Monday, July 11, 2011

Vocal Recording 102 Technical Matters

Vocals are some of the hardest things to record well. They are often the most dynamic and can have all sorts of variables from sibilance problems to p-pops and all things in between. And it’s a rare singer who sings with the same tone and consistent volume from the first pass to the last. More often than not they’ll move on the mic, get louder (as they gain confidence) and each pass can be different than the one before. So it’s up to you to hear and anticipate what’s happening on the next take. the technical aspects. Step one is to recordingtip #7 Find the right microphone. Every singer is different and choosing the right mic depends on their voice as well as the style of music. Put up a few mics and see what sounds right for what you’re doing. What is needed for a rock vocal is usually different than what you’d pick for a pop, jazz or R&B vocal. For some rock vocals you might even choose something like an SM57. For a jazz or pop vocal a high end tube mic may be better. You’ll need to listen and decide.

Next, recordingtip #10 Always use a good pop filter. You can make one or use one like the Stedman pop filter. You want to find one which does the job of preventing consonants like “p” and “b” from creating a low frequency pop sound on the mic. Now I will say that there are times a slight pop can sound exciting and add drama to the performance. But in general, they’re not a good thing.

One other trick I forgot to mention that I use when recording a singer who pops the mic even with a pop filter in place is to tape a pencil on the mic. Tape it to the mic where the body of the pencil is in front of the capsule of the mic. The idea of this is that the wind created from the singer’s mouth will hit the pencil and be diverted a bit so it doesn’t hit the capsule straight-on. This can also be used with no pop filter but only in the right circumstances. The singer has to be very good about not creating the ‘plosives for that to work. Frankly, I’ve never had such a singer. I’ve always used a pop filter.

One last comment about pop filters. They will color the sound if they are very dense. Some nylon pop filters have a double layer. Such filters will take off some of the high frequency detail, so I use a single layer. The Stedman is good in that it’s effective and transparent. But at times you may have to resort to the double layered nylon types.

By the way, if I’m mixing have a recorded vocal which has ‘plosives issues I’ll often highlight the offending spot, go into Audiosuite and select a high-pass filter. I’ll find the frequency where the problem is solved and write the filtered audio over the problem area. Make sure you cover more than the problem, then edit back and crossfade so it sounds natural.

One the most important aspect of recording vocals which can be overlooked is a good headphone mix for the singer. I cannot overstate this enough. It’s often that the engineer is so busy they don’t take proper care with this. But the fact is it’s almost impossible for a singer to make a great performance when they have a bad headphone mix.. You must remember that singing with headphones is a very unnatural experience. For most of their life singers have heard themselves with their own ears, giving them feedback as to what they’re doing. When they put headphones on it’s a very unnatural experience. So take time, listen to their mix and make it as good as you can. And also be sure they have some good sounding headphones. A good mix in bad phones still sounds bad. The ones I have and have good success with is the Sennheiser HD280 Pro. They sound great and are not expensive. I also use them to check my mixes.

One of the comments made on this subject was in regard to headphone bleed. I do prefer singers to have headphones which are closed so the headphone bleed is at a minimum. Some singers do prefer to have one ear off. That’s fine. Just make sure they don’t pull it out and point to the mic. Ask them to leave it resting against their head so you don’t get the bleed into the mic.

Another essential piece of equipment I use for vocals is the SE Reflexion Filter. One of the challenges in home recording is that often the space in which one records isn’t acoustically treated properly. But I like it even in well treated rooms. It’s just one of the best investments you’ll even make in a home recording environment. It knocks down room reflections so you get only the singer’s voice, and not unwanted ambient reflections from your recording space. And of course it’s not just for vocals. Recording most any acoustic instrument will sound better with one of these in place. I’ve seen cheaper versions in the stores, but if at all possible go with this one.

Lastly, you must pay attention to the singer’s dynamics. Often the beginning of the song can have the singer singing very softly in the verse, and then loudly in the chorus. As I said before, singers will often get louder as they become more confident as they work through the song. So pay attention and listen. Anticipate those moments and back down the preamp when you hear them getting stronger. Now that can be tricky. If you wait too long then it can be hard to make the lines match and the singer may sing differently as you’ve lowered their volume in their phones. So...when you lover the mic pre, turn up their volume in their phones before they notice.

Vocals are clearly most important as it carries the message of the song. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. A song with a good, well recorded vocal can usually be mixed to sound decent...even if the tracks are poorly recorded. But even the most killer sounding tracks won’t sound great with a poorly recorded and sung vocal.

And if nothing else...remember recordingtip #58 and 59. ALWAYS be in record and ALWAYS keep the first pass. Even if everyone tells you to dump it. Tell them you did, but keep it anyway. If they want it later, you’ll be a hero.


  1. Love this article, especially the bit about choosing the right mic. Did mix recently where the recording engineer chose a r0de tube mic for the lead vocals... what a mission to de-ess. it was NOT the best choice!!!

    Quick question. you mentioned maybe using an SM57. Am i right that the capsule is identical to the 58. I've been told this, but looking at the published frequency response curves they are different, but there is a theory that the 58's response is as a result of the pop filter.
    I did my own test that confirmed this... the 57 and 58(pop filter removed) had identical frequency response???

  2. They should sound alike minus the built-in pop filter of the 58. That's a perfect example of what I mentioned in the blog about how pop filters take away some high frequency detail. However sometimes that is a worthwhile trade-off.