Three Habits for Better Vocal Recordings
Vocals are one of the hardest things to get right in music production, especially if you’re recording yourself. There are a ton of variables to think about at every stage, right from the performance itself, to capturing it in the best way, to mixing it so that it sounds right on the final product. I think most of us know what the frustration feels like when you just can’t get it sounding how you want it to. Today, I want to share 3 things that you should make a habit of so that your vocals sound as good as they can every single time...
Practice proper mic technique
Nothing will ruin a vocal recording quicker than bad mic technique. It can make a great performance sound terrible and turn editing and mixing into a nightmare. Great mic technique on the other hand will not only sound a million times better, but it has the potential to save a lot of time later down the line. If it’s not something you put too much thought into right now, it’s well worth reading up on and practicing next time you record vocals. Here are a few pointers to get you started:
First of all, start by getting the initial positioning of the microphone in a good spot. If you’re really close to the mic, there’s going to be a ton of sibilance and plosives, but if you’re too far away the performance won’t be as defined and there will be a lot of room sound. The best place to start is by having the microphone capsule level with your mouth and about 6 inches away. From here, you can experiment and adjust your position with these principles in mind:
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, by rotating it slightly to the side.
Recording a few quick takes on one line of the song to figure out the best place to stand and position the microphone. Then, make sure you’re not glancing down at lyrics while you’re singing and try not to move around too much - the change in tone will be super obvious in the recording.
If your performance is fairly dynamic, back away from the microphone for louder phrases and come closer to the microphone for quieter ones. You can also try turning your head to the side instead of backing away. This tends to retain the bass in the recording and can sound a bit more natural.
Good microphone technique is definitely a skill, but with some practice you’ll be able to dramatically improve the sound of your recordings.
Create a good headphone mix
What you’re hearing in your headphones will totally change the way you perform, so make sure you’ve got it right before you start cranking out your takes.
If your vocal is too loud in the headphones, you might find yourself singing too quietly or too timidly, but if it’s too quiet, you might be forcing the performance a bit too much, so find the sweet spot that allows you to perform at your best.
As well as getting the level right, you should experiment with some effects on the vocal. Most singers like a little bit of reverb, but you can also experiment with some slapback delay, compression and EQ. Light compression and EQ especially will give the vocal a slightly more “finished” sound in the headphones. We’re not used to hearing totally raw vocals, so adding these effects to the headphone mix can feel much more comfortable.
Take the time to edit properly
The final thing to make a habit of is editing your vocals properly. Poorly edited vocals are by a long way one of the most common downfalls I hear in amatuer mixes, but luckily, one of the most straightforward to fix. Once you have your final take comped, here’s everything you should be doing in the editing process:
Cut out excessive blank space in between lines and phrases
Turn down, or take out breaths - whatever works best for the song. Usually for quieter, more intimate songs I’d just turn them down a touch, whereas for a super commercial, processed pop song, I’d be removing them a lot more.
Remove mouth clicks and lip smacks. You can do this manually by cutting them out or editing them with your DAWs pencil tool if they’re midway through a lyric, but I’d recommend the plugin RX Mouth De-Click if you have the budget. It’s not an exciting plugin, but it’s an incredible time saver!
Manual De-Essing - In my experience, this sounds better than plugins every single time. Simply turn down the clip gain or volume on sibilant sounds until they’re no longer intrusive, just be careful not to take it too far.
Automate clip gain throughout so that there aren’t any lines or phrases falling behind the music or getting excessively loud. This means you can compress more smoothly at the mixing stage!
Align your backing vocals and doubles to the lead. You can sometimes do this by hand, but normally I’d recommend using Flex Time/Elastic Audio or a plugin like VocAlign.
And lastly, tune your vocals. If you’re going for a sound that’s even slightly commercial, your vocals should be getting the Melodyne treatment - it doesn’t have to sound unnatural or obvious. It’s just what consumers are used to hearing, so don’t put yourself at a disadvantage by skipping it.
Vocal editing isn’t glamorous and it’s pretty time consuming, but it’s easy to do. If you take the time to edit properly, I promise your tracks will sound so much better!