Learn the best way to position a mic, why you need a pop shield, what you need for recording vocals and more in our beginner's guide to recording vocals.
Welcome to our beginner’s guide to recording vocals. Today, we're going to be looking at the basic gear you’ll need, how to set it all up, some mic techniques and how to avoid some common problems that can ruin your vocal take. So if you’re new to the world of home studios or home recording, hopefully we can offer you a few tips on how to achieve more professional sounding vocal recordings.
Watch the complete beginners guide to recording vocals video:
First up, let’s look at equipment. As we’re specifically looking at recording vocals today, I’m going to assume that you’ve already chosen the computer, recording software and interface that you’re going to be using. If not, get down to your local Professional Music Technology, where our experts will be able to help put together the right setup for your recording needs.
Whether you’re using a PC or a Mac, running popular recording software such Cubase, Logic, Ableton or ProTools, the basic principals of recording vocals are the same. In the video above Sam is using Garageband on a Mac.
What Do I Need To Record Vocals?
In a nutshell this is what you need to record vocals
Something to record on to, like a computer or multi track recorder
Software / DAW
A pop shield
An audio interface
A set of headphones
A mic stand
A reflection filter
Best Interface For Recording Vocals
There’s a huge choice of recording interfaces out there from popular manufacturers such as Focusrite, Native Instruments, PreSonus and much more. If you’re only looking to record a couple of tracks at a time, you don’t need to spend a fortune.
Here's a selection, but you can read our best portable audio interfaces blog HERE for more info.
1. Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen USB Audio Interface
Professional grade audio interface that fits in your pocket
Ideal for recording vocals and instruments anywhere
Designed for iOS and Android devices
Easy to use
Dedicated volume control knob
Built-In Battery Rechargeable via USB
Sam and Meg are using a Focusrite Scarlett Solo in the video at the top of the page. It's simple to use, very affordable, and has a great sounding microphone preamp for recording vocals. Just make sure that your interface has an XLR input, 48v phantom power for powering condenser mics as well as a headphone out with direct monitoring. These are pretty standard features nowadays, but it’s worth checking.
Pro tip: before you buy an interface, always check the system requirements, to make sure it’ll be compatible with your computer and software setup. Again, if you’re unsure, pop into your local PMT store, where our music tech experts will be happy to help!
Which Microphone Do I Need To Record Vocals?
So we want to record vocals right? We’re going to need a microphone. There are two main types of microphone out there, dynamic and condenser. You’re probably already familiar with a dynamic microphone such as the Shure SM58, one of the most popular mics for live vocalists. Dynamic mics tend to have a lower sensitivity than condensers. They’re great for handling high sound pressure levels, so they’re perfect for miking up guitar amps, drums, or for live vocals where you want to reduce background noise and the possibility of feedback. But, they’re not commonly used for recording vocals in the studio.
This is where condenser microphones shine, as their larger diaphragms, higher sensitivity and bigger frequency response, pickup a lot more of the subtle dynamics and nuances of a vocal performance.
Condenser microphones also tend to come with a larger variety of pickup patterns.
So what is a pickup pattern and what does it do? A polar pickup pattern determines from which directions the mic is most sensitive to sound. Common patterns include cardioid, bi-directional and omni-directional. For recording a single vocal, it’s probably best to pick a mic with a cardioid pattern. This means that the microphone will be most sensitive to sound coming from directly in front of it.
[caption id="attachment_32982" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Polar pickup patterns diagram[/caption]
Unlike a dynamic microphone such as the SM58, which is built for life on the road, studio condenser mics tend to be pretty fragile…so definitely don’t go dropping one, as their super-sensitive diaphragms are really easily damaged! And remember, a condenser microphone is going to require external phantom power, so again, make sure your interface has a 48v switch on the mic channel.
Good quality condenser microphones are nowhere near as expensive as they used to be, you can pick up a great sounding mic from top brands such as SE Electronics, Rode or Sennheiser for around £100-150. In the video above, Sam and Meg are using the new SE Electronics X1S Studio Bundle. The X1S microphone itself has a large 1” diaphram, so it’s really sensitive, but it also has a couple of other features that always come in handy when recording.
