I WAS VERY WRONG... DIY VOCAL RECORDING AT HOME.
Around eight years ago back in high school and entering uni, I was in the same boat a lot of young producers and bedroom producer talents were when it came to tracking vocals. Tracking in my bedroom would never line up/compete to what others achieved when tracked in a recording studio. For a long time, I thought the only way to get that open, bright and articulate presence in a recording was in the studio. Even into my early stages of my professional career, I was still ignorant to how EASY it was to achieve a good vocal take at home.
The thing is, it doesn't come down to fancy rooms, large SSL consoles and fantastic monitoring (even though they have their perks). It comes down to the technique of the engineer and their ability to engage with the technology they have available. Things I only learnt about after interning and gaining assistant positions at studio facilities. Fast forward some time, now a practicing Mastering Engineer I had the pleasure of engaging with Spectrum Sound, a duo team of home based producers/engineers for singer/songwriters. While time to time they hit up local studios for recording sessions I was EXTREMELY surprised to learn that the records they had sent for mastering were recorded at their home! The vocal's sounded pristine and as talented as they are mix engineers and producers, the quality they achieved wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for solid foundations during vocal tracking.
Following numerous discussions, debates and often MISINFORMATION spread on the internet about creating quality vocal recordings at home; I got the team who proved me wrong and asked them to present to YOU how it is possible to lay down clean, professional vocal tracks from your bedroom.
Jeremy Drakeford & Dylan Burrowes - Spectrum Sound
Whether you’ve been in the home recording studio scene for a while or not, you may have heard of the phrase ‘Get it right at the source’. The success of our vocal recordings has always been assisted with a focus on getting the recording's right from the initial tracking session without leaving things to be fixed later on. It is this mindset we're going to expand on throughout the course of this article to help you achieve the best results out of your current set-up.
For this article, we are going to ignore all of the most basic tricks that you should already be implementing: avoiding clipping, avoiding click track bleed, recording with a pop filter, etc.
Likewise, we’re assuming that you have an excellent vocalist that is suited to the key of your track.
Fix your acoustics
I completely understand that not everyone has access to or can afford proper acoustic solutions. We’ve been there. But there are still so many little things that you can do that can result in drastic improvements to your vocal recording.
i. Recording in a room with beds and couches can be a good thing. They’re big and absorb sound - could you ask for more?
ii. Buy a microphone isolation shield. There’s a reason you see them widely used. Their fundamental principle is to minimise the amount of vocal sound that is allowed to escape back into the room from the mouth, bounce off the walls of the studio, and make it back into the microphone as reverberation. By doing so, this achieves a drier and clearer vocal recording.If you cannot do that, try recording vocals facing some other type of absorptive material. i.e. a closet full of clothes.
iii. Trial and error. Recording in one part of your room may just sound better than recording in another part of your room. Try two or three different placements around the room facing different walls (but not too close to a wall!) and then listen back to your audio. You may be surprised by your results.
iv. Record closer to your microphone. When recording closer to the microphone, you maximising the amount of direct vocals going into the microphone, while minimising the sound of your room. Be warned, though: as we’ll discuss soon, recording too close to your microphone may make your vocal recordings boomy.
Okay so you’re all set up, the vocalist is ready and raring to go. The first thing you should address is the microphone position on the singer.
Microphones with cardioid diaphragms are made to pick up exactly what they are pointed towards. In general, placing the microphone too high may achieve a more nasal vocal tone, whereas too low achieves a darker tone. Ideally, you should get your vocalist to stand up straight and then adjust the height of your microphone stand so that the centre of your microphone diaphragm is pointed just below the middle of their lips. If you’re unhappy with the achieved tone, make minor adjustments up or down from this position.
You can also manipulate the placement of microphone to achieve desired sounds. A general rule is that the closer you record a vocalist to their microphone, the bigger, fuller and boomy the vocal take will be (think classic Hollywood movie trailers). You may pick up a lot more low end so be careful.
Recording closer to the microphone will also result in a more dynamic audio signal (i.e. higher peaks and lower troughs) than a recording from further away, so bare this in mind.
