Your Ultimate Guide to Recording Vocals
There are five stages to recording vocals to a professional standard.
But it’s not all about the microphone or your gear. Or even your acoustic treatment.
It’s not even only about your singer.
Unfortunately, even a bad singer can be…*gulp*…” fixed.”
But there’s no autotune for a poor vocal melody or a badly recorded vocal performance.
There’s no Auto-Make-My-Songwriting-Better plug-in.
But in this article, I’ll cover how to get the most out of your vocal recording session so that you can make your next production stand out.
Five-Stage Vocal Production Process
To get a professional vocal sound, you have to put all stages of the vocal production together:
- Pre-Production – Where you focus on making the melody, lyrics, rhythm, and arrangement the best it can be.
- Pre-Recording – Where you focus on the room, the vibe, the signal flow, and the singer’s health. Discomfort during this phase will kill your session.
- Recording – Where you focus on the headphone mix, the mic technique, and the overall performance for every single vocal part (leads and harmonies).
- Editing – Where you…hey, where’d you go? Come back here. You can’t make pro vocals unless you spend time editing them. This means tweaking them for tightness and tuning and eliminating background noise.
- Mixing – This is where you bring the vocal together with the rest of the tracks. You use EQ, compression, and effects to make your lush vocal sound leap out of your speakers without sounding like it’s stuck on top of the rest of the mix.
In this article, we’ll be covering the vocal recording process.
This phase happens once you’re done with pre-production and you’re ready to hit record on your vocal microphone.
The Vocal Recording Equipment You Need
Here’s what you’ll need to record a proper, professional vocal track for your song.
- Backing track – unless you’re doing an a cappella song. This could be a live band in another room if you’re recording in that kind of facility. More likely, it will be the instrumental track to the song you’ve already recorded.
- Microphone. If you tested out a few during the pre-production process you’ve hopefully found the best one for the vocalist. Or you’re using the only vocal mic you have and that’s cool too.
- Sturdy mic stands with a boom and a shock mount for your microphone.
- Pop filter to reduce those pesky plosives.
- Cable to connect your microphone to your interface connected to your computer.
- Headphones connected to your interface so your vocalist can hear themselves.
- A DAW to record into. Remember that there is no “Best DAW for recording vocals.” The best DAW is simply the one you know how to use the best, so any of the higher-end DAWs like Ableton, Logic Pro, Studio One, Cubase, Reaper, or Pro-Tools will do the job perfectly.
That’s the bare minimum to record vocals, but one factor will greatly enhance your vocal sound, and it’s making sure your acoustics are dialed in.
Or, more importantly, tamed away from the vocal recording process as much as possible so you get the best source sound available.
Acoustic Treatment for Your Vocal Recording
Recording vocals in an apartment will give you all sorts of different issues compared to recording at a commercial studio, so make sure you spend some time on acoustic treatment so your vocal recording sounds as good as possible.
If you don’t have the advantage of a fully treated vocal booth, then there are some things you can do to minimize the home sound from your home recording.
Eliminating reflections is a big issue in getting a great vocal sound. You don’t want the vocal to bounce around the room and end up in your microphone. You only want the vocal sound from the mouth of the vocalist.
There are two types of reflections you need to deal with, from the front and from the rear.
Get a reflection filter to reduce the room sound and put up acoustic treatment around the vocalist to deaden your room as much as possible so that your room sound isn’t bleeding into the vocal sound.
If you are using a cardioid microphone pattern, then reflections coming back toward the microphone won’t be picked up that much. The bigger thing to worry about is the reflections coming from the back wall. When your vocalist sings, the sound waves will bounce from the wall in front of them back to the wall behind them and finally bounce into the microphone itself. This will color your vocal sound with all that unnecessary room sound you don’t want.
Not only does all this acoustic treatment make your vocals sound better once they’re recorded, but it also doubles as a comfort issue for the vocalist. Some singers come into my studio and are impressed with the cool vocal recording setup because I have a reflection filter around the microphone. So don’t dismiss the “wow factor” of making the most of your cool gear to make the singer more comfortable. Remember, it’s all about getting a great performance, and having a singer who’s impressed and feels good will go a long way toward getting there.
