Recording vocals at home may seem like a daunting task. In this blog, we're going to touch on the basics of vocal recording, including gear needed, microphone types, and interfacing with your DAW of choice. Let's dive in! There are many ways to record vocals. Depending on your scenario, some techniques may work better for you.
First, ask yourself this: What is the purpose of your recording?
Consider your purpose, are your recording a podcast, voice over, a singing vocalist or rapper? Your audience and distribution format will influence the recording gear you invest in. You may choose a higher-end condenser microphone for a singing vocalist or voice over, or a budget dynamic microphone for podcast and casual vocal recording. Let's talk about recording basics, and what gear you'll need to record vocals.
MICROPHONE TYPES: Condenser Microphone
A condenser microphone is great for sources with a lot of detail, like acoustic instruments or a lead vocal. This is the microphone of choice for voice over, music vocal recording, and instrument recording. You will need an audio interface with 48V Phantom Power to use most condenser mics, and a pop-filter to keep your recordings clean during certain syllables. (Don't forget the Pop-Filter on Condenser Microphones!)
This microphone type is very sensitive, and will pick up the quietest sounds, so it shouldn't be used in rooms with running fans, fridges, water, HVAC, or anything that creates noise. Condenser mics range in price and design. Typically, you can find a quality budget condenser microphone for around $150-$500. I've had great luck with affordable Audio Technica, MXL, and SE Electronics microphones. Condensers will also need a shock mount, but these are usually included with the microphone purchase.
MICROPHONE TYPES: Dynamic Microphone
You might have seen dynamic microphones in
your favorite video podcast, radio shows, or during an artist performance. Dynamic microphones are durable, rugged, and less expensive then other high-end condenser microphones. Dynamic mics are good choice for podcast or voice over work, and also work great on loud sources like drums and guitar amps. This microphone type does not need Phantom Power.
Dynamic Microphones are less sensitive than condenser microphones and will pick up less ambient noise, which makes them great for recording in bigger, non-treated rooms. Although the dynamic microphones are less detailed and sensitive compared to condenser mics, they are still a great choice for instruments and vocals. (Michael Jackson's Thriller was recorded on a Shure SM7 dynamic mic!) You can find dynamic mics around $100-$450, I love vocal recording with the Shure SM7B, Beta 58, and SE V7.
Audio Interface: The essential component
To use a microphone with an XLR connection (Most Microphones), you'll need an audio interface. (And no, I wouldn't recommend a USB microphone, even to my worst enemy.) An interface allows you to plug your microphone into your computer, record and listen back to audio. An interface will also allow you to plug in headphones and monitors for playback. Interfaces come in all shapes and sizes. Most entry-level interfaces come with 2 Mic inputs and Outputs. High-end interfaces can allow you to plug in 10+ signals. The reason your interface is so important is because
It contains a Mic Preamp and is responsible for setting the level of your microphone or line-level signal.
It's responsible for your A-D and D-A conversions, meaning it converts analog audio into binary bits for your computer to store, and the same in reverse for playback.
It charges condenser Microphones with 48V Phantom Power.
Depending on how many vocals you're recording at one, a single vocal or a group of vocals/podcast, your interface will determine how many inputs you have. If you plan on recording with multiple microphones, make sure your interface has enough inputs for you. Since interfaces differ in inputs/outputs and features, they range in size, price, and quality. Focusrite makes great entry-level interfaces that range in input and output count. My first interface was a Focusrite 4i4 which I still use in my gaming room!
Picking your Recording Space
The most important factor in recording is the space you're recording in. The size of your room will affect the quality of your recording, and can make or break your vocals. Luckily, this isn't rocket science and it's easy to control.
Big rooms with hard floors, large walls, little furniture, and no acoustic treatment will make your recordings sound large, unfocused, and reverberant. Think of being in a performance hall, church, or concrete tunnel; larger rooms have more space for sounds bounce off the walls and floors, causing reverb.
In contrast, a smaller room with carpet, rugs, furniture, and acoustic treatment will be quieter, less reverberant, and your recordings will sound more focused. Professional recording studios are acoustically treated and control reverberation. This gives a cleaner recording that is easier to edit and mix with. So what does this mean for you?
When recording vocals, pick a smaller room with furniture, carpet, or anything that can absorb sound. Closets and small bedrooms are ideal. There are other ways to control reverberation such as purchasing an isolation shield or eyeball.
Choosing your DAW!
Your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) allows your to record, edit, and store audio into your computer. Some DAWs are more complicated and geared towards music production, others are more simple with less edit options. If you have a Mac, the GarageBand DAW is free to download. At home, I use Avid Protools, but other DAWs like Reaper, Studio One, and Logic work great. (Reaper is free, although I don't use it, I've heard amazing things about the software.)
The moment you've been waiting for! Instead of jumping in head first, follow along with these steps every time you need to record.
Put your Microphone on the stand, place your pop filer in front of it. Make sure your vocalist is 6-12 inches away from the microphone.
Plug your interface into your computer, and your microphone into the interface. If you have a condenser microphone, engage 48V Phantom power on the interface mic channel. Plug your headphones into the interface and put them on.
Open your DAW and check the playback engine; Your DAW needs to know that it's sending and receiving signal from the interface. Assign your inputs on your record channel and make noise into the microphone. Once you see signal on your meters, you know you've probably got the right settings!
Try recording a sample vocal into your DAW. Sing a couple lines of your favorite song, or read the last text message you sent. During this step, Adjust the preamp gain on the interface until you reach about half-way on the channel meter. (About -10 dBFS) Also, make sure you aren't clipping during your loudest section. (Leave yourself some Headroom)
Recap When you listen back to the recording to check for quality and correct any errors. Is there any background noise? Does the vocal sound natural and clear? Do you have too much room noise or is the recording focused? Are your levels too hot and clipping into your DAW? You always want to verify the quality of your recording before you jump into recording the entire project. If you're unhappy with the sound of the vocal, try moving the microphone closer or further away from the source. Try recording in a different space. Also, make sure you are recording into the front of the microphone. Some condenser microphones have two sides to record on, the right side is usually the side with the microphone logo or text. Singing into the wrong side of your microphone will not give the results expected.
If you have any questions, reach out via email or Instagram!