How to record vocals and make them sound professional
Wandering how to record vocals at home and make them sound professional?
Not long ago, recording professional quality vocal tracks from a home studio used to be a difficult and expensive undertaking. Now, with so much easily-accessible information at our fingertips and lots of affordable equipment on the market, anyone can achieve industry standard vocals.
Artists like Billie Eilish have shown us that recording vocals from home can be just as celebrated as from a professional studio, when done effectively.
When recording vocals from home, there are three key factors that drive our choices, no matter the circumstances.
- Vocal production: consider the voice, consider the equipment, and consider editing/ mixing.
- The home setting: consider where & how exactly you’ll be recording the vocals.
- Budget: consider what you can spend and how you spend it.
The better you understand the ins and outs of these three factors, the better your vocals are going to sound. We are going to take into account all three things as we discuss vocal recording here, and you should always be thinking how you can maximize each of these categories when it comes to your vocal recordings.
Build your set-up
The Signal Chain
To get anything from a mic, all the way to becoming a track on your computer, it requires a series of connected equipment which we call a “signal chain”. Knowing your signal chain is paramount to buying, recording, and troubleshooting for vocal recording.
The most basic vocal recording signal chain is as follows:
- A Microphone, which captures sound and turns in into electrical signal.
- A Cable coming out of the microphone (almost always a male-to-female XLR microphone cable). That cable will then plug into…
- An Audio Interface, which converts audio electrical signal into digital information for your computer to take in.
- A Cable coming out of the interface (almost always a USB). That cable will then plug into…
- Your computer, which has Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software on it. This is where we organize and manipulate the digital audio information coming from the interface. Examples of DAWs include Audacity, Ableton Live, Garageband, Logic, ProTools, Cubase and many more.
Once you have that basic signal chain, you are physically ready to start recording vocals. There are other optional pieces of hardware you can add to the chain, such as Pre-Amplifiers, Compressors, EQs, and more. If you’re really interested in any of those, make sure you research them before buying.
The main thing to remember here is that any additional optional hardware should go between the microphone and the interface on your chain.
Let’s take a closer look at that basic chain to determine how to make good equipment choices for vocal recording.
The world of microphones is big! But don’t be daunted. The basic gist is that there are three types of microphones, which are ribbon, dynamic, and condenser. Since all microphones do the same thing, all microphones can technically be used as vocal mics.
Traditionally, the standard microphone type to use for vocals is the condenser.
Check out the Rode NT1A, for example, which has become a staple of many home studios. The least expensive condenser mics go for around $100 these days: check out brands like Audio-Technica and Blue to see some great options in that range.
In recent years, folks have turned to dynamic type microphones for vocals for many reasons. Chiefly, they’re super durable and affordable.
The Shure SM7B and Electro-voice RE20 are widely beloved dynamic microphones for vocals. They’re both workhorses, and have become industry standard in vocal-heavy fields ranging from live radio, to podcasting, to professional studios, and yes, to home music production.
Dynamic mics like the SM7B and RE20 will have other awesome features like built-in pop-filters or no proximity effect, which are very helpful for vocal recording.
Interfaces can be as simple or as involved as you want, but they all serve the same basic function: getting sound from the microphone into your computer, and playing back sound from your computer into your headphones or speakers. Let’s touch on two important things to consider when shopping for an interface.
Interfaces can have 1 or more channels for a microphone to plug in (via XLR), so something you should consider is how many input channels you want on your interface.
Will you have multiple simultaneous singers who each need a mic? Is a singer playing an instrument at the same time? Most people recording at home rarely need more than 1 or maybe 2 inputs. Luckily there are tons of interfaces on the market with that in mind.
Do you see yourself moving your recording setup a lot? Even if it’s within your home, maybe you’re changing locations or putting away your setup frequently. It might be smart to buy an interface that has a bit more durability, or is a manageable size.
There’s much more to consider with interfaces, such as dedicated monitoring knobs, and number of headphone outputs, and it’s important to do plenty of research on your interface before buying.
Once you’re ready to start shopping, the options for great, affordable audio interfaces have greatly expanded in recent years. At the most affordable end, check out brands like Focusrite, M-Audio, and Scarlett. In the mid-range, check out Apogee and Steinberg. At the high-end, start with Universal Audio.
Completing the chain
Make sure you have all the appropriate cables you’ll need to connect that signal chain up! Then, make sure you’ve got headphones that can plug into your interface. After that, once you’ve got all the basics in place, consider some other gear:
- Speakers if you’re planning to do some mixing yourself, or if you prefer not to use headphones.
- A stand for the mic (duh).
- An attachable pop filter.