3 Great Vocal Microphones That Don’t Break the Bank
Great vocal recording mics are a necessary part of your studio, regardless of its size.
But your home studio might have a smaller budget and you don’t have the luxury to splurge on expensive vocal recording mics.
However, re-mortgaging your house is unnecessary with the following microphones.
A budget of around $500 is easily enough money for some great vocal microphones, and some of the options below cost even less.
Please note these microphones are not ranked in any way, but they are all great vocal mics for recording vocals at home.
The Aston Microphones brand is one of my favorite microphone companies because I have a personal relationship with the early founders. However, their reviews don’t lie, and I keep coming back to them repeatedly, whether it’s for acoustic guitar, vocals, other acoustic instruments, or even room microphones.
This one is a bit pricier than the aforementioned $500, but you can’t go wrong with a Neumann condenser microphone.
The little brother of the AKG C-414, the 214 is the perfect substitute for the home recording studio. That means you can both buy a microphone AND pay rent. That’s the best of both worlds in the home recording industry.
Of course, there are many more options to choose from, and it all comes down to your budget and personal preference. These are all condenser microphones that are great for vocal recording, but you might be better off with something like a Shure Sm7B if you’re working in harder genres or have an especially bad room in which you’re recording.
Don’t Overthink Your Vocal Mic
Don’t get infected with a case of analysis paralysis. Choosing a microphone when you’re starting out can be overwhelming. It’s probably not the only microphone you’ll buy, so you don’t need to worry about buyer’s remorse.
Make a judgment based on price, reviews, brand and, most importantly, your gut feeling.
Recording Vocals in Your Home Studio
Now that you have the right mindset, the acoustic treatment, and the vocal mic you need, you’re ready to hit record on those vocals. In the video below, you’ll learn exactly what to keep in mind to get a clear and present vocal recording.
These are the same techniques I use while recording from home or at a studio. In addition, you’ll hear audio examples from both male and female vocalists in genres ranging from punk to jazzy folk to show you the results of following the techniques I demonstrate in the video.
In this video, you’ll also learn:
- How to prepare your vocalist for a great recording session
- How to make sure your vocalist is comfortable during the session
- How to position the microphone in front of the vocalist
- How to communicate effectively with the singer
- How to find a good starting point for your vocal mic
- Microphone placement ideas to get the best sound out of your vocalist
- How to use acoustic treatment to get a better source sound
- How to understand and reduce the acoustic reflections in your room from going into your vocal mic
- How to use a pop filter to reduce the plosives while using it as a target for your singer
- How to use the proximity effect to your advantage
Recording Vocals at Home, Even If You Don’t Have Fancy Equipment
Simple Mic Placement for Recording Vocals
Like any other instrument recording, you must position your microphone correctly. The simplest mic technique to start with is the ol’ “mic in front of the mouth” technique. Just point the mic straight toward the mouth and listen to how it sounds.
You don’t want to be too close because it’ll add unnecessary bass from the proximity effect, unless you’re really looking for that extra low-end. And you don’t want to be too far away as to color the vocal sound with the room’s sound.
Fan out your hand like you’re playing the trumpet with one hand, with your thumb on your nose and your pinky finger touching the microphone. That’s a great place to start. Put the pop filter right in front of the microphone and get to work.
Another good mic placement method for vocals is to place the mic slightly above the singer’s mouth and tilt it downward towards the mouth. Having the mic above the singer will naturally make the singer tilt their head upwards, making them both stand up straight and open their diaphragm. You’ll often get a better performance out of the singer this way because their body position will often enable them to reach the higher notes with less difficulty.
Once you’ve found a good starting point, you can do a couple of different takes with the mic angled a different way to find the most optimum placement. Honestly, this isn’t something I do very often, but it can be useful if you only have one microphone and need to find the best possible placement.
“Should You Record Vocals in Mono or Stereo?”
I occasionally see this question online and I’m here to set the record straight once and for all, in case you had any doubts about whether you should record your vocals in mono or stereo.
A vocal is a mono sound source and should be recorded in mono. Simple. Full stop. No need for further elaboration.
