How to record professional vocals at home
Recording vocals at home can be a challenging task, especially if you are not familiar with the process. However, with the right room, microphone, and placement, you can achieve professional-quality recordings. In this article, we will discuss the factors you should consider when selecting a room for recording vocals, the right microphone to use, and how to place the microphone to get the best results. By following these tips, you can significantly improve the sound quality of your vocal recordings and create impressive tracks at home.
Choosing the right room
If you are looking to record vocals at home, it is crucial to choose the right room and mic placement for the task. A well-chosen room and mic placement can make a significant difference in the sound quality of your recordings. Here are some factors to consider when selecting a room for recording vocals:
Size of the room
Generally, smaller rooms with furniture are better for recording vocals because they have less space for sound to bounce around, resulting in a tighter and more controlled sound.
The shape of the room
A rectangular room is preferred for recording vocals because it has fewer angles for sound to bounce off of, leading to less reverberation and a more direct sound. Additionally, a room with high ceilings can create an echo that can be detrimental to the vocal recording.
The wall material of a room can affect the sound quality of the recording. A room with concrete or brick walls is ideal because they are dense and reduce sound reflections. However, if you have a room with drywall, it can still work, but you may need to add sound-absorbing materials to minimize reflections.
Choose a room that is quiet and free from external noise such as traffic, appliances, or other people in the house. Consider recording during quieter times of the day to minimize the impact of external noise.
Furniture and décor
A well-furnished room with furniture and décor can help to absorb sound reflections and improve the sound quality of your recordings. Soft furnishings such as curtains, carpets, and upholstery can also help to absorb sound reflections.
When it comes to mic placement, your mic should be positioned away from any walls and not too close to your workstation, as sound will bounce off these and be picked up on the recording. The optimum position is probably furthest away from your desk and any windows, but sometimes this isn’t practical, so just try to minimize reflections as best you can. Try to place your mic slightly closer to two of the walls than to the others, with the vocalist facing into the room and the majority of blankets (or whatever you’re using) tacked to the walls behind the singer’s head.
How far vocalists should position themselves from the mic itself is entirely dependent on the material and their voice. A screaming metal singer should probably be at least a foot away from the mic, whereas a softer folk singer should be around four to six inches away. These are just guidelines, though, so feel free to record a few short test takes at the beginning of a session to ascertain the best distance for the particular track you’re working on. When recording a take, vocalists should aim to keep their heads as still as possible and not move their feet. It’s also best to sing just off-center into the mic, as most mics (depending on the pickup pattern) are extremely sensitive to direct sounds, and any movement towards or away from the mic will be exaggerated from the center. An experienced singer will often move their head back a little during a particularly loud section and move closer for a quieter part, but unless your vocalist knows their craft inside out, it’s best for them to remain as still as possible.
Choosing the right microphone
When it comes to choosing the right microphone for recording professional vocals at home, there are two main options: USB microphones and XLR microphones. USB microphones are easier to use and don't require any additional equipment, but they may not have the same level of quality as XLR microphones. On the other hand, XLR microphones are more expensive upfront, but offer more possibilities for outboard equipment and can be integrated into existing studio setups.
Regardless of which type of microphone you choose, it's important to test several microphones to find the one that best matches the vocalist's tone. For most situations, a large diaphragm condenser microphone is the standard choice for vocal recording, but dynamic microphones can also be used for particularly aggressive vocalists or to achieve a warmer sound. An omnidirectional microphone can also be used for a different tone, particularly in a well-treated room where there's no proximity effect.
If you're recording vocals at home, it's recommended to use a cardioid microphone to minimize background noise. Additionally, it's important to have the appropriate accessories, such as a pop filter and shock mount to prevent noise from ruining your recording, and a strong floor stand that won't sag halfway through the session.
Placing the microphone the right way
When it comes to recording vocals, the placement of the microphone is just as important as the microphone itself. Placing the microphone at lip level is a common mistake that can result in poor audio quality. To get the best results, there are three key factors to consider: distance, height, and axis.
Distance is the most critical factor when using a condenser mic, as it has the most significant impact on the tone. If you want an open and airy vocal sound, stand 12 inches away from the mic. For a warmer, more intimate sound, stand closer, like 5 or 6 inches. On the other hand, when using a dynamic mic, position yourself two inches away and adjust the distance until you get the desired tone.
Height is also crucial in affecting the tonal quality of the vocals. Lowering the microphone will increase the low end of the voice, while raising it will accentuate the top end. Experiment with the height to find the sweet spot for your recording.
The axis of the microphone is the last thing to consider. While pointing the mic directly towards your mouth is standard practice, rotating it left or right can reduce bass and plosives. If you tend to spit bars with heavy P’s or S’s, rotating the mic 20 degrees to the left or right can help reduce the impact.
