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How to Record Vocals: Understanding the Audio Recording Process

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The importance of vocals in a track is undeniable. They convey emotion, tell stories, and connect deeply with listeners. Capturing the unique essence of an artist is a delicate art! Let’s examine a step by step process of how to record vocals and understand the broader recording process.

1. The Goal of Recording Vocals

The heart and soul of many songs lies in their vocal performances, and most (if not all) radio hits are recorded at top-notch quality. The process of recording vocals is nuanced, blending both the artistry of the singer and the expertise of the recording engineer. Knowing how to record vocals with clarity that convey emotion is essential for producing a successful track. You want to reduce noise and room reflections in your recording, you want a natural sound to the vocals, and you want the equipment you have to be recording at optimal gain levels (input loudness).

So how do you record vocals that sound clean?

2. Pre-production: Preparing to Record Vocals

If you’re the recording artist, you might want to consider a few things that will make your recording session go smoothly, and allow your vocals to shine.

Singers (and even rappers) might want to consider a Vocal Warm-up. Some artists consider this essential for vocal health and optimal performance. If you’re someone who needs to get their vocals warmed up before they start getting good takes, consider doing this in the car on the way to the studio so that when the time starts, you’re ready to go!

If you write before you go to the studio (not a freestyle artist), you should go over your Song Arrangement. Highlighting parts where vocals should stand out, where you want background vocal layers to be, and make sure everything you have written lines up with the instrumental. Rehearse the song so that when you’re in front of the microphone, you’re able to be as efficient as possible.

3. Setting Up: Ensuring Optimal Vocal Recording Conditions

To capture vocals at the highest quality, we need to make sure we have a few things checked off our checklist. These are things that should be done before the artist arrives at the recording location.

Choosing the Right Environment: Soundproof rooms with no external noise distractions are incredibly important for recording vocals. Ideally, a large room (not a closet) with a lot of sound dampening will give the best sound. You have to work with what you have available though, so just make sure you’re in a place that doesn’t have any echo (bedrooms work surprisingly well), and try to position the microphone away from any fans / computers. Reduce as much noise as possible. Use closed-back headphones, like the AT-m50x ones I’ve been using for years.

Microphone Selection: Use condenser microphones, often preferred for vocals, due to their sensitivity and wide frequency response. Don’t use a USB microphone, and don’t get sucked into marketing hype about super expensive microphones (and their ripoff clones). Get a tried and true microphone that fits your budget, and it will save you a lot of time in the long run.

Here are some microphones we recommend at various price points:

$100-300 – In this price range, we can confidently recommend the Audio Technica AT 2020 as the best ultra-budget microphone in its class. Is it incredible? No. Can you get high quality sounding vocals from it? Absolutely.

$300-750: At this price point, there’s a lot of fluff microphones. By that, I mean it’s an area where people try to sell budget versions of premium microphones, and they end up not being very good. One mic that is super versatile, affordable, AND sounds great is the Neumann TLM 102. Honorable mention: Shure SM7db This microphone used to require a great preamp, but that is no longer the case! The SM7b has been upgraded, and now comes integrated with a preamp. How convenient!

$750-1500: The Neumann TLM 103 is one of those mics that you just can’t go wrong with. It’s a great price, and the audio quality is fantastic. To our ears, it sounds exactly like the person you’re recording. It can leave a little to be desired on the high end clarity, but for this price range, it’s incredible.

$1500+: If you have a little extra cash to spend and want to get a really competitive sound, the Neumann U87ai does a great job of capturing high quality vocals, with very minimal harshness and a great body to it. This is a seriously top-of-the-line level mic. Would highly recommend.

$5,000 – 10,000+: Microphones start getting excessively in this price range, but if you’ve got the budget to spend for the highest quality possible in the world, here’s our recommendation. We’ve tried a few high-end mics in this range, including the Sony C800G and some of the Manley microphones, however our pick for the best sounding microphone in this price range has to go to the Telefunken U47. Incredible body and low end, crystal clear top end with no noticeable harshness, and consistent results across various performers. This is our all time favorite microphone, and if you have the budget for it, we would recommend that you pull the trigger and go for it.

