These vocal tracking tips will help you achieve decent results every time.
In one sense, recording a singer is incredibly easy: put a mic in front them and hit Record. But if you’re fairly new to recording, and particularly if you record at home, you might be wishing you could do better. Your recording might sound boxy or roomy, dull or boomy, brittle or thin. You might cringe at sibilance, lip smacks, bumps, thuds, distortion, hiss, popping plosives... and where those birds and dog barks came from, who knows? I’ve heard every one of those things compromise home‑brew recordings — and whatever problems you’ve encountered, I promise you’ll get better results more quickly if you head them off at or before the recording session!
You can’t have a good vocal recording without a good vocal performance, and while we’re not all blessed with the voice of an angel there’s plenty you can do to make the most of any voice. If you’re the singer, practice how you want to deliver the part before you think of recording it, and when the time comes to record try some vocal warm‑up exercises. You’ll find plenty of exercises online, and I’d suggest finding a handful to help you control your breathing, articulate lyrics clearly, control the resonance in your voice, and loosen up your muscles more generally. If you’re the engineer/producer, encourage singers to adopt a similar approach, and allow them time to warm up before cutting takes. Don’t overdo the warm‑ups, though, or the voice will tire very quickly!
What you eat or drink can also affect vocal delivery. Dairy products and diuretics (basically anything that either leaves some sort of coating/residue in your mouth or dries you out, so things like coffee, tea, cola, alcohol and sugary drinks) can be unhelpful. Water will keep you hydrated without unwanted side‑effects, and I find a few sips of lemon and ginger tea or a similar infusion can reduce lip‑smacking and tongue noises.
One of the most important jobs for an engineer is to coax the best performance from the artist, and making sure they’re at ease is a good place to start. Consider basic facilities such as heating/ventilation, seating so they can relax between takes, and having somewhere within easy reach to put down their drink or place a lyric sheet. Maybe also put some thought into the general vibe of the recording space too: keep it tidy, and figure out whether changes in lighting might help or hinder the singer — I like daylight, but I’ve worked with singers who insist on singing barefoot in the dark; I try to go with their flow!
Once recording, you need to appraise each take. I like to have a lyric/song structure sheet to hand, on which I can write brief notes. (If you do this in the same room as the singer, don’t let your pen/pencil/paper noise ruin a recording!) You then need to give constructive feedback, and this can be tricky. First, if you become engrossed in an engaging performance, or you’re focused on technical issues, you might forget to check they’ve hit all the right notes, articulated every word clearly and not fluffed any lyrics (those two things go wrong on pretty much every session!). Second, perceived criticism can really dent a singer’s confidence. So don’t be negative, but also remember that a singer can infer a lot from your silence. Make a point of saying something after each take, even if it’s just “Well done, shall we do another while you’re warmed up?” and try to stay positive, or phrase what you have to say as a question in order to gauge the singer’s feelings — there’s a certain amount of ‘reading the room’ involved here.
Always think how much you’re asking of a singer: voices, particularly untrained ones, can tire very quickly, so while you might need five or six takes don’t aim for dozens, and remember that you don’t have to record the whole song every time! Learn to use your DAW marker navigation and transport controls to make ‘punch‑in’ overdubs easy. It can also be an idea to make sure you get that difficult high note or big ‘payload’ chorus nailed down fairly early on, before the voice starts to tire.
The classic mic choice for vocals is a large‑diaphragm capacitor mic. Most have a cardioid or switchable polar pattern; if the latter, best set it to cardioid unless you have a specific reason not to. Cardioid moving‑coil dynamic mics like the Shure SM58 or SM7 and the Electro‑Voice RE‑20 are also a popular choice, and ribbon mics have their merits too, though most of those have a figure‑8 pattern.
For more detail about the different mic polar patterns check out our March 2021 article (https://sosm.ag/using-polar-patterns), but essentially cardioid means the mic is most sensitive at the front, so it picks up more voice and less sound from other directions, while figure‑8 means it’s equally sensitive to the front and rear but rejects sound arriving at the sides. Speaking of ‘the front’ I’ve sometimes seen inexperienced vocalists sing into the wrong side of the mic! For most moving‑coil dynamics you sing into the end of the mic, while most large‑diaphragm capacitors are ‘side‑address’ mics, with the ‘front’ usually being the side with the manufacturer’s logo on it.
Generally, capacitor mics offer the most open, airy, detailed sound, with good high‑frequency extension. They may be deliberately ‘voiced’ to sound flattering (for example, with a broad frequency boost around 5‑10 kHz) though they can sometimes sound a bit brittle or ‘spitty’, depending on the voice. Moving‑coil mics tend to sound a bit more ‘compressed’ and throw the focus more onto the midrange, which can be just the ticket for some voices and some styles. They’re also less sensitive than capacitor mics and are usually designed to be worked a bit closer. Ribbons can sound lovely and smooth: in its raw form the sound can be a bit dark/dull due to a natural high‑frequency roll‑off, but for reasons I won’t dwell on here they tend to ‘take EQ’ very well so you can usually address that with a high‑shelf boost.
