How to record a good vocal in your home recording studio
There are a lot of reasons you might want to record your vocals at home. Even if you are planning to take the song in to a recording studio and have it mixed by a professional, many singers feel a lot more comfortable at home in their bedroom or home studio. This means you can take the time to capture a great performance. And when it comes down to it, the most important part of recording a great vocal, is capturing a great performance. With modern tools at our fingertips we can change just about everything else in a vocal take. Tuning is easy, EQ and compression make them sound up front and cut through the mix and we can easily make them sound like they were recorded in another space with reverb and delays. The one thing we can't change - and this is coming from a producer/engineer that has been working with vocals for over 20 years - is the performance! When artists come into my recording studio in Melbourne to record a vocal, I spend lots of time making sure they feel comfortable and that the mix is right in their headphones, so they can forget they are in a studio and get lost in the song. If they are not feeling it and it's going badly, I will often tell them to ditch the vocals for that day and try it another day when they are feeling the vibe.
What sort of vocal chain do I need?
You may think you need a $10,000 Neumann U47 into a Neve 1073, into a LA2A to record a great vocal, but you don't! These days there are lots of great cheaper options that sound great. The thing that will make the difference is having a good vocal booth. The idea for a vocal booth is creating a nice dead corner of your studio that has no reflection points. This means that the mix is only picking up the source - the vocalist, rather than the reflection of the vocal coming off the wall. If this happens the vocal sounds spacey and loses intimacy and can't be changed in mixing time. IF you get a nice dry vocal, you can do anything with it and chances are it will sound great.
Some examples of some great budget vocal mics that all cost under $500
- Rode NT1a $257 in a pack with pop filter, shock mount and cable
- sE Electronics sE2200a II $399
- OPR87 $450
Apart from the mic, you are going to need a pop-shield and a shock-mount. The pop-shield is to stop the pops tha come out of your mouth on certain words that can make a 'pop' sound in the microphone. This is a very unpleasant sound and hard to fix later. The shock-mount should come with the microphone you buy and it stops any vibrations coming through the mic from the floor or mic stand when you move around.
Next in your signal chain is the microphone preamp. Just like microphones, the budget end of mic pres has vastly improved in the last few years. There are two good option with mic pres. The first is buying a recording interface that has some built in mic pres. The are usually nice clean pres with control of the gain from your computer. There are lot's of great recording interfaces out there but the Focusrite Scarlett range is pretty hard to beat for value for money.
When picking you audio interface, think about many ins and outs you will need and also think about what you will use for you headphone feed for the vocalist. If they are in the same room as you, a second headphone jack on your interface will be fine, but if you have the vocalist in another room it might be a good idea to have 2 x spare outputs on your interface to feed a headphone amp in the other room.
Make sure you have a good quality mic cable as it doesn't matter how good you vocal chain is if there is crackling coming through your cable! The other thing you don't want to skimp on is a decent pair of closed back headphones. There are two reasons for this - the first is your vocalist will give a much better performance if they have a good headphone feed, and you won't get any spill of the music coming out the back of the headphones as that can completely ruin a recording. Also invest in a good light if they have lyrics, a good quality music stand and if you have the budget, a spare ipad for them if they have they lyrics on their phones - it can be much easier to read.
Well that's all the equipment and environment covered. The next thing to think about if you are recording someone else, is how you are going to get a great performance out of the vocalist. Like I said before, make them feel relaxed and create a nice environment that is going to make them feel the vibe. By this I mean, use some lighting, burn some incense (although watch out for allergies) and make them a nice cup of lemon and ginger tea to open their sinuses. When tracking the takes, make sure you have the session setup ready to go and that you have tested all the lines and checked for latency so nothing stops the flow mid takes. Give the vocalist praise when they are doing well and be very careful when asking them to do something different.
Well that's it! Happy vocal tracking.