Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Recording clean vocals that rival the greats is always a challenge without the comfort and silence of a professional studio but thanks to the incredible advances in technology, some careful microphone placement(s), a couple helpful tools and the appropriate knowledge you can capture stunning vocal recordings from the comfort of your own studio space. In this blog post I hope to outline some microphone choices, tools, techniques and technologies that will help to improve your vocal recordings no matter your environment. First things first...
-CLEAR VOCALS -
So, you don't have a studio. You sit in your recording space not moving, TV is off, there's no sound and no one is around... it's silent, right? Wrong! The room is ALIVE. Ambient sounds like air and traffic-noise seep into our homes and we become accustomed to it. Add on your furnace, the refrigerator(s), any computer or device fans and all of a sudden what you thought was a quiet room sounds like a distant ocean of static waves crashing against your ears. It's no wonder people build studios to suck the sound out of the room. So what can you do to mitigate these invading sounds from entering your recording?
Turn off your refrigerators, fans, furnace and any other devices that are outputting any type of noise. You'll be surprised when you really listen to the world around you how noisy things truly are. BONUS TIP: Write a post-it note, leave a container near the fridge or set an alarm to remind yourself to turn things back on when you're done recording. No need opening a rotten fridge the next morning because you forgot to turn things back on.
Close all your windows firmly. Wind and traffic noise will seep into any little crack and your microphone(s) will pick it up. Wind and/or air movement has a compounding effect in a reflective environment so make sure to eliminate air movement. No suffocating though!
Baffling is a technique that uses high sound absorbing material (foam, carpet, cork, etc.) to block impending direct and reflective sounds from arriving at the microphone. These can be attached or fastened to the wall to "deaden" a room or hung/fastened to moveable frames which can be placed where needed during recordings. Carpet and blankets will also help if foam baffling is not in the budget.
TECHNIQUE: Cover your walls with foam baffling, blankets or carpets to reduce early reflections from bouncing back to the microphone(s). With your moveable baffling surround your microphone/recording space with baffling, carpets or heavy blankets leaving enough space to perform comfortably. I've seen everything from DIY wooden frames filled with home framing insulation to carpets hanging from the ceiling, to blankets pilled and hung in a corner. The goal here is to kill both early reflections and unwanted additional reverb from getting back to the microphone.
There are many great new baffling products available specifically for singers like the "Wood Microphone Isolation Shield - Vocal booth and Studio Recording Acoustic Panel" by PYLE that will run you between $115 - $300 - not free but much cheaper than a studio.
Now that you've made your room as quiet as can be and you've eliminated or "deadened" all reflections it's time to select your microphone. Depending on your microphone choice there are a few factors which influence the quality and character of your vocal recording. These factors are listed below:
Which frequencies your microphone naturally emphasizes due to its construction and materials. BONUS TIP: You can look up your microphone's unique frequency response fairly easily by searching for the specs and frequency response chart online or in your user manual. Google is your friend here.
Dynamic or Condenser
Both dynamic and condenser microphones have been used in professional recordings for decades. To help you choose there are some qualities which each type will cater to more.
For harder rock type vocals that push into the red a little, a dynamic microphone will give a raw character to the recording. Guns n' Roses, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin have all used dynamic microphones to record their vocals. They sound a little harsher but they will give a certain rocky feel to a recording. One nice thing about dynamic microphones is that they usually tend to be cheaper and are more readily accessible to most people. The Shure SM7B is an excellent vocal microphone with a stunning a flat response. If you're using the Shure SM7B it can be helpful to use a "Cloudlifter" to drop your noise floor a bit and give more dynamic range to your recording. Essentially, de-noising a little during the recording process.
- NICK'S PICKS: Shure SM7B, Shure SM57, Samsung Q7, Shure SM58.
Condenser Microphones - For more delicate and nuanced vocals a condenser microphone will provide incredible accuracy, honesty and character to a vocalist. Recording artists like Billie Eilish, Bishop Briggs and Michael Bublé use condenser microphones to access the beauty and purity of their voices. These microphones are often used in studios and have become the standard for most recordings both in studios and for home recordings. Again, if you're using condensers it can be helpful to use a "Cloudlifter" to drop your noise floor a bit and give more dynamic range to your recording.
- NICK'S PICKS: Neumann TLM 102 or 103, Audio Technica AT4040, Shure SM27.
Other Microphones - Ribbon microphones are also another option but will usually be found more in studios as they can be delicate and touchy to use but the quality and sound is second to none. If you have the resources and abilities to use them they can be beautiful and create a unique character you find in old recordings and classic songs with trumpeting vocals and brass sections. The Royer R-121 or R-122 are great ribbon choices.
Renting Microphones - If you don't have these microphones and tools consider renting them from a local music store for a week. The rental rates are quite reasonable and the quality improvement is well worth it.
