How to Get Great Sounding Vocals In a Home Studio

Vocals are arguably the essential part of any song. Getting your vocals to sound clear and upfront in music production is vitally important if you want your music to stand out and be noticed. It can be challenging to record and mix quality vocals in a home studio. However, it is not impossible to do so with a little know-how, good preparation, and plenty of patience.

Many home studio owners struggle to get great-sounding vocals, even though they have expensive microphones, an excellent preamp, and all the latest digital plug-ins. It’s not that difficult to get a great sound, even using low-end equipment, as you’ll see in this article.


Preparing to Record

Preparation is key to obtaining a great result, which includes knowing your way around your digital studio, mic adjustment, and placement, and how to use a pop filter. Set enough time aside to get a great vocal track laid down with minimum stress.

Great Sounding Vocals

It May Take A Few Takes

It is uncommon that a track, vocal or otherwise, can be recorded start to finish in one take. Only the most professional vocalists are proficient enough, prepared enough, and experienced enough to record a vocal track in one take. Even then, most professional artists will record additional tracks even if they end up keeping the first one.

Be sure that you know how to add audio tracks in your DAW quickly. Most DAWs provide a “playlist” feature that allows the user to record multiple takes of a track and comp them all easily at the end of the recording session.

Make sure you know beforehand how to add and manage audio tracks. A common mistake in ProTools is to add an auxiliary track instead of an audio track and wonder why nothing is recording.

You may think that it is preferable to record a vocal track from start to finish a few times and finally pick the best take. This makes sense in some regards as the vocals carry the emotion of the song, and to break the passion of a performance will break the flow of the song, right?

This is not necessarily true. Most modern pop and rock productions are put together piece by piece. The vocalist will record the first line, or first verse, over and over again until the producer is confident there is enough material to stitch together a complete vocal track. Vocals are put together using the best bits of every individual take so don’t be afraid to do the same thing.

The No Pressure Take

It’s not a bad idea to get the vocalist to sing the vocal line a few times through to warm up and to remind themselves of the song structure and arrangement. Use these vocal takes to make final adjustments to the microphone height and distance, to set gain staging if using a preamp, to set the input level to the DAW, and to ensure there is enough headroom for the louder parts of the composition.

The “No Pressure Take” is a great way to relax the vocalist and prepare them for the work ahead.

Find a Comfortable Place to Record

Beyond the practical considerations of locating the vocal microphone close to the DAW, consider the room position where the vocalist will be at ease. Make sure there’s enough room for the vocalist to make arm gestures while recording and get to and from the recording position without having to scramble over too many cables, pieces of equipment, tables and chairs. Make sure there’s also enough room for a music stand if necessary.

Song Arrangement

If the vocalist is not familiar with the material, you need to spend some time going through the song arrangement. You can do this with a demo if you have one, play along with an acoustic guitar, or simply describe the song’s components, such as intro, verse, chorus, break down, outro.

It is always a good idea to have the lyrics printed out on a sheet so the vocalist can add notes, color code sections, or make whatever notes will help while working through the song. You should also make it clear to the vocalist if it is okay or not to change the lyrics to suit their vocal style, or whether the words need to be completely adhered to. Some songwriters don’t take kindly to word changes.

Allocate Enough Time to Get the Job Done

Figure out how many finished vocal tracks you’re going to need. For example, will you just want one mono track, or are you going for three mono tracks - one main track plus two additional takes. In any case, make sure that you allocate enough time in the day to get all the work done comfortably. An inexperienced vocalist will need a few hours to produce one usable track. Don’t be surprised to find that you need additional sessions to get everything finished to a good level.

Experienced and Inexperienced Performers

Vocal Performance

As a home studio owner, it is likely, over time, that you will be recording vocalists with varying levels of experience in your home studio. Experienced performers bring with them a level of know-how and technique, which will undoubtedly help the process of crafting music. On the other hand, inexperienced performers, bring with them a great deal of enthusiasm, but sometimes exhibit an amount of unprofessionalism and impatience which needs to be managed effectively.

Is the Performance Well Rehearsed?

