Ever wondered how the pros record great vocals at home even if they don’t have the latest, most expensive equipment?
As it turns out there’s more to a great vocal than you’d think. In fact, having the best equipment in the world won’t help you one bit if you don’t know how to get the most out of it.
If the following statement isn’t already a saying I really think it should be…
…“A tool is only as effective as the person using it”
So what does it take to record great vocals at home? Luckily for you, I’ve done this wrong enough times to realize I needed help. Below you’ll find some tips I’ve learned from some of my very gifted sound engineer friends.
You Need A Good Mic
This might seem obvious but when the budget is tight it can be quite tempting to go with a substandard mic. This is a huge mistake!
A low quality mic simply can’t pick up all the detail and unique nuances of your voice when you sing into it. And if you’re thinking what I used to think let me stop you right now.
“You can fix a bad vocal with plugins”
You can’t add mood, emotion and feel to a vocal track after it’s been recorded. Digital recording technology has seen some pretty incredible advances over the years but there are still significant limitations in what it can do.
Don’t Go Cheap On The Audio Interface
The digital audio interface, which is what you’ll use to connect your instruments and microphones to your computer, will need to take analog audio and convert it to digital audio so it can then be recorded and manipulated in your DAW software.
As you can imagine this is a labor intensive process and a potential bottleneck in the quality of the recorded audio.
As with the microphones above, cheaper, lower quality components like the ones you’ll find in budget interfaces are simply not capable of capturing high quality audio. At least not high enough for professional recordings.
How to Choose a Digital Audio Interface
While you don’t have to bankrupt yourself when buying an audio interface, you definitely don’t want to go too cheap either.
Do some research on your own to find the best combination of quality and price. Reviews on music retailer websites will prove very useful here.
The reviews on these sites tend to left by music professionals and are usually more helpful than reviews on more general retail sites like Amazon. You don’t want to buy based on a review left by a gamer for example.
Use a Pop Filter
This little device has many names and is usually pretty inexpensive but boy does it make a huge difference in your vocal recordings.
Words beginning with hard consonants like “b” and “p” can wreak havoc when you’re trying to capture a decent vocal recording. A capable studio engineer can sometimes minimize the popping effect these words can produce but it tends to be a lot of extra work and the results aren’t always that great.
A much better option is to eliminate these pops at the source (your voice) by using a pop filter. This ingenious little screen, when properly placed, will significantly reduce this effect and make the studio engineer’s job much easier.
They’re not 100% effective so the vocalist still needs to make an effort to soften the hard consonants when he/she sings into the mic. Between vocal technique and the pop filter though, you can end up with a much higher quality vocal recording which blends much more nicely with the accompanying music.
Watch The Recording Levels
All musicians are partially deaf. And if you’re not yet you soon will be. We typically like everything really loud and if we’re not careful we’ll absolutely ruin a recorded vocal without realizing it.
Recording levels are an essential ingredient to creating a great vocal recording. Here are some things you need to watch for:
- Don’t let the meter level stay in the red. There are few things worse than a distorted vocal. A momentary visit Ito the red zone can be fine but if you can avoid it entirely that is better.
- Don’t let the levels get too low. If the recording level is really low you’ll have to push up the volume of the track so you can hear it. The problem here is that this will also drive up any background noise. If this is happening the singer need to sing louder
- Singing louder might mean the singers volume need to go up but there’s also another option. Your position in front of the mic will change the volume and tone of the vocal significantly. Play around with different positions until you find that “sweet spot”
Turn Off The Fan
I only include this one because it’s a mistake I’ve made more times than I’ll ever admit publicly. One of the most frustrating things ever is to sing your heart out and do what you believe is an amazing take only to realize the fan was on and now there’s an annoying hum throughout the entire track.
It can sometimes be minimized or even eliminated by the clever use of noise reduction filters but with this approach you risk diminishing the quality of the vocal performance so it’s not ideal.
A better approach is to just remember to turn off the fan before you record. If you’re terribly forgetful you might want to consider creating a checklist or a printed sign to remind you (although if you’re like me you’ll forget to read it 🤦🏽♂️)
Kill The Room Echo
When recording in a spare bedroom or a basement, it can be quite challenging to remove the inherent echo (or reverb) these rooms tend to have.
