Vocals…it’s the one thing we all record.
And it’s the one thing all listeners hear.
Therefore…it demands our best work.
But with all the knowledge, gadgets, and techniques it requires…
In can feel overwhelming for beginners especially early on.
The good news is, with a just few simple tips…
Virtually anyone can SIGNIFICANTLY improve their sound in almost no time at all.
So in today’s post, I’ll share with you the best tips I know.
Finding the Right Microphone
These days, good vocal mics can be bought CHEAP…
For only a few hundred dollars, which is well within reach of average home studios, you’ll have your pick among dozens of great options.
To find out which ones I recommend, check out these articles:
- The 7 Best Microphones for Recording Vocals: under $700
- The 6 Best Dynamic Microphones of All-Time
- The 7 Best Large Diaphragm Condenser Mics: under $500
The 5 Issues That Ruin Vocals
In many ways, a good vocal sound comes LESS from employing fancy techniques, and MORE from avoiding common problems.
Specifically, these 5:
- Proximity Effect
- Foot Noise
- Poor Room Acoustics
Now let’s explore each one further…
One strange thing about the human voice is…
When pronouncing “P” and “B” sounds, a strong blast of air is expelled from the mouth.
In normal speech you don’t even notice it.
But on recordings, these air blasts strike the diaphragm of the mic…
Creating a punchy low frequency sound known as Popping.
To understand it better, try this exercise:
Place your hand in front of your face as you say these two sentences:
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Better businesses build big boxes.
Feel the air hitting your hand? That’s popping.
To avoid it, the easiest way is to sing into the mic at a slightly off-axis angle, so the blasts don’t strike the diaphragm directly.
However…since many singers can’t or won’t do it, engineers often use pop filters instead.
Here’s how they work:
- By creating a barrier between the singer and the mic, pop filters act like a net to catch “plosives“, while allowing other sounds to pass freely.
- The barrier also acts as a distance marker, preventing singers from moving in too close, as they often will.
To see which pop filters I recommend, check out this article:
The OTHER strange about the human voice is…
When pronouncing “S” and “F” sounds, the mouth emits a high frequency blast of air, commonly known as sibilance.
You don’t notice it in daily conversation…
But on recordings, when your mouth is right up against the mic, it often sounds painfully obvious.
Let’s do another demonstration:
Using a condenser mic (which is more prone to sibilance), record yourself saying this line:
She sells sea shells by the sea shore.
Now listen back and pay close attention to the “S” sounds. Hear that annoying hiss? That’s sibilance.
To fix this problem, you COULD just mask it with software tools like de-essers and mult-band compressors…
But the smarter strategy is to avoid recording it in the first place. Just like with popping, singing at an off-axis angle can USUALLY fix the problem.
If not though, here’s something else you can try:
The Pencil Trick.
Grab a pencil, and secure it directly over the diaphragm of your mic with a rubber band, as shown in this picture.
Now…those high frequency blasts will be split in half by the pencil, and diverted off to the side. Problem solved.
3. Proximity Effect
Due to the design of the cardioid mics…
Which is the standard polar pattern used on vocals…
Whenever a sound source is located within a few inches of the diaphragm…
The microphone exhibits a noticeable low-end boost in its frequency response.
The closer the sound, the stronger the effect.
With certain instruments such as acoustic guitar, this can serve as a useful tool in adding warmth.
On vocals however, when inexperienced singers use it unintentionally…
It can be extremely annoying to hear that low end boost appear and disappear at random.
If your singer is having this problem, here’s how you fix it:
- Use a pop filter – to prevent the singer from getting too close to the mic.
- Use omnidirectional mics – which are immune to proximity effect because of their design.
4. Poor Room Acoustics
You could do EVERYTHING ELSE perfectly…
But the fact is…
If the acoustics in your room suck, so will your vocals.
And without proper acoustic treatment, you can pretty much guarantee that your studio’s acoustics WILL suck.
So if you don’t have any yet, make it your top priority. Here’s an article to help you get started:
If you don’t have the money or space to do it the traditional way…
Reflection filters can a good cheap alternative for anyone in search of a shortcut. They may not work as well as “real” acoustic treatment…but they’re a thousand times better than nothing at all.