- An attachable or free-standing mini-isolation booth.
- A stereo headphone splitter (highly recommended if the vocalist isn’t also you).
- Additional hardware such as a Pre-Amp, a Compressor, or an EQ.
A “clean” vocal recording
When recording vocals, it’s good to focus on getting what’s called a “clean” sound.
This means that the vocals can be heard clearly in every desired frequency range, there is minimal or no ambient sound, and the audio quality is consistent across all recordings for a given set of vocals.
The reason we want clean vocals is because it maximizes flexibility later on when we edit and mix the vocals. It makes life easier to always put in the effort during the recording session to get that clean sound, because there’s only so much we can do in post-production after something is committed onto a recorded track.
Considerations to achieve clean, isolated vocals:
- Pick a room or space to record where there is not a lot of noise coming from outdoors or elsewhere in the home. Time of day will also be a factor here.
- Pick a room or space to record where there are not a lot of reflections/echoes bouncing around. Bedrooms or closets can often be perfect for minimal reflections. Try yelling or clapping to test a room out for reflections. If there are a lot of reflections in the room, try laying out rugs or hanging clothes, blankets, or towels to dampen reflection sounds.
- Surround the vocalist on all sides (safely and comfortably) with things that minimize reflections. Closets, bookshelves, blankets, and DIY or commercial mini-isolation booths are good for this, especially in combination.
- Avoid noisy clothing and apparel that might make noise while you or the vocalist move during performance.
- Use a pop-filter or buy a mic with one built-in to minimize plosives on the recording.
- Once you’ve settled on it, try not to change anything about the set up (including gain and monitoring settings) until you are finished the vocal recording session.
Time to record
Alright, recording time! What should you be thinking about in order to get a good recording?
Put some thought into the space where the vocalist is recording, as pertains to getting that clean sound. And be sure to buy long enough cables for everything to reach where you want it to go!
Set up the mic to mouth level, and make a decision about how close you want the vocalist to be to the mic. In general, you want the vocalist to be about 6 inches from the mic. Different styles of production are associated with different distances, though, so if you want to get nitty-gritty you might want to do some further research on your favorite recordings.
Get your levels: fire up the audio signal chain and find the appropriate microphone gain level for your vocalist and track. What’s the loudest they’ll sing? What’s the softest? How are plosives sounding? Make sure you’ve found a level that’s picking up everything without popping or clipping. Best practices are to keep the vocals reading most often around -15dB on your meter, and never hitting the red.
Monitoring for the vocalist: make sure the vocalist is hearing what they want in their headphones, separate from the true mix of the track you’re working on. This is called the monitor mix, and different vocalists prefer different monitor mixes. So make sure you have an understanding of your DAW and interface, as well as the vocalist’s needs, as pertains to monitoring.
Quick recording test: Some people like to do a little test recording for a small passage of music, to listen back and be certain that everything is recording as desired. The advantage to that is that a test recording will be absolutely clear as to whether your setup is how you want it. A disadvantage could be that it starts to use up the fresh vocal and mental energy that your singer has. It depends on the session and the vocalist, and you’ll develop your own habits with that.
Have a plan: do you want the vocals to be whisper-quiet until the final chorus? Do you want all vocal parts to be doubled and tripled? If you come in with a general (but flexible) plan, the setup and session will go much smoother. Check out our in-depth guide to learn about the best practices on how to arrange vocals.
Set the mood: there’s a reason why the mental image we all have of a classic studio is one with low-lighting, dark wood, and comfy couches. It’s partly because it tends to help people get into a creative mood. Singing is very visceral and mood-driven, so see if you set a creative mood at home.
Take breaks: recording vocals is hard work. Well-timed breaks can lead to consistently great performances across a long vocal recording session.
Have fun! You’ve done the hard work of researching and setting everything up. Now you get to make some art!
Some Post-production Pointers
As you continue striving for clean vocals to edit/mix with, use plug-ins such as a gate or a noise canceller to eliminate any small amounts of unwanted noise.
When considering EQ on vocals, its always a good starting point to carve out a lot of the low end. The human voice tends not to have a lot of frequency information down there anyway, so you’ll immediately bring clarity to your vocals via subtractive EQ down low. Try rolling off from around 90Hz and use your ears to adjust from there.
To learn more about mixing, check out our in-depth guide on mixing your tracks.
If you still can’t record vocal tracks that will do justice to your songs, you can hire one of Supreme Tracks A-list session singers for hire. They can help with anything from lyrics revision to creating and recording vocal tracks guaranteed to deliver your song’s message with the conviction and emotion you’ve always dreamed of. Check them out here.