FilmInstituteDuring this difficult and unprecedented time, we’ve been thinking about how we can use our platform to support, inform and inspire one another, recognising the power of music to bring people together (virtually). Many of you out there are likely singers, musicians and producers who for the first time are beginning to record your own vocals and aren’t quite sure where to begin.
Recording the perfect vocal is not a perfect science. It can be extremely subjective and often depends on the sound you’re looking for on your track. It can also be far more difficult than you might expect when you haven’t done it before, so read on to learn more about the basics of recording vocals at home from the Abbey Road Team.
Preparing and Warming UpBefore we begin looking into microphone choice and placement, it’s important to discuss how you will be able to get the most out of a vocal recording session.
Being prepared is key, and before you even begin to sing, you need to make sure your melodies, ideas and lyrics are clear in your mind. Abbey Road Studios can be the first to help at this stage with our free Topline app. The award-winning app helps you capture song ideas instantly and precisely before that valuable moment is lost, and allows you to sing over imported tracks, add lyrics, tags and pictures, share files easily and sync to the cloud to save space on your device. This also means that it's extremely easy to share ideas with your collaborators whilst self-isolating. Right now, many of us will be worrying about money. So if that’s the case, then Topline might be the perfect solution to demo ideas and work with a collaborator.Deciding on the correct space to record your vocals is of course, paramount. One common misconception about recording professional sounding vocals is that you have to record them in an isolated sound booth. The reality is that most singers don’t perform their best when they’re isolated away from everything; as we already know making yourself feel as comfortable as can be is key. So, for example, if you have access to a large room with wood floors, that can be great for classical vocals. For rock and pop vocals, you may want a ‘deader’ room with minimal reverb. Our senior recording engineer Andrew Dudman says: “Duvets can help dampen down ‘lively/slappy’ acoustics. In fact making a ‘den’ a three year old would approve of, might be the perfect home recording environment." And engineer Gordon Davidson adds: “A pair of headphones you trust is vital for working in untreated rooms or home studios where you may not want to disturb the household or be bothered by external noise. Closed back headphones are good for this as they keep out (and in) more noise. Something like the beyerdynamic DT770 PRO for less than £100 would be a good place to start.”
When you’re ready to start recording vocals it’s important to keep hydrated. Drinking water or tea will keep your vocal chords flexible and in the best shape to sing. There are many things that can damage a vocalist’s voice, so of course mitigating the use of these substances before a session is key. Make sure you stay away from dairy (milk, cheese, chocolate) as well as avoiding cigarettes before and during the session.
Choosing The Right MicrophoneWith the variety of microphones out there, it might be difficult at first to decide what microphones are best to record vocals. If you only have one microphone then your decision has been made for you. Matching the right microphone to your vocals will turn a good take into a great one.
Abbey Road Engineer Lewis Jones explains the importance of this when working with Australian artist Cloves earlier this year: “I’ve just been working with a young Australian artist called Cloves. She’s about to release the second album. She had been tracking her album elsewhere using an SM7. I don’t want to badmouth the SM7, which is a great mic, but she wanted to come to Abbey Road to out try some of our mics. And she used an AKG C12 and Neumann U 47 and a U 87. And she decided, with a combination of Neve 1073 and an LA-2A compressor, to go with the U 47 because she thought it added so much more character, depth, and warmth to her voice, than all the mics she’s used previously.”
Here is a brief overview of some of the most popular types of microphones and polar patterns:Condenser Microphone:
Condenser microphones, also referred to as 'capacitor microphones’, typically pick up more detail than dynamic microphones and are popular for recording vocals and more subtle sounds. The capsule diaphragm follows the movement of sound waves and creates a change in capacitance between the diaphragm & backplate. This converts the movement into an electrical signal ready for amplification.
A condenser microphone can be the right choice for somebody who is looking to start recording high-quality vocals and acoustic instruments/sounds with their studio set-up.
Dynamic mics are one of the most common types of microphone and are less sensitive at capturing sounds compared to condenser mics and can work well at recording high sound pressure levels (SPL). The moving coil design of dynamic mics helps to make them robust and they work well at rejecting ‘off-axis’ sound, which is sound that doesn’t enter directly into the front of the microphone. What’s more, dynamic microphones do not require any Phantom Power (48V) to work.
Interesting Fact: Alan Blumlein, a celebrated EMI engineer, designed and patented the iconic EMI HB1E microphone in May 1931, which was one of the finest ‘moving-coil’ microphones of its time – read more about the HB1E here.
Ribbon microphones are quite expensive, particularly fragile, and much less common than dynamic and condenser microphones. They work in a similar fashion to moving-coil dynamic mics, but use a thin metal ribbon (typically aluminium) suspended in a magnetic field that detects sound pressure and converts the movement into an electrical signal. The ribbon is lighter than the moving-coil design and therefore works well at capturing the nuances of sound waves more accurately.
Ribbon mics generally have a figure-8 polar pattern, meaning they pick up sound from both sides of the microphone, and usually these mics are passive (no phantom power needed).
Microphone Directivity & Polar Patterns:
Picking the right type of microphone is one thing, but understanding the directivity characteristics is also an important factor to bear in mind. Microphone directivity can be explained as a microphone’s sensitivity to sound arriving from different directions. For example, microphones used at live events are designed to be sensitive to sound entering directly in front of the mic (from the singer) whilst being less sensitive to sound coming from behind the mic (crowd noise).
