Vocal recording in a home studio
This article first appeared Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!
It’s a fine art, hearing your recorded voice and not dying of shock. But let’s assume you’re over that, and that you’re not accustomed to $500,000 recording budgets. You’d probably still like to record your vocal tracks professionally and efficiently. Whether you’re a crooner, a diva, a rapper or a writer recording demos, cutting a great vocal track at home is very doable.
Let’s dive into that process, so you have the tools to record vocals you can be confident about. I’ll talk from the point of view of a vocalist recording their own vocals, but everything applies to recording someone else in your space.
There are two major things you need to accomplish in any recording session, and it’s no different for vocals. First you need a killer performance. Next you need to capture it cleanly. Let’s tackle those in reverse order.
Before you think about your performance, let’s take away everything that would get in the way, and make sure when you hit your stride, it’s getting on tape. We’ll go from the ground up, starting literally with the room.
It doesn’t matter what your mic or voice is like, if your space isn’t right, your track won’t be right. There are a few ways you can go about adjusting your space, but the main is keep noise and unwanted room reflections out of your track. If you have a room that’s a little bit live and sounds awesome, that can be great sometimes, but I wouldn’t recommend printing a lot of reverb on most tracks. What I’m usually looking for is a super dead and even sound, so I have flexibility later. The best way to do this is in a booth. You can purchase a fancy vocal booth, or you can build one. I’ve always been fond of a coat closet, either treated completely, evenly and thickly with acoustic treatment like Auralex foam or ridged fiberglass, or chock full of clothes. My favorite vocal booth was a little bedroom closet we called “The Old Man Clothes Room”. It was full of about twice as many clothes as really fit, because I’d inherited a wardrobe from a friend of the same size who passed away. That “booth” was dead, quiet, and perfect.
What you don’t want is to stand inside a closet without a good amount of treatment. If you were to stand in an empty closet, for example, your track would sound incredibly boxy and probably nasally or wooden. You don’t want to stand in a normal sized bedroom with no treatment whatsoever, as you’ll have similar room reflection issues. No matter what you do, do not put yourself in a corner facing in. If you feel like you can’t treat your room at all, and you have no booth or closet, you could try vocal reflection filters like the sE Reflexion Filter or the Aston Halo Reflection Filter. These small “filters” surround a mic and block reflections. They’re ok, but they don’t really prevent reflections from the room behind and above you from coloring your sound. In a pinch, this may be better than nothing, but if you can, deal with your room. It’s not hard to do something quick and dirty like hang tons of blankets up or surround yourself in mattresses. Be creative.
The advantage of a booth over recording near your desk is that you can isolate better from gear noise. If that’s not an option, see if you can quiet your computer down by baffling reflective surfaces, or move your vocal position away, and/or use a directional mic aimed away from gear. If you’re in a booth or another room, you can use a remote or set up some lead in before the song so you can get into position. At home, where my mic is about 4 steps from the desk, I usually give myself 8 measures of click before the song, and then have the click turn off.
Speaking of noise, you will contend with noisy streets, barking kids and crying dogs. If you have the money, you can build a truly isolated room, but that’s rarely an option, so timing is your best friend. Understand when the quiet times are in your space and use that knowledge to your advantage. That may not be at night. I once had a studio that was very quiet EXCEPT at night, when crickets would blare outside the window.
The “best” vocal mic is really the one you can afford that is compatible with your voice. That said, a large diaphragm condenser of some kind is probably your best bet. See if you can get a local music store to let you test some. I use an AKG 414, which I love for its detail, but sometimes I find it harsh for my tenor belting. You might find it perfect, or terrible. I’m quite fond of Rode’s selection of affordable condensers, and I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Slate VMS lately (that’s a mic and emulation package which could give you some nice options if you’re recording other people). It’s also nice to have a good directional dynamic on hand. Sometimes a classic Shure SM57 can surprise you. A ribbon might be a nice choice, especially for softer vocals, but try not to scream into it – most ribbons are very delicate.
