How to Record Amazing Vocals at Home
The goal for most of us, as songwriters, performers and music producers, is to create music that engages it's listeners and sparks an emotional response. Whether that's excitement, sadness, love or happiness, vocals are arguably the most important part of a song when it comes to conveying emotion, so capturing a performance well is important. The good news is, it can be done from the comfort of your own home, without a vocal booth or heaps of expensive gear. Based on common problems I come across everyday, here are some of my tips for recording your vocals at home.
Pick your microphone carefully
With quality recording equipment becoming more and more accessible, you don't need to spend you life savings to get an incredible microphone. However, there are a few things to look out for.
A large diaphragm condenser microphone is going to be your best bet for most vocal recording applications. They give a crisp, clear and complimenting sound, with a fairly balanced frequency response. They're also extremely versatile, so if you also looking to record your guitar, or some percussion for example, you can kill two birds with one stone.
Make sure the mic has a cardioid pick up pattern (meaning it rejects sound from the back) and be sure to use a shock-mount and pop filter.
Omni mics can also work well, because they eliminate the proximity effect (I'll talk about this later), meaning you can get very close to the microphone without bass build up, however, they pick up a lot more room sound, so make sure your space is on point if you're considering this.
Test out a few microphones if you can. Everybody's voice is different, so you need to make sure that the microphone you chose compliments yours well.
Here are a few mics, at various prices, that I've used and love for vocal recording:
Shure SM58 (Yes, these can be great in the studio too.)
Get the most out of your space
Without a good sounding room, a £1000 microphone can sound like a £10 one. One of the big benefits of going to a professional studio to record your music is the sound of the space itself and poor acoustics are the reason most home recordings have that "demo" sound that we all so desperately try to avoid. The sound of your room not only affects the tone of your recordings, but also your perception of what you hear from your speakers. However, with a little care, you can eliminate the sound of your untreated room from your vocal performance.
Obviously, the best option would be to buy some high quality acoustic treatment to put up around the room, but we can't all justifying the large expense this carries, or even make the space for it. So what can we do? You don't need to make permanent changes. Simply hanging some blankets and placing your microphone carefully will get rid of most issues.
If background noise is a problem (coming from a window for example), point the back of your cardioid microphone at the source of the noise. By placing it in the "null" of the pick up pattern, you will reject most of the sound.
Avoid putting yourself in a closet or in the corner of the room. It may seem logical to create some sort of booth by emptying your closet or standing right in the corner of the room, but this often causes more bad than good. Although it can be easier to eliminate higher frequency reflections, bass tends to build up and cause a muddy, undefined low end. Not to mention it can be pretty uncomfortable, which is the last thing you want when trying to give your best performance.
Hang blankets around the room to dampen reflections, starting immediately behind yourself, where reflections will be bouncing off of nearby walls and into the front of the microphone. Don't make the mistake of hanging one blanket, hearing a difference and settling for it. Experiment! Listen back to some sound checks and find the best position for yourself and the acoustic treatment.
Learn good mic technique
Poor mic technique and placement can quickly ruin a recording. Again, everybody's voice is different, so you need to find the placement that works well for your voice and the song you're singing. Make sure your mic is on a stand and place yourself about 6 inches from the mic capsule. From here, you can experiment to get the sound you need.
Move closer for more bass and further away for less bass. This is called the proximity effect.
If you're picking up too much sibilance, sing off axis from the microphone, with it slightly to the side.
When you've found the optimal position for your vocals, try to stay there for the entire time you're recording. Too much head movement will be picked up, for example if you look down at your lyrics while you're singing, you will hear it and it's very hard to fix. That said, if your performance is particularly dynamic it can be a good idea to back off from the mic slightly on louder phrases, this will save you or your engineer a lot of hard work in the editing later on and will mean you can use a little less compression, which brings me onto my next point...
When I'm doing mix critiques (which you can request by emailing me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested), one of the most common issues I hear is over-processed vocals. A recording that is too compressed, or over-EQed (that's a word now) will sound lifeless when the intention was the opposite. There are tons of great tutorials online on how to compress vocals, how to EQ properly and how to edit, but often these are followed a little too religiously. When you're mixing your recording, try to leave some dynamics intact, try not to be too extreme with your EQ and most of all, follow your ears, not your eyes.
Take your time
Nobody is a one take wonder. It can be frustrating when things don't fall into place right away, but ultimately you want to release a recording that you're proud of, so I'd encourage you to be picky and don't settle for anything less than your best. Take the time to get yourself into the right mindset, warm up, make sure your environment is inspiring, have a beverage on hand and make sure your headphone mix is perfect for you. When it's time to record, do a few takes and comp them together, finding the best version of each line among them. If there's anything that still stands out, you could go back and record individual parts and edit them in. If none of the takes are sounding right, don't be frustrated. Put it to bed and come back to it on another day when you're feeling more positive and you can give your best performance. Being a perfectionist is a good thing and with the amazing music production tools we have at our disposal, there's no excuse not to be one!
Experiment with layers
Very few songs released today have just one lead vocal layer, more often than not there are tons of double tracks and harmonies happening throughout a song. They're not necessarily in your face, but they're there, adding little bits of interest and ear candy throughout to accentuate certain lines or lift different sections of the song. Put on some reference tracks for the song you're producing and listen very closely to the vocal layers happening throughout. Once you have some inspiration, experiment and see what you can come up with for your song. Again, this doesn't have to be in your face, so try doing a little bit of rough mixing on the fly with these to see what's working and what isn't.
If you can take these tips into consideration next time you record your vocals, you will get a more professional sounding recording that is easier to mix and connects with your listeners. What tips, tricks and vocal recording hacks do you have? Share them by commenting below!