Your Crash Course in Recording Awesome Vocals in Your Home Studio
Another Monday means another insightful post by guest contributor Ed Elefterion. This week he’s giving us the scoop on how he produces his vocal recordings. If you missed the previous posts in the series, check them out here.
Recording vocals makes everyone nervous.
Even in swanky, multi-million-dollar profession digs, even pop-stars who know that auto-tune will spare audiences from hearing their less-than-perfect voices, even truly excellent singers – everyone tightens up a bit when they’re standing in front of a mic.
Basic Recording Techniques
Get this part right or you’ll wish you had. If you don’t, no sweat. I’ve screwed it up enough to know that the best thing to do is go back and record it again – correctly. Trying to polish a turd isn’t worth the strain and you will never be happy with the result.
If you know this stuff already, skip it and remember that not long ago, you would’ve been glad to have it laid out for you like this.
Mic Choice: Large Diaphragm Condenser, the best all-around mic for bedroom producers. I use the Rode NT1-A.
Pop-Filter: Use one. They’re cheap. Or make one out of a wire coat hanger and a nylon stocking. Google it.
Mic Position: Use that pop-filter to both focus your mouth on the mic and to keep you far enough away from it to minimize the amount of boom in the voice.
Experiment with getting rid of the pop-filter and putting your mouth right up on the mic. See what that sounds like. Some singers prefer it – Elvis Costello, for example. But he is a microphone maestro. Best practice is simply to keep your distance (approx. 6 inches), with or without a pop-filter. If you want more chest resonance in the vocal, lower the mic to chin level. For less chest resonance, place it at around nose level. Experiment.
Recording level: Low levels are your friend. You do not need to record anything at high levels. I record vocals between -28 and -18 db. Leave a lot of headroom. Turn it up later when you start mixing. A clip gain plugin will do the trick before you add any other processing.
EQ: Some people like to EQ during recording. I don’t. I like to capture the natural vocal, then EQ in it my DAW. I roll off everything from about 100hz down (often as high as 200hz) and use a high shelf of about 3db at around 6K. You can just skip this and address it when you start mixing.
Compression: Same as EQing. I do it in my DAW after I’ve got the vocal recorded.
Headphones: Closed Back. Anything else will bleed into the microphone.
Reverb/Delay: Sometimes I add this while I record to distinguish the vocal from the backing tracks with a little extra presence and energy. It helps me feel confident. It’s totally psychological but…whatever works. After I’m done recording, I disable this.
Sit or Stand?
I’ve done both and I’ll do both again. When I’m working with other artists, I don’t give them the option of sitting, and I’ve never had anyone ask to sing from a chair.
But when I’m recording myself, I’ll do whatever comes naturally. If it’s a very challenging vocal that needs power, I stand. If it’s a small vocal sound, maybe falsetto, I’ll sit. If I’m tired…and still at it…maybe the vocal needs a weary feeling?…I’ll sit.
Just know that when you sing from a seated position you need the same support and mechanics that you do when you stand. No hunched shoulders, no collapsed lower back. If you sit…sit like a flower reaching up for sunlight.
Singing should be fun. When it becomes a chore, I call it a day. It’s as simple as that. It’s a basic audience rule: they feel what you feel. You feel bored, guess what?
A vocal has to be alive like an animal is alive. Watch a bird. A dog or cat. Any animal. Children work for this exercise too. Watch them. Every second they’re doing something. That is, every move they make has a purpose. And they’re always working at something. Striving. It doesn’t have to be a struggle. They move towards a goal and, once attained, the goal changes and they go on striving.
A vocal should be like that. Always striving towards something. Alive.
How Much Can You Take?
After my scratch vocal – which is maybe one or two takes that I only create a composite (a comp) from if it’s quick and easy – then I turn from vocals to instruments and record the band. Once I’ve got a solid rhythm track (at the very minimum) I turn my focus back to the vocals.
Hearing that scratch track again and again as I’ve recorded the other instruments has taught me a few things about how I want the final vocal to sound. Either the inflections I caught on the scratch track were on-or-close to what I want or they are miles off target. This time, when I focus on recording the vocal, I’ve got a much clearer sense of what I’m aiming for.
I record the whole song at least twice straight through.
Then I go back and do it one verse at a time, one chorus at a time, the bridge, the intro, and outro. And each time I do it, I refine it. Or…if I’m unsure whether the lyrics in question need an aggressive attack, a light touch, a falsetto, a belt…I’ll try them all and listen in context. I also think about where in time the lyrics in question occur, what came before them, and what’s coming after them. This way, I can shape the way the audience receives the lyrics.