In some cases, the song to be recorded has been rehearsed and performed many times before coming to the recording studio. The vocalist may have already performed the song countless times with the band and in a live situation. In most cases, this is good news as the vocalist will be familiar with the song structure and arrangement. However, singing a song live and recording a performance for release is not always going to be the same. Be sure that you manage the vocalist so that the vocal take is of studio quality, not just live performance quality.

Remember the Human Factor

While your vocalist may be very comfortable singing in front of a band or performing live, they may not be at ease in front of a studio microphone. Part of your job is to ensure that the vocalist can perform effectively in your home studio. Remember to be courteous and patient with inexperienced studio performers - make them feel at home as this will make the day go smoothly and produce the best recordings.

Record Vocals in Mono

Set up a mono audio track on your DAW for each vocal you intend to record. For example, set up three mono audio tracks if recording a main, and two additional tracks. Do not try to record your vocals in stereo. The main vocal track will be panned to the center, and the stereo width added with the two additional tracks or by duplicating the main track and adding some stereo effects.


Vocal Techniques

There are many ways that you can produce quality vocals at home. Most of them are simple vocal techniques and methods that will help you with your all-around capability and improve singing skills. By applying some basic methods, you will be able to make your vocal recordings “purr” and alleviate some of the more frustrating issues that may arise. Here are a few techniques that will help:

Vocal Techniques

Volume Control and the Proximity Effect

The best way to ensure top-notch vocals at home in regards to volume is by understanding the overall principle of using the mic at a distance, commonly known as the proximity effect. Using the distance from the mic to help with volume fluctuation, will enable you to achieve great results.

Proximity effect is the process by which bass builds up in the microphone diaphragm in correlation to the distance from the source of the sound. In the more delicate moments of a song, you can create a more vibrant, intimate tone by bringing the mic closer to your mouth.

Breathing

Knowing when to breath into the mic is a vital skill but also understanding how to keep from doing it is just as important. One way to control the breath volume is to turn your head to the side with each breath. This is a simple method to control breathing sounds being recorded.

Foot Tapping

Some vocalists like to tap their feet while recording, especially if they are playing acoustic guitar at the same time. To take care of that issue (apart from asking them not to do it!) you can place a small rug or sports mat to dampen foot taps as you record.

Another issue of capturing foot sounds is from outside the studio as other people walk around. The best way to combat this issue is to shock-mount your microphone. The mount provides acoustic insulation and reduces sounds being recorded with the vocal track.

Pops and Sibilance

Reducing the pops and sibilance that resonate from typical human speech patterns will help make your recording that much better. Pops are the usual noises that are created in the human language when the letters “P” & “B” are pronounced. Usually, we do not notice, but when we are amplifying the noise, using compression, for example, it becomes very evident. The best way to reduce the effect is with a pop filter placed a few inches in front of the mic. The screen creates a barrier diffuses the plosives. It also helps the vocalist know how far they should stand away from the mic.

Phrasing

Understanding to push and pull to create musical tension will help with building the song’s emotion. This is done through phrasing. The phrasing is how the singer sings the lyrics to the rhythm. Work on getting the phrasing of each line correct before recording – it will save a great deal of time (and hard disk space) in the long run.

Vocal Types

The Main (or Lead) Vocal

When producing a typical pop song, there are primarily two types of vocals. The first is the main vocal, whose presence is foremost on the track. This vocalist sings the main parts to engage with the audience. When recording, the lead vocalist has to be able to phrase and elicit emotion through carefully crafting how they vocalize the lyrics.

Backing Vocals

Backing vocals are used to harmonize or add a counter-melody. Though primarily recorded to be laid behind the main vocalists, they can also be used as solo parts. Backing vocals are usually recorded separately after the lead vocals and put back in the mix with delay or reverb effects.

Equipment Used for Recording Vocals

The Microphone

The microphone is probably the most crucial piece of equipment in the recording chain. The microphone is the device that will capture the light vocals and convert the sound pressure waves to an electrical signal. Professional studios tend to have access to a few microphones and will choose which one is most suitable depending on the project in hand. Microphones have their own response characteristics, and some vocal microphones will be more appropriate to a particular vocalist over another.