So your room is quiet and dead as can be, you've chosen your microphone and your track is up, ready for you to sing your heart out but how do you get the best out of your voice? Your placement is crucial as too far away and your voice will sound distant and weak. Too close and you have something called the "proximity effect" occur where the low end frequencies compound and your voice gets thick and muddy. So where should you sing from? This will kind of depend on the microphone but a safe rule is about 5-8 inches from the microphone. Sing directly into the microphone diaphragm. Microphones are very perceptive and singing small degrees off centre can make a quite the difference. BONUS TIP: Make sure to prevent pops and heavy breath sounds by using a pop filter and performing the attack of your "P" and "B" words/lyrics off axis of the diaphragm.
Recording & input level
So, you seem to have all the pieces in place to achieve a great performance into your microphone of choice but before we begin there's one last thing that is of utmost importance - your recording levels. The ideal level for your vocal recording, no matter your input device, is around -6 dBFS. This is firmly in the yellow in your track meter with around 6 dB of headroom for processing and dynamics consideration through the mixing process. If you have the ability to utilize a light outboard compressor to smooth out the input level before it comes into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) that will improve your recording considerably. Keep the compression light though. A 4:1 ratio max on the way in. Regardless, it is ideal to shoot for that -6dBFS target with the input level. This will keep you away from your noise floor and allow you to keep your recording cleaner with some post-processing.
- DE-NOISING TRACKS -
De-noising your tracks - phase 1
There are multiple points in the production process where de-noising can and should occur. It is a holistic process from start to finish. The first place to tackle noise is during the initial recording which we've covered in the topics above. A clear recording with a low noise floor relative to the average dBFS is important. One thing to keep in mind, there is a difference between "professional" (+4dB) and "semi-professional" (-10dB) gear. Professional gear will be marked with a "+4dB" designation on the back of the device or in the specifications online or in the manual.
While "semi-pro" gear will have a "-10dB" designation with that information found in the same areas. The difference can be heard in the noise floor, as pro gear has a lower noise floor (a.k.a: a cleaner sound) where semi-pro gear 's noise floor is around a 14dB louder, resulting in a nearly 10-12% increase in overall noise in your track. Microphone choice, cable impedance (poorly shielded XLR or TRS cables) and ambient room noise will all accumulate and add noise to the track. How much noise there is will be determined by the compounding nature of the sounds. Proper gear selection can help minimize noise in the initial production phases.
De-noising your tracks - phase 2
Now you've chosen the best gear you can get your hands on to get the job done. Your noise floor is as low as can be. You record a beautiful session and you're off to the editing room. So what's the first step in cleaning up your recording? No matter the program you're using you'll need to search for and edit out the silent moments in the track when you or your talent is not singing. Once you've trimmed all the empty areas of the recording make sure to carefully fade the region so there are no clips or pops from bad edits. In Logic X you can use search for silence in your region's "track" and "file" tabs. Just 'double click' and find the "search silence" function in the edit drop down menu. This will save you a little time if you have access to it or another similar function in other programs.
De-noising your tracks - phase 3
Once you've edited out all your silence I usually consolidate the regions you've made back into one region. In Logic X, use the glue tool and highlight all of your vocal track regions. Then glue the regions into one cleaned up region. If you've recorded cleanly and your noise floor is far away from your average decibel level you should have a very clean track. However, if you listen closely you'll hear a little noise be introduced wherever your regions were. Most mixes will bury this noise enough to retain a clean overall mix but if you want the cleanest tracks possible and there is any lingering noise I recommend using the "Izotope RX 9 denoiser." This plug-in isn't cheap but it won't set you back the cost of a professional studio session and could render an equal result if used properly. If you don't have it yourself ask around your community to see if a peer or community member can run the track through RX and send it right back. It won't be difficult for them and you may build a new relationship.
- CORRECT PITCH WITH 'FLEX' -
So you have a great performance recorded, it's all cleaned up and there is little to no noise. If you have perfect enough pitch you should be golden. However, most of us can waiver from time to time when we sing. A little sharp, a little flat. Sometimes you can chalk it up as an interesting performance but when it starts to lose its interest what can you do? In Logic X there is a very powerful tool you can use called "FLEX" which allows you to manipulate the tune (cents), length, gain and scoop of your vocal performance. It is very authentic and doesn't give you the "auto-tune-y" sound like some plugins. It comes with Logic X and for a native tool it's very powerful. Here is a helpful YouTube tutorial:
- IN Closing -
So there you have it. With these tricks, insights and tools you should have what it takes to record beautiful clean and rich recordings. To summarize here is a quick list of what you need to consider.
A quiet environment
The right microphone choice
The right gear choices
A great performance
a -6dBFS average peak recording level
You've edited out the noise from your track & consolidated regions in track together.
As a bonus you've run the track through Izotope RX 9
If you've made the most out of these aspects of your recording you should be quite happy with the result. Of course a dead studio space will render your best results but I challenge you to compare and identify the studio track when these boxes are checked.
I hope that this entry has helped with your recording ambitions and leads to some vocal performances that we all get to hear soon.
If there is something that you'd like some help with in your recording process feel free to reach out. I've seen a lot in my 18 years of recording and I'd be happy to help out on your journey forward.
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