In The Studio Chris recording

Published on October 2nd, 2012 | by Chris Lyon


Recording vocal tracks that don’t suck

Up ’til now, many of you have probably just worked on getting your tracks together mostly via MIDI. And they are bangin’! This is THE hottest tune you ever laid down. The lyrics you wrote are on deck, just waiting to blend with that tasty stew you have put together to amaze the world.

BUT…the first attempt at capturing that perfect vocal just doesn’t cut it.

The bad news? I am NOT going to give you 300 pages on designing and building a perfect vocal booth, DAW’s, vocal technique (that is Hugh’s specialty and I defer to him), wizardry of shortcuts for comped vocal tracks or how to use the maximum number of plug-ins before crashing the computer in an attempt to “fix in the mix” a sub-par vocal track in order to save the day.

The good news my fellow traveler – Over the next few BASIC offerings (that’s right, you tweak heads can go harass someone at The Hit Factory working in a million dollar studio heaven!), we will work on moving your vocal track recordings up a notch and get some waveforms that just beg to be listened to!

Hugh and I have known each other a while and he has asked me to do a basic primer on how to get vocal tracks that you can be proud of, in a low-cost, home studio kinda way. Some of the information you may have seen before, some may never have occurred to you and some is just me making my own mistakes and then working out how it should have been done. I hope over the next few weeks that you will get closer to your goal of putting together the next platinum hit!

For starters, let me answer some typical questions when recording vocals on a shoe-string.

What DAW should I use?

I don’t care. The majority of the people who will hear your offering don’t care and if you do the basics right, whatever you use to capture the recording of those dulcet tones or screaming highs in the digital domain will be perfect for you.

What microphone should I use?

Here is where I have to parse a bit. My own preference on a budget is to beg, borrow or steal the very best large diaphragm condenser mic you can get – think Neumann Telefunken U47. Just about everyone sounds good through one of those. The problem? If you don’t have a spare 9 grand laying around, or have a close personal friend who owns one, borrowing one of those are slim to none.

Have no fear! Some of the world’s greatest rock anthems have been sung through a Shure SM58 ($100 new).

What you are looking (listening) for is a microphone that helps in capturing the singers tonal qualities, without any EQ, compression, Auto-Tune or other fancy schmancy trickery. Flaws will be most noticeable in the vocal track to just about anyone, so I recommend you try recording a few tracks through whatever microphones you can get your hands on, and then choose the one that sounds most natural for the vocalist laying down the tracks. I have recorded a great vocal thru a Rode NT1-a (under 200 bucks!), and the list goes on.  Once you have that, you are on to something! To paraphrase the famous Joe Meek, If it sounds right, it is right!

I’m working on my masterpiece in the spare bedroom, what is the best way to setup my microphone?

You must go into the closet my friend, even if you have been out of the closet for years. LOL!  Actually, to get a clean vocal take without the use of a vocal booth, the closet in that spare room offers you a great diffusor – all those shirts, jackets, pants, old halloween costumes, etc. – work really well at controlling reflected sound to the microphone, and the best thing is, you only have to line up the hangers and make sure there is nothing that rattles when you crank up the headphones in front of the mic before you start singing.

Pop filters – yes or no?

YES. Besides keeping your spit off the microphone and keeping it smelling good, a pop filter keeps those plosives (-b or -p sounds) a little under control and helps minimize some of the sibilance (-s or -z sounds) that isn’t way over the top. They don’t have to be expensive either. You can make our own, for that matter!

Get back in that closet, get one of the empty metal hangers, find an old pair of panty hose that isn’t currently being worn AND is clean (isn’t it time to do some laundry?) and you are in business. Fashion a circle about 6 inches in diameter with the triangle end of the hanger, fashion the hang part into a squiggly hook that you can wrap around the mic stand and tape in place and stretch those panties over the circle end. Voila! Pop filter on a baller budget. I like to leave the legs hanging down for that sexy wraparound look but you can cut them off and make it look neat if you prefer. Make sure the filter is about 4-6 inches away from the microphones working end (the end you will be singing into) and we are moving on!

What should my recording chain into the DAW be?

Ahhh, I see we have some advance recordists in the room. Asking loaded questions no less. My personal preference is to use the mic and a preamp, whenever possible. No compression. No EQ. No Auto-Tune or reverb. Nada. Why you ask? Well, recording a great vocal track is kind of like baking a cake. Anything you do beyond capturing the gloriously, uplifting sounds coming from the artist is something you cannot undo later; you know – the time when you find that everything but the SOUND of the vocal is spot on. And everything you do later to correct what you don’t like is one more layer of ‘work’ that can add hours to your mixing time. Better to add the right ingredients first!

That’s it for this week – hope I have helped you in some small way get a little closer to an awesome vocal track! Next time we’ll get into the first steps of preparation for vocal track nirvana. Keep grinding my ninjas!

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About the Author

is a graduate of the School of Audio Engineering (SAE) in Atlanta, Georgia and has been doing live sound engineering over 30 years. Chris works as a Staff Engineer at Edgewater Records / Atlanta Recording since 2009, has been FOH Engineer for Mainstage 2 at AthFest in Athens, Georgia for the last 4 years and is a Technical Advisor for the Georgia Music Industry Association for Live sound and Recording. He absolutely loves jumping on a console every chance he gets - live or studio, digital or analog.

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