In a home studio, we are often limited to the microphones available and usually “make do” with what is on hand. Knowing how your home studio microphone records vocals can be very useful when it comes to set up and postprocessing. Understanding how it sounds with male and female vocals is also helpful.

Whether your home studio microphone is a dynamic, condenser, or ribbon type, try to learn as much about its application to recording vocals before the recording session starts. Even a little bit of research beforehand can go a long way. Be prepared to try a few different setups before settling on the best - if it’s your first time for a new set up and you find it works, take a few reference photos for next time.

If you’re on a tight budget and need to equip your home studio with a new microphone setup check out the article here.

Pop Filter

This is a highly recommended piece of equipment. No home studio should be without one - not only because of how useful they are but also how inexpensive they are! A pop filter will help make your vocals sound professional by diffusing the plosives and sibilance inherent in vocal sounds. Pop filters come in a few different shapes and designs - dual-layered, metallic, and “standard” nylon mesh. For more information on pop filters, read the article here.

Pop Filter

Vocal Isolation Shield

While not an essential piece of equipment the vocal shield is recommended if your budget allows. A vocal isolation Shield is designed to reduce reflected sounds were recording vocals. The shield acts as a mini vocal booth and is a very effective piece of equipment.

Microphone Stand

Unless you are going to suspend the microphone from the ceiling light or ask someone to hold the microphone where the vocalist let’s loose their vocal performance (neither of which are recommended at all!) You will require a microphone stand to securely hold the microphone in position and be stable enough not to fall over with the slightest knock.

You can pick up a microphone stand very cheaply online, but it is recommended to stay away from the no brand, generic, cheap ones. The few that I have owned break very (very!) easily, either at the foldout joint, the tightening screws, at the boom arm joint, at the mic adapter fitting, the extension arm adjuster, or any combination of the above. Spend the extra bucks one time on a quality microphone stand. My particular favorites are the “Hercules,” but there are other decent brands to choose from.

Isolating Headphones

While recording a vocal track the vocalist will undoubtedly need to hear the track he or she is singing along to. The backing track is usually played to the vocalist through a pair of headphones. Use headphones that provide enough isolation so that the backing track will not bleed through to the vocal microphone. Over the ear headphones types are the best - I use Bayerdynamic DT770Ms which are perfect for the job.


Vocal Recording Setup

Do not lose sight of the fact that a vocal recording session is one of the most fun things to do in a home studio. Being prepared, and having sufficient technical know-how of your software and hardware will go a long way to ensure that your recording session stays fun and gets you great-sounding results.

Recording Latency Issues

Depending on your hardware and software configuration, your digital recording system will have some intrinsic latency (delay). Familiarity with your particular DAW will help you to adjust buffer and sample rates and reduce latency as much as possible.

In some cases, your vocalist may find the amount of latency to be too offputting. Apart from upgrading your digital system to the latest spec, or recording using an analog setup, there is only one solution that I know of to overcome this. In this case, advise the vocalist to sing without hearing their own voice in the headphones mix.

Vocalist Backing Track

The vocalist will need a track played into headphones that he or she can hear and follow. Some vocalists like to have a minimum amount of backing while they are recording their vocals. For example, instead of hearing the full band playing the complete song, a vocalist may prefer to have a mix with just the drums and acoustic guitar. Try to ensure that you know your equipment well enough that you can set up a suitable backing track for the vocalist.

Additionally, ask your vocalist how wet or dry they would like their headphone vocal mix to be. Some vocalists want to hear their vocals 100% dry. Other vocalists want to hear their vocals with a small amount of delay and reverb, as the processed mix give them more confidence while recording. However, as a word of warning, do not record the vocals with any additional processing - make sure that you are recording the dry track only.

You may also need to add a limiter to the headphone mix so that the backing track is fully audible. Just be careful that the headphone mix is not too loud that it bleeds back into the vocal mix. Wherever possible, provide the vocalist the ability to adjust headphone mix whenever they want.

Multiple Vocal Takes

As we discussed earlier, it is never a bad idea to record multiple takes Of the same vocal track. The additional vocal tracks can be added to the main track to thicken the vocal. As no two tracks will be exactly the same, their subtle nuance will make a vocal track sound warmer, and provide more depth. The main vocal track should be panned to the middle position, while the two additional tracks will be panned to the left and right according to taste. Group the two additional tracks together so that their level can be adjusted at the same time, and set their level lower than the main vocal.