Okay, maybe a slight caveat…
If you’re recording a choir or a vocal group, you might need to bring out your stereo miking techniques, but in the case of recording a single vocal melody for your home studio production, John Lennon said it best:
“Mono is all you need.”
There’s no need to overcomplicate your vocal recording by trying to record vocals in stereo.
The way to go is just one microphone in front of the vocal in mono. You may end up using stereo effects in the mix to make them wider or bigger in some way, but recording vocals in mono is the proper way to go.
Things to Think About for the Perfect Vocal Mic Placement
Make sure the singer isn’t standing too closely, as this gives the vocal a low-end boost called the proximity effect.
However, if you need a little extra low-end, then you should definitely make the vocalist sing as close as possible to the microphone.
Another way to get some extra thickness is to position the microphone a bit lower and aim it up toward the singer to get more resonance from the chest.
If the room is really bothering you, and the proximity effect isn’t too bad, making the vocalist get close combined with a high-pass filter might get the best of both worlds: a close voice without a room sound or heavy low-end.
If you want a different sound, experiment with different positions of the singer and the mic before you decide which way to record. Making the vocalist sing farther away gives a different sound, and making the singer sing sideways gives another result. Experiment until you are satisfied.
When you have a nice quiet area to record in with your large condenser microphone, then there are a few more things to worry about before hitting record.
Some home recordings have a low hum to them due to background noise and such. You can reduce much of this low-end noise if your microphone has a bass roll-off filter that cuts out most of the low-end you don’t need.
If your microphone does not have a low-cut filter, then you need to do some post production mixing after recording. Using a high-pass filter in your audio program you can filter out most of that pesky low-end you don’t need.
Use the Pop Filter as a Target
Microphone positioning is everything. Even an inch here and there will make a big difference.
When the typical mic-in-front-of-face method isn’t working so well, you’ll run into an interesting problem.
Singers will naturally gravitate towards singing into the mic. They’ll turn their heads if the mic isn’t right in front of them. When that happens, your mic positioning is basically shot.
This is where your pop filter can really come in handy.
Say, for some weird reason, the microphone really sounds good when it’s 45° to the left of their face pointing at their chin.
Naturally, it would feel weird for the vocalist to sing past the mic.
But by having a pop filter right in front of their face and the mic at 45°, you can tell them to focus on singing into the pop filter.
Finding the Right Vocal Recording Levels
Everybody wants to record audio like the great engineers of history.
You might read interviews and books about their warm sound and smoothly saturated tape. And then you try to apply those same ideas to your vocal recordings.
Digital audio recording is a bit different than what you read about in the history books about tape saturation and overloading your pre-amplifiers.
Today, digital audio is not so lenient towards overload. Digital clipping is one of the worst sounds an audio engineer can hear. In the old days, engineers liked pushing their levels to saturation to get that warm tape sound. But now, the only thing you accomplish by pushing digital audio to the max is horrible digital clipping.
No Clipping Please
There’s a silver lining to digital audio recording, though. You don’t have to worry much about recording vocals at low levels because 24+ bit recording gives you a lot of dynamic headroom. You can avoid a few problems in the mixing phase by setting your levels correctly. You avoid that pesky digital clipping that ruins your audio completely, and by recording at (at least) 24-bit, you have enough volume and headroom to play around with without the noise floor posing a problem to your recordings.
When you are sending vocal levels into your DAW, don’t worry about getting as close to clipping as possible. As long as you’re not recording at a really low level, you can always raise the signal level later.
The signal-to-noise ratio is so much higher with today’s technology. Even though you would boost the signal considerably after recording it, the noise floor is much lower than with 16-bit recording.
Essentially, you can allow yourself to record at lower levels without kicking yourself that you didn’t push your signal hard enough. You can push it as much as you want once it’s been recorded.
An excellent rule of thumb is to record the loudest part of the signal at around 75% before you reach 0 dB on your input meter. If your meter goes from green to RED, then somewhere in the middle of the orange part should be a nice enough level – not too quiet so that your audio is too close to the noise floor, but not so loud as to cause clipping.
A Note for Really Loud Singers
If you’re recording a really loud screamo vocalist, you not only have to worry about clipping the signal coming into the preamp, but you also need to make sure they’re not overloading the microphone as well.