If you’re still not entirely happy with your tone, try recording your vocalist with the microphone tilted back or to the side (as if it were a revolving door).
And of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have a choice of microphones, feel free to try another one to see if it is the perfect fit for that particular vocalist.
Record part by part and copy/paste choruses
Record each section of the song part by part. By that I mean, record every take for the first half of the verse in one big hit, then record all of the takes for the second half of the verse. Next move onto the pre-chorus, then the chorus, all the way through your track.
Having this stop/start approach will be much less fatiguing on a vocalist, allowing you a ‘fresh’ vocal performance each time around. It also prevents your vocalist running out of breath as the performance goes on, which may lead to less powerful and articulate recordings.
Additionally, for a lot of current music (not all!) consistency is key. So it is almost always a good idea to copy over the best chorus recording to all the other choruses for sake of consistency. If your pre-choruses are lyrically and melodically identical, copy them over too.
Make your vocalist comfortable
Your vocalist is a human being just like you. And just like you, they may not perform at their peak unless they feel comfortable, and conditions are right. It’s important to address comfort in two main areas: physically, and emotionally.
By physical comfort, I mean room conditions. Is it too hot? Too cold? Is your vocalist thirsty? Have you been recording for 3 hours straight and their voice is worn out/your vocalist is now disinterested? Are they disinterested because you didn’t set up all of your equipment before they arrived? Are they hungry?
All relevant factors. An uncomfortable vocalist will rarely deliver a stellar vocal performance.
By emotional comfort, I mean controlling how the singer is feeling. Are you congratulating the vocalist when they nail a take?
Do they feel comfortable with you? (A lot of times if you have just met a singer or they have little recording experience, they may be very shy with you).
And look, sometimes on the day the magic just doesn’t happen.
The truth is that a lot of inexperienced artists struggle recording in the ‘artificial environment‘ of the recording studio (i.e., not on the stage).
Some artists are used to their voices sounding big on amplifying systems, and massively reverberant from the acoustics of big halls.
In the studio, when they hear their voice unprocessed and very one-dimensional after being recorded, this can be emotionally taxing on the artist. Very emotionally taxing on the artist. They may feel embarrassed. They may feel like a failure.
Thankfully, you can help avoid this with two helpful tips
a. Add a reverb send to your vocal tracking channel - it will make your vocalist sound a bit more comfortable.
b. Let your vocalist record with one earphone on, and one earphone off. You wouldn’t believe the difference it can make for a vocalist to hear them self live.
Most of all, be reassuring when your vocalist is visibly frustrated.
Control your vocal tones
You may not know the exact physics of how the voice works, or the vocal exercises used to train a vocalist, but as a producer you do know one thing: what you want something to sound like.
Maybe in a verse, you’d prefer the vocalist to have a hushed, subdued tone. And as you build into the pre-chorus, a more direct tone with some attitude. And as we hit the chorus, a loud and triumphant tone to match the intensity of the track behind it.
A vocal performance cannot be monotone. It has to ebb and flow, build anticipation and climax at the appropriate time.
Make conscious decisions about when and where to utilise different vocal tones.
This ties in closely with how comfortable the vocalist is: if they’re completely uninspired, you can never elicit an inspired vocal performance from them.
Additionally, the vocalist might need some direction in other areas. Are they pronouncing words too much? Are they not being articulate enough? Is their vocal tone very forced and unnatural?
It’s important to expand on your vocabulary or use reference tracks in order to fully articulate your suggestions to a vocalist. If you want them to sing more sexy and sultry, tell them. If you want them to sing more smooth and less staccato, tell them. This step in particular is going to have a significant effect on whether the vocal sounds ‘glued’ to the track, or whether it sounds ‘on top’ of the track.
In conclusion, I'd like you not only to take on the advice presented by the Spectrum Sound team but to report back. We want to hear about your experience executing vocal recordings, help where we can and most importantly achieve results! Also I would like to direct you over to the Spectrum Sound Facebook page, not as a shameless plug, but as a genuine and credible referral. These guys know what they're doing when it comes to vocal production, tuning, editing and mixing.
Nicholas Di Lorenzo & the Spectrum Sound Team (Jeremy and Dylan)