Don’t just spend as much money as possible. A U87 is a pretty awesome piece of equipment, but it may not be right for your voice. When you’re shopping, start by asking friends or Facebook groups, and be sure to explain what kind of vocalist you are. Whatever you do, get a pop filter, or make one from a coat hanger and some panty hose. Of course, remember that the better your space, the better the mic will do.
You can spend a lot of money on preamps and vocal processors, and there are a lot of really cool choices out there. The main thing you need is a preamp that you trust that delivers a clean sound, and a way of recording. I’ll assume you’re already set up with some kind of DAW and interface, and you’ve given some thought to the workflow and signal quality there. If you’re looking for a special vocal preamp, the advice is the same as for mic choice. Shop around, keeping in mind the type of vocals you’re recording, the style and your budget. I use a single ART Tube MP preamp, because I like the sonic flavor and the limiter comes in handy. That’s a pretty cheap piece of equipment, and most gear snobs would scoff, but it’s simple and effective. If you’re not planning on recording multiple tracks, you can save a bunch of scratch by going high quality, one channel. Don’t necessarily opt for a tube pre just because it’s cool. Again, test and ask, and find a mic/preamp combo that works for you.
Once you’ve got your gear in place, do a bunch of level checking, and get your gain structure right. Make sure you’re not sending a distorted signal to your interface, or too low a signal. Make sure your gear is clean and well organized, and while we’re at it, organize the space efficiently. Run your audio cables so that you don’t trip on them and keep them away from power cables and other noise sources. Standard studio stuff.
If you want, you can use a hardware compressor in your vocal chain. Put that between the preamp and interface. If you do this, I recommend subtle settings. You can compress more later, but you can’t “uncompress” later. Some subtle compression or limiting can help you keep your vocal signal even, and that can be nice. A lot of vocal preamp units come with built in compressors and/or EQs, and that could be handy, but I would be judicious about using EQ when recording.
In general, I wouldn’t print any other effects like reverb or delay onto your main vocal track, but if you want to use them to influence your performance, you can always record them separately if you have the channels. I usually just record dry and decide on effects in the mix.
You’ll need some kind of headphones. For my money, the most important thing in your vocal recording headphones is that they make you feel inspired. It helps if you can hear everything, and it would be awesome if they didn’t bleed into the mic. This is truly a matter of taste. Some vocalists like to take one ear off so they can hear themselves better. I (usually) like to get a really great mix in the cans, so I feel like I’m already in a record. You might try an earbud type if you’re worried about bleed. I use the classic Sony MDR-7506s. The main point here is, do some work to get your headphone mix to the best place for you, in a way you can repeat. This isn’t a place I normally do a lot of experimenting.
Speaking of repeatability, work up front to get your setup wired in permanently. Create templates in your DAW, set up your tracks the same way every time, and permanently install your vocal station and signal chain. Having everything ready to go at the push of a button will do more for your energy and inspiration than any other one thing. The one exception is you don’t want to leave a condenser or ribbon mic up on the stand in the room. Just disconnect and put that away for protection, but don’t rewire the whole chain every time you want to record.
Now for the important part! Everything we’ve done so far is just ground work so the process of capturing is as transparent as possible and nothing gets in the way of what you have to say and how you have to say it.
You probably noticed by now that performing in a studio is vastly different than on stage (or in the shower). Some people thrive on a stage and shrink in a studio. Some people seem to be perfect in the studio and can’t find a pitch on stage. To get what you’re looking for in your recordings, you’re going to need to know yourself a little, and know what you’re trying to create. Are you trying to create a perfect replica of your live self? Are you trying to be perfect, clean and beautiful? Are you going for a sound that just can’t be done on a stage? This could be drastically different from song to song, but at least if you know where you’re headed and how you tick, you can get there.
