Recording Vocals Part I: Right Mic, Right Technique

Four to six inches is best for softer singers, but don't forget that pop filter

For these past few segments, we here at PAL have been giving our readers tips on different aspects of the DIY home recording process. We talked about the electric bass along with all of the little problems that new home studio producers should look out for as well as a few tips on recording techniques, EQ and compression. More recently, we focused on recording a good acoustic guitar track and laid out some of the options, pros and cons of each option and even kept it going by diving into some general EQing techniques that can work in many situations. Head on over to this link in case you missed it. Alright, while an acoustic guitar or electric bass track can have its share of challenges, one of the most difficult aspects of a song to nail down is most definitely the vocals.

Yes, the all important vocal track – or tracks – of a song is pretty much always at the forefront of a mix so it is obviously important to make sure they come out their best. And if that wasn’t enough as it is, it’s actually one of the toughest to get down correctly as far as the recording and post processing work is concerned. But not to worry, that’s why we’re here to help. A bigger reason why it is so difficult for newer producers to accomplish a good vocal mix is that there are so many little mistakes that can be made that most of them aren’t even aware about that they often times in avertedly set themselves up for a disappointment.

And yes, while it can be a meticulous process, it is not impossible and well worth it, especially once you’re able to see the fruit of all your effort. But it is not a quick process, which unfortunately means we’ll have to break this down into a few parts. Well then, enough with the introduction, let’s get into our new feature: Recording Vocals, Part I!


Things to Think About Before and During the Recording Process

Back in my younger days when I thought phantom power was a superhero and had no idea that my pogs would be worthless a year after I bought them, I used to think about recording and EQ as a one size fits all type of affair. Yes, I know, a carnal mistake. During my practice sessions at local studios, I would wander over to the PA mixer and fiddle around with each knob, thinking that if I messed around with it enough, I would somehow magically understand it all. Anyways, I asked the owner what settings I should use for the vocals; he looked at me with a sort of confused look in his face. I could tell he thought about it for a moment, but rather than giving me a long answer that I might not have understood, he simply said, “It’s already good.” As good as i was going to get it, probably.

What he really meant to say was there is never any go-to setting in any facet of recording that will work every time. But there are things to keep in mind that can guide you to those perfect settings depending on your situation. So, what are the things to consider when figuring out your perfect settings? What kind of mic you will be using, the mic’s sensitivity, the dynamics of the vocalist, his or her use of proper vocal mic techniques,  the settings on your preamp and the compression settings if you decide to use it. Not so hard, right?


Know Your Microphone and Know Your Singer

If you're going to belt it out, get a bit away from the microphone

Before you can decide on what kind on microphone you will need, you have to think about what kind of singer you are going to record, even if it’s yourself. Since I am assuming you might not have too many different mics to work with, you should at least have a dynamic mic and a condenser mic handy; in fact, if you’re going to do any kind of multi track recording, such a guitars, drums, etc., you need to have at the absolute very least these two variations, I can’t stress that enough. More even! But I digress. Anyways, depending on how loud your vocalist will be generally singing, you will either need a dynamic or condenser mic. Most people tend to stick with large diaphragm condenser mics for their vocal recordings and while they do tend to offer the best compromises for most singers, some of the more louder vocalists out there actually can sound better with a decent quality dynamic mic. Also, keep in mind that different mics respond to voices differently, even if they are of the same design, so if you happen to be lucky enough to own a few different mics – or know of a kind friend who does – don’t be afraid to try each of them out and see which one flatters your singer best. But in general, softer to average singers should stick with condenser mics since they are much more sensitive to low volume levels. Louder singers need less sensitive mics, softer singers need more sensitive mics, got it?


Good Mic Technique Can Go A Long Way

Alright, so after you decide what kind of mic you will be using for the recording, you need to make sure that your singer is going to be practicing proper mic technique while recording. The thing about the human voice that makes it a bit tough to properly record is that the range of dynamics is so wide. We can go from a whisper to a screech, with plenty of unbalanced pops in between, in a matter of seconds – all of which spells a huge headache in the post processing stage. While I’m not suggesting we all start singing in a monotonous, robot-like fashion, a bit of consistency can go a long way. And when those louder or softer parts in the vocal track come in, knowing what to do in those situations will also make the mixing much less frustrating. First of all, if you have a quiet singer on your hands, they are going to have to be a bit close, about 4 to 6 inches away from the mic, which in the recording business is known as “eating the mic.” For your average to loud singer, a good place to start is about one foot away. Also, keep in mind that during the louder parts of the song, the vocalist is going to have to step a bit back, or get a bit closer for the softer sections. And if you happen to have a nervous singer on your hands that tends to move around a bit while singing – tie them down! Or at least tell them not to move so much since it will create uneven dynamic levels that might not be easily fixed later. Don't be afraid tom experiment with the singer's position; whatever sounds best for your situation is the way to go.

Also, there is such a thing as too loud or too soft, in case you’re wondering. Sing too soft and when you raise the volume of the vocals to match the track, you will be raising all of the noise along with it. Too loud and you create a sustained distortion overload which pretty much damages that section of the track to the point of no return (as in no matter how many filters or plugins you use in post processing, it will still sound like crap, i.e.: redo).

And another thing, be aware of the proximity effect with microphones; the proximity effect is the tendency of microphones to boost the bass frequencies in a person’s voice if they get too close. Comedians use this all this all the time and makes for some hilarious impersonations, but singers should generally avoid this unless that’s what you are specifically going for. Using a pop filter can be a good way to force the singer to not get too close, as well as being a necessity in combating the pops from certain explosive words being sung, such as those beginning with P, known in music as plosives.


More To Go

Alright, now it should go without saying that it will most likely take you more than just a few tries to get that vocal track down as good as it can, and it is very important that you do get the vocal track down as perfect as possible. Why? There are certain problems that might be present in the raw vocal track that just can’t be fixed, so rather than wasting your time trying to perform the impossible, just give those vocals another shot.  Alright, and while this should give you a good place to start, we aren’t done just yet! We still need to figure out what to do with that mic preamp along with some other tips for recording a great vocal track so come back tomorrow when we will be continuing with part II of our Recording Vocals series!

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