Being able to produce a professional level vocal recording is a coveted skill. If you’ve attempted to record vocals before and the results were lackluster, it was likely a number of factors that played a part in mangling your recording. Surprisingly, the quality of your gear probably had very little to do with the results you experienced. Even a cheap condenser microphone like an MXL 990 is capable of producing excellent results if used appropriately.
I wrote an article a little over a week ago for SonicScoop called “What Separates a Pro Recording Session from an Amateur One?” In the article, I analyzed Graham Cochrane’s recording experience with three-time Grammy-winning producer Jacquire King. The main difference between a pro recording session, like the one run by King, and an amateur one, is the attention to detail at the recording level. At a professional level, nobody is saying “We’ll fix it in the mix.” When you spend the extra time getting your recording right, you’re able to focus on enhancing your mix later down the road, as opposed to fixing recording issues. If your recording doesn’t sound good on the way into your DAW, it’s not going to sound much better on the way out.
This guide will provide you with five steps you can use to capture professional quality vocal recordings. An excellent vocal recording isn’t necessarily hard to achieve, you just need to be diligent throughout your recording process, and provide yourself with some different recording options. You can use these five steps every time you record vocals and save yourself countless hours of mixing work.
1. Choose the Right Recording Space
For the most part, it’s easier to work with dry vocals that haven’t taken on too many characteristics of the room they were recorded in. De-reverb plugins like the SPL De-Verb Plus exist, but they aren’t equipped for handling the heavy reflections generated in an untreated room covered in drywall. De-reverb plugins can often slightly reduce the impact a room is having on a vocal, but your best bet is to invest a little bit of money on acoustic treatment.
With a small budget, you can get away with purchasing some thick moving blankets for $60 from Amazon and hanging them up on your walls. These blankets will effectively absorb many of the high frequencies reflecting around your room, but dealing with bass frequencies requires a healthy balance of diffusion and bass traps.
The sky is the limit when it comes to how much money people spend on modifying room acoustics. You could take it as far as building a soundproof live recording room. If you’re building a pro studio, it’s worth hiring a company that specializes in acoustics to do this for you. They’ll have all the appropriate measurement tools required to analyze your room, and apply treatment accordingly.
I’m not big into saying “don’t do this” because everything is subjective… but don’t record vocals in your closet. Physics can back me up on this, and so can Akon’s mixing engineer, Matthew Weiss. In Weiss’ article, “5 Secrets to Recording Vocals at Home,” he explains that when your vocalist sings, whether in a big room, or a small room, sound waves reflect around the room until the energy dissipates. In a large room, the reflections are spaced out, while in a small room like a closet, the reflections are closer together. Weiss says that “While this might mean less of an audible decay [in a small room], it also means more room interaction. Specifically, a type of interaction called comb filtering, which basically thins the sound and gives it an odd texture. What I’m trying to say is that closets sound bad.”
Weiss goes on to recommend building free standing 24” x 48” acoustic panels that can be easily repositioned in your recording space. Setting these panels up in a trapezoidal arrangement will help to absorb reflections coming from behind your vocalist and from their sides as well. You’ll notice in the image below that there are only three sides to this configuration. This lets the sound waves produced by your vocalist dissipate into the room, avoiding unwanted comb filtering.
If you’re using a unidirectional microphone with a cardioid polar pattern, the microphone will reject much of the sound coming from behind it (the room), minimizing the effect your room has on the recording. To further reduce the impact your room is having, you can face this configuration towards a wall covered in acoustic panels.
2. Choose the Right Microphone
Professional recording studios typically have a variety of microphones, and this is to accommodate the many different voices that walk through their doors. Finding the right mic for a vocalist is kind of like playing matchmaker. You pick a microphone that produces a sound that you think will compliment the vocalist; sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. In some situations, the most unexpected microphone will compliment a vocalist’s voice perfectly.
To expedite this selection process, you can set up 2-3 microphones side-by-side, and record with all three of them at once. Take the time to listen to each of these recordings critically. Solo them back-to-back with one another, and decide which one suits your vocalist the best.
If you happen to be a vocalist and you’re looking to purchase a dedicated microphone, you can rent a handful of high-end mics for about $10-15 each from somewhere like Long & McQuade. You don’t need to select a microphone based on reviews; try some out for yourself. You won’t know what truly compliments your voice until you experiment. Imagine deciding to marry someone based on their Tinder profile; no thanks.
Some vocalists will actually request a specific microphone that they know compliments their voice. In many cases, you may not have the microphone they’re asking for. This is an example of another instance in which renting a microphone is a great option. You can, at least temporarily, turn your humble studio into a recording powerhouse if you’re willing to rent equipment.