To see which ones I recommend, check out this article:
5. Foot Noise
With certain flooring…
Every single footstep can be heard loud and clear throughout the entire house.
When singers who tap their feet, those vibrations travel up your mic stand, and onto the recording.
The common solution to this problem is to add a shockmount, which works by creating acoustic isolation between the mic and the stand.
To find out if YOU need one, here’s what you do:
- Setup your mic as you normally would, record enable the track, and crank up the gain.
- Put on your headphones, walk around the mic stand, and listen.
If you hear your footsteps or any other floor noise, you could probably benefit from a shockmount.
While many vocal mics come with one included, if yours doesn’t, here’s what you do:
Because most shockmounts are designed to work only with a specific mic, you need to find the right match.
Try Googling something like “shockmounts compatible with your mic” and if one exists, you’ll know. If not, you might want to try using a different mic altogether.
As a home studio “engineer,” you can do everything right to set your singer up for success…
Yet the final product is STILL mostly in their hands.
And other than their actual singing ability, the other HUGE factor that determines the outcome is their microphone technique.
Singers with little experience behind a mic make nervous, fidgety head movements at random, which can ruin the recording of an otherwise great performance.
Skilled singers on the other hand, make deliberate, purposeful head movements that SIGNIFICANTLY improve the overall sound.
For instance, here are 4 common techniques they’ll use:
1. Controlling Volume with Distance
By moving closer to the mic as they get softer, and further as they get louder…
They level out their own volume fluctuations, dramatically reducing the amount of compression required later on.
2. Avoiding Popping and Sibilance
By adjusting their angle and distance from the mic, they can virtually eliminate any traces of popping or sibilance.
And they can do it without even using a pop filter.
3. Purposeful Use of Proximity Effect
By moving in closer to the mic during softer, more delicate passages, they can add a beautiful sense of intimacy to their tone.
4. Controlling Breath Sounds
By turning their head to the side with each breath, they avoid those awkward breath sounds that must be later edited out.
And the really good ones know when to intentionally breathe INTO the microphone for effect.
Up next, let’s talk about how to help your singers acquire these skills if they don’t already have them…
Improving Mic Technique
The truth is…few singers you work with will have really good mic technique.
But rather than trying to fix everything with editing…why not give them a few pointers to help them fix it themselves?
You see, unlike with pro studios…
The great thing about home recording is…the people you record are typically your friends, and you guys have all the time in the world to get things right.
So after you explain to them the 4 techniques I just showed you…let ’em practice. And assuming they’re decent musicians, they’ll eventually figure it out.
Up next…what to do if they AREN’T good singers…
Coaching Poor Singers
If a singer is bad, and doesn’t know that he’s bad, it’s because he can’t hear WHY he’s bad.
So it’s unlikely that any amount of coaching on your part will help much in the near future.
In this case, your best course of action might just be to stay positive and make him feel confident.
Never ask more from someone than you believe they are capable of. Having unrealistic expectations only discourages people, making them sound even worse.
While it may not be the best thing for him in the long run…to extract the best possible performance on a given day, it’s better MUCH better to have your singer feeling confident, than NOT.
And that brings us to the final topic of this article…
Using Effects While Recording
While SOME folks hold off on effects until AFTER the recording part is done…
OTHERS like to add them in BEFORE-HAND.
Many singers believe that adding a little reverb helps them stay on pitch.
In reality though, most of them just like it because it makes them sound better.
Which is good, because as we covered earlier…a confident singer always sounds better than an insecure one.
The downside is…
By adding reverb, (or any effect for that matter), singers can be fooled into believing their performance is stronger than it really is.
And every effect you add increases the chance they’ll miss a problem which they might have otherwise heard and corrected themselves.
- By adding a de-esser, it’s harder to hear and avoid sibilance.
- By adding a high-pass filter, its harder to hear popping.
- By adding a compressor, it’s harder to hear level changes.
- By adding in auto-tune, it’s harder to hear when you’re off-key.
Therefore, good singers…who have the ability to hear these problems and adjust accordingly, might be best off having minimal effects while tracking.
With less-skilled singers, who won’t hear these problems anyway…
You might find the opposite approach to be a bit more effective.