[caption id="attachment_32983" align="aligncenter" width="352"] sE Electronics X1 S Studio Microphone Bundle[/caption]
Firstly, it’s got two switchable low cut filters, one for 80hz and the other at 160hz. A low cut filter rolls off some of the bassier frequencies of the microphone, handy for cutting out any low end background rumble or footfall noise. The low cut can also be used to help counter any excessive bass from your voice, usually caused from singing close up to the microphone, but we’ll get onto mic techniques a little later in the vid.
[caption id="attachment_32984" align="alignnone" width="1024"] A close up of the switchable low cut filters, one for 80hz and the other at 160hz[/caption]
The X1S also features a pad switch, which allows you to cut the mic input sensitivity by either 10 or 20db. This means that it could also be used on louder sound sources such as guitar amplifiers, making it pretty a versatile microphone to have in your studio.
[caption id="attachment_32985" align="alignnone" width="1024"] A look at the adjustable features of the sE X1s. You can cut the sensitivity by either 10 or 20dB[/caption]
The main reason we’ve chosen to use the SE X1S package today though, is because it also comes supplied with a few essential microphone accessories that you’re going to need to start recording, let’s take a look…
The Gear You Need To Record Vocals
Obviously, you’re going to need a cable to connect the microphone into your interface. It’s worth picking up a good quality, balanced microphone XLR cable. It’s not a myth, higher quality cables do actually sound better, and they definitely last longer. Your condenser mic will require a cable with a 3-pin XLR connector on each end, as opposed to a 1/4” jack…the 3 pins are required to send 48v power to the mic. Balanced cables also eliminate any electrical interference from devices such as phones, lights and computers.
[caption id="attachment_41281" align="aligncenter" width="550"] The TOURTECH 20ft XLR to XLR Microphone Cable features high quality connections for superior sound transfer[/caption]
Make sure you’ve got a pair of headphones. You can’t record professional sounding vocals with speakers on, as the playback sound will spill onto your recordings. Choose a pair of comfortable, good quality, closed back cans. Closed back headphones help block out any background noise, but they will also stop any potential spill from the headphones from getting back into the microphone.
[caption id="attachment_47679" align="aligncenter" width="550"] The Numark HF125 Headphones are budget frienldy and provide great isolation[/caption]
Definitely get a microphone stand. Even when using a dynamic mic, if you’re holding it, it’s very likely that you’re recording will pick up any handling noise. A mic stand allows for hands free recording, plus it also means that you can mount a shock cradle, a pop shield and reflection filter.
[caption id="attachment_32987" align="aligncenter" width="352"] A boom stand with three legs[/caption]
It’s your choice if you go for a straight or boom stand. Straight stands are simpler with less parts to wear out, but booms stands are more versatile if you also want to record instruments such as guitars or drums. For a home studio though, make sure that the stand you choose has a three-legged design with rubber feet, as opposed to a round base. This design has a smaller contact area with the ground and will transfer less floor noise and vibrations up to the microphone.
Next up, you’ll need a microphone shock mount cradle and pop shield. The mic cradle replaces your conventional mic clip, and effectively suspends your microphone, isolating it from the rest of the stand. Using a shock mount will stop and mechanical noise and vibrations from being transferred from the stand into the mic, very handy if you accidentally knock the stand or stamp your feet a little too hard during that perfect vocal take!
[caption id="attachment_32989" align="alignnone" width="1024"] A pop shield and shock mount[/caption]
A pop shield either attaches to the mic stand via a gooseneck, or some, such as the SE model we’re using for the demonstration, are designed to fit neatly into a matching shock mount. Pop filters are pretty much essential when recording vocals, as they stop the “popping” noises and audio clipping which can occur when pronouncing P’s and B’s. They also have the added advantage of stopping any spit and moisture from getting into the microphone, helping it to last longer.
The final accessory that we’d definitely advise purchasing is a reflection filter. Poor room acoustics ultimately result in a poor recorded sound, but unfortunately, acoustic treatment panels for a room can be expensive and sometimes impractical for many bedroom studios. A reflection shield works as kind of a mini vocal booth, stopping any unwanted audio reflections from entering the back and sides of a microphone. This won’t stop any reflections that come from behind you from reaching the mic though, so if you’re recording in a particularly echo-y room, one inexpensive trick is to hang a duvet up behind you to reduce audio reflections from the rear.
