We're great at picking up new techniques from the records we hear and, what with even the most basic DAWs offering native effects and sampling capabilities, the vocals we need can often be found on sample CDs. The time may come, however, when you suddenly find yourself humming a catchy hook over a new track. If the reason you haven't yet taken the vocal recording plunge is because you aren't quite sure how, this piece is dedicated to answering all the questions you ever wanted to ask about basic vocal recording.
Choosing a microphone
Recording a vocal means borrowing or buying a microphone and, if you're intending to do plenty of this kind of work, go for the latter, particularly as it's possible to get hold of microphones capable of great results for a relatively small financial outlay. Microphones fall into two main categories: dynamic and condenser. There are several operational differences between the two which could easily eat up the entire word-count of this article so, briefly, the crucial point to consider is that condenser microphones tend to be a studio choice, whereas dynamic ones are favoured onstage.
Condenser microphones require a power supply in order to work, which can either be provided by batteries or, more usefully, by phantom power, which is often indicated by a +48V button on a mic preamp or an audio interface. You might also consider the purchase of a pop shield, which is usually a circular guard which attaches to a microphone stand between the singer and the microphone and is designed to split up plosive "p" and "b" sounds which translate to unpleasant bass-y pops on your recordings. There is a huge range of microphones available in both categories but good places to start for those on a budget are, for dynamic microphones, the Shure SM58 and Rode M1 models and, for condenser microphones, the SE Electronics SE2000 and AKG's Perception range.
The other essential piece of gear you'll need apart from your computer and host software is an audio interface, which will transfer your vocal recording to computer, via USB or firewire. Again, a huge range of models are available, with low-cost options from companies including M-Audio, Novation and Focusrite more than capable of doing a great job. Ideally, you'll need to buy or borrow a microphone stand and get hold of a pair of nice-sounding, comfortable headphones too.
Once you've got your hardware in one place, it's time to get connected. The audio interface will need connecting to the computer and may well need drivers to establish a connection to your DAW, which you can either run from the bundled installer CD/DVD, or download from the manufacturer's website. Then, connect the microphone to your audio interface and, if it's a condenser microphone, enable phantom power. It's a good move to unplug headphones before doing this or, if you've already plugged your audio interface into your speakers, switch them off first, as enabling phantom power usually results in a loud pop. If your audio interface has several microphone inputs, note which one you've used, as this physical port will correspond to the input number on the audio track onto which you'll record your vocal.
The next thing to do is to arm a track ready for recording with this input number set up as the source—you should see a level going into your computer as you audition the microphone once the channel is armed. To modify the level, adjust the gain dial next to the microphone connector rather than adjusting the software fader within your host DAW. Software faders won't affect the level going into the computer at all but will affect the monitoring volume, which is the level that comes out of the computer and is fed to your singer. In other words, if she starts singing and asks to be turned down, you can drop the volume of the fader without having to adjust your perfectly set-up gain input level.
This is also true of effects—if you want to set up some reverb either in-channel or on an auxiliary channel to provide the vocalist with some space in which to sing, you can set this up without worrying about the effects being recorded. Simply remove the plug-in when you've finished and you'll be left with a dry result. Adding monitor reverb is a good move as it flatters the vocal and therefore tends to put singers more at ease and also provides a tail audible to the singer as they finish each note, which often eases pitching problems.
Before you record, it's a good idea to prepare your track for the addition of vocals. If your session has lots of plug-ins and effects running live, adding a real-time vocal is likely to tax your computer heavily and, as you want the session to run smoothly, minimize the risk of your computer's CPU overloading by bouncing down a stereo backing track of your song. Then, open this file in a brand new session. You'll be able to transfer the vocal performance back into your arrangement later, so don't worry that you'll be stuck with this mix.
Within this new arrangement, set up a dozen or so new mono audio tracks all with the correct microphone input selected, so you can jump between tracks without wasting time selecting inputs. If the singer is performing a lyric you wrote, it's a good idea to let them warm up by singing the whole song through two or three times at least, during which time you can set up recording levels, balance headphone mixes and adjust monitor reverbs. Resist the temptation to comment on their performance through this initial period, even if they're singing out of time and tune. Just let them warm up and get used to the new singing environment. The likelihood is that after these early performances, they'll ask for your feedback anyway, so wait for that rather than leaping in with immediate criticism.
Getting A Good Result
Depending on which DAW you use, you might find that there are some neat ways to record multiple takes onto the same track and then comp these together into a "perfect" performance later but, as not all DAWs offer this, we'll deal with more general advice. By setting up your dozen tracks, you have the capacity to make a recording, mute it, arm the track below and then record another take and by repeating this process, you'll soon have a number of recordings from which to choose the best bits.
If you're recording a whole song, it's a good idea to break this up into several sections so that your singer can concentrate on verse 1 before moving onto the first chorus or perhaps verse 2 instead. Don't forget to mute the previous take before recording a new one, unless you're tracking vocals, which is the process of stacking up two or more performances of the same line to add weight and depth. This is particularly effective on backing vocals and often sounds great.
Even if you have written the whole song yourself, encourage the vocalist to ad lib, harmonise or otherwise experiment with your melody line to see if they can come up with something more memorable—unless you sing well yourself, they'll know what sits comfortably better than you will. Be polite, generous in your praise and carefully considered in your criticism. Vocalists usually know when they're not quite delivering great performances but respond better to inspiring advice rather than put-downs. Suggesting breaks for water, fresh air and listening back sessions will also cast you in a professional light, so use your common sense too.
The list of possible effects you can add to a vocal is endless but once you've finished the session, some traditional techniques can get you a long way. Firstly, you'll need to comp all of your takes into a single performance, which means listening through each in turn and choosing your favourite bits to combine into a single, killer take. Check transitions between takes carefully to make sure there are no clicks, chopped off breaths, or unnatural pauses, for instance.
Once you're happy, bounce down the vocal as a mono file with all effects removed and open this audio file into a new audio track back in your track's master arrangement. Press play—your vocal is likely to be too quiet in this arrangement and too dry too, so let's look at a plug-in chain which will help it cut through. Firstly, it might need some tuning, so if your DAW doesn't have its own dedicated plug-in, look at Autotune EFX or the Melodyne plug-in to help you get each note sounding comfortable. If you want your vocal to be shiny and bright, which will certainly help it sit nicely in the mix, add some top end around 5kHz using your EQ of choice, and perhaps strip away a little content around 500Hz. Next, compress the vocal, which will help flatten out the dynamic range, meaning that the volume gap between the quietest and loudest moments is lessened.
The threshold level of a compressor shows you how loud the vocal has to get before it's processed so again, while there are no fixed rules, making sure that the vocal produces around 5dB of gain reduction at its loudest moments, setting a ratio (how hard the compressor is working) of around 4:1 and turning up the make-up/output gain to a comfortable volume should give you a decent 'basic' setting which you can then tweak to taste. Lastly, setting up two auxiliary buses with a reverb and a tempo-locked delay will add some sprinkle and sheen and will also help you place the vocal.
If all of that makes sense and is getting a good result, you're ready to start venturing further into your vocal production skills. Things to try: if the vocal you've recorded sounds too bright as your singer performs "s" sounds, try using a de-esser, which will drop the volume of frequencies at these moments.
Also, rather than relying just on your compressor for volume, use volume automation to bring up notes which are too quiet and to drop those which cut through too much. Lastly, try some effects spins, by setting up extra delays on auxiliaries and automating their send levels "up and down" for specific moments in your track. The more you experiment, the more fun (and possibilities) you'll have.