How to Record Vocals

Can you record vocal tracks from home and make them sound like they were recorded in a top commercial recording studio? Are there any advantages for recording vocals at home other then, of course saving a lot of money?

The answer is: YES!

You’ll be surprised to know that some of the vocal tracks you hear on the radio were actually recorded at a home studio. When it comes to recording a source of sound with a single microphone like vocals, you can get the same sound quality as a commercial recording studio if you take the proper steps.

Vocal Recording Software

Any software such as Pro-Tools, Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer or even the Garage Band software that comes free with your mac will do. Almost all of these software have the same technique for recording audio (or if we want to call it in it’s technical term, converting digital audio to a file on our computer). Some voice recording software that you download for free online might not have the capability of recording CD quality tracks(at least: 44.1KHz 16 bit).  IMPORTANT NOTE: Make sure that the software you use is for music recording.

Choosing the Right Audio Interface for Vocal Recording

Recording vocals requires a sound card/audio interface with high quality Analog to digital converters and a low latency audio driver. This means that you although you already have a microphone input built in to your computer, connecting a microphone directly to your computer won’t give you the sound quality you’re after. There are many brands that produce high quality audio interface for recording vocals on a budget. For example:  M-Audio Firewire Solo ($249), M-Audio Fast Track ($149),  Avid’s MBox Mini ($269), and many others.  When you buy your Audio interface for vocals, always make sure it has an XLR, BALANCED connection. Here comes the fun part: Almost any card that you’ll buy will have the same sound quality. I know many readers would probably kill me for that sentence, but guys, it’s true!  Almost all semi-professional audio interfaces are using the same chip made in China and the only difference in the driver is the amount of input/outputs (which doesn’t matter to you cause you’re using only 1 channel to record vocals), preamp and design.  I tested a $149 audio interface with Pro-Tools’ 192 A/D converters (worth $4500) and I could barely hear the difference.

Preamp for Recording Vocals

I’ll try to explain what a preamp is in a simple paragraph. When you sing to a microphone you create analog sound that needs to be amplified about 1000 times in order to reach zero DB (which is the level of music played in your headphones). For more info, wiki it. All the audio interfaces I mentioned before, have a preamp built in. If you are on a budget under $1000 for your home studio, you are fine with the built in preamp and don’t need to buy an external one. If you do want to buy an external one, like a tube preamp to “warm up” your vocals, try reading recommendation on Gearslutz. However, if you hire a mixing engineer, warming up your vocals with analog outboard gear can be done in the mixing stage – not necessarily in the vocal stage.  Again, it would be very hard for you to tell the difference between your built in preamp in a ~$100 audio interface and a high-end preamp that costs $1,000.

Microphone for Vocal Recording

When it comes to microphones there is a noticeable difference with compering a $200-$300 mic and a ~$1000 mic. The materials of the microphone such as the membrane metal type and thickness are crucial for picking up low frequencies as well as high level vocalists screaming into the mic net. 

Here’s a short guide to buy your first microphone:

  • You want a condenser microphone,  not a dynamic one.
  • Don’t be afraid of buying a cheap microphone “made in China“… they sound as good as well known brands but cost 30% less.
  • Don’t count on specifications only. Almost all microphones under $1000 aren’t being tested individually and the specs are being calculated in “factory conditions on a specific mic”.

Here are a few recommendations for good vocal microphones: Audio-Technica AT2020n ($100), Neumann TLM 102 ($700), AKG C 414 XL II ($1,000) or any early edition of this mic… (I LOVE the AKG 414 and so do the StudioPros’ musicians!)

One important note: Don’t save on the microphone cable. Make sure your are using a good XLR, Balanced microphone cable, not longer than 15′-25′. There’s no point in buying a high quality microphone if you’re using a cheap cable.

Vocal Recording Tips – Vocal Booth and Acoustics

This might be THE MOST IMPORTANT section of this entire vocal recording technique guide. The acoustics of the room, the place you choose to position your microphone and the distance of your lips from the mic are crucial for getting a good vocal sound. Here’s a short vocal sound engineering that will dramatically improve your vocal recording:

Acoustic Space: Try this: Stand 1″ from the wall and try to sing. You’ll hear that your voice echoes off of the wall. This happens in rooms that are not acoustically treated. In order to record high-quality vocals, you should reduce the amount of reflections coming from the walls, ceiling and floor. The key is to use heavy item with rough surfaces around the room to absorb the sound. Put a thick carpet on the floor, use a library shelf with books, a sofa, etc’. For more professional acoustic treatment, I recommend 2″ Studio foam Wedges.

Portable Acoustic Treatment like the SE Electronics Reflexion Filter or the MudGuard are highly recommended!!!

Vocal booths are huge booths with acoustic treatments that allow you to get absolute silence when recording your vocals. However, those are very expensive, require a lot of space and are pretty ugly :)… Not my cup of tea.

Avoiding the unwanted reflections are crucial for a good sounding vocal track. This is more important than buying the right gear or software.

You don’t want to place the microphone close to a wall because of the wall’s reflections, but you also want to stay away from all source of noise like computer fans and windows. It’s obvious that you better record your vocal tracks in a room that’s doesn’t have noise from the outside or inside of the house. Remember: any sound will be amplified 1,000 times and might be noticeable when mixing your vocals.

Most Common Mistakes of Recording Vocals

  • Use a pop filter:  A pop filter will help you avoid booming the microphone with the air pressure cause by saying the letters P, B, and others. If you’re not sure what I mean, put your hand close to your month and say: “Popcorn”. You’ll feel the pop of air coming from your month. You microphone doesn’t like those.
  • Your lips should be approximately 2″-6″ from your microphone. The closer you are to your microphone the more bass you’ll have. The further you get away from the mic, the lower your vocal would be comparing to the overall noise and reflections in the room.
  • This last mistakes is very silly, but I’ve seen it happen so many times, I can’t even count. When you sing – don’t touch the microphone, don’t hold the mic stand and especially don’t tap your foot on the floor. (Some people gets very excited when they sing their song…)

To sum up the how to record vocals guide – Part 1

You can record great sounding vocal tracks with semi-professional gear on an independent musicians budget. No matter how good your gear is, it’s more important to know how to get the most out of it. Your mission is to provide high-quality sources of vocals. A good mixing engineer will be able to take it to the next level afterward.

Join us in our second part of how to record vocals to learn about how to get the best vocal take and a little bit about editing vocals.

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