[caption id="attachment_33803" align="aligncenter" width="352"] The Aston halo reflection filter is one of the best on the market today[/caption]
The Best Reflection Filters For Vocals:
All reflection filters do the same thing, but others just do it better. Here's our top 5 best reflection filters for vocals:
So that’s the basic gear that you’ll need to get started, as mentioned earlier, the reason we’ve picked the SE Electronics Studio Bundle is because a) the X1S is a great value, professional sounding condenser mic, and b) the bundle includes the pop filter, shock mount, reflection shield and cable…saving you quite a few quid than if you were to buy this lot separately!
How to set up your gear and record vocals
Setting up your microphones and all your gear is pretty straightforward and shouldn't take more than a few minutes, but here’s a few tips to help you out.
1. When setting up your mic stand, make sure that the centre pole is off the ground, you only want the three rubber feet touching the floor. This reduces any vibrations transferring from the floor to the stand, and onto your recording.
2. Set the height of the stand so that the microphone capsule, that’s the bit you sing into, is level with your mouth. Always sing standing up straight, as this allows you to get the most natural power from your diaphragm and voice
3. Once you’ve attached the shock mount, microphone, pop shield, and reflection filter, make sure that their centre of gravity is balanced over the mic stands centre pole, to minimise wobbling and avoid the whole thing toppling over! If you’re fitting a pop shield with an adjustable gooseneck, position the screen between 5-10cm from the microphone. Finally, double check that everything is tightened up enough, so nothing will start to move or spin during your recording session.
4. All you need to do now is set up a recording track within your software for your vocals and connect the microphone. When first connecting the cable from microphone to interface, make sure your volumes are down and the 48v phantom power is switched off, to avoid any pops or bangs.
5. Once everything’s connected, flick the 48v on and slowly turn up the input volume whilst talking into the mic to start setting your input level. You want to achieve a nice strong signal, but avoid any input clipping. So sing your loudest until the input on the interface starts to clip, which will usually indicated by a flashing red light. Then back the input volume off a little, until it’s no longer occurs.
[caption id="attachment_32997" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Make sure you turn the phantom power switch off before plugging your mic in![/caption]
6. Make sure to turn off your speakers, you don’t want any playback spilling over onto your recording, so you’ll need to listen to your backing track and monitor your vocals on your headphones. To allow more control over volume and eliminate any latency issues, make sure that you're monitoring directly from the interface and not the headphone out on your computer. And now, you should be ready to start recording…
Microphone Techniques & Recording Tips
Let’s talk about a few basic microphone techniques. Everyone’s voice is completely unique, some are loud and powerful, some are quiet and breathy, some are deep and bassy and some are higher pitched or more nasal. This means that everyone will develop slightly different microphone techniques to best suit their voice…but there are a few bad habits that you want to avoid.
There’s a few common problems that can ruin your vocal take, these include popping, poor room acoustics, sibilance, background noise and excessive bassiness caused by microphone proximity effect, but we’ll come to that in a moment.
Sam has already covered how to stop popping and how to improve room acoustics by using a pop shield and a reflection filter, so let’s take a look at the other problems, starting with the proximity effect.
Due to the design of a cardioid pattern microphone, you’ll notice a significant boost in bass frequencies when you sing right up close to it. While this can be used to good effect, inexperienced singers often don’t realise they’re doing it. It can be really annoying to to hear that low end boost appear and disappear at random, when listening back to a finished recording.
Most of the time, we’re looking to record the natural sound of the voice. As everyone’s voice is unique, the ideal distance to sing from the mic will differ. As a rule of thumb, if you’ve set your input level correctly, you should want to start singing around 6 to 10 inches from the microphone. As you get more experienced at recording your vocals, you’ll start to get used to changing your positioning on the mic depending on dynamics.
