Recording a Great Vocal Performance

Before Christmas I was doing some recording with a friend of mine named Karen. It was a great project, and I learned a lot from it. For a lot of my recording projects, I’ve been recording myself, so it was a very good experience for me to practice recording someone else. This is something I would highly recommend doing sometime, if you haven’t already.

But anyway, back to the point. Karen is primarily a singer. So in today’s post, I would like to discuss some tips for capturing a great vocal performance. I was reminded of some of these things while preparing to record Karen, and while I was actually recording her.

Since the vocals are often the most important track in the song, it’s worth getting them right. They have the potential to make or break the song. And getting them right starts with the performer.

Record a great singer

So this first point may be obvious, but I think it can be all too easily overlooked. If you’re recording someone who can’t sing very well, you will only get so far. Autotune isn’t going to fix a bad vocal performance. There is no mixing trick out there that will make a bad singer sound like a great singer.

The key here is practice. If you’re recording yourself, practice your singing as much as you can. Record yourself and listen back. What do you like? What don’t you like?

If you’re recording someone else, encourage them to do the same. To critique their own voice. To practice a lot.

This isn’t the tip that most people want to hear. It’s not a quick fix. It’s hard work. But this is truly where it all starts. Record a good voice.

Make sure the singer is comfortable

Standing in an empty room singing to a mic and bare walls is pretty different from singing on stage with a room full of screaming fans. And that difference has a big impact on the energy and vibe of a vocal performance.

Since we probably can’t bring a bunch of screaming fans into our home studios, we need to get a little more creative with how we make the singer comfortable. How we get them in that emotional, creative zone where they can sing their heart out to the best of their abilities.

When I first started recording myself, my wife told me that my voice didn’t match the music. My singing was, well, boring. I wasn’t putting the emotion and life into it that I would if I was playing live.

Talk to the person whose voice you’re recording. Figure out what makes them tick. What makes them comfortable. Maybe they like some reverb in their headphone mix. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they could sing better in a dim room lit by candle light. Karen had to have some room to move her arms around while singing. Whatever it is, find a way to get your singer in the zone. Work with him or her. Your recordings will thank you for it.

Tuning is easier to fix than tone

Don’t get me wrong here. As I said, you want to record a good singer, and make sure they’ve practiced a lot.

But the reality is, if the singer focuses all of their energy on making every single note the perfect pitch, the performance can actually suffer.

When I recorded Karen, I explained to her that if she hits a slightly sour note, I can fix that. We can punch in a new take, or I can fix some things in Melodyne.

But if the performance sounds boring, or dry, or over-concentrated, that can’t be fixed later.

Encourage your singer to focus first on the emotion and tone of his or her voice. Of course, don’t neglect trying to get the pitch right. But make that a secondary concern.

Get the mic placement right

This is true of recording anything. But for vocals in particular, the distance from the mic can make a huge difference.

If the singer is too close to the mic, the voice will sound boomy and bassy. If the singer is too far from the mic, the voice will sound wimpy and distant.

Find that balance. It’s there somewhere. Start at about 6 inches. Try closer. Try further. Most importantly, listen to it in the context of the mix. Maybe the voice sounds distant in solo, but when you bring in the rest of the mix, it sits in just the right spot.

Try a mic position. Record a bit. Listen. Repeat. Maybe even try another microphone. See what’s different. Use the one you like best.

A word of caution however: don’t try so many different positions and microphones that your singer gets bored or loses their voice. Try two or three different positions, and use the best one.

Pick a good spot in the room

Finally, you don’t need a vocal booth to capture a great vocal performance. I don’t have a vocal booth, and I think my vocal recordings sound pretty darn good.

However, pick a spot in the room that sounds good. Corners are going to sound more bassy. Close to bare walls are going to sound more lively, which may or may not be a good thing.

Again, try a position. Record. Listen back. Try another. Experiment until you find the place that works best for the singer and the song.

So that’s all I got for today. Recording a vocal performance isn’t rocket science. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s this: it truly all starts with a good singer, and a good performance. You can use the best microphone in the world in a floating, soundproofed vocal booth and touch up the audio later with all the plugins you want. But if the vocal performance sounds bad or is boring, you can only get so far. Do your work on the front end. The song will be so much better because of it.

How about you? Any vocal recording tips you’d like to share?

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4 thoughts on “Recording a Great Vocal Performance

  1. Nice tips, Alex! While I am not doing vocal or any recording work yet, I wish to do in future. The tips shared by you here are general and quite helpful, especially for anyone who is just about to start recording vocals. I don’t have anything to share at this moment, but I can take your tips and try to apply them in my own recordings. 🙂

    However, one thing I want to mention is that don’t remove the sibilance and such natural vocal effects completely from the recording, because when kept they will make the vocals sound more natural, and they can also be used to create good sound effects – for example, by applying delay, more reverb or filter effects only on them. You can even record the words that highlight your lyrics and arrange them with your main vocals for greater impact and creativity. Linkin Park & Enigma are the artists I can recall right now who have used such techniques in many of there songs.

    Thanks for sharing this post!

    Like

    1. Hi Kaitav,

      Yes, good points! The sibilance and consonants are very important for understanding the words. Often I will use a compressor, or multiple stacked compressors, on a vocal with really fast attack and release. It basically has the effect of turning down the vowels, and turning up the consonants. Makes the vocal easier to understand and cut through the mix.

      Of course, after doing that, sometimes the sibilance does turn out to be a bit much. The S and T sounds can really cut through unnaturally. That’s where I would use EQ in the 7-10 kHz range, or a de-esser, just to tame the sibilance a bit. Not to take it away, but to make it sound a bit more natural and less piercing.

      When you start recording vocals, let me know how it goes! It’s a fun process, and it takes some practice, but with some work, you can totally get great sounding vocal recordings in a home studio 🙂

      Alex

      Like

      1. Hey Alex, those are great tips! I will try doing some experiments when I record vocals, and I will definitely let you know about it. Mixing vocals will be new and challenging, but it will surely be fun. You and your blogs will be quite helpful for me in this regard. Thanks for your advice and encouragement.

        I wish you good luck with your music and writing. Keep it up! 🙂

        Like

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