Vocal recordings not up to scratch? Veteran studio hound Chris Lyth has some ideas that might help...
It's likely that, in every producer's career, there will come a time when they will put aside that Motown Vocals sample pack acquired in the first halcyon days of broadband, and decide that what their track really needs is an original vocal.
We all know how much weight a classy vocal can add to a track, so it makes sense to give it the attention it deserves. At the heart of any great vocal is the performance, and at the heart of a great performance is the vocalist. This may seem childlike in its simplicity, but one of the most important factors is to make sure that the vocalist is happy. Great communication, good vibes and gentle coaching will be the difference between a good performance and a knockout performance.
Capturing great vocals can be one of the most challenging aspects of the recording and production process, but with a little preparation and the right equipment it's entirely possible to record superb sounding vocals in a domestic environment. With that in mind, here are some useful tips to help your session run smoothly...
1. Take time to get the headphone mix right to make the performer as comfortable as possible. A little reverb on the vocal in the 'phones can help with pitching notes, and a good headphone mix can really bring out the best in a performer. Also try to make the performance area warm and inviting, as this all helps in a subtle way.
2. Always use closed back headphones to prevent your backing track leaking into the mic.
3. Make sure that the vocalist is well rehearsed and knows the song inside out before the recording session begins. Provide a rough mix so that they can practise ahead of time, and don't have the added stress of learning the track at the session.
4. A little compression when recording can be useful to control dynamics and help smooth things out. What we are trying to achieve is to record all of the vocal performance, which when recording a vocalist with a massive dynamic range can be tricky. A little compression helps keep a good level, but be gentle. Too much compression on the vocal during recording can make a singer push and strain the delivery as well as choking out the dynamics of the performance. Use no more than 6db gain reduction on the loudest peaks. Control it, don't kill it!
5. Always, I repeat, always use a pop shield: plosive pops and bobs can and almost certainly will ruin your vocal take and little can be done to edit them out after the fact.
6. When recording multiple takes, be sure to keep the vocalist and mic position constant, as altering this will alter the vocal's tone and make editing difficult. As with everything mentioned here, a well-structured recording process will result in less hair loss later in the project.
7. Encourage your vocalist by staying positive and upbeat throughout the session even if it's not going so well. There are many tales in the music hall of fame of vocalists struggling to get the perfect take who've then gone on to nail it, so you are far from being alone.
8. Obviously, use the best-quality mic you can afford (or have access to). In recent years, microphone quality has gone through the roof with superb mics offering a quality-to-price ratio that makes older engineers wish they had been born 30 years later. A really great mic may seem expensive, but unlike that new iPad, it will never become obsolete.
9. Choose a suitable acoustic environment to record your vocals. A reverb and reflexion free room is ideal. If you are in an overly bright room, damp down the acoustics with foam, duvets, thick curtains etc. You might also consider using an sE Reflexion Filter: it's now an industry-standard product as it takes a lot of the pain out of recording vocals by taming the room's acoustics and therefore making vocals sound tighter.
10. Consider using a mic preamp if you are looking to achieve a really great sound. Desk and audio interface preamps will get the job done for sure, but they are built to a price point. A nice preamp is designed with absolute audio fidelity and one purpose in mind... to give the absolutely best sound possible. Many preamps also have DI's built in so you can record keyboards, bass etc. So they are a very worthy addition to any recording setup .
11. On a slightly philosophical note, keep the session fun and don't over-work the vocalist. If they have had a long and tiring day in the studio, this is likely to come out in the final recording. Remember that it's the vocal performance that will carry the message and emotion of the track and will ultimately make the song a hit.
12. Use a high-pass filter (HPF) if your microphone has one, as it helps to keep the audio track clear of foot thumps and other vibrations that may travel up the mic stand.
13. Some singers, it seems, have to hold the microphone to deliver their performance so this is the time to crack out a trusty Shure SM58 or SM57. A high quality dynamic mic is probably the best for this application. Make sure that the vocalist's hand is not covering the back of the mic basket, and again filter out mic noise by cutting the low frequencies (using the HPF). To cover all your options, there's nothing to stop you putting up a stand-mounted condenser in front of the vocalist and recording both mics so you can have the best of both worlds.
14. Make sure the room is quiet. Keep computer fans, mobiles, humming fridges, drunken neighbours, garrulous parrots etc to a minimum.
15. Mic proximity and positioning are very important. With a close mic position (2-4 inches) more bass, lip smack, mouth noise and detail will be present which can be very effective if you are aiming towards a very intimate, warm and breathy sound, but which is unlikely to be useful if you are recording something with a wide dynamic range. Close mic'ing a vocalist is one of the sweetest taboos in recording, so proceed with caution. A fairly typical working distance would be around 6-10 inches, which provides a good level and plenty of warmth and detail.
16. Don't go crazy with EQ when you are recording, as it can't be undone. In fact, use as little as you can get away with - you can always shape the sound later in the mix. The same goes for adding other FX, as once they are recorded you can't take them off. Record clean, process dirty.
17. When mixing, the vocal is the most important part of the song so the position in the mix should reflect this. Mix the vocal upfront and confidently, but not so it overwhelms the song. Use some reference tracks in a similar genre and compare the vocal levels with your own, then balance and adjust accordingly.
Words: Chris Lyth Pic: Creative Commons