As important as the mic choice is where you put it in relation to the singer. I prefer mounting a mic on a conventional stand than on a desktop one, since this makes it easier to alter the position to suit the singer, avoids unwanted reflections from the desk and makes it less prone to accidental bumps. Start with the mic at a height that allows the singer to feel relaxed when singing, but from there you can adjust it to nudge their tone and delivery in a certain direction — if the singer’s comfortable with that!
For instance, if a singer has a tendency to hunch over the mic, that can restrict their throat and make them sound a bit muffled. If (and only if) you hear a problem, raising the mic height a touch can encourage them to lift their head a little, opening up their throat. Setting a mic slightly higher up, ‘looking down’ at the vocalist’s mouth, can also reduce the amount of the more directional high frequencies, sibilance and wind blasts from plosives reaching the mic. As you bring the mic lower down you’ll eventually hear more of the singer’s chest resonance. There’s no right or wrong here; listen for what sounds good/bad and adjust accordingly.
I like to use a stand with a boom arm rather than the height‑adjustable‑only stage types. For one thing, singers seem less inclined to grab the stand like a stage prop (causing thuds and bumps), but it also allows you to put the base of the stand further from their feet, again minimising accidental bumps. A boom arm also makes it easier if you want to hang the mic upside down, pointing towards the vocalist — which I find makes cable dressing neater and leaves a bit more room to allow for dramatic arm gestures!
How far from the mic should the singer be? The optimum distance depends on several things, including the singer, the room sound, the type of mic and the song style/genre. In essence, the closer the singer is to the mic, the drier the voice will sound — more voice, less room — and the more the recorded sound will be focused on what’s actually coming from the mouth rather than, say, the chest cavity. Miking from further away can sound more ‘open’ and natural, but will bake more room sound into the recording. Most contemporary vocal styles demand a fairly ‘dry’ recording, free of room sound. You might well add reverb and delays later, when mixing, but the dry recording gives you the option of having a very up‑front vocal sound, and it also makes editing and processing (particularly pitch correction) easier to do later. What’s more, a drier voice may be the only feasible option if recording in a typical domestic space (more on that below).
There’s more to it than dry versus wet, though. Almost all directional mics (cardioid, figure‑8 and so on) exhibit proximity effect, where low frequencies are disproportionately boosted as the singer gets closer to the mic. This can be helpful if a mic is voiced too brightly or the singer has a thin voice, but not if you want a drier sound without changing the natural balance! Also, a directional mic’s sensitivity changes as you move off axis, so if a singer moves from side to side the level will vary slightly; the narrower a mic’s polar pattern and the closer the singer, the greater those fluctuations will be. The frequency response also changes as you move off axis, especially at the top end.
Finally, singing very loud and close up can occasionally produce levels that overload a mic. You might be able to counter this with a mic’s built‑in pad or high‑pass filter if it has one, but backing away from the mic or singing a touch quieter is the easiest solution!
As a rough guide, I recommend starting a small hand‑span (15‑16 cm, or 6‑7 inches) away from the mic, then refining the position if required. I generally find it unhelpful to be closer than 10cm/4 inches, or further back than about 30cm/12 inches. A strategically placed pop filter can help put the singer in the best spot, and for extreme cases where a singer tends to ‘eat the mic’ a dummy mic can provide a useful focal point — just raise the more distant ‘real’ mic and point it down so the dummy one doesn’t get in the way. If a singer moves forward/back during a performance, you’ll have a recording with an inconsistent room sound, so try to avoid changing the distance dramatically during a performance; the kind of exaggerated ‘mic technique’ some singers use in live performance isn’t always helpful here!
You can also manage the dry/wet balance of a voice by manipulating the recording space’s acoustics. First, it makes good sense to choose the best space you have available, and which one that is might not always be immediately obvious. Small box rooms (even with foam on the walls!) or clothes closets may have similar inner dimensions to a professional vocal booth, but they’re not ideal: untreated, they’ll sound boxy and, since there’s only space for minimal treatment, the ‘treated’ space will still have natural reverb skewed towards the low end. This makes it hard to balance the captured sound without artificially adding back in a good chunk of reverb back in higher up the spectrum.
It’s better in my opinion to use a larger space and put some effort into controlling the acoustics. Rather than attempt to build a booth in my 6x5m home studio, I just make sure both the mic and my back are facing something absorbent (usually a bass trap or acoustic panel) and that the mic isn’t picking up any horrible noise or reflections to the rear, and if I really want to dry things up I might have an absorber suspended above the singer. If you have acoustic treatment, it’s usually fairly easy to arrange the panels differently for the mix and recording sessions, but I realise not everyone has a dedicated studio space. A cheap but reasonably effective alternative is to erect a sort of temporary ‘booth’ out of duvets: drape them over mic stands, or anything else you have to hand — I’ve used a long‑handled brush mounted on two shelving units before!