Pop Filters: These are essential for avoiding plosive sounds on the microphone during vocal recording. This is something that a lot of home recording artists don’t think is important, but it truly is. When a plosive sound comes through the microphone too harshly, it distorts any other information coming through the microphone for a brief moment. This can be detrimental to the quality of a recording, especially if you don’t notice until after the session is over.

Gain Staging: This is something else that a lot of people who record themselves overlook. The recording engineer needs to make sure your USB/Thunderbolt interface is receiving audio levels that are in the sweet spot: not too quiet, and not too loud. This is important for a few reasons.

If your input gain is too high, you’re going to go over the limit of how much information the interface can pass through to the computer. This is called clipping, and it makes a nasty sound that you can’t get rid of once it’s recorded into the computer. This will destroy a recording.

It’s much better to have vocals that are too soft as opposed to too “hot” (high input gain). You can always turn vocals up in the DAW after they’re recorded, but you can’t unclip them without a decent amount of work with a De-Clipper plugin. A recording with the input gain too low will usually have more resonances in the recording, and be more difficult to find a sweet spot when compressing.

4. The Vocal Recording Session: Capturing the Essence

This is where the vocalist’s vision comes to life.

Create a comfortable environment for the artist to create, experiment, and have fun. This can mean creating a recording room for vocals separate from the control room, or it can just mean grabbing a few comfy couches for the studio. Creating a comfortable environment is part of our mission statement for a reason – it’s important!

Make sure the artist is doing multiple takes. Doing a few runs through the main vocal recording will allow the mix engineer to grab any “comps” needed for stitching together the best vocal take. Even if the artist thinks they nailed the whole recording the first time, it’s good practice to get a few different takes to compare.

Create an inspiring headphone mix. Make it so that when the artist puts their vocals through the mic, it’s going to sound great instantly. Ensuring the singer has a comfortable mix to sing along with while recording will bring out the best in the artist. Their confidence will be high, and they’ll believe in the recording engineer throughout the session instead of doubting their abilities.

At MASTR Productions Studios, we use Universal Audio interfaces which allow us to provide our recording artists with live Antares Autotune, EQ, high quality reverb, and it’s all done without any latency. It doesn’t get printed to the DAW, either (unless we want to) which allows us to fine-tune Autotune and effects after the vocals are recorded. This is the best of both worlds! The artists gets to sound incredible in the live setting, and the mix engineer gets more control and flexibility with the recordings.

5. Overdubs and Vocal Layers

In our sessions at MASTR Productions, we advise that our clients record “dubs and adlibs”. This just means that we’re going to record some extra layers besides the main vocals. These can be harmonies, call-and-response type backup vocals, or something completely off-script, like some spontaneous adlibs!

Creating vocal stacks in this way beefs up the recording. This is what’s going to separate your tracks from “ideas” and convert them into full productions. This will also give the mix engineer more ideas to work with and blend into the final product. It’s amazing what a lush reverb and a flanger will do to some adlibs. Without stacked vocals, a single recorded vocal layer can sound a bit bland, even with a bunch of effects.

When the artist is doing their dubs and adlibs, this is a great time to go through and make sure all the main vocals parts sound strong. Anything that’s questionable, have the artist layer that part in a way that matches the original take’s energy and pitch. This will allow the engineer and the client to choose whichever one sounds the best once all the recording is done. It’s best to separate the recording process from the mixing process for maximum “flow state”.

6. The Art of Vocal Recording

Recording vocals is more than just hitting the ‘record’ button. It’s about understanding the singer’s vision, ensuring the right environment, and using technical expertise to capture the emotion flawlessly. As artists and producers, mastering how to record vocals is an essential skill that elevates a song from good to unforgettable. It’s the difference from being a “hobby artist” to putting out works of art that you’re truly proud of, and can share endlessly.

If you’re interested in learning more about the recording, mixing, and mastering process, we have an eBook called “Secrets of the DAW”, which we highly recommend for people in their first few years of mixing. It’s a great resource to learn about how vocal chains work, what different kinds of effects are possible in a stereo audio world, and a whole slew of other topics including using Autotune for perfect vocals!

If you’ve got any mixing questions, don’t hesitate to hit up the MASTRs on IG! @mastr.productions and follow our TikTok @mastrprod. Thanks for reading!

JL

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Daniel

    Nice article. Clean vocals is 80% of the battle out here

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