An aggressive vocal can certainly distort the diaphragm of a nice condenser mic, or possibly even blow the ribbon of a vintage ribbon microphone. If that’s the case, you can either use the pad switch if your microphone has one, or place the microphone farther away. Because the vocals are such an important part of the production and will usually be the loudest thing in the mix, it’s of utmost importance to make sure they don’t sound distorted or clipped on the way in.
Although we have some pretty serious noise reduction software available to us, there’s almost nothing you can do to fix a distorted and clipped vocal sound.
Quick Tips to Recap
Now that you’ve got a crash course in recording vocals in your home studio let’s recap this entire ultimate guide with a few tips to keep in mind as you head into the studio.
1. Comfort is Key
First and foremost, make sure your vocalist can sing. There’s nothing worse than trying to squeeze a super performance out of a subpar singer. They will most likely stay in the vocal booth all day, trying to squeeze out notes that aren’t right. This makes them uncomfortable, and it’ll end up sounding terrible. Make sure they can sing and feel comfortable singing before you hit record. It will save you a lot of time.
2. The Right Vocal Microphone Matters
Sometimes a different microphone can make all the difference to a singer. Their voice might sound dull and uninteresting on the last microphone you used, but their vocals suddenly shine and cut through like never before on that new one you haven’t tried before.
If you have extra mics lying around, be sure to test them, even though they might be less expensive or, god forbid, a dynamic! And if you don’t have extra mics to use, maybe you could spend some money on renting out a few quality mics to try out. Consider it an investment. Recording vocals with a great mic gives that extra sweetness to a song.
3. Spend Time on Optimal Vocal Mic Position
Like any other instrument recording, you must place your microphone correctly. Make sure the singer isn’t standing too closely, as this gives the vocal a low-end boost called the proximity effect. However, if you need a little extra low-end to thicken things up in the mix, then you should definitely make them sing as close as possible to the microphone.
But if you want a different sound, experiment with different positions of the singer and the mic before you decide which way to cut it. Making them sing farther away gives a different sound, and making them sing sideways gives another result. Experiment until you are satisfied.
4. Use a Pop Filter
This is an essential tool for recording vocals safely without getting annoying pops in your recording. A pop filter eliminates plosives like the “p” and “t” sounds from the vocal recording. P sounds have more energy and tend to be harder to deal with, if not impossible, without using a pop filter.
5. Eliminate Background Noise and Tame Your Acoustics
If you are recording vocals in a good-sounding, acoustically-treated room, ensure there aren’t any unwanted noises. This can be from the computer that might be humming in the background or background noise from the street.
In addition, make sure your room is dead and quiet before you record because there is nothing worse than hearing some unwanted noise in the middle of your greatest vocal take.
6. Don’t Be Afraid of Punching In
Some vocalists can get through a vocal track in one take. One take, and they are done and gone. But most singers take a little while longer, with some verses or phrases being better than others.
You can either compile the best vocal take from various run-throughs or punch the vocalist in multiple times until every phrase is great.
With a little editing, it will sound like a magical singer completely dominating his vocal track.
Keep These Simple Vocal Recording Techniques in Mind
If you’re following along with the hypothetical vocal recording session so far, we should now have some great vocal recordings to work with. Beforehand, you should have done the necessary pre-production and made your studio vibe-y and comfortable for the vocalist, whether that’s you or someone else.
Then, you will have recorded a clean signal of a great vocal performance, whether you’re recording a single vocal or a group.
Once you’ve finished recording, you should have at least one great vocal take, if not a few doubles and harmonies that you can use to add interest to your vocals in the mix.
For more vocal recording techniques, check out the following articles on recording vocals:
- How To Get a Great Vocal Performance, Even With an Insecure Singer
- 7 Effective Vocal Recording Tips (That The Pros Use)
- 6 Vocal EQ Areas You Need To Know About
- Vocal Chains for 4 Different Genres
I hope you enjoyed this Ultimate Guide to Recording Vocals. Please subscribe to the newsletter below so that you never miss another audio production tip from us, and share this guide with whoever you think needs it.