Recording Tips

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Vocal Recording

vocal recording Vocals are generally considered to be the most important part of a mix. It's the vocals that will be remembered for good or for worse, so here are a few tips for making a hit vocal recording:

Room choice

The room is important: Recording studios pay big money to acoustically treat rooms. Some rooms will be treated to sound "dead" (or non-reflective). Some rooms are designed to have a big "live" sound, but are treated so that the reflections in the room help the music rather than hurt it. Basically, when sound waves reflect off surfaces, it can can make or break your recording. For most vocal recording, you want a DEAD studio space.

Why dead?

An acoustically 'dead' environment for vocals provides the engineer with more control over the sound when mixing. The more pure the sound, without room sound, the better she/he can paint a picture. If you record vocals in the shower room the sound of the vocals will always have that open 'live' sound. You can't get rid of this later. We want to be able to add the reverb artificially by using our lovely reverb unit.

Not a rule

Of course sometimes you can break the rules and use a particular acoustic space for an effect. Like recording the sound of a choir in a cathedral, you do want the acoustic room sound then. But generally speaking for POP vocals you want a 'dead' room so the vocals can then be produced.

I don't have an acoustically dead space for vocals

I personally own and use the VTB-100 Portable Vocal tracking Booth which does its job well. The Realtraps Tri-Corner Vocal Booth is also a useful product and a little more affordable. Agreed you might not have the luxury or an open checkbook but you can use your imagination. Drapes, blankets, foam, and fiberglass can all be helpful. Use your imagination.

Microphone choice

So if you are making a record forget about using anything other than a capacitor microphone or at least a VERY good dynamic mic. A capacitor mic is a mic that needs power either from a battery or phantom power ( 48vdc) which good desks have. You might see vocalists using a sure SM58 (because they are rugged) on stage but forget about that in a studio as their frequency response will not get the lovely bits you want for stunning clear vocals. I'm not going to rant about this mic or that mic but something like the ADK TC will sound very good.

Mic pickup patterns

Ever heard of this one? Well this is how the microphone picks up sounds form all directions. Some mics will pick up sound only if you sing directly into them some will pick up sounds from behind them. Mics have what's known as a polar pattern. Imagine a clock face and 12 o'clock is 0 degrees. 6 o'clock is 180 degrees. Some mics pick up well at 180 degrees others don't.

There are names associated with pick-up patterns such as:

UNI-DIRECTIONAL (Cardioid or HyperCardiod)
OMNI-DIRECTIONAL (Omni)
BI-DIRECTONAL (or Figure of 8)

I'll cut a very long story short here for the benefit of this paper and point out that uni-directional (meaning one-way) will be a good choice because you'll only pick up the sound from 0 degrees (12 o'clock). This will help if you are recording with the shower room effect, as the reflected sound will not be picked up so much. If you use an omni-directional pattern all the reflections will be picked up which is BAD, unless your room sounds amazing (but most bedrooms and garages do not tend to improve sound).

Pop Filter

A pop filter (or pop shield) helps reduce blasts and pops when singing or speaking the P and B sounds. These blasts and pops are known as plosives. The pop filter also helps protect your expensive condenser microphone from moisture which protrudes from the mouth of excited singers.

Over to the vocalist

Trained vocalists are good at mic technique. This means they move to and from the mic to help with the dynamics of a performance. In-experienced vocalists are not great at this and they tend to stick the mic in the mouth and try to eat it, especially rap artists. Which is fine but hard work for you! So try to educate them so as to get a better sound by not munching the mic. If they insist you might have to use a limiter.

Limiter

A limiter it basically a compressor turned up full at a particular threshold. This means that when the vocal reaches a certain level the limiter will not allow it to go above that limit. This is really very good for controlling the mic munching problem. In fact limiters are used a great deal in live work. So if Alice Cooper slams his mic into the drummers head, the PA will not blow a driver as the level is limited. This is very useful for tricky performers. They can shout as much as they like but it wont go any louder man!

Headphone mix

You want to have the vocalist really 'get-off' on the headphone mix. Happy performers sound better than irritated ones. Give them what they want by saving the killer vocal takes for when the song is nearing completion. You know if the song is really 'kicking in the cans' the vocalist will get into it. Don't loose sight that it's a performing art, if heavy laced with science. Also note that as you are creating a headphone mix you have a great deal of power in couching the performance. Shall I add more reverb? Is it too flat? How can I get the performance angry? Very interesting area and very underrated job!

Compression

I usually apply a little compression at the recording stage and then more at the mixing stage. Some guys don't record with it. Some do. Experiment with this but remember you can't get rid of it once you have recorded it. When mixing I'll use compression to bring out the breaths and fatten up the sound, and I love multi-band compression.

Aural enhancement.

These boxes add extra harmonic content making the sound have more 'top end' and clarity. You have to careful though as too much top end can sound nasty on the s and t sounds. You might have to use a de-esser (compression at a specific frequency band), which will reduce the level of the troublesome frequencies. Personally, I often track vocals through the Empirical Labs FATSO, which is a compressor with adjustable tape emulation which adds harmonic "warmth" and actually doubles as an effective de-esser.

Turn them up.

Don't forget to turn them up in the mix. And if the tune is for a radio mix we turn the lead vocals up by between 3 to 6 dB. That can be twice as loud! Listen for yourself to an album version then a radio version.

That's all for now.

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