How I’m singing is just as important as what I’m singing…if not more so.
I do as many takes as it takes.
Comping (Creating a Composite) In an Imperfect Room
Ever notice how different takes have a subtly different sound? This comes from an imperfect recording environment. I’ve treated mine with bookshelves and furniture and set up a makeshift vocal booth from an old Japanese screen and a duvet but, depending on how loud I’m singing, the room sings back.
Sometimes I have to apply EQ to certain phrases to match them up with the rest of the vocal. It sounds natural after I’m done but it brings home the whole idea of getting it right at the source.
One way I’ve found to keep the room out of the recording is to sing under a blanket (like an old-time photographer under a black cloth to keep the light away from the film when he opens the lens). It’s exhausting, not to mention ridiculous and cumbersome, but it works.
I use these on nearly every leading vocal on every song I mix. I’m sure you have a similar workflow. I set up sends and blend them in parallel to the main vocal where I’ve used EQ, compression, a gate, and de-esser.
Izotope has a great (and free) vocal doubler. I use it on my main vocal chain – that is, as an insert instead of a send. I add just a touch to fatten the vocal signal. This way, it doesn’t sound like a doubled track. It just sounds like a fat single track, which is my aim. I can (and often do) send this signal to a separate delay channel for effects that act more like delays.
I send the vocal to a very short plate to get a little thicker. I EQ the signal going into the reverb and coming out. On the way in, I roll off from about 450hz down and about 4-5khz up.
This prevents the reverb channel from adding extra boom and crispness. I don’t want that. I want a richer, more meaty vocal. If I need additional reverb from here, I’ll adjust the amount I send or…I’ll just send the original vocal to a different reverb and blend them all together. If the short plate gets in the way, I mute it and pick the version that works best.
I send the vocal to the Waves S1 and add some very subtle width. When I’m after more presence and a bigger sounding vocal, it’s a simple solution. When I need the vocal to sit more centrally – maybe the mix is too dense at a certain point – I’ll automate the amount I send to the widener.
To bring out the mids and/or add some crispness, I use FabFilter’s Saturn plugin. It lets me apply saturation to a specific frequency range so I can focus it where I want it.
This adds another gentle layer of depth. I like Waves J37 and Overloud’s Tapedesk.
Back-up singers used to be the ones who sold the song. They sang the hook, they harmonized the melody (creating depth and variety), they made the lead singer sound even better. These days, it’s a lost art. Why?
First, because it became an unnecessary expense, a luxury item in an era where rock bands did their own back-up singing so the specialized back-up singing artists stopped getting called (and studios put that money elsewhere).
Second, because computers make studios unnecessary. Affordable, quality equipment enables folks like us to do everything ourselves. So back-up singing faded even further back, right out of the picture.
If there’s an ideal place for back-up singing it’s the chorus. Supporting vocals add loads of power to the hook. Harmonize, double, triple, use gang vocals. Have fun and let your hair down.
I like adding backing vocals to color certain phrases in the verses and bridge. I like to think of them as breadcrumbs for the audience. Like little guitar or keyboard flourishes, when they appear, the audience sits up and starts to actively search for others. And there’s no other sound humans are more attuned to than the human voice.
Make the Other Guy Look Good
I love singing back-up. I’ve done it a lot recently. Clients come into my studio to record an EP or album and I make arrangement suggestions. Sometimes, they don’t have anyone who can play – or in this case sing – the part and so they hire me.
I love singing to support someone else. All those years in barbershop quartets and jazz band and marching band and choir, learning how to blend, I really developed an ear for it.
That’s what back-up singing is all about: giving someone else the spotlight by shining a different, complimentary kind of light. Shading, coloring, energizing. These are my goals when I’m singing back-up – whether for myself or someone else:
How can I make the other guy look good?
If everyone played with that in mind, what would happen, I wonder.
Drums and Bass. Last? Yes, last. That’s how I do it and I’ll tell you why.
(If you’ve been following the series you’re sick of seeing this section. I kind of am too. But I tack it on the end for those who are just dipping in here and there so I can get the word out to as many folks as possible. Thanks for putting up with it.)
(And everyone else who’s confused by that last paragraph…you’re missing out. Go back through the previous posts and dig up some nuggets for yourself.)
If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Shoot me an email and I’ll help you out with a…
I’ll listen to your demo, we’ll Skype for 15 min and I’ll tell you what I’d do. You can take my ideas (or not) and execute them yourself.
Or, if you want more direct help, we can talk about how much (or how little) you want me to be involved.