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How to Record Vocals: A Step-By-Step Guide

Ask any producer or engineer, and they’ll tell you vocals are the most crucial part of a mix — and that achieving good vocal results starts before an artist ever enters a room. A few decades ago, location was everything when it came to recording, and it was difficult to achieve professional-sounding audio outside of a studio environment. That’s not true today. Now, it’s possible to get clean results with just a laptop and a few pieces of affordable equipment.

No matter how basic or sophisticated the recording setup, there are a few things you can do on the back end to strengthen your vocal tracks. In this article, we’ll take a look at several concepts that can help you record vocals like a professional, including how to:

Set up the room

The first step to recording vocals is to optimize your recording environment. Pay attention to how sound waves move through a space and determine what elements enhance sound versus inhibit it. Curtains absorb and trap sound, which is ideal for isolating vocals. Windows conduct sound vibrations and let in outside noise. If you’re recording at home, walk around the room and clap your hands; listen to see where sound echoes and bounces.

Although professional studios are optimized for sound, each recording scenario is different. It’s important to identify problems related to the situation, not the room. That’s why you’ll need to perform this step even in a pro studio. Once you’ve found your problem areas, you can improve them using acoustic panels.

Acoustic panels are sound-absorbing panels, often made out of foam or cloth, that help reduce excess noise and echoes created by sound waves bouncing off hard surfaces like walls or the ceiling. Acoustic foam panels are made out of lightweight material and have a sound-dampening effect that allows some sound waves to move freely in a space. Acoustic cotton is denser — and therefore absorbs sound more effectively than foam. Depending on the needs of your studio, you may want to use foam to manipulate the way sound moves around a room. In other cases, you may want to eliminate excess sound waves altogether using acoustic cotton. It’s common to find a combination of both materials in professional studios.

These panels are permanent fixtures in many professional studios, but manufacturers make a wide variety of modular panels that can be configured depending on the needs of the artist. There are plenty of tutorials online detailing how to make your own inexpensive acoustic panels. In a pinch, a heavy sheet or comforter can stop rogue sound waves from bouncing around a room.

Choose the right equipment

Whether you’re recording vocals on a professional console or on a laptop, a good microphone will make all the difference in the quality of your results. But with so many options, it can be difficult to choose a mic that will give you the most bang for your buck. The first thing you need to know? There are two main types of microphones on the market: dynamic microphones and condenser microphones.

Dynamic mics are simpler in design, which also makes them more resilient to abuse. They’re a self-contained power source — sound waves vibrate a coil in an electromagnet, which creates a small voltage transmitted into an amp or console via a mic cable. Because of their resistance to moisture, heat, and the occasional drop from a great height (looking at every MC who ever celebrated a victory by taking it out on their equipment), dynamic microphones are a good choice for live performance scenarios. However, they don’t perform as well in the studio as their counterparts.

Condenser microphones feature a circuit board construction that requires a power source, usually a phantom power input. Because of their many electronic and moving parts, condenser microphones are a poor choice for extreme environments and live performances. However, their structure allows them to register larger frequency ranges. This makes them an ideal choice for studio recording.

There are two types of condenser mics: small-diaphragm mics provide a wide frequency response, while large-diaphragm condenser microphones pick up deeper, lower frequencies. Large-diaphragm mics are the perfect choice for recording vocals, because they pick up nuances in a singer’s voice.

One more thing: Consider the polar pattern of your microphone. The polar pattern is the bubble of space surrounding the mic where it’s most sensitive to sound. Directional mics pick up sound on a particular side of the mic, creating heart-shaped patterns (as in the cardioid pattern) or figure-8 patterns (in the case of bi-directional mics). An omnidirectional microphone picks up sound evenly around its circumference.

Manipulate sound

You’ve optimized your space and set up your equipment. Congratulations, you’re ready to record some vocals… almost. Remember how large-diaphragm condenser mics are better at picking up low frequencies? The closer the artist stands to the microphone, the more it’ll pick up those lower frequencies. This is called proximity effect, and it’s especially prominent in directional microphones like cardioid and figure-8 varieties. It’s less noticeable in omnidirectional mics.

To fully understand the proximity effect, have the artist take a few steps back when they’re singing. You might need to play around with distance depending on the needs of the artist. Bringing out low-end frequencies can be a great way to highlight the dramatic side of a vocalist’s talent. If a song calls for more low end, bring the artist closer to the microphone during recording. Other tracks might be better suited to a more balanced sound. In that case, it’s better to place the artist farther away. Listen to the vocalist through headphones before you start recording to determine their optimal distance from the mic and use proximity effect to your advantage.

Any overtly loud sound, regardless of proximity, runs the risk of distorting. One type of distortion that can ruin vocal tracks is clipping — a phenomenon that occurs when an amplifier is pushed beyond its capacity. You can easily recognize this kind of distortion by recording a sample track and looking at the waveform. A properly recorded sound wave will appear rounded at the top, while a distorted sound wave will look squared off. If your sound is clipping, try turning down the microphone preamp.

All microphones have the ability to pick up other sounds on the low end, like pops, sibilant hisses, and plosives — harsh consonant sounds at the beginning of words — such as hard “p” or “t” sounds. This can be distracting to the listener, and the excess saliva produced during a plosive can corrode a microphone over time.

One easy way to limit transient noise and keep a mic protected is to utilize a pop filter, which is a simple screen made of fine mesh that sits in front of the microphone. Pop filters (also known as pop shields or pop screens) are relatively inexpensive, but in a pinch, you can make your own by stretching a pair of pantyhose over a wire clothes hanger and placing it in front of the mic.

Cut down on sibilance — hissing that accompanies “sh,” “ch,” and a handful of other consonant sounds produced by forcing air out through a narrow channel — using a plain old pencil. Wrap a rubber band around your microphone and use it to hold the pencil vertically against the middle. This will reduce the amount of air hitting the condenser, effectively cutting sibilant sounds in half.

Work with the artist to tailor the experience

Remember: None of this advice is one-size-fits-all. It’s important to work with an artist to find a setup and workflow that suits their unique vocal style.

Streamline the process by seeking out references in music that sounds stylistically similar to the vocalist you’re working with. Listen to the tracks using headphones to pick up on details you might miss in an ambient listening session. Read interviews with engineers and producers about their processes of recording different vocal styles and find out what equipment they used. Finally, educate yourself on the trends that dominate different genres of music.

A large-diaphragm condenser mic could be the right choice for vocals nine out of ten times, but there are always outliers. A dynamic microphone might give a stripped-down acoustic track a more raw, live ambiance. The way you position your acoustic panels will differ depending on whether you’re recording a hip-hop artist or a country band. There will always be variables that affect vocal tracking, but if you do your research, there’s nothing an artist can throw at you that you won’t be able to handle.

Once you have a firm grasp on the rules associated with recording vocals, you can start breaking them ... at the artist’s discretion. For instance, some artists actually prefer to record vocals with added distortion. Breaking the rules is an art form, and there are a whole host of production and post-production techniques to help you achieve the desired effect.

No matter what, keep at it. Nobody ever improved their skills by quitting. Work with lots of different artists in lots of different environments. The more time you put in to setting up a space, learning your equipment, and practicing sound manipulation, the easier it will be to give an artist what they want.

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