Everything You Need to Know to Start Recording Your Own Vocal Tracks
Whether you are a seasoned veteran or just getting started recording your own music, tracking your own vocals in the comfort of your own home or studio can be a convenient, comfortable and economic alternative to going into a professional studio every time you need to record a vocal track. In this article, I will attempt to highlight some of the pros and cons of recording your own vocals and everything you need to know to make your recording experience a great success!
The most important part...YOUR VOICE!
No amount of gear, microphones, preamps, converters, consoles, plugins or other various accessories will make up for a weak vocal performance. This might be an obvious point, but it’s an important reminder that just because you might be using top-quality gear doesn’t mean you don’t need a good source material. When it comes to recording, you are truly only as good as your weakest link!
The space you record in really does matter!
Although it’s not as obvious to us when we’re simply speaking with one another, it becomes very obvious (sometimes painfully) when we listen back to a recording and hear how much the room plays a role in recording. When sound waves leave the source of the sound (singing leaving a voice in this application) the sound waves propagate through the room not in a straight line, but outwards in all directions, kind of like the ripples in a pond after a stone is thrown in.
Because of this, the sound waves will bounce off of the walls, ceiling, floor and any other objects in the room that are in the way of the traveling sound waves. This results in recorded sound that is not only the desired direct source (your voice in this example) but some combination of the direct sound plus all of the reflections in the room.
In some situations this can be a desired result. For example, a choir can sound breathtaking when recorded in a cathedral with a vaulted ceiling. In this example, the room itself adds a pleasant sounding reverb and (in combination with the direct sound) gives a desirable result. In other situations the room sound can be less than desirable. Like most of us, when we recorded for the first time, what we captured sounded much more like we recorded inside of a tin can or a cheap cardboard box than the beautiful full and lush reverb that we were looking for. Because of this unfortunate result of room “coloration” this is something you most likely want to avoid, especially if you are recording anything in the genres of modern pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop.
If you decide that you want to try to eliminate the room sound from your recording here are three different things you can address to help clean up your recordings:
Choose a more suitable space for recording.
This can be as simple as choosing a studio that already has an isolated room dedicated to recording vocals. Or if you are recording your own material, choose a different room in your house. Experiment around and see if there is a room that sounds less “echo-y” than others. In general, rooms with a lot of furniture, bookshelves and decorations with asymmetric shapes will be better than empty, less furnished rooms. Doing the “clap test” by simple standing where you want to record and clapping to see what kind of echo comes off the walls can be a simple way to quickly assess the liveliness of the room you are interested in recording in. It’s not a full proof test by any means, but it can quickly eliminate problem rooms from even being considered.
Add sound absorption materials to your room.
If you are doing your own DIY vocal recording, especially if you intend on doing a lot of recording, then it might be a good idea to invest in some sound absorption to help control the room echo in your recording space. An important thing to keep in mind is that not all sound proofing materials are created equal. Acoustic treatment is a topic that deserves it’s own dedicated post to address all the different things to consider, but in general there are two things to keep in mind. 1) Pay attention to the sound absorption coefficient to get a better idea of how good a certain material is at absorbing sound and 2) The thickness of the material is directly related to the frequency of the soundwave that it can absorb. Generally speaking, the thicker the panel of sound absorbing material is the lower the frequency of sound that it can absorb. This is important to keep in mind. If you have a lot of midrange and low-range frequencies that need taming in your room, then simple, thin absorbers won’t be very effective at taming those frequencies. You need thicker, board-range absorbers to be able to truly be effective on lower frequencies.
Change your proximity to the microphone.
How close you are from the microphone will change the ratio of direct sound compared to room sound captured in a performance. If you’re getting too much “boxiness” in the vocal tone, try moving closer by an inch or few to the mic. Some microphones will be more able to handle being in close proximity to the sound source (dynamic mics tend to be better in general), but you might have to experiment around to find out the optimal microphone distance to the source.
The microphone you choose will either compliment or clash with your voice.
Microphones aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution to capturing a vocal performance. Each microphone has a distinct tonal profile that will change the way your voice sounds when played back through speakers. On top of that, there are several different styles of microphones that all work differently to transform sound pressure into an electrical signal that can be reproduced by speakers.
There are 3 different types of microphones: dynamic, condenser, and ribbon.
In general, condenser microphones are the most sensitive and brightest of the three types; which makes them ideal for picking up the “airy top end” in a singer’s voice and all the minute details in their performance. The downside of this type of mic is that it will pick up any background noise and is extremely susceptible to the room effects.
Dynamic microphones tend to be the most directional, least sensitive (can handle high pressure sound levels) and have the most diverse versatility of the three microphone types. The Shure SM7b has been used on countless records, broadcasts and podcasts and the SM57 is what you see most live vocalists using when performing live or during a rehearsal. The benefit to using this type of microphone is that it tends to pick up less room sound because you can get the sound source right next to the microphone without worrying about overloading it. This is the ideal choice if you have to record in an untreated environment. The downside to using this mic is that it won’t be able to pick up the shimmery, high-end in a vocal performance like a condenser will and may require some additional EQ to sound as bright as a condenser mic will.
