Recording Vocals: The things that gear can't help you with

Hi, my friends! Today I want to talk about recording vocals. I imagine vocals are the most common instrument recorded at home just because it is easy to record and so many songwriters recording at home sing or rap.

Instead of talking about specific types of gear (which is a typical discussion when getting into vocal-recording-land) I want to talk about the things that gear can't help you with: 

  1. Headphone Mix

  2. Proximity to Microphone

  3. Compression

For the gear nerds/lovers out there, let me address something. I’m going to assume that you have a microphone already picked out. Microphones will obviously affect the sound and the price ranges for mics are obviously really broad. The following pieces of info are not meant to sell you on any particular type of gear, just to give you some ways to improve or consider what you have going on right now.

1.) Headphone Mix

    To me, the number one thing to pay attention to when recording vocals is the headphone mix. If the mix in the headphones isn’t that good, the vocalist won’t be able to fully get into the music. After all, you want the performance to be inspired, don’t ya?

When you’re getting started and putting the headphone mix together for the vocal session, try to notice how the singer is singing. For example, if they’re having a tough time with the rhythm, maybe try bringing the drums/rhythm section up a bit in the headphones so they have more clues for where the rhythm should be. Likewise, if it sounds like they’re straining, it may be because they can’t hear themselves enough, so bring up their own voice a bit up in the headphones. Also, if it doesn’t feel like the singer is pushing hard enough, bring down their vocal in the headphone mix. While it’s important for the singer to be able to hear themselves fully, some singers also prefer to hear themselves in the room, so if the singer isn’t digging the feeling of using headphones and it is getting in the way of their performance, have them take one hear out of the headphones.

2.) Proximity to Microphone

    How far or close you stand to the mic will give you different outcomes in terms of the overall character of the sound. For example, consider whether or not you want a very close and intimate sound vs. a roomy, maybe lo-fi sound. For the former, stay within a foot of the mic. For the latter, stand a few feet away or more. If you’re going for the cleaner, more intimate sounding option, keep the proximity effect in mind. The proximity effect is that the closer you get to your cardioid mic, the more low end it will pick up. This can be good or bad depending on what you’re going for so just be aware of it. If you want your vocal to be very full, consider getting closer to the mic. If you want it to sound more natural, take a little step back.

3.) Compression

If you don’t know much about compression, I suggest getting to know it better. Not only is it a wonderful tool for vocals, but it is one of the most basic and foundational tools for all recording and mixing. My great mentor, Al Shapiro, once told me that the greatest mixers can do an amazing mix with only two tools: EQ and compression.

(For those new to the game, compression is sort of like a automatic fader on your signal. When the sound is loud, the fader pulls down, and when the sound is soft, the fader pulls up. In short, it makes the overall performance more smooth and less dynamic. There’s less difference between the soft and loud stuff. I do suggest learning a bit more about compression in order for the following info to be useful.)

Without going into too much detail on how to use compression in general, here are a few things to be aware of when using compression on a vocal:

    a.) Attack time: As the attack time gets faster, more of the high end frequencies roll off. If you want a bright and present vocal tone, consider slowing the attack time a bit so that those transients don’t get cut off. If you want a vocal sound that is a bit more in the background (maybe background vocals or something? hah!) try increasing the attack time.

b.) Amount of gain reduction: If you’re doing some compression and you find yourself saying, “man, this sounds way worse than before” take a look at the amount of gain reduction. Most commonly, for vocal compression during recording, I aim for anywhere between 3 and 6db of gain reduction, 6 db being for the more powerful notes. Of course, this isn’t a rule of thumb, just something to be aware of. If you aren’t digging your compression, try increasing the threshold a bit to reduce the gain reduction.

That's all folks :) Next week will be a bit different because on Tuesday Charlie and I are playing a gig in Connecticut. Maybe a vloggity vlog would be more fun??