Tracking vocals is hands-down the hardest part of the recording process, and not just because all vocalists are divas (kidding!). The voice is the only instrument you can’t tune. It’s also the most intimate instrument to perform in front of other people.
The most important thing to remember when tracking vocals is that it’s all about the performance. You can fix a bad note in post, but there’s nothing you can do to turn a nervous performance into confident one. It’s ok if the singer is a little off-pitch, as long as they mean it.
"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable." - Ludwig van Beethoven
When searching the internet for "best vocal mic," you’ll get an endless avalanche of opinions. At the end of the day, there’s only one answer — it really just depends on who you are recording. Every vocalist is different. Hell, every song is different.
A mic that sounds perfect on one track may be total trash on another. The only way to know which one is best for your current situation is to line up every microphone in your mic locker and try them out. With that being said, there are some general mic applications that work best in most situations.
Dynamic mics are great for powerful vocalists. They handle loud noises better than any other mic, so they work well for screamers and emcees who really attack the mic. They also use a cardioid pickup pattern, which offers great rejection when recording in untreated rooms.
Condenser mics are always a popular choice for recording vocals. They’re more sensitive than dynamic mics so they capture more detail. They also tend to sound brighter and more balanced than dynamics mics.
This type of microphone also offers different pickup patterns, which allows you to control the amount of ambiance vs. rejection. Omnidirectional has no rejection, and captures a lot of room tone. This works well for vibey, spacious recordings. Cardioid offers rejection at the rear of the mic, and captures less room tone. This work better for isolating vocals.
All these bells and whistles require a little extra juice, though. Condenser mics need phantom power to function. Phantom power sends 48 volts of electricity to power the mic. Without engaging phantom power, a condenser mic won’t receive any signal. Most preamps and recording interfaces have a “+48v” button specifically to power condenser mics.
Ribbon mics are old-school. They have a distinctly “vintage” sound, and are often described as “warm.” The highs are rolled off and the low-mids are really pleasant. They tend to be perfect for some applications, and not-so-perfect for others.
This style of microphone can also be incredibly fragile. Dropping them, sending phantom power to them or even putting them too close to a particularly loud instrument can literally destroy them. Recently, Royer has introduced new ribbon mic technology that makes them a lot less fragile.
The closer the singer is to the mic, the more isolated and “in your face” they’ll sound. There’s also an increase in low-end frequencies from the proximity effect. The added low end can work for, or against you.
If used correctly, it can create a big, boomy, god-like sound for your vocal. Sometimes it makes things sound muddy, though. If so, use a high pass-filter (on the mic, the preamp, or in your DAW of choice) to roll off the low end.
The farther the singer is from the mic, the more room noise and ambiance. This can be great for spacious, vibey recordings. Most modern rock, pop and hip-hop tracks feature a “dryer” vocal (with less reverb).
Sometimes, artists like to get so close to the mic their lips actually touch it. This isn’t great — for a number of reasons. All that spit is bad for the mic. Plus, it creates a lot of unwanted noise.
Plosives and Peanut Butter
A simple solution for this unwanted noise is to use a pop filter. Attach the pop filter to the mic stand and place it an inch or so from the capsule. This allows the artist to get as close to the pop filter as they want, without damaging the mic or ruining the recording.
Even with a pop filter, if the singer is too close to the mic you may hear plosives. Plosives are puffs of air hitting the mic that cause nasty popping noises. P and B words are the worst offenders, so have your vocalist say “peanut butter” a few times to check for plosives.
Off Your Axis
If you’re still having problems with plosives after setting up a pop-filter, try tilting your mic off-axis. Off-Axis just means that you’re not pointing the mic directly at the sound source.
Simply raise the mic up, or lower it down about an inch, and angle it 45˚. This allows the mic to capture the sound of the vocalist without them blowing all that air directly into the capsule.
By lowering the mic and pointing it upwards, you’ll get a brighter tone. By raising the mic and pointing it downwards, you’ll get a deeper tone. It’s important to experiment with a variety of different positions and find the best placement for your song.
Just Press Record
After finding the right placement, it’s time to set your levels. Have the vocalist sing the loudest passage of the song, and slowly turn up the gain on your preamp. Safe practice is to keep your meters in the green, and let them peak into the yellow. Stay out of the red! Clipping your preamp or channel fader can cause unwanted distortion.
Most vocalists feel pretty uncomfortable recording in the studio. It’s very isolating only being able to hear yourself through headphones. Some vocalists choose to leave one ear open to hear the sound of their voice in the room, which sounds more natural.
As an engineer, you can recreate this effect by adding some light compression and room reverb. You don’t have to print them — they can be temporary plug-ins. Compression helps keep their voice above the instruments so they can always hear themselves. Reverb helps simulate a more natural environment.
Simple Tips and Tricks
Many vocalists prefer to sing along to a guide track. After setting levels, tell the artist you’re going to record a scratch track. Tell them you’re not going to keep it — you just want to record one full pass of the songs a guide.
That’s a lie. By telling the vocalist you’re not going to use it, you lower their inhibitions. They feel like it’s OK to go for it. To be more creative. To make mistakes.
Many engineers and producers find that the magic happens within the first few takes, and everything after that is downhill. It’s so easy for a vocalist to over-analyze their performance. It’s your job to keep them out of their own head.
After having them record the guide track, apply some light pitch correction. Then, let the vocalist sing along to tuned guide track. You’re more confident when you’re singing along to the radio than you are by yourself, right? So are vocalists.
Have your vocalist record two or three full takes so you can “comp” them together afterwards. Comping is the process of taking the best parts of multiple takes and Frankenstein-ing them together to create one perfect vocal take.
After getting a few solid vocal takes, it’s common practice to “double track” the vocals. Double tracking means you record another take and blend it in with the original comp to help beef up the lead vocal. Mute the guide vocal, and have the vocalist try to match the comp this time.
At this point, you should have a pretty solid vocal recording for your song, but your work doesn’t end here! Check back next week for a new blog on how to handle vocals throughout the mixing process.
If you have questions about the gear used to capture vocals, our staff is always on hand to answer them. Please feel free to reach out to our team of Audio Consultants via email or phone at 888.653.1184.