For the overwhelming majority of recorded music – particularly pop music – vocals are both the lead and the finishing touch of your musical masterpiece. Providing you’ve done your homework and taken great care throughout the recording process, your track should now be ready to shine. So how do you capture the perfect vocal? A good place to start would be to read our previous post on recording vocals. In addition, following some basic guidelines listed below will help you form good habits in the name of professional sounding vocals.
1. Make Sure the Singer Warms Up
The importance of warming up before any vocal session cannot be stressed enough. The vocal chords are a muscle, and just like warming up before exercising, it is essential to perform warm-up exercises to ensure your voice is ready to perform. Failing to do so can result in vocal strain, which can lead to a poor performance or even a damaged voice!
2. Choose the Right Mic
Once your singer is performing at their best, the first point in the signal chain is your microphone. For this reason, it is essential to choose wisely. You can make an informed decision by understanding the basics of microphones. In general, there are two main categories: dynamic and condenser microphones.
Condenser microphones are the default choice when recording vocals. However, dynamic microphones are typically less expensive and even have some distinct advantages over condenser microphones for certain applications. For example, when recording loud rock, hip-hop, or heavy metal vocals, the subtle detail and sensitivity of a condenser mic can be a hindrance. In fact, to name a Shure example – Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and Anthony Kiedis famously used the Shure SM7 on many well-known records.
3. Consider Room Acoustics
Another key element in achieving great results at the start of your signal chain is room acoustics. Often overlooked, the sound of your recording space has a huge impact on the sonic signature of your recordings. Unfortunately, in most home studios the acoustic environment leaves something to be desired, and, for this reason, countless recording projects fall at the first hurdle. The absurd thing is, bad acoustics are entirely preventable – even on a low budget.
A free solution is to hang a duvet behind the singer. This common trick – although not the most attractive solution – will help to prevent unwanted reflections from reaching the mic. If you’re able to install a more permanent and aesthetically pleasing solution, companies such as Primacoustic make specially tailored room kits to help tame reflections in a variety of studio sizes.
Dynamic mics can also play a part in dealing with less than stellar room acoustics. Essentially, because a dynamic mic is less sensitive than a condenser mic, it is easier to achieve a higher ratio of direct to ambient sound.
4. Make Them Comfortable
A comfortable singer will invariably deliver a more confident, and most importantly, in-tune vocal performance. Studios can be quite cold or alien places for musicians and taking the time to make the environment as comfortable as possible can make all the difference. Perhaps the most important aspect here is room temperature. Air conditioning can play havoc on a vocalist’s airways and throat, so although it’s important to keep temperatures to a comfortable level, you might want to think about switching this off beforehand.
Additionally, never underestimate creating the right creative ambiance. As ‘hippy’ as it may sound, creating the right mood and lighting within your studio can have a big impact. Music should reflect real human emotions, and anything you can do to encourage creativity should be encouraged (no, I don’t mean drugs).
5. Take Time over the Headphone Mix
Ensuring the vocalist can adequately hear the mix should be considered an additional element as part of making them feel comfortable. Taking a few extra minutes to make sure they can hear themselves and the track clearly can save you hours of retakes or editing later down the line. Some singers respond particularly well to a little reverb added to their personal mix, which can help them hear more clearly and improve pitch accuracy. Also, don’t forget to combine your monitor mix with a set of decent closed-back headphones to help prevent signal leaking back into the mic.
6. Use a Pop Filter
When using a condenser microphone, pop filters are essential to preventing unwanted explosive consonants from distorting the capsule. Once again, the input stage of any signal chain is the most important. In other words, it’s far better to get things right at this stage of the game than to attempt remedial surgery later in the game. Besides which, it is very very difficult, if not impossible to remove explosive consonants once they’re recorded. Long story short, if a pop filter is not in your recording arsenal, it should be.
7. Avoiding Sibilance
Aggressive high-frequency sibilance from ‘S’ and ‘T’ sounds can destroy a perfectly good vocal take. Specialist compressors – referred to as de-essers – are often used to tame the sibilance with varying degrees of success. A better approach is to avoid nasty sibilance noise in the first place by applying strategic microphone placement & selection. In the event of such a problem, first try a different microphone, and if the problem persists, try moving the microphone just above or below the singers mouth. In all cases, a certain degree of experimentation is required to find the best microphone & placement for your singer and application.
8. Easy on the Reverb
With most effects, less is almost always more. It can be tempting to apply large amounts of reverb to a vocal with the illusion that it will make for a bigger sound. In actual fact, the opposite is almost always the case. A small amount of reverb applied to a vocal recorded in a dry-sounding space will give a nice sense of space. Add too much, though, and you risk washing the vocal out; reducing focus and giving the impression of distance. For a focused, up-front sounding vocal, you want to hear more of the direct sound and less of the room ambiance. The opposite is true if you wish to make something sound further away.
We hope the tips in this article have given you some inspiration to make your next recording a hit. For further tips and tricks on how to improve your audio, simply browse through previous articles or subscribe to our mailing list.