When positioning the microphone, make sure the diaphragm is in line with your mouth for the most natural sound. A boom stand is recommended as it provides flexibility in adjusting the height and angle of the mic. Additionally, use a pop filter to capture and control aggressive plosives, which can ruin your recording. A pop filter acts as a net to catch plosives while allowing other sounds to pass freely, preventing singers from moving too close to the mic. If you don't have a pop filter, you can make one out of thin material like tights.
Setting the levels
After connecting your microphone and headphones to your audio interface, the next step is to set the levels for recording your vocals. This is important to ensure that you don't end up with a recording that is either too quiet or too loud.
To set the levels, start by adjusting the gain dial on your audio interface. This dial controls the input volume of your microphone. Set it to halfway and sing in your normal voice while keeping an eye on the LED light next to the gain dial. A green LED light indicates that the signal is good and not distorted, while a red LED light means the levels are too high and you are distorting your interface. Adjust the gain dial-up or down accordingly until you get a good signal.
It's important to note that if you sing too quietly, you'll end up needing to turn up the gain dial, which can result in clipping when you sing louder during the actual recording. Conversely, singing too loudly will mean you need to turn the gain down, resulting in levels that are too quiet during recording.
In addition to the gain dial, there is also a dial for the headphone volume. Adjust it to your personal preference, making sure that it's loud enough for you to hear the recorded sound of your vocals, but not so loud that it's uncomfortable.
Once you've set the hardware levels, it's important to also check the levels on your DAW and interface. Aim for your vocals to be peaking around -10 dBs, with an average input level of around -18 dB. If you're peaking higher than -6 dB, it's time to turn down the microphone gain or adjust your vocalist's position for more balanced vocal recordings.
If your condenser mic or other equipment is coming in too quiet during the recording phase, it may be helpful to use a preamp or vocal compression to boost the level and get a respectable recording.
Warm up your vocal before recording
Before starting any vocal recording session, it is important to do proper warmups to avoid straining or damaging your voice. Your voice is like an instrument, and just like playing a sport, it is crucial to take good care of it.
To start, drink a glass of room-temperature water slowly to hydrate your vocal cords. Then, take a comfortable breath before singing or speaking to prepare your body for the exercise. It is recommended to do some gentle scales and intervallic jumps in your practice routine, starting in a comfortable register where there is no tension. Avoid going too high or overextending your voice, as this can lead to injury.
Coaches often recommend doing lip trills before scales to warm up your lips and tongue, as well as sighing a few notes comfortably from a high pitch to a low pitch. For those who will be speaking, practicing tongue twisters and reciting poems can also help warm up the vocal cords and aim for a resonant tone.
It is important to remember that warming up your voice is essential before any vocal session to ensure your voice is ready to perform. Neglecting to do so can result in vocal strain or even a damaged voice, which can greatly impact the quality of your recording. Taking care of your voice is crucial to achieving the best possible results in your vocal recordings.
Before hitting the record button, ensure that all the equipment is working correctly and set to the appropriate levels. Double-check your microphone placement and make sure the vocalist is comfortable and at the right distance from the microphone.
It's also important to communicate with the vocalist and let them know when you're about to start recording. Give them a signal, count them in, or use a click track to help them keep the tempo.
During the recording, keep an eye on the equipment and make sure the levels are consistent. Don't be afraid to stop and start again if something goes wrong. It's better to get a good take than to have to fix mistakes in post-production.
Another tip to keep in mind when starting your vocal recording process is to take the song in sections or chunks. This technique can be especially useful for vocalists who are still getting used to the recording environment or are struggling to perform full takes. Breaking the song into sections or chunks can help the vocalist feel more comfortable and confident while recording, leading to better overall performance.
In addition, recording in sections can also have an excellent application for grabbing harmonies, overlapping vocals, or backing vocals of songs. By recording each section separately, you can focus on getting the best possible performance for each part, resulting in a more polished and cohesive vocal arrangement.
While recording multiple full takes may seem like a lot of work, it's essential for achieving the best possible vocal recording. Having at least three full takes of a vocal gives you more options to work with during the mixing process and ensures that you have a cleaner source recording. While post-production tools like de-essers can help mitigate breath sounds, it's always best to aim for a clean recording during the tracking process, rather than trying to overcompensate while editing the recording during the mixing stage.
In addition, always keep your recording environment as quiet as possible. Turn off fans, air conditioners, and any other noise sources that may be picked up by the microphone. This will help you achieve a clean recording with minimal background noise.
Lastly, encourage the vocalist throughout the recording process. Give them positive feedback and let them know when they're doing a good job. A comfortable and confident vocalist will deliver a better performance, resulting in a better overall recording.
Recording vocals at home can be a challenging task, but with the right room, microphone, and placement, you can achieve professional-sounding recordings without having to leave the comfort of your own home. Remember to experiment with different settings and equipment to find the combination that works best for your specific needs.
Additionally, it's essential to practice good microphone technique and vocal performance to get the most out of your recordings. Take the time to learn about microphone placement, distance, and axis, and work with the vocalist to get the best performance possible.