Recording vocals is a high-stakes part of the music-making process. Despite what your egomaniacal guitarist thinks, the vocals are what most people hearing your blood-sweat-&-tear-infused recording will actually listen to, no matter how many sweep arpeggios are in the solo.
As such, a lot of time and special care must be invested in the gear and methods used to track your singer, and in an ideal world, loads and loads of money. In the non-ideal, actual world though, most of us can’t afford a £10,000 vocal chain, and seek to get the best possible sound from gear that doesn’t require a second mortgage to fund its purchase.
This being the case, here are a few top tips that will help you capture great recordings from cheap microphones…
It goes without saying that the room in which you are recording affects the sound you get on tape (or iPad, or wax cylinder, or whatever…) and this is especially true when tracking vocals. Assuming you don’t have a nice fully-treated vocal booth, try experimenting with different spaces.
First off, use your ears, not a mic – get the singer to sing whilst you listen for the tone of the space. If it sounds boomy or muddy in real life, that’s what will come through the microphone. Try moving until the sound works. Having the singer stand in a corner singing away from it into the room often works, as the reflections disperse at angles in the room and come back into the mic less.
You might also try buying a reflection filter that surrounds the mic and helps stop roominess creeping in to the tone. Experiment with blankets, curtains or duvets to further deaden the space. There are loads of tutorials for this online. Acoustic treatment (even DIY) is a vital tool in the art of capturing a great vocal sound.
2. Mic Position
Every mic has a sweet spot at which the pickup pattern suits the source material. It is a reflex to have a singer right up against the grill of a pop shield two inches away from the capsule of a condenser microphone, and this suits certain voices, but is far from perfect all the time.
For example, this approach adds bass through proximity affect, and this may not suit the material. Often, not using a pop filter at all and positioning the mic a little further away works much better. Raise the cradle up and point the diaphragm down so that the singer is singing at a point below the mic. This will avoid pops and capture a clear, sweet tone.
Check out the video below in which DV247 show off the very cheap yet incredibly good sounding Fame Vintage F47 mic. They have used the same technique to get the most from it.
3. Gain structure
Setting the gain on your preamp, whether it’s built into an interface or a separate high-end unit, is very important in terms of capturing the vocal without clipping, or noise. Too low and you won’t capture enough signal, leading to a need for compression and a higher noise floor, a problem more noticeable on budget mics and preamps. Too high and you run the risk of clipping and ruining a great take. Consider a little compression on the way in if you have access to the tools, otherwise try tracking quiet sections and loud sections separately to allow you to set different gain levels.
One thing to keep in mind is that there is no real need to get a really hot signal when recording digitally, (this is a hangover from the noisy days of tape) so you can afford to be in the -6db range easily. As long as you’re in a quiet environment, getting a great take without pumping too much gain can yield great results. Make sure your soundcard is set to balance input mode – this will give you more headroom whilst having the gain set lower to avoid noise.
It’s boring but true – skimping on mic stands results in massive pains as you try to deal with drooping and unwieldy metalwork changing the mic position between takes. It is often possible to get a great sound from an affordable mic, but a £10 mic stand will render even the most expensive microphone almost useless.
There are enough options to make sure you can afford to get decent quality stuff – just please, don’t succumb of the gaffa-fixes-everything school of recording. It’s honestly not worth it.
Lastly, it seems obvious but by far the biggest factor in the success of a recording is the vocal performance itself. Try to make the singer as comfortable as possible, take your time to get their mix right so they can hear themselves, and give them some reverb to allow them to pitch better.
One trick to avoid latency when doing this is to have a reverb effect on an aux and send a little of the recording channel to it pre-fade. That way the singer has reverb but you can still monitor direct through the interface instead of having to hear it through software. If the singer is comfortable they will respond better to being produced in terms of the performance, as well your repeated advice to stop moving around so much and keep their damn head still so you can finish this track and go home.
To hear the results that are possible using these techniques check out the video below:
These are by no means the only things to bear in mind when recording, and there are a bunch of different bits of advice out there on almost every aspect of the process. There is really just one thing to remember though, and that is a simple maxim that should always be at the forefront of any decision whilst recording and mixing.
If It Sounds Right, Then It Is Right.
Oh, and “will it affect sales?”
[This post was written by guest contributor Gavin James of dv247.]
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[Image of mic from Shutterstock.]