The Slate VMS is another good option if you don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on vintage microphones. It models various different high-end microphones and mic preamps. I don’t find the emulations completely capture all of the nuances of the original equipment they aim to model, but they come pretty close. Considering the versatility the Slate VMS brings to the table, I give it two thumbs up.
3. Choose the Right Preamp
A preamp will increase the level of your microphone signal to line level. Once a signal is at line level you can run it through devices like compressors, reverbs, delays, etc. Preamps with a surplus of gain can also help to reduce your signal to noise ratio.
Microphones like the Shure SM7B require a significant amount of gain, often beyond the capabilities of many consumer quality preamps. If your microphone signal is infested with noise, and you’ve already dealt with all the external noise sources in your room like air conditioners, etc., it may be worth upgrading your preamp to one that provides more gain.
Not only does your preamp play a significant role in reducing noise, but it can also add its own character to the signal you’re recording. As soon as you start swapping between different preamps, you’ve jumped out of the world of consumer recording equipment. This is due mainly to the expense that comes along with buying dedicated preamps.
500 Series Preamps often cost about $500-1,000 for a single unit. Many people then mount their 500 Series Preamps into a chassis that lets them switch between preamps. An enclosure like this will range anywhere from $300-1,000+. It seems crazy that people are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a collection of preamps, but they play a substantial role in shaping the sound of vocal recordings.
There are many companies making preamp emulations right now, but I think Universal Audio is one of the companies doing it best. I find their plugins are quite faithful to the original analog hardware they’re meant to emulate. Although Universal Audio’s audio interfaces can be quite expensive, ranging from $500-3500, when all is said and done, it’s still a much more affordable road to walk down than buying a studio full of analog equipment.
4. Choose the Right Compressor
Although it’s not required, many people choose to apply some light peak compression while recording vocals. A compressor with a ratio of around 3:1 and a fast attack and release time will get the job done. You’re really just looking for a couple decibels of gain reduction to tame the dynamics of your vocal.
I’m more than happy to commit to a compressed signal on the way into my DAW using analog gear, but if you have commitment issues, applying a plugin compressor while recording will allow you to still benefit from peak compression. Recommending you use plugin compressor slightly contradicts the mindset that I’m trying to encourage in this guide (get it right while recording, and you won’t have to deal with issues while mixing), but I’m aware that many people are limited in the hardware that they have access to.
In the same way that preamps impart their own character onto a sound, so do compressors. Some sound inherently aggressive, musical, or even transparent. These qualities are a result of how they’re designed, and the components inside of each unit. In the digital world, many compressors aim to model specific pieces of analog equipment, which means it's not uncommon for a compressor to add distortion, noise, or hum to a signal.
Some compressors even function differently based on their input signal. For example, the Waves CLA-2A aims to model the variable release times of its analog counterpart. A T4 optical device determines compression behavior, and when strong signals are sent through the compressor, you can end up with release times that last several seconds. It’s peculiarities like this that make each compressor unique, and desirable in their own way.
Select three different compressors that you think may suit your vocalist, and audition each of them individually. My Apollo x8 allows me to bake UAD plugin processing right into my signal while recording. An added benefit of doing this is that it takes advantage of the DSP my Apollo provides. This leaves me with more available CPU when I begin mixing. Some of my go-to UAD compressors include the Empirical Labs Distressor, Manley Voxbox, UA 1176 AE, and the Teletronix LA-2A Silver.
5. Set Your Input Levels Appropriately
When you’re recording your vocal, keep your track level at 0dB and adjust your preamp so that your audio is being captured at a level of -18dB to -12dB. This will provide you with enough headroom so that you can effectively avoid clipping your input signal, yet still capture a healthy input signal, free of noticeable noise.
Many analog modeled plugins perform optimally with an input signal level of around -18 dB. If a plugin has an optimal input level, it should indicate this level in the plugin's user manual. Contrary to popular belief, gain staging is still essential while mixing within your DAW. The level at which you run signal into some of your plugins can play a significant role in how they shape the sonic architecture of your sound.
As mentioned previously, analog modeled plugins tend to perform processing beyond that of their primary function. For example, an analog modeled compressor may begin to apply distortion at higher input levels, as opposed to just applying compression in the way that a basic digital compressor may. Running your signal too hot, or too quiet into specific plugins can drastically alter the results they provide.
The first four of these five steps encourage you to try out a couple different recording options, and choose the one that sounds the best to you. You just need to take your time and think critically about how you can shape the sound of your talent’s voice before hitting record. Get this critical process down, and mixing will become significantly less challenging. You'll be able to focus on enhancing your vocals, rather than fixing them.
If you're looking for information on how you can process vocals once you've recorded them, check out The 13-Step Vocal Production Workflow. Also, make sure to follow Black Ghost Audio on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube to stay up to date on the latest music production tips and tricks. There’s new content every week, and I don’t want you to miss out.
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