Vocals are magic. There's something about a great vocal performance that draws us in as listeners. A great song sung by a great singer brings an emotional depth and connection with the music that is worlds apart from instrumental music.
For producer-composers hard at work on instrumental (including electronic) music, adding vocals can be a great way to bring the music to another level. But how do you record them? As a producer, how do you get the best performance out of a singer? It doesn't take a multi-million dollar studio to get a killer vocal recording, but it does take some practice and know-how. The practice you have to do in the studio, but some tips and tricks can give you a head start on the know-how.
Room selection and treatment
When recording vocals, it's usually a good idea to aim for a clean and clear sound. The more raw you can get the sound, the more freedom you'll have to shape the vocals in the mix. If you have a choice of rooms, go for a relatively small room. If you're recording in a house, go for a small bedroom. Try to avoid larger areas. Smaller rooms will have shorter reverberation time and are easier to treat acoustically.
Using acoustic treatment, you'll want to make the room as dead as possible. A simple test is to clap your hands in the room and listen for any reverberation or flutter directly after the clap sound. This will be caused by flat surfaces like blank walls and ceilings – especially flat surfaces that face each other (like opposite walls). Your priorities for treating the room should be:
- Cover all flat surfaces with soft coverings (such as curtains, fabrics, carpets, etc).
- If you don't have enough material for all surfaces, focus on eliminating parallel flat surfaces first.
- If you still have some flat surfaces left over, try to break them up by placing objects to make them less regular. Bookcases filled with books work great.
As a producer, your job starts before the singer gets in front of the microphone! You need to work with the singer beforehand to make sure that once s/he gets into the studio, you spend the time productively. First of all, make sure s/he knows the song. How this works will depend on the individual needs of the singer and the song. Sometimes it's enough to write the song in the studio and record it verse by verse. Sometimes it's necessary to put together a skeleton of the song (just enough to provide a basic rhythm and harmony/melody) and give it to the singer on a CD to take home and practice.
After the singer knows the song, you'll need to discuss performance. This not only covers technical aspects such as phrasing and breathing, but should also include emotion and expression. As a producer, you have to work with the singer to find how to best support the intent and style of the song. You are limited by what s/he can deliver. You have to recognize the singer's range and limitations and work within those limitations. Demanding the impossible will work against you because you'll lose the confidence of the singer.
Microphone selection and placement
If you've got several microphones to choose from (or you're thinking of buying a microphone), you'll need to audition them to hear how they respond to vocals. Pay attention to the detail in the upper-mids and top end – this is where the definition and texture of the voice is. The upper-mids in a recorded vocal are also very difficult to modify or correct without sounding unnatural. Large diaphragm condensers are usually a good go-to choice for vocals. Other microphone types (such as small diaphragm condensers, ribbons microphones, and dynamic microphones) all give different sounds so it might be worth experimenting if you've got the choice and the time. If you're low on choice or time, go for the large diaphragm condenser.
Start by placing the microphone at the same height as the singer's mouth, about 20 cm away. Place your pop filter in between the microphone and the singer's mouth. Some will prefer to sing pointing slightly up (microphone higher) or slightly down (microphone lower). Do a test take with the microphone straight ahead and then ask the singer what s/he prefers. Listen to the take and pay attention to the tone and the vibe of the voice. If you want to sound to be closer and more intimate, move the microphone closer. The downside to having the microphone too close is that it can sometimes sound unnatural and can be difficult to sit in the mix well. For a more natural and classic sound, move the microphone further back. The downside to having the microphone too far away is that the sound can lack power and conviction and end up sounding weak and washed out. You might have to try a few different positions to find out what works best.
When you're ready to record, you'll have to prepare the studio for recording. Of course you'll have to create an audio track and route the microphone to it, but also think about processing. If you're recording to 24 bit audio, it's generally a good idea to record the raw sound without any processing. However, you might find it useful to include some subtle processing in the singer's monitor path.
I find some subtle compression (low threshold, low ratio, medium attack and release) reduces the pressure to sing at a particular volume. This frees up the singer to find the dynamic range that is more comfortable and produces the best tone for the song. Sometimes reverb can be used for an inspiration or confidence boost (it makes vocals sound "pro" in the headphones). Be careful with reverb though – it can make it harder to hit the right pitch! A subtle top-end EQ boost can help the singer stay in tune – especially if s/he has headphones over both ears. Some people prefer a headphone cup over only one ear. In this case you probably don't need any monitoring effects.
Make sure all your tracks are set up and ready and you know all your keyboard shortcuts. You need to be able to move fast enough to work at the singer's pace, and be ready to hit record at the right spot when s/he is ready to do a take. Try to minimize the amount of time the singer is waiting for you. This doesn't mean you have to go through the takes at a breakneck pace. Some people need breathing space to get into the zone. What you want to avoid is a situation where the singer is in the zone and ready to do the killer take and you have to say "wait up, I just need to mute these old takes and turn your reverb back on…"
If your singer doesn't have a vocal coach or producer, you're it. Make sure s/he's comfortable. Make sure s/he's feeling the music. If you have pitch-correction software such as Melodyne or Autotune, you have an additional luxury in that some technical errors can be fixed later. This means you can both focus on performance and emotional expression.
It's a good idea to do several takes of each section, where each "section" could be a phrase, a verse, or half the song. My experience shows that the optimal number of takes (to keep) is between three and six. Too few and you risk not having enough alternatives if the singer hits a bum note. Too many and you waste too much time wading through them later. While recording, try as much as possible to take notes of which takes (or parts of takes) were best. If you can, encourage the singer to think about this too by asking which takes felt better. Try to make the decision before you even listen back through the takes. The singer will probably be able to tell you when a take wasn't working. If s/he wasn't happy with it, scrap it right away (unless you think it's killer, in which case keep it and scrap everything else… and get ready for the next take!).
You'll need a way of marking the best parts of each take as you go so when the singer leaves and you're left with a pile of takes to comp (make a composite), you can work through the song quickly. How you mark the takes will depend on your DAW, and what you can quickly do. Most DAWs will let you change the colour of an individual audio clip. You might even be able to do a rough comp during the recording session as you go. Be careful not to slow down the singer though.
Depending on the song and the expressive range of the singer, you might find it worthwhile doing several versions of the song. First, do the normal version as your base vocal part. Then ask the singer to do a take or two with a lot more energy. Typically this will be louder and more forceful, so watch your levels! With a good singer, these takes can add extra spice as background delays or parallel doubles. With a weaker singer, these takes might end up being your main vocal track! It's always worth trying. If your singer has very accurate timing, you might also consider doing a whisper take as well – sometimes this can work well layered underneath the main vocal in the mix. Be careful though – if the timing is not right it can make the combined vocal sound messy and indistinct.
When you're finished you should have some great takes with a clean sound that'll be easy to work into the mix. Happy recording!