Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Recording things properly at the source is the key to producing music that will sound great and make you proud to listen back to for years to come. “Fixing it in the mix” will never give you the best result - it’s a poor excuse to avoid recording well in the first place! This particularly applies to vocals, which are the key element in most songs and will stand out to most listeners.
While we naturally recommend tracking vocals in a dedicated studio, we know some people prefer the DIY method - but that shouldn’t mean settling for an average vocal recording either. It’s easy to record great vocals on your own, and this two-part blog will show you how. Part 1 here focuses on technical aspects, like equipment and setup, while Part 2 gets into enhancing the vocal performance itself.
1. THE ENVIRONMENT
Noise from outside your recording space can be a real problem, especially if you’re tracking a softer vocal part. Nobody wants to hear a garbage truck going past while you’re pouring your heart out in song. If you can’t get a soundproofed room, make sure your location is minimally affected by external noise.
Poor room acoustics can destroy a track before you’ve even started. Bare rooms in houses sound terrible and unprofessional by default - they are extremely ‘boxy’, with a short, unpleasant reverb and often a pingy slapback delay from ceilings or walls. This kind of room reverb baked into your vocal track will also drown the vocal out in the overall mix and generally make it very difficult to blend together with the other instruments (unless they’ve also been recorded that way - in which case you’ll probably have a lifeless mix all round).
With this in mind, make sure you consider how you can soften or ‘deaden’ your recording space. Set up some basic acoustic treatment - this could be mattresses, cushions, quilts, or anything else thick and soft. If you’d like something more permanent and effective, basic broadband absorption panels are relatively simple to build - all you need to do is make a timber frame and fill it with a dense rockwool (60-100kg/m3). A few of these panels will do a much better job than the acoustic foam that music outlets sell.
Where to Place the Treatment
To decide where to place your treatment, stand in the middle of the room and clap. Listen for where the slapback is coming from, and block off that surface with your treatment object. If you’re not sure, simply placing treatment in the centre of the walls will usually eliminate most of the nasty slapback and reverb. If you have enough treatment panels or objects to go around, you can also cover off the corners of the rooms - although this helps more in the case of recording low frequency instruments, so for vocals it’s not as important.
2. THE GEAR
Most studio vocal recordings will be done with a large diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphone. Dynamic mics and ribbon mics have their place in vocal recording too - they can be excellent in certain scenarios and for singers who are familiar with them - but an LDC will be your best option across the board, given the superior detail it provides.
Having said that, there are different varieties of LDCs themselves. If you’re recording your own vocals, it pays to do some research into the characteristics and quirks of different LDCs, and even test some out if you can, to make sure you’re getting what’s best for you.
The easiest way to record DIY vocals is to plug a microphone straight into an audio interface, which has a built-in preamp. This sounded pretty bad 10-15 years ago, but entry-level technology has come a long way since, and the preamps that come in most home interfaces these days will deliver sonically clean results.
However, if you want to drastically improve your DIY recording quality, you should consider investing in a dedicated preamp. Running a nice microphone into a quality preamp is like plugging a great lens into a top camera - together they achieve so much more than if you skimped on one half. A good preamp will bring out the depth and character of your microphone and capture greater sonic detail, either with crystal clarity or nice harmonic saturation depending on the model you choose. You may have heard people talk about famous albums having a “Neve sound” or an “API sound” - these are the desks the albums were recorded through and therefore also the type of preamp used.
3. THE TECHNICALITIES
Setting the Gain
A common struggle for amateur engineers is how to set an appropriate level of gain for recording. Most people assume they should get the level as close to 0dBFS as they can without clipping on the way in. However, recording that hot is unnecessary and also creates risks - just one word or syllable delivered with a little extra enthusiasm will clip, and ruin what could be the perfect vocal take (as well as the singer’s confidence)!
A safe approach is to soundcheck the loudest part of the song and aim for somewhere around -10dBFS. That will give you plenty of headroom for the real takes. Once they get into the groove, singers often sing with a little extra energy than the soundcheck, but having 10db up your sleeve will be more than enough to cover that.
Lastly, take the time to make sure the vocals and the music are both coming through the headphones at the right level. For example, if the backing track is too quiet, the singer might not be singing hard enough against the music to get the most out of their performance - but if it’s too loud, the singer might be uncomfortable and unable to pitch notes properly. If you’re recording a singer and you feel they might be struggling one way or the other during their takes, the monitoring levels could be a problem without them realising it, so be sure to suggest adjustments as necessary.
Now you’ve got everything set up and ready to go, have fun experimenting and laying down some tracks! We’ll be back again soon with Part 2 of this guide - where we’ll give you some tips on how to improve the quality of the vocal performances themselves.