Recording vocals can be one of the more challenging tracking phase processes you may run into. If it wasn’t enough of a tough cookie in the studio, you can be sure it’s a daunting task in a bedroom (or a home office or any other room you’ve set aside for recording fun that wasn’t purpose-built for it).
The sad truth is that you can’t get pro quality vocals happening at home. But you can improve the sound by a mile if you’re armed with a few tricks and tips, and that’s what I intend to give you.
The number one factor in vocal recording is the room. You might’ve thought it was the mic you’re using or the pre-amp you’re running it through, but the truth is if you’ve got a U87 and an Avalon but the room you’re recording in is crap, you won’t be much farther ahead than a guy using a Behringer mic through an Mbox.
You could buy one of those (often rather expensive) reflection shields that attach to the stand and sit behind the microphone, and this will do you some good, particularly if your mic is omnidirectional. However, most common vocal microphones for both home and studio users are cardioid, so the shield will still help to an extent but the majority of problem reflections will come from the front — that is, the surfaces behind the vocalist’s head.
This article isn’t about treating your room, which is a great idea if you own your home and you can learn more about doing so on a budget here. We’re talking about cheap, fast and temporary solutions for the moment. The best thing you can do in this case is to grab a blanket and tape it to a wall or hang it over a reasonably tall and wide bookshelf with some books pinning it down on top.
You want to get as much of the surface on the wall behind the singer covered as you can. Don’t neglect the area behind and above the head in particular — if your singer is taller than your bookshelf (or even around the same height), forget about hanging the blanket and tape it to the wall. The thickest blanket you can find is best.
Here’s an example that compares a bedroom recording without a blanket, and then with a blanket — I’ve used a clap, the industry standard reflection measurement technology:
As you can hear, the first sound has a very metallic reflection to it, which isn't particularly pleasant. The second clap shows that you can't eliminate reflections in a bedroom this way, but you can control them and give yourself some room to apply a nicer reverb later.
You’ll have the best luck in a carpeted room. If you’ve got floorboards or tiles, get a rug that covers as much of the floor as possible. You should also ensure your curtains or blinds are drawn as window glass is incredibly reflective. Slat blinds are not particularly good at blocking the reflections because of the gap between each strip, so try to hang a curtain even if only for the duration of your recording session. Again, the thicker the better. In some recording rooms a bit of liveliness isn’t a bad thing when the reflective surfaces have been purpose-designed, but in a bedroom you’re best of deadening as much as you can and adding reverb during the mixing phase of your project.
Dampening the vicinity behind the singer’s head can be enough to reduce reflections to decent level for home demo recording, but if you’re full of energy and have more blankets than you know what to do with, put one on every wall and maybe even lay one over your desk surface. The last suggestion involves a lot of work — you need to move your gear, put the blanket down, put the gear back, and then repeat the process when you’re done, but a reflective desk can cause a lot of problems.
Positioning the microphone can be tricky in a home studio situation. You don’t want to be too close to walls or other reflective surfaces such as desks (especially desks, as frequencies, in particular bass, will build up underneath the desktop). On the other hand, you don’t want to be in the middle of the room — the frequencies that build up due to non-purpose specific room design are most prominent here, and are known as standing waves.
In a small room, as most home recording environments are, it’s tough to get away from walls and from the center of the room. My recommendation is that you put yourself closer to a wall that is dampened with a blanket and face the other side of the room. Get a few feet away from the wall if you can do so without putting the microphone in the middle of the room, and make sure the wall you’ve chosen is furthest away from your desk or windows. You may want to rearrange the room so your desk is at the window! It might increase the reflectivity of that area of the room, but if you can get far enough away from it, this is better than having nowhere to go because your desk is at one end and the window’s at the other.
If you can get a few feet in front of the wall you’ve chosen to dampen, make sure you can dampen as much of that wall as possible. Using a few blankets is a bit of a pain, but worth it in the end.
Your singer should stand about a foot away from the microphone as a general guide. Softer singers might be better off standing at half that distance, while a loud metal screamer might need as much as two feet of distance. Good microphone technique plays a part in the process, which unfortunately requires the singer has some experience with studio recording. Someone who has sung live for years but has never entered a studio is not going to be much better than a total neophyte, particularly if you’re using condensers, as the correct technique differs in both situations. They may have a bit of an advantage if you’re recording with dynamics (and I’ve only ever seen a dynamic mic used for studio vocals a couple of times, and one of those times was because the singer was too loud for a condenser even with a -20dB pad on and low gain!).
It’s also advisable to put the singer a couple of degrees off the center of the microphone, where it’s less sensitive. Singers like to move their heads, and a centimeter can make too much of a difference at dead-center. Which leads me to…
The Proximity Effect
Almost all dynamic microphones and the vast majority of condensers used in a home studio have a proximity effect, which is to say that the closer the sound source is to the microphone, the more the bass frequencies will be exaggerated. 90% of the time, this is undesirable in vocal recordings.
There are a few ways to combat this — your best bet is to use a singer with good microphone technique and awareness of the various problems that can crop up when they move their little heads too close. When you’re dealing with a less experienced singer I’ve found an effective quick fix is to move the pop filter a few inches away from the mic so they physically cannot get too close to the microphone (you are using a pop filter, right? If not, get one right away!). Be careful, as this may limit their ability to compensate for a sudden drop in volume by moving in a bit closer.
Most people have a tendency to record vocals too loud, which causes clipping and definitely cannot be fixed in the mix. Unfortunately, if you’ve got a home studio with typical home studio gear, you don’t have the luxury of recording too soft, either. With a studio quality set-up, you can record quietly without danger (usually) of running into noise floor problems. At home, the equipment and cables are almost always too noisy and you need to record with enough volume to escape that ugly sound.
Every time you set up a vocal recording session, you’re going to need to spend time getting the levels right so that the quietest point in the song can be heard loudly enough without introducing clipping when the singer gets a bit more passionate in the chorus. To make matters worse, you need to remember that a singer — be it yourself or someone you’re recording — will get louder as they get further into the session and begin to overcome nerves, particularly those singers who are not experienced in the recording studio. So even if you spend twenty minutes getting your levels right at first, there’s a good chance you’ll need to compensate for it by the time you’re doing the real-deal tracking.
Make the Singer Sound Great
At least, to them! Almost all singers are suddenly and magically able to sing better if they hear their voice after is has been processed a bit. Different singers have different needs, but a bit of compression and reverb on the monitoring bus are usually the way to go. If your compression and reverb units are hardware units, make sure you can route your headphone bus through them so the hard effects aren’t recorded for good, unless you know what you’re doing and don’t intend to change it later on.
For those of you with a more basic setup, such as an Mbox, headphone mixes aren’t an option. You’ll need to satisfy yourself with slapping a plug-in or two on the vocal track and using software monitoring, or going without if the latency is too high for that.
Singers — and have no illusions, every singer from yourself to Rob Halford — will try to overcompensate for the flaws they hear in their voice if confronted with the raw sound from the microphone. Some are better at focusing on the performance and doing less compensating than others, but they all do it. Put some artificial control in place with the compressor and a more natural sounding room with a bit of nice reverb.
Ever seen someone who has never worked in a studio enter a treated dead room or anechoic chamber before? I was surprised to find that many people find it disconcerting. A disconcerted singer is not a very good one, so liven up the deadened sound and you’ll notice an immediate improvement.
As it happens, they say this is why people sing in the shower more than any other location!