10 Tips for Recording Great Vocals In Your Home Studio

recording vocals by David Martyn Hunt

Invest in a decent mic

Each voice has its own tonality and texture and no one microphone is a perfect solution for all voices. Big studios will often line up a bunch of pricey mics at the start of a vocal session to see which one works best for that particular vocalist.  That being said, the mic on your mobile phone is not likely to give you that spark you are looking for in making your record.   I recently bought a decent mic for under $100 used from an online classified site.  You can find something in the hundreds range that will be sufficient, but you may end up finding it isn’t the best for your voice and swapping it out until you find a good fit.  If you have a budget to make a record, while you don’t have to spend thousands on a Neumann, don’t skip holding a few hundred aside thinking the cheap mic from an old DJ mixer is going to do the trick.

Acoustically treat your mic room

In my last setup I was lucky to have a walk in closet (never happens in NYC!) which I painted and treated with some acoustical foam bought cheaply online.  The foam did not “soundproof” the room so a loud singer could be heard outside of the booth, but it did kill most of the reverberations so the mic did not pick up so much sound bouncing around.  You want a dry, clean signal going into the mic and not a built-in reverb, which you cannot later remove.  Foam can also get pricey, but you don’t have to cover every inch of a space to kill a lot of the reflections.  Another trick is using mic stands and draping moving blankets over them, or even bedspreads.  There is a level of air (the hissing sound of too much space) which records on a mic if it is in a large, open, untreated space.

Follow signal path & balance levels

When first hooking things up if you methodically walk through the steps of your audio chain, you will save time figuring out where your signal is in the chain and properly manage your levels all the way from the mic to mic switch (if it has one) to the mic cable, to the snake, to preamp and so on.  I have been in major studios when much time was wasted by not following this simple rule in the face of any problems like noise, lack of signal to your DAW, etc. only to find out after an hour that it was the mic cable.  Most gear (such as your audio interface and DAW) has meters so you can also check your audio level at different points in your path.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking the recorded level should be maximized, but rather keep your peaks in the middle or just about it, making sure not to hit the roof (thus causing distortion/clipping).

Don’t overuse compression

If you squash everything in compressors it may be easy to hear your favorite parts, but with nothing jumping out at you in a mix there is no element of surprise or dynamics for the listener. I love it when an unexpected vocal chop almost takes my head off like a low-flying plane!   Do leave some life in your takes.

Learn to wear different hats

It is very important that you see yourself in a different light as recording artist, engineer, computer guy, etc.  There is nothing that wrecks the vibe of an otherwise great session than having something go wrong and suddenly you go from having that perfect inspiration to being zapped of all creative energy, faced with a dead signal or nothing in the headphones.   First of all if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!  Beware the lure of updating to the newest version of the free plug-in you hold so dear to your heart.  Updates to anything on your workstation can cause your whole system to go down if you are not careful.  You will regret it when you lose two days re-installing the whole shebang because one little update caused an instable system.  Secondly, get used to sliding under the different hats.  When you sit down to record the perfect guitar take only to find out you hear nothing, put on your tech hat and root out the problem. Following the signal path of course!  Then, after you resolve the issue and everything is a go, take a break and reset your brain to the creative guru you long to be before stepping back in to lay down guitar perfection.

Learn basic editing in your audio software

Basic editing, where you can take multiple passes on the mic then cherry pick a grand vocal take from several snippets, will usually yield some great results.  Look for the interesting, unique moments and string them together and you are likely to have an interesting vocal track with character.  Beware the different vibes that can show themselves on different passes.  Your masterful edit can sometimes sound funny on playback when you realize the headspace you were in when you recorded each take may have been different. The better and faster you get at editing takes, the more you will understand when to re-record and when to edit so that a perfect vocal track can be forged.

Get easy-targeted help by searching for online videos

I have picked up many a tip for my recording software by searching the specific thing I am trying to do on the Internet.  So many folks have uploaded how-to videos and I have solved a problem which I spent two days trying to figure out in only five minutes watching a hip-hop producer take me to school on YouTube!  You will be surprised how many tricks you can pick up: from modern production techniques to the science of microphones.

Properly warm up your voice

A quick search on Google could easily find you some vocal exercises you can use to properly warm up your voice before recording.  Your vocal session will go much better if you open your voice gently for a period of 12-15 minutes.  You will be in better shape from the first take, but you are more likely to stay relaxed and last longer in the vocal booth if you oil the machine a bit first. Try playing one note on the piano five times in a row and cycling through the vowel sounds “A – E – I – O – U” and then moving up to the note, and so on.

Use dynamics in your vocal tracks

The best vocal producers know that building dynamics is key to making a great record.  The singer must keep this in mind at all stages of the track.  At the start, you may sing more breathy and soft, as there could be only one instrument in the track during the intro or first verse.   Once the chorus comes, there are normally more instruments coming in, the drummer kicks it up a notch and the vocalist must follow suit.  If the music gets louder, the vocals should become more intense.  Singing with dynamics will keep you from sounding boring.  Shift gears with different parts of the song but also keep some contour along the way by emphasizing certain phrases or syllables over others.  Inflection, diction and pronunciation go a long way and dynamics are tied to your emotion.

Learn how to connect with your emotions in the vocal booth

You put your tech hat down, the headphone mix is perfect and you consumed your favorite legal substance or studio snack: now it’s time to make magic!  One trick for getting in the right vocal headspace is to turn the lights low and imagine you are on stage and the drummer, bassist and guitarist are all standing next to you.  If you close your eyes and imagine the music is also being recorded live, it can get you to that blissful place called emotion.  First you should have methodically gone through the lyrics, really thinking about how to tell the story emotionally and how you would sing different parts of the song.  Often you then try the opposite of an approach and it works better than expected; so do remain open to experimentation.  In the end, you must overcome the clinical nature of headphones and the vocal booth and feeling like you are under a microscope.   Don’t fall in the trap of self-doubt just because 10 takes in a row are lame.  It could be that next one that has the special sauce on it.

Rob Nolfe is a producer, songwriter and voice instructor at Voice Academy NYC. Kat Nolfe is a professional vocalist, songwriter and founder of Voice Academy NYC. For more, visit www.voiceacademynyc.com.

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