals. We would recommend doing it for real. Trying to fake a double tracking effect will usually give poor results and make your hard earned vocal recording sound amateur. Although if you must fake the double tracking then follow these tips.
Double Tracking your vocals using pitch variations and not aligning the audio files up perfectly can give great results.
Copying your vocal take to another track, (you can even do this more than once, known as ‘vocal stacking’) and using a plug in such as auto tune, or Melodyne you can introduce slight pitch changes in the copied vocal. Also adding a delay of 50 – 120 ms to the copied vocals can also fake the ‘2nd part’ vocals well.
De-essers can be used either at the mixing stage or recordings stage. If your singer has a particularly sibilant voice you are going to have problems. My advice is to get the singer to back away from the mic so that there is a 10 inch space between the singer and the pop shield. Also ensure that the singer is off-axis (not pointing directly) from the mic diaphragm.
The downside to this is that the recording will loose some of its warmer bottom end and the proximity effect will be gone. The upside is that you’ll be able to record a clean usable vocal with only mild de-essing required at mix stage.
So, what is a De-esser?
A De-esser is a tool that engineers can use to take out the very pronounced and harsh ‘S’ and ‘T’ sounds that some singers can produce. If the problem is really affecting the recording then you will have to use electronic ways of reducing just the sibilant peaks.
Think of a De-Esser as a compressor that only works on the ‘S’ and ‘T’ sounds. Anything in the 3-6 khz range to be specific. With a de-esser, make sure to use light settings when possible, otherwise you may find your singer has a slight lisp to their recording. If your going to use a De-esser, we recommend spending money on one that really pinpoints the correct frequency range so the rest of the recording is left unchanged!
There are many hardware and software signal processors and mastering tools that have De-esser presets but in my experience you’ll need to do some tweaking to hone in on the problem frequencies that need to be compressed. Record the vocal correctly with the right room treatment and you’ll only need very subtle de-essing, if any.
Make sure you plan the recording process, take your time with the singer and mixing stage and have fun. Experiment with different techniques and find what works best for you and the singer you’re working with. By reading this article you’ve taken your first step to achieving the industry professional vocal sound you’ve been looking for. Good luck!