Understanding microphone directivity can help to avoid unwanted ‘spill’ or ‘leakage’ of sound and feedback during recording.
Your First Microphone:A large diaphragm condenser microphone is probably the most versatile as a first microphone. A large diaphragm mic is particularly suited to recording studio vocals and is versatile enough to record acoustic instruments. Don’t forget that additional power is required to record with condenser microphones – make sure your audio interface is capable of suppling 48V phantom power! To find out more about the right interfaces and Digital Audio Workstations that work for you, read our Beginner Studio Set-Up Guide here.
Our senior recording engineer Simon Rhodes, also recommends the Shure SM58. Here's what he says about the microphone: "At £85 it is surprisingly ok sounding but more importantly, once you’re nice and close it will reject much of the ambient room noise present at home - computer fan noise, mum doing the hoovering, dad chopping up logs in the woodshed will all be barely audible under the mellifluous tones of your singing." And to further add, Andrew Dudman clarifies how "almost any mic will make a surprisingly OK recording these days."
Example 1: Rode NT1A - £139.00
Example 2: sE Electronics sE2200a - £145.00
Example 3: AKG Project Studio P420 - £141.00
Example 4: Shure SM58 - £85.00
Placement:As important as it is to choose the right mic, it won’t do you any good if it’s not placed properly. If you are using a cardioid condenser mic like the Rode RT1-A, you’ll want to be placed between 10 and 30 cm from the microphone. With an omnidirectional condenser microphone like the AKG C414 (which can also be a cardioid mic), you can get much closer to it. Our senior recording engineer Andrew Dudman explains: "If getting close to the vocal mic I prefer a minimum distance of about 15cm.".
When positioning the microphone make sure the diaphragm of the mic is in line with your mouth. This should give you the most natural sound. You will need a microphone stand to do this, and a boom stand is likely your best option. This type of stand has an arm that you can adjust in height and in angle. With a boom stand, you can place the microphone stand away from you and extend the microphone arm to position. Abbey Road engineer Gordon Davidson explains: "experiment with distance from the mic, especially if using a condenser microphone. Listen for how proximity affects the different frequencies, not just the low end."
It is also important to think about using a pop filter. A pop filter creates a barrier between you and the mic, and acts like a net to catch plosives while allowing other sounds to pass freely. The pop filter also acts as a distance marker, preventing singers from moving in too close, as they often will. If you unable to purchase one currently, Abbey Road's Andrew Dudman mentions that "you can always fashion a pop shield out of thin material (tights for example)". Discover three way how you can make your own pop filter here.
Processing Vocals with engineer Lewis Jones:Having done your best to capture a high–quality recording of your vocals, how best do you go about processing them so they work in your mix? Our engineer Lewis Jones, whose credits range from Mura Masa’s Love$ick to Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom takes you through a few of the fundamentals factors that he uses when processing any vocal recording.
Firstly, it depends on your singer. It depends on how good the recording is and how well delivered the singing is. I like to listen to the vocal with the track playing pretty much all the time. So when you start mixing, it’s always important to have that vocal in. The vocalist is obviously, the most important thing.
Tuning and De-essing
With processing, you start with tuning. Quite often, there’s quite a bit of tuning that goes on. And obviously, you have to make sure you’re listening to the track to make sure that everything’s right. Cutting out low frequencies, clearing out loud mud is very important.
To start with, it’s just clearing the low end, making sure that you cut everything that you don’t need. I do that with a high-pass filter. I think it’s always best to go a little too far and then to nudge it back. That’s always something you can adjust at a later stage. If you go too far, it’s obvious straight away and you and then pull it back. De-essing is next, and that’s important, too. That’s getting rid of all that sibilance. There are some great plug-ins out there nowadays that do this very, very well.
And then the next process would be compression. I think sometimes, here, this is very much a case of just two-compressor approach. It’s quite nice to use one compressor to control peaks and try and level things out so that your vocal is nicely even and then you’re using another one to see if you can get a different tone and one more to see if you can get a different tone. But you can also do quite a bit of that these days in the DAWs with [Clip Gain](Clip Gain). That’s often a handy little tool, using Clip Gain in conjunction with the compressor.
EQ, Reverb and Delay
And then you maybe EQ next. Maybe cut out some of those mid-high frequencies, which you feel are a bit harsh. Sometimes I like to turn it up briefly, so you can work out what sticks out, what sounds harsh on the ear. So cut some of those frequencies. And then perhaps use another compressor just to bring the level up and to make it sit nicely at the front of your track.
Then, obviously, delays and reverb are very important for helping it to bed into the track. And that, again, is always an experimental process using slight delays or maybe longer delays which you then feed into the reverb as well. It’s very track dependent.And that’s it! So hopefully this helps set the foundation and fundamentals for what goes into recording vocals at home. Try to take these points into account whilst in self-isolation, as it is the perfect time to start recording your next album!
For more details on which Interface, Headphone, Digital Audio Workstation, Cables and Accessories you will need to help record your vocals, you can head to our Beginner Studio Set Up Blog.