"Home Recording Tips on Budget Vocal Recording"

 

 

In any given song, virtually without exception, the vocals are the focal point. It’s the vocal melody most people hum along to, and it’s the identifying factor to any group.

 

Time and again we’ve seen bands complain that their singer gets all of the attention, whether he or she is a brilliant singer/songwriter, or just another hired gun. There is something in our psychological make-up that needs to identify with a song’s singer and its lyrics. A great vocal performance can render even the most banal lyrics into something that approaches the sublime. In turn, a bad vocal recording can transform it all into unintelligible gibberish. For this installment, we are going to look at some relatively inexpensive ways in which you can improve your vocal recordings.

 

We are going to start with the most essential tool in the recordist’s arsenal, the microphone. Of course, in a pro studio, the engineers have access to a locker full of expensive world class microphones to choose from. It is unlikely that the average home-recordist is equally blessed. However, the same digital recording technologies that have revolutionized the home studio have created a huge demand for quality budget microphones and pre-amps.

 

For the first time ever, our new recording methods are revealing the not insubstantial inadequacies of our cheap, dynamic mics. The manufacturers have been swift to respond to this new market, and we currently have a plethora of affordable, large-diaphragm microphones to choose from. This really should be one of the first purchases a home studio owner ought to make.

 

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I’ve always been a little amused by my friends who have stacks and stacks of shiny new keyboards and effects processors, but have neglected the two most critical pieces of gear: the microphone and the monitors! With the current prices of these mics, there is really no excuse. Certainly, you are not going to get a Neumann on a home studio budget, but there are models from Rode, CAD, AKG, Audio Technica, and other manufacturers that sound great and should fit within just about anyone’s budget.

 

The next thing to consider is a microphone preamplifier. Again, there are dozens of budget models on the market. Like the microphone, you can’t expect to get a world class model for under a grand, but you can certainly find very good ones for half of that. Models from Grace Designs, Focusrite, and Presonus come to mind, though there are a lot more. One thing to note: If you buy a “tube” microphone, you are probably going to want a solid-state preamp.

 

I personally think there is something to be said for the “tube” trend in recent years, and I have a tube mic. However, I chose a solid-state preamp, as the tube mic running through my tube pre was just too distorted for my tastes. You should make sure your preamp supplies “phantom power”, as your condenser microphone is most likely going to require it.

 

Another thing you are going to want is a pop filter. These are the big hoops with mesh stretched across them that you see in the pro studios. These prevent “plosives”, or the pronounced popping you hear when a vocalist sings words with the letters “p” or “b”. These can be quite costly, or you can perform the old trick of stretching a bit of nylon stocking around a bent up wire coat hanger or embroidery hoop. If you really want to be cheap, you can tape a pencil vertically down the face of the mic, just in front of the capsule. This will break up those sound waves, and can reduce the plosives quite dramatically. I have carpeting affixed to the walls. This was part of a very inexpensive and effective improvement to my studio: my vocal booth. Well, closet, actually. My studio is in a bedroom in the basement of our house. It’s a decent sized room, and has two closets, plus plenty of cabinets. Like many of you, I record into my PC, which makes a God-awful racket with its cooling fans.

 

To combat this noise, I spent around ten dollars on some foam and a secondhand Indian rug, which I stuck to the walls of one of the closets. This absorbs most of the reflections from my voice for reverb-free recordings. I then put up a light, and strung the mic and headphone cables through a small hole in the wall near the floor. This provides me with a quiet, comfortable, well-lit booth where I can record my vocals. If you can’t convert a closet, get a very long microphone cable, and record in your bathroom. This has the benefit of providing a natural tiled reverberation. If you don’t want the reverb, hang towels and blankets all about to absorb the reflections.

 

Now that we’ve got our mics and our preamps (and maybe even a vocal booth!), lets get down to the ways we can make that recording sound pro. For starters, let’s discuss microphone technique. Most budget vocal mics have a fixed “cardioid” response. This means that they pick up what is directly in front of them, while rejecting the sound waves that come from the sides or from behind. Very handy for shutting out unwanted noise (by the way, you did shut off the air-conditioner before tracking, didn’t you?). However, a cardioid response carries with it something called the “proximity” effect. This is an exaggeration of the low frequencies when the singer is closer to the capsule, which can result in a “boominess” in the recording.

