There are a lot of things to take in to consideration when recording vocals to get the sound you want. There is no fast track way to getting a good vocal sound as there are so many variables such as the singer, the room, the equipment and the desired style.
In this post we'll try and present you with a few good tips and tricks that should help you to choose the best way to approach the situation. We also cover a real life recording session with Angie Brown, one of the most respected vocalists on the house music scene. Hopefully this will give even more insight on how things work during a profession recording session.
Analyse the singer’s Voice
The singer will have the most influence on the final sound, no matter what recording setup is used. The tone of their voice is worth analysing before you start out. What do you like about it? What do you want to enhance?
Deal with unwanted Sibilance
Some vocalists naturally pronounce s’s or ch’s stronger than others. If the vocal sounds particularly harsh in these areas, try and treat beforehand rather than relying on a de-esser later. Asking the singer to stand back from the mic or sing just under or over it can help, but this can also cause the vocal to become a little thin and lose some low end. A better technique might be to ask the vocalist to try and pronounce these sounds differently, just make sure it doesn't have a negative impact on their performance.
For more information on sibilance and how to avoid it take a look at our previous post.
Observe the singer’s microphone technique
If you watch an experienced singer record, you will see how they move around the microphone, stepping back or changing the angle to the mic on the loud passages, and getting close up on the quieter phrases. This gives a different sound and also acts as a natural compressor, meaning the equipment doesn't need to work as hard. Again, it all depends on the desired effect. Close up will give a full, detailed sound, and further away will give a more natural sound and pick up more of the room.
Make a joke, keep the singer in the right mood
Singers tend to perform best when they are relaxed and at ease, so try to make a few jokes. If you’re terrible at jokes then great, you looking a bit stupid will probably make them feel more comfortable in themselves! If they have particularly big ego’s, bite your tongue and give them a little massage (their ego’s that is, a shoulder massage could have the opposite effect!) Also, remember that they are human, and they can’t sing forever. Ask regularly how they are feeling, do they want some water? If you can’t get a good take and they are getting frustrated, move on to the next section and come back to it later.
Find the best spot in the room
The room will have a big impact on the sound. Recording in a small untreated room will create all sorts of issues, so spend time getting it to sound the best you can. Ask the singer to sing a few scales as smoothly as they can, and see if any notes jump out as being a lot louder or a lot quieter. Some issues can be hard to treat. Anything below 1khz is going to need some proper broadband absorption or diffusion.
Choose the right gear for the job
The equipment you use can really make the difference between something sounding like it was recorded at home and something that sounds ‘high end’ or ‘expensive.’ That being said, there are some good quality microphones and preamps out there at reasonable prices, (check out sE Electronics and Focusrite) that, in the right hands, can produce great sounding results.
The microphone, preamps and convertors (if recording to digital) all effect how the signal is processed before it reaches its destination. The microphone captures the sound and turns it into an electronic signal, which is then boosted by the preamp, and converted, to digital by an AD convertor. Each one of these processes will have an effect on the sound. Some will sound fairly natural, others will add harmonics and noticeable distortion (tube preamps for example), some will emphasize different aspects of the sound and some will just sound, well, a bit naff. Deciding which is appropriate is often a case of trial of error, and in many cases doing the best with the equipment you have. At the end of the day, if it sounds good, it IS good!
Recording the Angie Brown vocal sample pack
Firstly we listened to Angie sing and by far the most influential factor on choosing the setup for us was the sound of Angie’s voice. She has a very strong, thick tone which we felt would be enhanced by some colouration during recording, nothing too obvious but enough to give some grit when she hit the loud parts, and some glue for the quiet parts.
The mic we went for was an AKG C12, which is an excellent sounding tube mic and produces a very rich, exotic, thick sound.
We decided to compress on input as she was recording some pretty dynamic material and we wanted a to get some more colouration, so opted for an Avalon 737 tube preamp/compressor, which again gave some more tube warmth and expensive sheen to the sound.
After the preamp the signal was converted to 24 Bit digital at 44.1khz with an Apogee convertor which is extremely transparent. There is no need to capture at a higher sample rate if the file is going to end up at 44.1khz, unless more digital processing is required. Keeping digital processing to a minimum is often a good idea, and although there are some great sample rate convertors out there (iZotope for example), the more processes you can avoid if they are not having a positive impact on the sound, the better.
The vocal was recorded straight into Logic with no EQ. We spent time getting the gain right on the preamps, so they hit the ‘sweet spot’ and meant we didn’t have to do any dynamic control later. However, if you’re unsure about anything it’s probably best not to compress on the way in as you can always play around with this later.
We gave Angie a little reverb in her earphones. This helps give singers confidence and can also help with tuning and performance. Some singers like it, other’s don’t, so it’s always best to ask.
There was no issue with sibilance, some of the harder sounding s’ turned into a nice soft distortion thanks to the mic and preamp setup we were using, so there was no need for any post production work here at all.
Angie has a lot of recording experience and her mic technique is excellent, which made our job much easier. We started off by doing some warm up scales and a bit of ad-libbing. Both Angie’s voice and the equipment change as they get warmed up, so we didn't want to get straight into the main material. We still hit record though, it’s better to get everything down as you never know what little gems you might stumble across! Sometimes telling the singer to do a practice take and secretly hitting record gets great results too as it takes some of the pressure off and gives a really natural performance.
When recording harmony or double track parts, we asked Angie to sing in a different tone of voice. This gives a fuller sound, as if more than one person is singing, and helps avoid any phase cancellation issues that could arise from layering similar sounding vocals.
Listen to the Angie Brown Vocals Demo
Iconic vocalist Angie Brown releases a long awaited sample pack containing a diverse collection of vocal shouts, adlibs, full phrases and vocal effect loops, recorded through an AKG C12 mic and an Avalon VT-737SP vacuum tube preamp for ultimate warmth and sheen. From deep and soulful to in your face and funky, this sample pack touches on a range of genres, including house, dubstep and drum and bass, and is a must have for any producer who needs a bit of funk in their music!
Recording vocals requires some thought and planning. As with all recording, it’s best to get it right at the earliest stage possible. So start with the singer and the performance, then move on to the room and mic setup, then on to the recording/signal processing, then if you still need to fix any issues or you want to add certain effects, the mix/post production.
Use your ears, listen to the vocalist, listen to the recordings and try and make informed decisions on the best way forward.
Most of all, make sure you and the singer enjoy the experience, recording vocals can be really fun, and if you enjoy it, it will show in the final recordings.
About the author
This post was kindly donated by Dave Rose from Samplephonics. Samplephonics produce and sell professional sample packs including the Angie Brown vocal loops pack mentioned in this post.