Tips & Tutorials | May 19, 2016
Vocals can be one of the hardest things to get right in a home-recording scenario. Top studios have perfectly soundproofed isolation booths built just for this purpose and usually deploy the silkiest of professional-grade microphones, headphone monitors, and the general promise of complete silence during the process.
Still, it is possible to achieve well-recorded vocals with a home-based setup, and some people actually feel much more comfortable without band members, engineers, producers, or A&R folk standing around listening critically. While not always acoustically ideal, a home space can definitely put a vocalist at ease—even just the knowledge that you have the luxury of unlimited takes without running up an hourly studio bill can do wonders to soothe nerves and lessen the impact of performance anxiety.
If you want a superior vocal sound from your home recording, it’s best to invest in a decent cardioid condenser microphone. The good news is that many are available for as little as $100-200 or even less, like the tube-simulating MXL V67 series, which ranks high on tone aficionados’ lists for “old-school warmth.” If you want a direct-to-USB option for computer recording in the same price range, you might want to look into the Audio-Technica AT2020USB, a favorite of not only musical vocalists but also of podcasters, audio book readers, and voiceover artists who tend to work exclusively in all-digital environments.
If you can’t come by a cardioid, you can make due with whatever live stage mics you may have around (if you play in a live act and own some SM58s or equivalents), placed in a stand and (preferably) sheathed in a foam windscreen. They’re less sensitive than condenser mics and more unidirectional, and will tend to leave you with a more mid-rangey vocal recording that hasn’t captured nearly the full frequency range of the beautiful (or beautifully horrid) human voice—but this may be resolvable to some extent in a post-tracking EQ environment to at least emulate a more broad-spectrum source signal.
Whether you’re looking to utilize unique, live-sounding spaces in your home or to cancel out every micro-ping of slapback to give yourself a smooth, dead-as-felt baseline to process (or not) as you see fit, you’ll want to keep your sonic palette free of noise. In the 21st century, sometimes this is easier said than done. Most modern dwellings are replete with ambient hums from furnaces, appliances, exhaust fans, and other devices that seem to be “always on.” And if you live in an urban area, chances are you’ll also pick up a good deal of street (or even air) traffic, weather, or the general noise of humans, animals and machines that you coexist with in close proximity. Start with closing all your windows, then switch off everything short of life-support in your immediate vicinity and seal yourself off with doors from family, housemates, or vociferous pets. Condenser mics pick up EVERYTHING, even the fan in the computer you might be using to record, so set yourself up a little distance from it and point the mic in the opposite direction if you can.
Constructing baffles or homemade isolation booths to minimize natural delay or reverberation can be done with relative ease using any sort of cloth-bound materials. Pillows, couch cushions, or even strategically hung blankets (especially down-filled comforters) can soak up a great deal of echo if you want to deaden your space. Rooms with carpeting are much preferred for this purpose as well—basically the goal is to eliminate as many hard, reflective surfaces as possible from your audio equation, be it in your bedroom, man-cave, or ambitiously wall-carpeted closet. A lot of plug-ins and digital reverb units are pretty darn good at simulating all types of rooms from closets to auditoriums, so starting with a “dead” signal might ideally be preferable for home-based recording, though if you’re an analog acoustical purist (or just don’t have the patience to scroll through 500 digital presets) you can record your vox in an actual “live” room.
If you’re looking for a particular sound in a live space, your site selection may need to be more nuanced than is required for deadening; a tiled bathroom produces a much shorter, snappier slapback than a large, empty concrete basement or a warm, ambient living room or hallway with hardwood flooring. Many engineers swear by tall, wooden stairways to provide the best medium-feel natural reverb, and some (such as Andy Johns working with John Bonham’s drums in a three-story version at Headley Grange) have taken this to legendary extremes. Whatever your preferences, fool around with some options—you can double vocals using different takes in different locations and mix them together for a unique live feel. You might want to record the main vocal track in a deadened space and then double it in an ambient one, mixing the two like you would with dry and wet signals inside a digital plug-in or effects unit.
Pop screens are fairly indispensable for controlling “plosives,”—those Pesky Ps, Bs, and other hard consonants that move too much air in one direction—and can be found online for as little as $15. (They’ll also help with any lisp-y or farty S or F sounds a la Sylvester the Cat). If you want to go full-bore, you can spring for a studio-grade shock mount, especially if you live in an earthquake zone or are prone to Joe Cocker-ish spasms that might shake the mic up a bit too much during your passionate vocal performance. Singing off-axis (i.e. not directly into the microphone) can help to remedy the same issues in a pinch.
When your home is your studio, your studio is your home, and it’s there that you can spend as much time as you need to perfect a winning formula in the environment that’s available to you. Ultimately, usable results require only a few basic parameters and some subsequent tweaking: Define your space, refine your sound, and design your vision.