Postprocessing The Vocal Track

After you have recorded and comped the vocal tracks, you will most likely want to process them to make them pop out in the final mix. If you have a good pair of headphones, solo each vocal track and listen carefully for any clicks, pops or unwanted distortion (if you don’t have headphones use your monitor system but be ready to listen very carefully!). If you find any unwanted artifacts, you will probably want to remove them - since this is a whole other topic we will go into that right now.

Vocal Tuning

Recommended software for tuning vocals are Melodyne, Waves Tune, and iZotope Nectar. But before you gear up and start applying the software to every line and word of the vocal track, be warned that trying to tune everything is counter-productive. The software, if used excessively, will choke the life out of your vocal recording.

A recommended approach is to solo the vocal and melody tracks and listen out for words, notes, and phrases which stick out in the mix and sound unmusical. As with many approaches in mixing the keys to using powerful plug-ins, such as vocal tuning, are to be subtle and minimalistic.

Vocal De-Essing

There are certain letters from the alphabet that stick out more than others in recorded vocal audio. Sounds which are made by passing air over the vocalist’s lips and tongues are known as sibilance. Sibilant sounds are generally made from the consonants S, C, and T (ssshh, ccchh, and thh), and tend to pop out on a vocal track.

De-essing is the process of attenuating sibilance. There are many free and commercially available plug-ins which do an average job of de-essing, but it is highly recommended to remove or reduce, sibilance manually. Manual removal is a very time-consuming process and takes some effort to learn and master. However, the results from manual de-essing are far superior to the results from de-essing plug-ins.

Vocal Reverb

When recording vocals, it is always advisable to record 100% dry. That is, there is no compression, EQ, reverb, or delay applied to the recorded signal. Recording dry means that we can add, and manipulate the vocal sound in line with the material being produced.

Reverb is used to add sustain and fullness to the dry vocal track. The type of reverb and the amount is generally genre-specific and should be applied musically to add gravity to the song being mixed. Typical reverbs used for vocals include plates, springs, room, and hall reverbs - with some of the most notable vocal reverbs being the EMT250, EMT140, Lexicon 224, and Bricasti M7 - each with its own unique character and sound.

To preserve DSP, it is recommended to use reverbs on sends. And in many cases, you can achieve a fantastic result by using an EQ to filter out the signal going into the reverb (just Google Abbey Road reverb trick to learn more).

EQ-ing Vocals

Processing vocals with EQ is a broad subject, covered very well by other sources, so we will keep this section to a minimum. In essence, EQ should be used for cleaning up the low end, removing unwanted resonant frequencies (such as the nasal sound), and adding a little air.

No two vocal tracks will ever be the same, and therefore it is pretty much impossible to provide a single method which will suit all situations. That said, there are a few steps which can be followed, and provide a really good starting point, for improving the sound of your vocal tracks.

Roll off the Low End

High-pass filter with 12dB slope: Starting from the bottom end (30 Hz) scan the filter up until the vocals start to sound thin (around 90Hz to 140 Hz). Next, scan the filter down a little until the body of the vocals returns. Do not do this in solo, adjust the EQ while listening to all of the other instruments too.

Add a Little Air

High-frequency shelf with 2 dB of gain: A a good jumping-off point here is to set the frequency to 10 kHz, listen, decrease the frequency to about 6 kHz, increase the frequency to about 14 kHz and pick something in between. Use the EQ’s bypass button to A/B the effect.

Compressing Vocals

Without going into too much detail the first thing I am going to advise to do is to use at least two compressors - and use different compressors. Do not try to reduce the dynamic range of your vocals using a single compressor. Start with a ratio between 3:1 and 5:1, medium attack and medium release. Aim for about 1.5 or 2 dB gain reduction using three compressors, so that the total amount of gain reduction is no more than 8 dB. Don’t forget to increase the output gain at each stage.

Consider using a parallel compressed vocal track to help the quieter parts of the recorded vocal come to the front. Use a fast attack time on backing vocals to push them back in the mix.