- Learn how to get the headphone mix right.
- Microphone tips and techniques.
- Improving your room’s acoustics.
- Performance-enhancing tricks for your vocalists.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by how records were made.
Listening to well-produced records as a child was a completely different experience, not knowing the intricacies of how recording and mix engineers would achieve the subtle nuances in each of the instruments. As a child, music sounded larger than life itself, and the mystery of it all made it that much more exciting.
Today, I listen to music in a completely different light.
Of course, that same overwhelming sense of curiosity and wonder is still there, except there is now a highly analytical component that I love exploring.
- How did Butch Vig achieve that hauntingly dark vocal sound on Nevermind?
- How did Will Yip manipulate the vocals in Nothing – ‘The Dead Are Dumb’ to sound both perfectly ‘dreamy’ and ‘up-front’ at the same time?
- What led to the decision of recording Michael Jackson – Billy Jean with an SM57?
Over the years I have had the opportunity to toy, mess and meddle with a plethora of techniques on projects (both my own and from other clients).
That, coupled with thousands of hours of consuming videos and written interviews with famous producers and engineers such as Steven Slate, David Pensado, Chris Lord Alge, Butch Vig, Will Yip (to name a few), I’ve now amassed a pretty large library of vocal tracking tips and tricks that I’d love to share with you.
These vocal recording secrets cover everything from getting the headphone mix right, microphone tips, and how to get the best performance out of the vocalist. Here are my top 15 advanced vocal recording tips to get your records sounding like the pros.
15 Advanced Vocal Recording Techniques
Section 1: Getting The Headphone Mix Right
Have several pairs of headphones
Preparing your headphone mix in advance for the vocalist is paramount to getting the best vocal tracking results. On the day, however, you may find that the vocalist finds your pair of headphones uncomfortable, lacking bass response, or just does not fit their needs.
Instead of being a dick and insisting they are the best headphones in the business (they might be, but that doesn’t matter), put your pride aside and offer them a different pair. So long as they are closed-back and provide enough isolation, it should not matter. Many vocalists enjoy using their own headphones, ask them if they’d like to bring that pair in. Always ensure your vocalist feels as comfortable as possible.
Add a little reverb into the headphone mix
Confidence does wonders to a performance. An unconfident singer will hold back, have poor posture, and generally not perform to the best of their ability. A little trick I find that helps get singers comfortable is to add enough reverb to their headphone/monitor mix to give them the impression they sound larger than life. Reverb helps to smooth some of the rough edges, which we can become overly self-conscious about when performing and tracking vocals.
Looking for a great free reverb? We tested out 6 of the most popular free reverb VST’s on KVR, with audio samples provided to save you time. Check out the experiment here.To get vocalists comfortable and confident in the studio, add a touch of reverb to their headphone mix to give them the impression they sound larger than life Click To Tweet
Don’t overcompress the vocalist’s headphone mix
While a little compression can help singers get more into a performance (same effect as reverb), too much compression can completely throw off a singer’s sense of natural dynamics and destroy a good performance. Back off the compression 2-3db max to help catch those peaks, that’s all they should really need.
Communicate with your vocalist to see if they enjoy the amount of compression and other effects you’ve applied. You may find they might ask you to turn them all off. Again, whatever makes them the most comfortable — do it.
Check the balance of the headphone mix
It’s not uncommon for vocalists to tell you to turn the vocals up in their monitor mix. Exercise control though, because having it too loud in their cans can throw off their intonation. If you’re unsure, put on the headphones yourself and tell him/her to do a quick pass to confirm whether or not it’s of a reasonable volume. Monitoring can make or break a mix, so don’t overlook this.
Control headphone bleed from the vocal headphone mix
Be careful not to overdo it with the vocalist’s headphone mix volume. If the singer needs it loud in his ears, move them further back away from the microphone and ensure you are using a good pair of closed-back headphones. By no means should the performer be releasing one headphone cup from their ear so that they can hear their performance. If you notice them doing this, turn the instrumental down in their headphone mix so they can hear themselves properly.
Headphone bleed may not appear to be a severe concern during the recording phase, however, once you start mixing them, compression will make the bleed more apparent, especially once you start layering vocals and effecting them. Metronomes are often the biggest culprits here.
Section 2: Microphone Tips And Techniques
Audition a few microphones with your vocalist
Have a think about what microphones would work best for the job, and have your vocalist audition a few vocal passes on top of the instrumental to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
Remember, a vocal might sound fantastic solo’d and in isolation, but completely out of balance in the mix.
Use different microphones for different song sections
Look, even if you own a $6000+ Neumann U67, does that mean you should be using it on every vocal part? Definitely not. Experiment with different microphones for different purposes. Do you have a bridge section that would lend itself well to having a duller, less ‘full frequency response’ tone? Try using an SM58 for that section, and then have the chorus be sung using a full-spectrum condenser like the U87 or RODE NT-1A
The contrast between microphones will give an interesting sonic dynamic to the song, and make the arrangement more exciting, without anyone ever noticing how, or why.