Some things won’t change much. First of all, take care of your instrument. Recording isn’t different from performing in that you need to be properly warmed up, hydrated, and fueled. Some beginners make the mistake of thinking “oh I’m just doing the one song”, not realizing that you might have to sing for 3 hours solid to really capture that “one song”.
With that in mind, rehearsal is your friend. Earlier in my career, I felt a great pressure to cut a track the instant I figured out what I wanted to do, often while I was writing. While that method has some merit (spontaneity, etc), I no longer do that. I make a point of NOT turning on the mic when I’m writing. Instead, I “capture” the performance by rehearsing it a bunch while I write (which means I warm up even before I WRITE songs), and subsequently for a few days or even weeks until what I wanted to capture is captured IN ME. Later, I set up a session much like I might in a studio and perform what is now a well-rehearsed song. I need far fewer takes this way. Plus by this time its usually memorized, which gives me more room to “perform” and keeps me from rattling papers in front of the mic (a music stand solves that problem, too!). If you’re afraid of losing an idea, you can “jot it down” with a simple voice recorder app.
Of course, this may not work for you. You may feel an inexorable need to write (or learn, if you don’t write) and record simultaneously, and you may be completely happy with the results when you do. If so, do that but be willing to go back later if you need to. The great advantage of having a home studio is you can come back as much as you need to get it right.
The other advantage is comfort. As a vocal engineer, the job is largely to take care of the singer in the room so they’re comfortable and can perform their best. As your own engineer, the job is the same. Treat yourself well. Have tea, water or whatever comfort drink you need (but understand that slurring can occur with too much of certain beverages), record when you feel fresh, inspired and confident, and make the room the way YOU want it. Maybe you want cave-like darkness. Maybe inspired mood lighting. I generally like day time sessions, with plenty of light and nature visible. But this can change. Some songs require a new vibe, and it’s ok to give yourself the vibe you need.
You may also consider having an audience (or not). Once I’m confident with a song, a few people in the room or even just a video camera causes me to turn on my “performer” self a little better. However this can sometimes mess with my accuracy. Other times, I prefer absolute privacy, with no one else even in the building. You’ll need to find your own balance and listen to yourself.
As far as position, some singers like to sit or get on a stool, and some like to stand. It’s your choice, but in general I would recommend standing. It’s standard in studios to set the mic a hair above singers so they have to look up just a tad. This opens the chest for better breathing. I’d try this if I were you, but don’t crank your neck. Depending on your room acoustics, you may be better off stepping back 2 or 3 feet from the mic. You might feel a bit freer this way, and if the room is right, it can open up the sound. If you’re closer than about a foot and a half, use your pop filter. Even if you’re decently far away, you’ll want to cultivate the ability to really express yourself while not moving the position of your face, so you get an even recording. This is a tricky skill which usually causes stiff performances at first, but you can master it with practice.
Generally, what you want is to find the positioning and set up that gets your mind off the mic, the recording and the technical stuff as much as possible.
Finally, a word on editing and feedback. First, I wouldn’t edit too much while you’re in performance mode, unless you’re very comfortable with the DAW, such that being in that “techie” space for a second doesn’t take you out of “artist” mode. I tend to drag the front and back tails off my takes so I’m not cleaning noise later, but I don’t comp takes during a vocal session.
Next, once you’ve got it down, perhaps after an editing session where you’ve paired down to your best couple takes, or made a comp’d take using parts from your favorites, get feedback. Even though you’ve worked hard to get it “right” already, the best thing you can do for your quality in general is use feedback and be willing to revise. Since you’re recording in your space, it’s not like it costs $150 an hour to do so! That’s the biggest advantage you have.
It can be a challenge to be the engineer and artist simultaneously, and if you’re a vocalist and not an audio person, setting up your studio may seem daunting, but the truth is it’s all very doable. Just do some diligent ground work getting your workflow right, do some good checking and rechecking to get your signal sounding good, then concentrate on your best performance. Ease and efficiency are all about preparation, and that’s something anyone can do! Go forth and vocalize!