Ribbon mics are sensitive, but also very fragile (you CANNOT attach then to a phantom power source or they will fry!). They have an inherent, dark tone and a natural high-frequency roll off due to the ribbon filament used to capture the sound pressure source. This is probably not ideal mic to use on a vocal performance, but could be used in some situations to capture a certain effect (think old-timey radio).
Leave some headroom.
There is so much misunderstanding about gain staging and headroom in recording. A lot of this is left over from the old days of analog recording where audio engineers would push incoming signal to the upper limits that the gear could handle. In the analog realm, this would lead to desirable results because the circuitry of the analog hardware would “color” and saturate the sound going through it, giving a much more full and pleasantly distorted sound.
This is not the case in the digital recording landscape. In the digital realm of recording, there is a hard ceiling, max level that audio can be recorded at. If that level is eclipsed, then the signal will distort in ugly and very undesirable ways. This is something that must be avoided at all costs!
Where the misconception comes in is that some people say you should record an audio sound source at the loudest possible level without going over the digital “zero” threshold. Although this isn’t necessarily a bad idea, there’s no need for it. You’re not gaining anything from getting the signal to near max levels and you’re only risking the signal peaking and distorting.
So what’s the solution? Simply just record your audio source (in this case your voice) at a modest level. I recommend recording the audio source at levels somewhere between -12dBFS (decibels relative to full scale) and -6dBFS where the audio is peaking at no greater than -6dBFS (-3dBFS at the most!). This balances maximizing the good signal to noise ratio while having enough headroom to avoid nasty sounding digital distortion.
Vocal effects: To print or not to print.
In the digital realm, we have a lot of freedom when it comes to manipulating audio with the use of software (AKA plugins). If you’ve spent any time researching digital recording then you know what plugins are. If you’re brand new to recording then a quick explanation is that plugins are software that you can download and use in your digital audio workstation (DAW) to manipulate the audio you record.
This leaves a big question though. Should you print (or bounce) the effects that you record through while you are doing your recording or should you just record a dry signal to process later on in the mixing process. The answer is… well, it depends. If you aren’t confident in what kind of reverb & echo you’d like to add to your track or what the appropriate amount of compression should be then I would recommend just printing the raw recorded audio to process later; especially if you are using a different studio for mixing. If you are confident that you know what kind of compression, EQ, tone and effects that you want on the finished recording then feel free to print them on the recorded tracks. If you are still somewhat unsure of what you should do with the recorded effects, but want to give your mixing engineer an example of what you’re going for with effects or you have a very specific effect that you would like recreated; then a good compromise would be to save two versions of the tracks - one that is raw and one that has the printed effects. Even better, if you set up the effect to run on a bus or aux send then you can print the effect separately from the raw track on it’s own effect track and deliver them both to the mixing engineer for him/her to blend to their taste and creative liking.
Timing, Editing and Tuning
When recording vocals, it’s very important to keep in mind the timing and rhythm of the vocal performance. This is an often overlooked topic, one that even I didn’t realize the significance of when I first started recording, but one of utmost importance. Just like a drummer who isn’t very good at keeping time can ruin the enjoyment of the listeners, so too can a vocal performance that is delivered out of time or sloppy. Take time to thoughtfully consider each phrase of the song to make sure it’s not only sung in pitch, but also in the correct timing. Recording to a metronome is a very helpful tool for a vocalist to stay on time. Try to avoid singing to a track that has instrument performances that are also out of time as that will only affect the vocal performance. A good rule of thumb is that you should only record vocals to an already time-edited accompaniment.
Once you have your tracks recorded it’s a good idea to do a bit of editing to get the most polished results. Even the best, rehearsed recording can have parts that can use some cleaning up. Listen back to your recording with a metronome on to make sure that all the parts are sung in time as intended and make cuts and adjustments as needed. This will only serve to make your recording sound more polished and professional.
A quick note about auto tune for vocals. A clear decision has to be made, as with any effect that you add to the recording chain, on whether you want the effect to be used as a subtle enhancement to the recorded audio or a very noticeable effect meant to be heard by the listener. Most notable examples of autotune as an effect would be T-Pain’s heavily auto-tuned voice on recordings. If you want auto-tune to be used as just a simple enhancement to the recorded vocals then the raw recorded material must be of quality or else the auto-tune will sound very obvious. Auto-tune isn’t a cure all solution, it’s simply a tool used to enhance a vocal performance.
Finally, the last thing that you should think about is what type of format should you record in? Even though many podcasts and streaming music is encoded in a losey format (mp3, m4a, etc.) it’s a good idea to record in at least CD quality 44.1kHz sample rate and 16bit bit-depth as a lossless WAV file type first and then compress to a smaller file size for streaming if you need to. There’s an argument for recording at higher sample rates and bit depths (48kHz/24bit, 92kHz/32bit and even higher!) but that topic is for a different article. In general though, as long as you record with at least CD quality and match the recording sample rate and bit depth of other audio that you might be recording to or singing over then you should be golden!
Thanks for reading this article! I hope that this article has given you the information you need to record your voice with confidence and quality. If you have any further questions or comments on things that I haven’t addressed on the topic, please comment below and I will get back to you soon! Thanks and happy recording!