How to Capture Great Vocal Recordings
In a world of digital samples and virtual instruments, recording is less important than ever before. However, there is one instrument where recording continues to be essential: vocals.
Recording vocals can be a challenging process, especially if you don’t record other instruments. Applying your recording skills infrequently can make it hard to generate consistent results.
Fortunately, you can record high quality vocals in your home studio without a lot of practice, without expensive equipment, and without professional talent.
The Recording Mindset
If there is a so-called “secret” to recording great vocals, it’s starting with a great performance. The better the performance, the easier it will be to capture a great recording.
While there are plenty of ways to fix mistakes and polish your recordings after they have been captured, getting a good performance up front should be your primary concern. It’s much easier to avoid problems during recording than it is to fix them later.
Whenever you record vocals (or anything else), make sure that performance quality is your first priority. Practice as much as you can, know your song’s accompanying arrangement well, and do everything you can to make your performance sound as close to the desired result as possible.
The next step in getting a great vocal recording is microphone selection. While microphones can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a piece, that doesn’t mean you need a super expensive microphone to get good recordings.
There are great microphones available at many difference price points. However, regardless of your budget, I recommend opting for an XLR microphone over a USB microphone.
Most USB microphones (especially those under $100) have poor analog to digital converters that result in low quality recordings, regardless of the performance. If you can afford a simple XLR microphone and a dedicated audio interface, I highly recommend buying this combination.
The two most common types of microphones are condenser microphones and dynamic microphones.
Without getting into the technical details that distinguish these two varieties, condenser microphones capture clearer, more detailed recordings compared to dynamic microphones, making them the preferred choice for recording vocals.
Dynamic microphones are better suited for recording instruments, but they can still be a great option for vocals, especially if you are recording louder, punchier vocals like those often found in rock and hip hop. Dynamic microphones are also more resistant to noise coming from your recording environment.
Figure 1: Two great microphone options for $100: the Audio-Technica AT2020 (left, condenser) and the Shure SM58 (right, dynamic)
If you have multiple options on hand, try out different microphones to see which ones work best for the vocalist and the vocal performance in question. Certain microphones may perform better than others, depending on the situation.
If you are not very experienced as a vocal performer, don’t worry too much about finding the right microphone for your voice – just get the best one you can afford.
The most important advice I can give regarding microphone position is to read your microphone’s manual and follow its recommendations.
Different microphones benefit from different recording positions. The easiest way to determine the right position is to see what your microphone’s manufacturer recommends. Ninety-nine percent of the time, their recommendations will be the best course of action. Avoid the guess work!
The distance between the microphone and the vocalist’s mouth is the most important variable to address regarding position. No matter what microphone you use, your recordings can sound drastically different when used at different distances due to two phenomena.
The Proximity Effect is where the volume of the low end in your recordings gets higher as you get closer to the microphone. Record right up next to the microphone, and your recordings will have an enhanced amount of low end. Record further away, and the low end will be lighter and more natural.
The Proximity Effect is not necessarily a bad thing. Depending on the voice and the vocal performance in question, getting closer to the microphone might be beneficial. Either way, it is important to recognize how the proximity effect will influence your recordings and to plan accordingly.
The Inverse Square Law says that as you get closer to the microphone, the microphone’s sensitivity to volume changes will increase. If you move your head side to side at close range, the volume of the recording can change significantly. At longer distances, these movements will not effect the volume level nearly as much.
If you record closely, movement should be minimized. If movement is difficult to control, then recording from a larger distance may be best.
Figure 2: Distance effects bass response and volume sensitivity
Generally speaking, condenser microphones typically capture their best recordings from a distance of 4-6 inches from the performer’s mouth. Dynamic microphones usually require you to be closer to the microphone, in some cases being right up next it.
When using a microphone for the first time, start at the recommended distance, but consider adjusting the distance to find a more preferable sound.
Regardless of the distance you use, it’s best to mount your microphone on a stand to keep its position consistent and steady. Consistency results in quality.
In the world of digital recording, recording levels are much less important than they were in analog environments. As long as you record at a level that doesn’t clip the signal, your recording levels don’t matter a whole lot.
To find the right recording level, monitor your recording volume through your DAW and adjust your recording gain through your hardware interface. Trying to gauge your recording level with your interface or trying to adjust your recording gain in your DAW will make this process more difficult.
Figure 3: Adjust your input gain on your interface and monitor your recording level inside your DAW
When recording, shoot for your levels to peak somewhere between -18 dB and -6 dB. This gives you a good range to get a nice recording without clipping. If you are recording outside of this range, adjust your interface’s gain accordingly.
It’s important to remember that you can always turn up or turn down your recording inside your DAW after it has been created. This won’t effect the quality of the track at all.
During recording, there are various forms of noise that you may encounter. Like I mentioned before, it is best to fix these problems during the recording process instead of trying to fix them after recording is over. Here are four things you can do to help reduce unwanted noise in your recordings:
- To avoid room noise from an untreated recording space, record your vocals close to the center of the room and away from walls and other reflective surfaces. If room noise is still an issue, consider using a dynamic microphone or getting room treatment to improve your space.
- Use a pop filter to prevent unwanted plosives (popping noises that come from p’s and b’s) in your recordings. Pop filters are easy to install onto your microphone stand and cost as little as $10. Buy one and it will last you forever.
- Record at greater distances from the microphone to cut down on unwanted mouth noises, such as plosives, sibilance (hissing sounds that come from s’s and f’s), and breaths. These sounds can be picked up if you record closely, but adding distance between the vocalist and the microphone can help reduce these noises on your recordings.
- Improve your vocal performing abilities. While this isn’t an immediate fix, there is an art to speaking that helps prevent unwanted mouth noises. Improving your delivery skills will make recording easier and more effective.
With the right mindset and the right attention to detail, capturing great vocal recordings in your home studio will be an easy, painless experience. Not only will your recordings sound great, these benefits will be felt during the rest of the production process as well.
Capturing great vocals is just the start.
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2 Replies to “How to Capture Great Vocal Recordings”
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