Section 3: Controlling Your Recording Environment. Acoustic Tips For Recording Vocals
Makeshift blankets for sound absorption
Here’s a good tip for recording vocals at home. Grab a few boom mic or speaker stands, and drape a thick duvet/quilt/few blankets just a meter behind the vocalist to create a little absorption wall. This will help to prevent reflections from seeping into the microphone. It may look a little strange, but it’s worth the effort.
Record backup vocals in a separate space
Do you have a section of a song where the entire band joins in for a classic ‘gang vocal’ chant? Instead of cramming the entire band into the same vocal booth that you’ve been recording the main vocalist in, why not use a different space altogether?
In this circumstance, I’d experiment by having the ‘gang vocal’ recording done in a large, live room such as a hall. Thanks to laptops and small interfaces, there’s little excuse for not having availability to move around.
Manipulating proximity effect (part 1)
The proximity effect refers to the relationship of bass frequency build up to the position of the singer. Put simply, the closer the vocalist is to the microphone, the more bass frequency build up that occurs.
There is a lot to be said about microphone technique, and it isn’t always obvious to the performer. Many singers are flawless when singing without a microphone, but as soon as you introduce one, a lot can go wrong. Mouths too close to the microphone, not singing directly into the microphone, or moving around too much while recording can all have a drastic impact on the final outcome of the song.
Use your best judgment and guide the vocalist on positioning, and have them be aware (but not too aware) of where they are standing.
As a general rule: with personal, intimate sections that are whispered, have the vocalist closer to the microphone to capture more breathiness. Conversely, during aggressive screaming sections, have them back off a little.
Manipulating proximity effect (part 2)
Always take into consideration the properties of the microphone you are using and also the vocalist. Does it have a really large proximity effect? Does your vocalist have a really deep and bassy voice? If so, you might want to back them off a little to compensate. Again, use your best judgment and do what is best to serve the song.
You can manipulate proximity effect by instructing the vocalist to move slightly back during louder vocal passages, and closer for softer phrases. Some engineers such as Steven Slate refer to this as ‘manual compression’, and is an incredibly powerful technique.
For more tips on acoustic treatment for your home recording studio check out our 4 Tips To Improve Room Acoustics With Zero Budget.
Section 4: Performance Enhancing Techniques For Recording Vocals
Warm water: lots of it
Not the most advanced-sounding of tips, right? Hang on. Many believe that keeping the vocal chords hydrated throughout the recording session is key. While this is indeed true, I’d like to take this tip a step further and offer that staying hydrated the day before is just as, if not, more important than on the day itself. Recommend your singer to consume at least 2 liters of room temperature water the day before recording, and refrain from vocal irritants like alcohol and smoking.
Contrary to what you may read about soothing remedial teas, have them stay away from the kind that contains citrusy fruits like lemon and orange as they can cause the throat to develop phlegm.
Leverage the power of the sauna
Another ‘hot’ tip not directly related to recording technology? Remember, your recording will only be as good as the performer’s take. As a vocalist and producer, you’ll have to trust me on this one: it’s my secret weapon.
The sauna has a myriad of health benefits, and increasing singing ability is no exception. A light, 20-30 minute session in a wet sauna or steam room in the morning, on the day of recording, can drastically help to expand the lung capacity, increase general blood flow and energy, and clear up the vocal tracts from excess phlegm and mucus. Again, be sure to rehydrate with lots of warm water.
If you are interested in further enhancing your productivity you can check out our 9 Productivity Tools To Improve Focus For Musicians.
Don’t record vocals sitting down
Unless you are doing this for an intentional effect, always have the vocalist standing up to perform. Sitting down is not conducive to good singing posture, it restricts the diaphragm, meaning the vocalist has to strain more to hit those notes.
Get the vibe right
Vocals are more often than not, the most intimate voicing on the song. It is the closest resembling thing to a ‘personality’ that the audience will latch on to, and for that reason alone, it has to be convincing.
Do whatever it takes to get the best vocal performance out of them. I once had to record a singer who is quite spiritual and loved incense and candles. Naturally, I went out of my way to accommodate for this, because I knew that the results would pay off if my vocalist was in the right frame of mind and as comfortable as she could be.It's your job as a producer/engineer to do whatever it takes to get the best performance out of your clients. Click To Tweet
Don’t be afraid to offer the vocalist their favorite alcoholic beverage if it helps them connect on a deeper level with the song. As a producer and engineer, you are not just working with equipment. You’re working with people, each with unique personalities and it is your job to do whatever is possible to get the best take.
What are your personal favorite vocal recording tips and tricks to get the best takes possible? Let’s start a discussion and share the knowledge. Very interested to hear your thoughts…