Monday, January 16, 2017

Recording the Perfect Vocal Track

Capturing the perfect vocal track is one thing that can either make or break a song. The goal when recording vocals is to make them sound as close to the natural voice as possible. Since we are so used to hearing the human voice, this is easier said than done.

The first step in recording vocals is choosing a suitable microphone for both the singer and the song. Though not set in stone, a good quality large diaphragm condenser microphone is typically used to record vocals, due to its sensitivity and ability to pick up a wide range of frequencies. Though dynamic microphones may not sound as natural as condenser microphones, they may be perfect for loud singers.

The next piece of equipment that is absolutely necessary for vocal recordings is a pop filter. When singing, we release bursts of air that "pop" the microphone. This is particularly noticeable on the P sound. Plosives cause clipping, which sounds awful and will immediately destroy a recording, since it cannot be fixed during mixing. A pop filter is an inexpensive device that disperses the blast of air, only allowing the clean sound of the voice to reach the microphone. A pop filter consists of a circular frame that attaches to the microphone stand and holds a mesh material. Pop filters can be purchased for about $20, so there's no excuse not to use one.

An important part of capturing a good vocal performance is making the singer more comfortable. One advantage to working in a home studio, is that you don't have the same time restraints as working in a professional studio, where you could be paying by the hour. Making sure the singer isn't stressed during their performance is just as important to a good vocal track as choosing a microphone.

When recording vocals, it is important for a singer to be able to properly monitor their singing while they listen to the song. A good pair of closed-ear headphones work best for monitoring vocals. As they reproduce sound accurately and prevent too much sound from leaking into the microphone. Along with a good pair of headphones, the singer's headphone mix is also very important. A good headphone mix allows a singer to both their own voice and the some well. Not being able to hear either properly can lead to serious problems with timing and pitch. Also, most singers do not enjoy listening to the raw sound of their voice. Instead, add a little reverb and compression to the headphone mix to make the singer more comfortable. Singers typically perform much better when they hear their voice with reverb than as a dry signal. It is important however to not record these effects, as this process cannot be reversed later on.

To create a natural sounding recording, it's important to consider the position of the microphone. One of the first considerations is how far the microphone should be placed from the singer. The closer the microphone to the singer, the more you will hear the proximity effect. This causes a deep, booming vocal sound. The proximity effect is caused by the cardioid pattern of many microphones commonly used in the home studio. Placing a microphone too close to a singer causes an unnatural sound which can also lead to a muddy mix. On the other hand, placing the microphone too far away will create a distant sound and capture more reflections off the walls of the room. The "sweet spot" for recording vocals tends to be about 6" from the microphone. Since many singers try to get too close, the pop filter can be used as a physical barrier to prevent this. Adjusting the microphone height and angle should also be considered. Too high and the microphone will pick up a very nasally sound, too low and you get too much of a booming chest sound. A good place to start is with the microphone placed partway between the middle of the neck and the mouth.

One major problem faced by those recording vocals at home is the reflections from the room. When recording vocals, we aim to capture the cleanest, most natural sound. Any reflections from the room will interfere with this, and lead to problems with effects such as reverb later on. Fortunately, there are a few simple tricks you can use to cut down on reflections. The first way to reduce reflections on a vocal track is to move the singer closer to the microphone. This is a sure way to reduce reflections, however it can cause unwanted changes in tone. When changing microphone position is not an option, it's best to make some simple changes to the room. Typically, carpeted rooms without hard surfaces are best to record vocals in. One way to cut down on hard surfaces is to hang thick blankets from the wall. This is a cheap and effective way to reduce reflections. Finally, reflection filters can be attached to the microphone stand to block out any room reflections. The problem with reflection filters is they only stop reflections from reaching the back and sides of the microphone. Since most vocal microphones are cardioid, they tend to pick up most of their sound in front of them, making reflection filters largely ineffective. Overall, the best way to record vocals is to select an appropriate room and control any reflections from hard surfaces.

The last thing to consider when recording vocals is the level at which it is recorded. Recording too hot can cause clipping when a singer hits a loud part of the song. On the other hand, a track that is way too quiet will have to be amplified in the mix, which can lead to unnecessary noise. In general, it is best to stay well away from a level that could cause clipping. Since many audio interfaces offer the ability to record at a bit depth of 24-bit, the noise that could be introduced by recording at a lower volume is less of an issue. The level of the vocal track is set by a preamp. In many cases, the preamps built into an audio interface are sufficient to do the job. If possible, it may be better to use an external preamp, as these could warm up the tone of a vocal track.

A good vocal track is undoubtedly the most important part of a song. When recording, keep in mind the goal is to recreate a natural sound, as well as to work with the singer to get their best possible performance.

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