Record Pro-Level Vocals in a Budget Studio
These Dozen Tips Can Give You Better Vocals - Regardless of Your Budget
By Craig AndertonVocals are often the most important element of any song, as they're what make the connection with the listener. But do you ever get the feeling your vocals aren't quite as good as the ones on major label releases? The problem may not be your voice, but how you record, process, and mix it. I've heard enough demos to notice certain mistakes that keep cropping up over and over - and here's how to avoid 12 common ones.
#1: CHOOSE THE RIGHT MIC
One of the biggest mistakes is choosing a mic because it sounded incredible with a particular vocalist - just because it sounded good with one voice doesn't mean it will sound good with all voices. For example, dynamic mics work well with my voice, but condensers work better with others.To choose a mic, do a "mic shootout." Set up two mics equidistant from your mouth, start singing, then hit record while the vocals go into two tracks. Don't just sing a phrase or two; try singing more softly, do some "screamer" parts, sing close up to the mics and far away, and try recording with and without a pop filter. Listen back, and it should be pretty clear which mic works best with your voice. Choose a winner, then do another shootout with two more mics until you've found the best of all possible mics.
#2: ENGAGE THE MIC'S BASS ROLLOFF SWITCH
There's not a lot of ultra-low frequency energy in your vocals - at least, not low frequency energy you want. So, you may be able to use the bass rolloff switch to reduce low-frequency components produced by "plosives" (p and b sounds) before they go into your mic preamp. This increases the available headroom, and helps to minimize distortion.
#3: TO POP FILTER OR NOT TO POP FILTER?
Using the bass rolloff may eliminate the need for a pop filter (besides, some engineers use them only as a last resort anyway). But remember, there's a reason why you see pop filters in every pro studio; and they can help get rid of the remaining low frequency energy that the low frequency rolloff switch missed.
A pop filter is essential when working with some vocalists, although others with excellent mic technique and who sing a distance from the mic may be able to get away without one.
#4: DON'T OBSESS INSANELY OVER PREAMPS AND CABLES
Are $4,000 preamps nice? Yes, they are. Lamborghinis are nice too, but a Hyundai will get you where you want to go. There are quite a few good low-cost preamps, and a great vocal performance will make it intact through any of them. The quality of circuitry these days is such that differences between preamps are not as major as they used to be.There's a story an editor friend told me of a publication that wanted to review high-end preamps, so they got together a bunch of engineers to do some blind testing. As it was necessary to have a control preamp for comparison, they choose a basic Mackie mixer preamp without telling the engineers. The assumption was that the engineers would easily be able to hear the difference between it and high-end preamps, but a funny thing happened: Many of the engineers picked the Mackie mixer preamp as sounding the best. Quite a few also picked low-cost preamps by ART and other manufacturers. So, trust your ears - not the logo on the front panel.On the other hand, this isn't to say some high-end preamps aren't worth the extra cost; they are. But a good vocal is way more important than the preamp it's going through.
#5: PRINT OUT A LYRIC SHEET AND MARK IT UP
The lyrics should tell a story and have a flow, and you need to incorporate this into your vocals. Underline words that need emphasis, indicate when words need to rise or fall in emphasis, and so on. Study this enough so that the phrasing and feeling become second nature. Don't just sing; tell a story.
#6: MONITOR IN THE WAY THAT MAKES YOU MOST COMFORTABLE
I use closed earphones (open air ones have too much leakage), with one cup firmly on one ear, and the other halfway on. I then put little, if any vocal, into the headphone monitor mix (except when adding an overdub to an existing part, in which case I monitor previous vocals a little higher than usual). If I listen to only my voice, it forces better and more consistent singing than if I monitor it after going through the preamp, EQ, compression, etc., which tend to make the vocals sound better (and more even) than they really are.
The closed-ear Vic Firth SIH1 Isolation Headphones are relatively inexpensive, but offer a significant degree of isolation from noise.
There are a huge variety of headphones available, but bear in mind that the ideal headphones for monitoring vocals aren't necessarily the same as for listening to music. First, you want something durable - headphones often get dropped in the studio. Ones with replaceable cables and earcups are a good idea, too. You also want headphones with good isolation; some vocalists like to sing in the same room as the band, and if you use open air headphones instead of closed headphones, the possibility for ear-damaging feedback is substantial. As one example, the Vic Firth SIH1 Isolation Headphones claim up to 24dB of outside noise reduction - that's a lot of isolation.
#7: TWICE IS NICE
Doubling your voice can add a fullness that makes even the weakest voices sound stronger. But do it by singing the part again, not with electronic chorusing or delay. You'll have to work to get the phrasing just right, but it's worth the effort. "Real" doubled vocals can sound three-dimensional; electronically-doubled ones tend to sound two-dimensional.Also experiment with the balance of the two voices. Sometimes mixing the doubled vocal considerably lower than the main vocal fills in the voice but leaves the main vocal as the more prominent component; other times, you'll want to mix them at a similar level to give more of an ensemble effect.
#8: PAN THE MAIN VOCAL TO CENTER
A centered voice will obtain more power in the mix, partially because of center-channel buildup, but also because the voice will be less dependent on the listener sitting in any particular "sweet spot."
#9: COMPRESSION AS YOUR MAIN SQUEEZE
I'm against overcompression, but voice is one case where compression can really help. It brings up the low levels, gives a more intimate sound, and keeps the high levels from getting out of hand. Compress until you can hear that there's compression, then back off a little bit. You don't want any "pumping" - just a smooth, even sound.
Duende's Vocalstrip is a plug-in designed specifically for processing vocals.
There are a lot of good hardware compressors, but try plug-ins as well. For example, SSL's Duende Mini is an outboard DSP box that connects to your computer via FireWire, and Vocalstrip is one of its optional-at-extra-cost plug-ins that's optimized specifically for processing vocals. (If you'd like to hear it in action, check out the audio examples in the Duende Pro Review in the forums.)
#10: REDUCE THE REVERB DIFFUSION
Check over your reverb's parameters for a Diffusion control. Reducing this often helps give more focus to vocals.
A reverb's diffusion parameter increases the density of the echoes. This is important with percussive sounds, but a voice is sustained and doesn't need as much diffusion. Reducing it will give a nice reverb effect to the voice, but not make the reverb effect so "thick" that it interferes with other instruments.
#11: GIVE YOUR VOICE THE ATTENTION IT DESERVES
For some reason, musicians who produce themselves often mix their voices too low. Self-consciousness, perhaps? Regardless, for most listeners, the vocal will be their main, if not only, focus. Don't bury it. If you don't like your voice, mixing it lower won't make it any better.
#12 TREAT YOUR MICS WITH CARE
Put your mic away in a case when you're done - don't leave it lying around where it can get dropped, be exposed to direct sunlight, or suffer other types of abuse. Mics are relatively delicate because of how thin their diaphragms are, so treat them with respect.