How To Record Great Vocals

2010 Jun 14, 2010

For most popular music, no matter the genre, vocals play a hugely important role. The lyrics tell the message of the artist while the vocal is usually the melody line that gets stuck in your head. So it’s no surprise that a good recording is only truly good if you have a fantastic vocal recording. One with emotion, authenticity, passion, and confidence. Today I want to highlight a few practical tips to helping you (or your vocalist) capture great vocal performances in your studio.

Via Ewan Topping Flickr

Create a Creative Atmosphere

Most of the time when we think about getting a great recording our minds immediately go gear. What “stuff” is going to help me capture that perfect vocal. What we tend to forget however is that having the “best” equipment in front of vocalist in a bland, boring, and uninspiring room won’t do much for you. It’s super critical to create a “creative” vibe in your studio (even if that is your bedroom) in order to motivate and compel a stellar vocal performance.

A lot of singers like the lights turned down. The darker the better because they don’t feel as self conscious. Maybe light some candles or have a dim light in the room. Does the room smell good? Is it cluttered with bills and papers? Is it too hot or cold in the room? These are all simple issues that need to be addressed way before you ever hit the record button when tracking vocals. Singers perform their absolute best when they feel in the zone, one that happens many times naturally on stage (dark room, stage environment, doesn’t feel like work). Take a few minutes to create a comfortable and “musical” atmosphere and watch things get better.

Take Time To Set Up a Perfect Headphone Mix

Once a singer feels comfortable and creative, they still can’t perform well unless they can hear both themselves clearly and the music their singing with. Getting the perfect headphone mix (no matter how long it takes) is always worth it because it takes your vocalist one step further to feeling their absolute best. Otherwise, if they can barely hear themselves (or hear too much of their vocals) they won’t be thinking about singing at all; they’ll be thinking about surviving. At that is not what you want to capture.

Make sure your vocalist can hear all the instruments he/she wants to hear and at what levels. If he needs to hear more of his vocals then either turn him up or suggest removing one ear from the headphones in order to hear his vocals in “real space”. One tip I’ve learned over the years to help vocalists sing on pitch is this: if they are singing flat (under the pitch) it’s usually because they hear way too much of themselves and are backing off a bit. Simply turn down their vocals in their mix. The opposite is also true. If they are singing too sharp (or over the pitch) it means they can’t hear themselves enough and are pushing their vocals in order to hear themselves. Simply turn them up in their headphones. Rinse and repeat.

Let Them Sing Through The Song

I’ve been in many studio environments with other engineers and seen how different people approach actually recording vocals. One popular method is to punch in and out a lot (sometimes word by word) in order to compile a great take. I find this to be rather unsettling for most singers however.

Instead I prefer to hit record and let my vocalist warm up by singing through the entire song. Always record the “warm up” take just in case. Then I repeat the process letting them do 2 or 3 passes through the song, each time keeping the takes on a separate playlist (or virtual track). This gives the singer a chance to perform the song the way he or she actually knows it, as a whole song. Not piece by piece. And it also gives me plenty of material to work with later for comping and editing.

Notice a Trend?

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a trend in these three tips. In order to record great vocals, your vocalist (or yourself) needs to feel as natural as possible. They need to feel relaxed, hear themselves naturally, and be able to perform as naturally and normal as possible. Despite the studio being a different environment than the stage, our goal as engineers and producers is to cater to the musician’s needs in order to capture the best performance possible. These simple steps can help ensure that happens with your vocalist and thereby get you that much closer to a top notch recording!

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