If recording at home, chances are that the sound isolation isn’t great, meaning you potentially have unwanted sounds from outside (traffic, birdsong, barking dogs...) and inside (heating, air con, fridges, computer cooling fans) to contend with. Your ears do a great job of filtering out such sounds but they can be really annoying on a recording, especially once you apply processing when mixing. Where possible, then, switch noisy appliances off (if it’s a fridge‑freezer remember to switch it back on again!). You can also exploit your mic’s polar pattern to reduce noise: point a figure‑8 mic’s side nulls towards the recording computer and you might reduce any cooling‑fan noise, for instance, and if you place an absorber behind it, it will pick up less of the room sound too. Most sound that gets in from outside does so through the air gaps around doors and windows, so you can start by closing them and sealing any gaps up (temporarily with tape is cheap, but removable secondary glazing or a custom acoustic panel to fit snugly over a window while recording is a longer‑term option). Potentially, you could also choose a time of day when there’s less ambient noise around!
Note that you and the singer can also be sources of unwanted noises. Listen out for things like squeaks, creaks and rustles from clothing, chairs, the turning of lyric sheets, watches ticking and so on. Some singers will tap their feet, causing a thud that’s transmitted up the mic stand, and while I don’t always find mic shockmounts essential for vocal recordings, they help here. For them to be effective, though, ensure the mic cable isn’t pulled tight between the mic and stand, and note that thicker, more rigid mic cables transmit more sound than thinner, more flexible ones.
Whether you’re using a standalone mic preamp or one built into your audio interface/digital recorder, you need to set the gain to bring the signal up high enough above the noise floor without clipping your A‑D converters. This isn’t hard to do if you record at 24‑bit, and there’s really no need to record super hot. Do a quick soundcheck, and try to get the singer to sing the loudest bits of their performance at performance levels. If you adjust the gain so that the average signal is around ‑18dBFS or the peak level around ‑10dBFS that should leave some headroom in case they belt things out a bit louder when recording.
If you hear distortion and the meters on your interface or DAW input channels aren’t hitting the red, you could be overloading the microphone. It’s not a common problem — far more often, distortion is due to cranking the preamp gain too far — but lots of mics have a switchable pad and/or high‑pass filter on board and both can potentially help. The pad lowers the sensitivity of the mic, so if you engage it you may want to change the gain on the preamp accordingly. A high‑pass filter can sometimes achieve the same thing by removing energetic but almost inaudible ‘rumbles’ that push up the overall level. The same facility on a preamp or interface might help to remove low frequencies and stop the preamp going into overdrive, but it won’t prevent a mic from overloading.
If you become engrossed in an engaging performance, or you’re focused on technical issues, you might forget to check they’ve hit all the right notes, articulated every word clearly and not fluffed any lyrics.
The singer will usually need a backing track to sing along to, mixed with a ‘foldback’ of their voice. You’ll get the cleanest recording if they use headphones, and preferably closed‑back ones so sound from them doesn’t spill onto the mic. Some singers like to slide a cup off one ear so they can hear their natural voice in the room, in which case make sure that cup is directing sound in towards their skull, not blaring sound out into the room. If you’d rather leave the singer alone, you can use your DAW or interface routing software to put the mix only in one ear. Some hate singing while wearing headphones, though, and while it’s possible to work without them you might need to tread more carefully; see our October 2015 feature for more detail on that approach (https://sosm.ag/tracking-vocals-without-headphones).
Most DAW software allows you to create a dedicated ‘cue mix’, with a different balance from the one at your master stereo bus. You can use this facility to refine the balance to the singer’s satisfaction. A single fader each for drums, bass, backing/guide vocals and everything else should give you plenty of control, and as well as delivering what the singer wants you can manipulate this mix to nudge their performance into place: you might bring up just the kick and snare, or use EQ to emphasise the kick’s click, for example if you think they need to feel the rhythm a bit more.
I don’t recommend using your DAW to apply processing to the incoming voice. For one thing, it’s often unhelpful if the sound in the headphones is very different from that in the room. For another, most audio interfaces allow you to mix the DAW playback with the signal coming from the mic, and this side‑steps the problem of latency. That said, you can use the DAW to add a ‘comfort reverb’, as any latency is just perceived as ‘pre‑delay’. (Some singers seem to find reverb helpful in judging pitch when monitoring on headphones, while others don’t like it.)
Finally, at some point you’ll probably need to play recordings back to the singer and discuss which bits of which takes they like. For this sort of playback, it can be good to have a basic processing chain ready to roll even though you don’t use it in the cue mix. There’s no need to overcook things here, but some gentle compression, maybe some gentle shelving EQ to compensate for any proximity effect bass boost or a ribbon mic’s natural HF roll‑off, and just a touch of reverb or delay can be enough to make it all sound that bit more ‘polished’ and keep those confidence levels up. Again, what works best there depends on the singer.