Vocals are integral to modern music. If your song has vocals in it, they’re probably the focal point of the entire track.
As a musician, you might hear the different instruments. But the average listener will only hear the vocals and the lyrics. How to record vocals to sound great is the first step towards producing songs that are exciting, engaging and emotional.
Yet so many people repeat the same few mistakes over and over again.
“Spending Time On Mic Choice and Placement Is Key”
I started recording vocals when I was only 13. Not my own, unfortunately. I wasn’t fortunate enough to be blessed with gold, silky vocal cords. Damn you Music God!
I very quickly realized the importance of good sounding vocals. Every time I recorded a vocalist I would tear the sheets of my bed, throw the mattress down the stairs and prop it up against the wall in my recording room. My mum hated me for that.
When you invest your time and effort into the recording phase, mixing becomes a whole lot easier. EQ becomes an optional tool rather than a necessity. You can use compression tastefully rather than aggressively. Instead of spending your time trying to fix the vocal you can chisel and shape it to perfection.
The better the vocal sounds when you’re recording, the more comfortable and confident you or your vocalist will feel. You can quite easily get a professional ‘vocal booth’ sound (even at home) when you avoid these common pitfalls…
Make sure you download The Definitive Guide To Recording and Mixing Vocals for free after you’ve read the list.
Mistake #1: Not considering room acoustics
The room that you record in will have a huge impact on the final sound.
You aren’t just recording a vocalist. You’re recording the way that the sound interacts with the environment around them too.
The main aim with vocals is to get as dead a sound as possible. The less reverb, the better. Unless you have a great sounding room or the vocals start to sound muffled.
Use mattresses, duvets, sleeping bags, reflection filters and more to treat your room before you record (you can learn all about this in my short free vocals course).
Mistake #2: Failing to find the right mic for the vocalist
Every singer is unique. What works for one won’t work for another.
Try at least two different microphones with a vocalist to find what works.
The right mic will emphasize the character of the vocalist, or compensate for flaws. The right mic will also help the vocals to sit perfectly in the mix.
Mistake #3: Not experimenting with microphone position
This is another huge factor in vocal recording. Experiment with lots of different mic positions before settling.
Try 4 inches and then try 15. Listen back and keep experimenting until you find the right distance.
Mistake #4: Getting too close to the mic
It’s better to be further away from the mic than too close.
When a vocalist is too close to the mic small movements become more accentuated. It’s a lot harder to achieve dynamic consistency.
If you’re using a cardioid mic the proximity effect could also make your vocals sound too bassy.
As with anything in audio, it’s important to experiment. If you want to achieve a really warm, intimate sound, get up close. But in general, take a step back.
Mistake #5: Thinking you can ‘fix it later’
Too many people rely on EQ as a way to ‘fix’ a bad recording. This isn’t the way that you should be using EQ.
Get a sound that you like at the source. Use EQ to remove any nasty room resonances or unpleasantness (such as sibilance) and then use it to emphasize the pleasant elements of the vocal.
You should also consider dynamics when recording. Use a subtle hardware compressor on the way in if possible. The further away the vocalist is from the mic, the more consistent the dynamics will be. Automating and compressing the vocal in the mixing stage will be a whole lot easier if you give dynamics a thought when recording.
Mistake #6: Not recording enough takes
It’s a good idea to get at least three whole takes from a vocalist. Even if you’re happy with the very first take.
You can choose the best bits from each run through to create the ultimate performance. The more recordings you have, the more you have to work with.
Mistake #7: Forgetting the importance of the vocalist
It’s easy to get carried away with gear, recording stuff and time constraints. But it’s your job as a producer or engineer to get the best possible performance out the vocalist too.
Make them feel comfortable. Give them plenty of water. Compliment them. Make sure they’re happy with their headphone mix. Make small compromises to sonic quality if it means better performance.
Mistake #8: Not using the right accessories
Use a pop shield. Use a shock mount. Use a proper floor stand. Use a good set of closed-back headphones.
These things are cheap but essential. Don’t sacrifice the music for the sake of a few bucks.
Spending time on recording technique, mic choice and mic placement can make all the difference.
Too many people have a ‘that will do’ attitude when it comes to recording vocals. But putting the effort in early on makes mixing a much more enjoyable experience.
Now I want you to find out for yourself how much of a difference it can make with these simple action steps:
- Step 1 – Look back over the mistakes and pick one that you committed in your last session. If you didn’t make any of these mistakes, go you!
- Step 2 – Write it down and put it somewhere obvious. Write it on a post-it and stick it to your recording interface. Leave a note in your microphone case. Set a reminder on your phone.
- Step 3 – Don’t make that mistake again and notice the difference!
About The Author
Rob Mayzes – Audio guy, bassist and educator. Wanderluster and jack of all trades (master of some)! Teacher at Home Studio Center (the place where people go to get better at home recording). Instructor to over 4,329 students on Udemy. Writer at Tuts+ (Music & Audio).
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