[caption id="attachment_33005" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Make sure you're singing between 6-10" away from the mic[/caption]
If you’re singing louder, you may want to back away a bit, before moving closer for when you’re singing more softly, but watch out for that proximity effect if you get too close! Whilst we’re on the subject of mic positioning, watch out for how you’re breathing. If you need to take a deep breath, make sure to turn your head away from the mic as this will save you having to painstakingly remove each breath in post-production editing.
Another annoying problem that can occur on a vocal recording is sibilance, that hissing sound that can be heard when pronouncing “S”. Say "She sells sea shells on the sea shore" and you'll understand what we mean.
How to fix sibilance problems
The are ways to fix sibilance problems in post-production, by using a de-esser or multi-band compressor for example, but ideally we want to fix the problem before it’s been recorded. Singing slightly off axis to the mic usually reduces sibilance issues, as the bursts of air won’t be directly hitting the microphone capsule. Some voices are naturally more sibilant than others, so if this doesn’t solve the problem, there is a cheeky little trick you can try...
Take a pencil, and secure it to the microphone directly in front of the capsule with an elastic band. This splits those high frequency air blast in two, diverting them from hitting the diaphragm directly.
The final problem we’re going to look at is background and footfall noise. It may sound obvious, but as just like it says in the video, make sure your speakers are turned off when recording to avoid playback from spilling into the mic. Not only that, you’ll also want to turn off any fans, air-conditioning or anything else in the room that might cause background noise…and don’t forget to put your phone on silent!
Remove your jewellery!
You’ll also want to avoid wearing any heavy jewellery that may jangle and clatter, or heavy boots which will make footfall noise worse. A lot of vocalists like to record bare foot, but even then, be wary of how much you move around as any significant vibrations or knocks to the mic stand can pick up on a recording.
When it comes to recording a take, make sure you’re comfortable. Stand up nice and straight, feet a shoulder’s a width apart and relax your shoulders and arms. When it comes to monitoring through headphones, some singers prefer to cover both ears, to block out the outside world and get in the zone. Most st singers, like Meg prefer to have one ear uncovered, so they can hear their voice in the room. This can make it much easier to pitch tuning. We'd advise trying both ways and seeing which one feels most comfortable to you.
Finally, we need to touch on using effects whilst recording. Ideally, you want to record completely dry. Singing with effects such as compression and auto-tune applied, can give you an unrealistic reference for dynamics and tuning, problems that can’t always be fixed in post-production. It may help to add a tiny bit of reverb to your voice though, as a lot of singers find this gives them a little more confidence in front of the microphone.
Get a few takes down
And don’t forget, always remember to record more than one take, as you don’t always realise at the time when you’ve recorded the perfect vocal. It’s handy to have backup takes sitting there when listening back, and the wonders of modern editing software will also allow you to cut together different parts of different takes to create that perfect vocal line.
Once you’ve recorded your vocal there’s a few things you can do to give your performance a little more depth and colour. We’d advise recording without any effects applied. But once you’ve captured that perfect take, a vocal track usually benefits from adding a little compression and reverb.
Simply put, a compressor can help to level out the dynamic range of a vocal take, making quiet parts louder, and loud parts quieter. Desired compression levels will depend on the style of vocal you’re recording. Modern pop and hip-hop vocals tend to be very compressed, but if you’re a folky acoustic singer, you may want to back it off a little so the compression is a little less obvious.
The same with reverb, there’s no hard an fast rule on how much you should apply. Most software packages have a basic preset vocal reverb onboard, so have a play about with that first to see what suits your vocal take the best. A lot of singers feel that more reverb makes them sound better, but our advice would be to not go over the top as it can start to sound a little overbearing and un-natural.
If you want to thicken your vocal sound up a little, try double tracking. This is where you create a separate recording track and then sing exactly the same vocal line along with your original. Once recorded, pan the first track slightly to the left and the second to the right. When you play back your recording, you’ll hear a nice thick double tracked vocal take…a technique used on countless records over the years, in particular by rockier vocalists such as John Lennon and Kurt Cobain.
So that about wraps up our beginners guide to recording vocals. If you'd like any more tips on recording vocals, or you're wondering what gear you need to use, just call in to any of our PMT Stores, where a member of our team will be happy to help you with your studio and recording needs.
View a full range of studio and recording equipment over at PMT Online.