Recording Vocals in a Home Studio
By Ken Hamberg
A song, regardless of its genre, is typically carried by the vocal presence in and performance of its content. Singers sell the song. Producers and engineers often find recording the vocals to be the most challenging and satisfying part of the process in terms of arrangement and sonic treatment. As you record in your home or project facility, you will often be called upon to wear both hats, and in this article we'll offer some tips and techniques that should help you establish a good foundation for a successful vocal recording.
The main components of a vocal recording setup are a multi-pattern large-diaphragm condenser microphone, a microphone preamp, a compressor, a good set of headphones, a fully adjustable microphone boom stand, and a pop filter.
Large–diaphragm condenser mics, as opposed to dynamics, are usually the best choice for vocal applications because of their sensitivity and generally superior higher frequency reproduction, which contributes to an airier, more gracious vocal presence while often delivering a more intimate and detailed sound reproduction. A good large-diaphragm condenser usually accepts greater levels of sound pressure without distorting, and its higher output level means you don't have to overextend the gain on your mic pre and induce more noise into the track. A multi-pattern condenser with either sweepable or multi-gradation selectable pickup patterns will often allow you to dial out room ambience or street noise when the mic is properly positioned. Such mics are usually very pricey, however. By the way, there are no "female vocal microphones". A mic will suit the right voice regardless of gender.
A dedicated mic preamp, or a channel-strip model which often includes both a compressor and an EQ section as well, provides the cleanest, shortest and most direct signal path to the recorder or computer interface.
The compressor, judiciously applied, will smooth out the dynamic peaks and dips in the vocalist's delivery, often creating a more consistent and compelling presence within the mix.
A high-quality set or two of circumaural closed-back or semi-open headphones will aid immeasurably in the vocal performance. It's very important for vocalists to be able to monitor themselves properly for pitch accuracy, diction and emotional delivery, and a good set of studio cans will go a long way toward achieving the studio magic and getting it on disk.
A good tripod boom microphone stand will offer more positioning possibilities than a straight stand, and less base-induced stand rumble than one with a round, solid base. Speaking of rumble, a microphone shockmount is essential; the good ones isolate the mic and eliminate pickup of any stand-related vibrations. A fine metal or cloth mesh pop filter will enable you to maintain the desired 6-9" distance from the mic for the vocalist, will prevent potentially damaging plosive distortion, and will protect the mic from equally damaging spittle and spray emissions. Metal mesh pop filters offer the additional benefit of diminishing sibilance without drastically altering the high frequency curve.
Once the mic of choice has been established, position the mic toward the center of the recording space directed away from walls, windows, and corners to avoid unwanted reflections and low-end aberrations. In an untreated room, particularly a boxy one, hang some absorptive material or use partitions or gobos if the room is too boomy or reflective. You may also want to consider purchasing a vocal booth, which is a useful isolating enclosure for both singers and voiceover talent and a solid long-term investment.
Corners in particular will often produce hollow-sounding flutter echoes, which can also be cheaply and temporarily eliminated using foam or fabric. I also recommend a stand-mounting sound treatment alternative made by SE Electronics called the Reflexion Filter. This U-shaped contraption has a punched aluminum exterior and a wool interior and envelops the mic, acting as an acoustic isolator from room reflections.
Again, proper positioning of the mic and use of the heart-shaped cardioid pickup pattern, which accepts signal from the front and sides but rejects from the rear, will help prevent an unacceptable amount of room ambience from being recorded. However, in a less reflective room recording a vocal track featuring a wide dynamic range, you should experiment with the omni mode as well. This 360° pickup pattern sounds more open and natural, and you won't necessarily pick up as much room ambience or street noise as you might think. Also, you won't have to deal with filtering the exaggerated low-end proximity effect often present in cardioid mode.
We should now be ready to set levels, fine-tune the compressor, get a good headphone mix happening for the singer, and start recording.
The Mix Helps the Mood
One point that was pounded into my head early on as an engineer is the importance of a good monitoring mix for the musicians, whether coming through speakers or headphones. This is particularly true for the vocalist, who will usually be working exclusively with headphones. A good headphone mix will enable the singer to really feel the track and naturally find the right place for the vocal within it, and also help resolve pitch and intelligibility issues. The better the headphone mix, the better the vocal delivery.
Plan the vocal effects treatment for the track, and use the effects for the vocalist's headphone mix so that he or she will sing with and to the effect. Don't record the effect though, unless it's a very specific sound that's completely integrated with both the vocal and the rest of the track. Keep the recorded signal path as clean and direct as possible. If the control room is separate from the recording area, close the door. A "hot" mic will occasionally pickup computer fan noise and even high frequency emissions from CRT monitors.
If you've not already done so and don't use a mixing console, consider purchasing a control room monitoring station from Presonus or Mackie. This will allow the engineer to establish separate levels for the control room speakers and the headphones, and allow for talkback communication from the control room to the recording area so you won't have to keep opening and closing the door. A separate headphone amplifier is also recommended.
Assuming the headphone mix is good and recording levels are acceptable, we can now fine-tune the compressor before going for a take. The following levels are suggested as a good starting point for many vocalists. Don't forget that additional compression will be applied in the mix, and that too much compression cannot be removed, so be careful.
Vocal Settings for the Compressor
Ratio: 3:1 or 4:1
Makeup Gain: Match to Input Level
I've had success with ratios as high as 8:1 with singers that were flat out loud (10:1 is usually considered limiting) so don't be afraid to twist the knobs in the service of expediency and flexibility.
Singers are more easily fatigued than musicians, and often emotionally exhausted after five or six takes, so I suggest recording everything, including the sound check and any run- throughs before the "real" take – the adrenaline is flowing and the amazing performances often occur early on. You can always punch or compile various takes – that's easier than ever these days using software. Pitch can be corrected and effects can be applied endlessly, but true, real emotional content can't be fabricated, and people always respond to the genuine emotional article. If you get that on disk, you've got the makings of a great recording.
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