Technical And Performance Techniques For Recording Vocals Part 2

06-22-2014 08:22 PM

In part 1 Georgie Gillis shared her 12 steps for preparing to record vocals. In part 2 I will cover the technical points that should be considered when recording a vocal performance.
Microphone Choice

It is important to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of whatever microphone you have available to you for vocal recording. Frequency response, sound pressure level (SPL), polar patterns and so on. The overall sound of a microphone can help you in the decision of “Does this microphone sound good… with this vocalist… in this room, for the song?”
If you have a selection of microphones then it is always good to try each of them on the vocalist to discover which of them will be the best tool for the job. It all depends on what you need to do, what sound you are after, what the vocalist sounds like in the room and how they sound in the song you are working on.
Room Acoustics

The sound and acoustic characteristics of the space you record in need to be considered as the room sound can play a large part in the overall sound. Does the room sound over reverberant or dead and lifeless. If you are recording at home then you luckily have a selection of rooms to choose from. Recording vocals in a bedroom is a great space to record in as generally there will be a mattress on one side, curtains over the windows, a wardrobe (that can be opened up to provide a little extra absorption) and shelves up on the walls to help scatter sound. You need to find a good balance of reflections and absorption that will work with the vocalist.
Distance From The Microphone

Ensure the vocalist is at a good distance from the microphone capsule. Dynamic microphones such as the Shure SM7B and SM58 will require you to have the vocalist right up on it. Sensitive condenser microphones will need the vocalist’s mouth to be at least one foot away from the microphone’s capsule. When using sensitive microphones you need to be aware that they will pick up more absence of the room which as I said earlier will play a large part in the overall sound of your vocals. You need to be careful the vocalist is not at a far enough distance from the microphone to where the room sound dominates the essence of the voice. Being too close to sensitive microphones can cause a build up of low end bass energy and usually will increase the presence of sibilance and other unnatural voice artefacts. You need to make sure the voice has enough air between the mic and singer to breathe.
Pop Shield

Pop shields have two uses. The first is to reduce plosives from the voice hitting the microphone and causing unpleasant low energy thumping sounds. The second is so that the vocalist knows that singing directly into the shield gives them the piece of mind that they are singing into the sweet spot. Setting the pop shield between the microphone and vocalist should stop them moving in towards the microphone or away during the performance. A rule of thumb I use is to place my hand between the microphone and pop shield and open it as far as I can so that my little finger is on the microphone and my thumb is on the pop shield. I then get the vocalist to be at least one inch away from the stopper. Depending on the song and singer I will adjust this slightly. This is a great starting point and 90% of the time it works straight away.
Input Gain

Avoid setting your input gain too hot and close to the red. There is no need to do this with modern digital recording equipment. You need to provide yourself with headroom to work, both in the tracking stage and for later when you get to the mix stage. Aim to have the loudest section of the vocal performance to peak just into the yellow. This will avoid any digital clipping when tracking.
Recording With EQ And Compression

If you have an outboard channel strip or pre amp with EQ and compression then you should experiment with them as utilising them correctly can be another method of getting it right at source. Use compression gently as being too heavy handed with the settings can give you less choices in the mix. If you feel you do not have the confidence in setting EQ and compression on the way in then you don’t have to use it. I use it when the moment is right and I feel I need to… if it doesn’t work in the practise takes I bypass it.
Headphone Mix

Don’t let the vocalist take one side of their headphones off their head like DJ’s do. This can give bleed from the headphone mix into the microphone and sometimes this will cause feedback. It is always best to get the mix and balance correct in the first place so that the vocalists can be confident in hearing themselves with the music. Confidence equals a better performance. Try not to blast the volume of the headphone mix as again this can cause unwanted bleed through to the mic and importantly can fatigue the vocalist’s ears.
Listening Back

Get the vocalist to take breaks. Use that time to listen back to some takes. You need to listen critically when tracking vocals by listening creatively and objectively. Try not to overload a vocalist with too many ideas. Try to not record 20 or more takes and compile the best bits into one take. This wastes a huge amount of time and never works as each take will differ in tone, delivery, feel, emotion and control… all the aspect of the vocal you cannot fix later in the mix. If you find yourself getting in the trap of recording a lot of tracks you should stop recording to let the vocalist practise their parts. Practise makes perfect.