Tips For Recording Vocals At Home
Recording your vocals at home is not as difficult as one might imagine and can be very rewarding. You may not get a pristine high-end studio sound but you can definitely capture a great performance while sounding professional and of high quality. There are a few pieces of equipment that are essential to use and a few protocols to remember when recording yourself at home.
You will need to have a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation such as Ableton Live, Cubase, Pro Tools, Cakewalk etc.) a microphone, mic cables and a stand, a Pre-Amp, a Pop-filter, an Audio Interface (also known as a Soundcard) and as an option, you can use a compressor. In most cases, you will use a unidirectional (only records sound from one direction) cardioid condenser microphone. I have been using the RODE NT-1A vocal package which includes the microphone, pop-filter, and cable. There are many options on the market when it comes to buying professional sounding equipment on a budget and most are fairly similar in quality.
The Chain, Compression, and Pop-Filter
The chain of cables to equipment will be, Microphone to Pre-Amp to Compressor to the Audio Interface and then to your DAW. You don’t necessarily need to use a compressor until post-production unless you are working with very loud vocals or when trying to even out your levels against an uneven or loud mix. If you use compression, then you should probably use less than you believe you need. The rest of the equipment is imperative and if you don’t have a Pop-filter it will be very difficult to record your voice with out such ‘popping’ sounds appearing on your track. The Pop-filter serves as a sound absorber and is basically a cloth screen between the ‘popping’ sounds of your mouth and the receiving face of your microphone.
When you listen to a recording you can always hear the tone of the room it was made in. You want to use a dry room that does not produce a lot of reflections and echoes but that is also not totally dead. You can influence the color of sound in the room and reduce the amount of reflected frequencies by having a lot of stuff in it, such as bookshelves with books, blankets, pillows, mattresses, etc. For instance, a messy bedroom is perfect! The physical elements in your room will either reflect or absorb sound and you need to create a sound situation that is more dry than wet in it’s reverberation. You can add reverb later on but you can’t take it away if the track was initially recorded wet with reverb.
Microphone Position and Proximity
You don’t want to position your microphone too close to any sound reflecting surfaces, windows, or anything that makes noise such as a refrigerator, washing machine, or your humming computer. At the same instance you don’t want the mic to be in the middle of the room where it could pick up reflections. It’s ideal to find a position that is off center, a few feet away from the wall and you may even want to deaden the area behind the singer’s head with thick blankets.
In most cases the singer should be singing a little less than a foot away from the microphone with a Pop-filter in between. If the vocals are loud and ‘clipping into the red’, then the singer should back away further from the mic. The more experienced the singer the easier it will be to find a good singing position. To avoid unwanted sibilance, popping, hissing, or sharp consonant sounds even though you are using a Pop-filter, you can alter the angle and/or height of the mic, even to hard off-axis positions, so that it is not facing you directly. You can experiment to find the best sound through your headphone monitors and you will want to do this each time you start a recording session. The sound of a room and your voice change like the weather. The closer the vocalist is to the microphone the more direct sound is recorded relative to the ambience of the room. You can remove any unwanted lo-end frequencies using an EQ later on when you are mixing and you can also filter out the lo-frequencies while recording if your pre-amp has a lo-cut feature.
Warm Up And Perform Several Consistent Takes
When I am recording my vocals, my voice goes through a ‘quality of performance arch’. I begin to warm up my voice while finding the best mic position (be certain your pre-amp has time to warm-up as well). After finding the position I record several (3 to 5) full takes and at that point my voice is ‘hot’ and at its peak performance power. I try a few more takes and when my voice gets tired I take a break. Don’t overstrain your voice and take your time when recording, even if you have to come back to it another day and find your sounds all over again.
The most important part of a recorded song is its personality
You want to be consistent in your volume and overall vibe when tracking vocals so that you can piece them together later on with out any noticeable differences between the parts that are ‘cut and pasted’ from various takes. You want to be focused on the nature of the entire performance as a whole and not only on perfect pitch. The most important part of a recorded song is its personality and for this purpose the characteristics of the vocals play an indispensable role.
The ideal is to use as few parts from separate takes as necessary when comping your vocals so that the performance sounds like one ‘live’ take. Once you have comped together a whole track that you are satisfied with then you should edit out all the parts (background silence) of your track where you are not singing. However be sure you do not edit out the ‘breaths’ unless they are distracting. Without the presence of your ‘breath’ your recording will sound unnatural.
Be careful when using plug-ins such as reverbs, de-esser’s, or autotuners so as not to overwhelm an exceptional vocal sound with unnecessary effects. You want to depend more on the quality of the performance than on post-production effects. To capture a great vocal track requires that you experiment. Be patient, take breaks and come back over and over again with fresh ears and warm vocal chords. Remember, don’t be too critical of your voice if you don’t get the results you want right away, it’s a constant learning process for anyone who records vocals whether at home or in a studio.