While it might sound great when you’re just singing by yourself, “room sound” can make it impossible to mix the vocals to make them sound the way you want. Deadening the room is extremely important here so you have the option to add as much or as little reverb as you want.
Again there are a few options you can go with to achieve this including:
- Adding heavy curtains to windows, doors and even walls
- Adding area rugs or carpeting
- Using a room with no or few right angles. An untreated square or rectangular room will increase the volume of some frequencies and bury others making mixing impossible.
- Install room foam kits from a company like Auralex. When done properly this can be effective but pricey
- Use a mic isolation shield to prevent the mic from picking up room sound
- Installing sound diffusion panels on the walls and/or ceiling. These can now be made to look like artwork so they serve double duty making them my favorite option
Warm Up Your Voice
I heard once that RnB crooner James Ingram, would sometimes record vocals right after he woke up so he could get that raspy tone he was so famous for. I don’t know if it’s true but it makes for a nice story and his vocals truly are amazing.
Needless to say this doesn’t work for me.
For the rest of us mere mortals it’s a much better idea to warm up your voice properly before you record. Vocal exercises designed by a professional voice coach are the best option here but you can also warm up while you record a demo/guide vocal for the song.
A warmed up voice is much easier to control. You’ll get a cleaner tone, be able to hit higher notes and have a much easier time changing the tone and volume of your voice at will.
You’re also much less likely to do any damage to your vocal chords if you properly warm up before you do any intense singing.
Never Settle For An Off Key Vocal
I’ve seen this too many times to not mention it here. And to some degree I get why it happens but it needs to be said:
“Off key vocals are simply unacceptable”
Every singer, no matter how experienced, goes flat and sharp sometimes when they sing. I personally struggle to stay on key if my only reference is a bass line. It probably has something to do with the frequency of a bass guitar but for some reason I simply hear the wrong key.
Since I know this I always make an effort to have an acoustic guitar and/or piano in my monitor if available when I sing live and in my headphones when I record. I’d rather re-record an entire song than have it be released to the public with flat or sharp vocals on it. It bothers me that much and the same is typically true of other professionals.
This Is Too Important To Skip
The competition on the music charts is already very stiff so you don’t want to put yourself at a disadvantage by using off key vocals.
Take the time to get your vocals right. If the person recording your vocal says you went flat, don’t waste time arguing about it. Just do it over. The exception of course is if that person listening is tone deaf too then they shouldn’t be running the board in the first place.
Like I said before we all go off key sometimes but it only becomes a problem when you refuse to do anything about it or worse, try to justify it!
Avoid Voicing Yourself If Possible
If you’re working by yourself this one can be difficult to avoid. When you’re the one watching recording levels and hitting the record button it will dramatically affect the quality of your vocals if you’re also trying to remember/read lyrics while putting on an amazing performance.
In the previous section I mentioned staying on key. While you’re singing you can’t effectively listen to yourself as accurately as someone else listening specifically for mistakes. If you’re recording yourself you’re much more likely to miss subtle sharps and flat notes. And you won’t catch them until you stop and listen to what you just recorded.
You’d be amazed how distracted you get when you record your own vocals. You start to notice everything like a squeaky fan, the volume of the bass line, the chair, your phone etc.
This can seriously diminish the quality of the vocal you record because you’re not fully focused on the performance. A much better approach is to have someone else operate the recording equipment and let them worry about the squeaks and movements while you focus entirely on your performance.
You Can Do This
Hopefully now your eyes have been opened up to a whole new world of recording possibilities. With a little know-how, patience and attention to detail you can definitely record great vocals at home but it will take work.
Be sure to check everything I’ve listed above before you start to record and you will improve the quality of your recorded vocals significantly. Many of your competitors aren’t doing these things because they either don’t know or they think it doesn’t matter.. it does btw.
Let me know in the comments below how these changes have worked out for you or better yet, if you have any recording tips that you’ve used to record great vocals at home.
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