 

Experiment with different positions from the microphone when singing. You’ll find the position that works for you. Some microphones allow you to switch in a high pass filter that rolls of the bottom end, but I prefer getting it right in the recording itself. You might try singing at an angle where the air flows across the capsule diagonally. This can help reduce that proximity effect. A good studio singer can “play” the microphone by singing at different volumes and distances from the capsule. If the technique is good, the performance sounds dynamic, but the volume levels will be fairly consistent.

 

This brings us to compression. Compressors are one of those absolutely necessary studio tools that can seem so hard to grasp to the novice. This needn’t be so, as their function is quite simple: to reduce the dynamic range of a recording. This is vital to getting that “up-front” and intimate vocal style that is the hallmark of a commercial recording. Legendary producer Tony Visconti once stated “Compression is the sound of rock”. We’ll get into compression in depth in a future installment, but we’ll cover the basics here, as it can be vital to a good vocal recording.

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Compressors have a number of parameters that can be adjusted to suit our needs. The “threshold” is the level beyond which your signal will be compressed. A good threshold when tracking vocals might be between -3dB and -10dB. The “ratio” is how much compression is applied to the signal when it exceeds the threshold. The higher the ratio, the more compressed the signal will be. For example a ratio of 2:1 will compress the output signal to half that of the input signal. For a more controlled performance, try setting the ratio at something like 2:1. For a really dynamic vocal, try heavier settings such as 4:1 or 5:1. The “attack” and “decay” settings control how the compression is applied over time once the threshold is reached.

 

The fastest possible attack is what we want for vocals, while the decay (sometimes called “release”) should be set to “auto” mode if your compressor has one. If not, try a low release setting. Most experienced engineers take the tempo of the song into account when setting the attack and decay. You may also see a “knee” setting on your compressor. For vocals, a soft knee is probably the ticket. Remember that these are just suggestions, and your recording is going to be different from mine. You have to find that magic place between compressing enough to bring out the vocals and compressing too much, destroying the dynamics of the performance completely.

 

Other effects to look at are de-essers, equalization, enhancers or exciters, and reverb. De-essers are used to remove excessive “sibilance” in the vocal recording. This is the piercing or shrill sound when the letter “s” is sung. There are dedicated devices, both hardware and software, to remedy this problem. I like to apply the Waves De-esser to my vocals, though there are plenty more that’ll do the job. Enhancers and exciters are artificial processes that can be applied to great effect to bring out a vocal track.

 

Exciters add a small amount of harmonic distortion to the sound, while enhancers attempt to rectify subtle phase inaccuracies that occur when recording. This has the effect of added “presence” in the signal. Probably the best known manufacturer of exciters is Aphex, with its “Aural Exciter”, while BBE’s Sonic Maximizer is the king of enhancers. Both are available as software plug-ins. I tend not to use these types of processors too often, though there are no hard and fast rules. With the availability of free VST plug-in versions such as RGC Audio’s High Frequency Stimulator, there’s no reason you shouldn’t try them!

 

Finally, we come to equalization and reverberation. These are usually best handled at mix-down, but we’ll touch on them briefly. Unfortunately, there are no definitive answers to proper EQ, as every voice and every song is different. Something to be aware of, however, is what other instruments in the mix might be battling the vocals for dominance. Electric guitars in particular are a constant threat to the vocal’s intelligibility. If you find this to be the case, then try reducing the guitar track a few dB in the area of 2-5 kHz. Alternatively, you could give the vocal a little nudge there, though it’s usually a wiser practice to reduce frequencies in the surrounding tracks when applying EQ. When it comes to reverb, you must remember this: the more reverb you apply, the further back your vocal will sound.

 

I often use no reverb on the main vocal, preferring to add delay or double-track the voice. If you must add reverb, think small and intimate. Plates are good, and small rooms can work well, too. Obviously, there are no rules, and some styles of music call for a dense wash of thick reverb on the voice, but for an intimate sound, you really want to go easy on the reverb. I’ll eventually post an article on mixing, and EQ and reverb will be covered at length then.

 

That’s about it for vocal recording. The only thing I might add is that getting the performance right comes first. If there’s an excessive amount of sibilance, or the proximity effect is too high, don’t try to fix it with trickery; simply re-record it. The best thing about the home studio is that nobody has to watch the clock. You can stay up all night getting the perfect take, if you need to. Also, keep all of your decent takes, as you might find that one sounds better tomorrow than it did today.

 

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