Lesson 40

How to Record Vocals

On most songs, vocals are the primary part that stand out the most, and that get the most attention. Vocals are also the instrument that our human ears are most sensitive to hearing imperfections, or weird sounds. For instance, if you record a vocalist while they play guitar, and you put a microphone in front of the guitar, that microphone will pickup 90% guitar, and 10 % vocals. Conversely, the vocal microphone will pick up 90% vocals, and 10% guitar. When you blend the 2 microphones together on playback, each microphone has 10% bleed from the other part, and the bleed is out of phase, which creates a bit of a weird sound. The weird sound is not really noticeable on the guitar, but it is very noticeable on the vocals. It’s because we are very used to the human voice, we know exactly how it should sound, and we are sensitive to imperfections with it.

So recording vocals should be done with as much perfection as possible. Use the best microphone you can get, such as the iSK 2b Beauty gen2, with the best room acoustics possible, and your best preamp.

You’ll want the vocalists mouth to be about 6-8 inches away from the microphone diaphragm, with a pop filter in between and at a slight angle, to protect the microphone from wind bursts and humidity. Have the diaphragm slightly above the mouth, but below the nose, pointed slightly downward toward the mouth. Have the vocalist pretend they are singing into a microphone slightly below where it actually is. I do this because the airflow from our mouths has a natural downward tendency. So by placing the capsule slightly higher, it helps reduce wind noise.

Also make sure there is somewhere convenient for the artist to place their headphones when they take them off. Otherwise, they will place them in the first available spot they find. If they are placed too close to the microphone, it will cause feedback, which can damage gear and ears.

It’s very important that the vocalist is comfortable. Give them their space, encourage them to do vocal warmups. Quite often vocal warmups involve making a bunch of funny noises, and they will be embarrassed to do this with an audience (you) so leave the studio for 5 minutes or so while they do their warm ups. It also helps them overcome their self consciousness if the put on the monitoring headphones and hear themselves through the microphone. 

I once had an artist in my studio, it was his first time in a proper studio, and he was so tense and I could feel it in his performance. I literally stopped recording, got him to jog on the spot right there in the studio for a couple minutes. I was there too doing it with him so he didn’t feel silly. Then we spent about half an hour doing vocal warm ups. After that, we started recording vocals again, and it was a night and day difference. He left me an awesome review on Facebook, and came back to record with me again.

Always make sure there is water available, and if you are extra prepared, have warm tea available as well. Have a small table near the recording area where the artist can put their water. Most vocalists bring a water bottle to the studio, and you don’t want them to have to put it on the floor. 

It’s also very important that the artist can hear themselves well. If they can’t hear themselves, they’ll sing with less control, and poor intonation.
Check out lesson 5.6 on my mixer monitor technique that makes it easy for artists to be comfortable with their headphone mix. Sometimes you’ll want to put a touch of reverb on their vocals in the monitor mix. There’s pros and cons to this.
Most singers like to hear themselves with a bit of reverb, because it makes them sound better to themselves, and therefore gives them more confidence in their performance. It tends to mask the small blemishes in the performance. This is the exact reason it might be better not to have reverb, as the artist will hear their own performance with more accuracy, which will help get a better performance. 
With or without reverb, the singer will quickly get used to the sound. So, My own preference is to not give the artist reverb, because the most important thing to me is to set the artist up for their best possible performance, and then I will be adding reverb in the mixing stage.

Use closed back headphones, such as the iSK HD-9999 for the artist to wear. This will minimize track bleed into the microphone, and also minimize audible distractions to the artist.

Once the artist is warmed up and comfortable, I generally just jump right into it, and start recording. At least that’s what I tell the artist. The first take is almost never the best anyways, so that’s what I use to set my preamp levels, and make any necessary adjustments to the microphone position, at anything that needs to be tweaked. That first take is basically a sacrificial take, for you to get everything in order, and for the artist to get warmed up. Then I do another take, but I’m not adjusting things anymore. The. I do another take, and another. I’m always listening to each take as it’s being recorded. Did they make any mistakes? Make a mental note of it that they don’t make the same mistakes on subsequent takes. If they botch the same spot on all takes, you won’t have any good recordings for that part.
Also listen to the overall quality of their singing. Is it getting better with each take? Is it getting worse?
Most artists get a little better with each take until they’ve done about 5 takes, then they start getting worse. When they start getting worse, usually that’s where I stop and say “good job! Lead vocals are all done!” Or if there’s a spot they kept messing up, then we’ll focus on nailing that specific part.

I like to get a few takes of the entire song, non stop from start to finish. That way I always have something to fall back on if other overdubs don’t work out, and I also have it so I know the layout of the song. Once I have a few takes of the whole song, it’s often a good idea to focus on one verse at a time. 

I like to do lead vocals first, because that’s usually where there best energy is. Once lead vocals are done, it’s time to do harmonies. Now, not all songs need harmonies recorded, but one of the things my clients like about recording with me is that I encourage them to record harmonies on the hook, or any other part of the song that I see fit. Quite often they had never even planned harmonies in the song. Often during a vocal take, I won’t even listen to the vocals they are recording. I’ll be listening to the song as a whole, and thinking about where and how to add vocal harmonies. Usually, they love it when I present them with my ideas. I’ll play the song out loud on the speakers, and I’ll sing the harmonies that I had envisioned. I’ll use the piano to play the notes, and I’ll coach them through finding the right pitch. A lot of people can’t sing harmonies, they just don’t have the ear for it. That’s ok... pitch correction software to the rescue. It takes a little more time, but every note is perfect.

For high energy songs, it’s also a good idea to record doubles. This is simply an additional take of the lead vocals. When you blend it in very subtly, it adds a pleasant energy to the vocals, especially useful during the chorus. We’ll go over this more in section 4.3.4- mixing vocals.