In today's hip hop world, creating high-fidelity, professional sounding music from a home studio has become a common occurrence. With access to affordable, cutting edge gear, artists are able to compose beats, samples, melodies, and flows from their bedrooms without spending a fortune at a state of the art studio. With that being said, there are still a lot of songs recorded from home that could use some improvement. More often than not, enhancing the vocals is the first step. Vocals are a vital part of hip hop and the first thing that the majority of listeners notice and really hone in on. For this reason it's crucial to have the crispest, clearest tracks possible to catch and hold listeners attention.
Achieving a professional sounding vocal track, especially from a home studio, is a lot easier said than done. There are many ways to approach recording vocals, so experimentation is a must whenever you are recording at home.
We have come up with a five point plan of tried and true methods that should provide a good starting point and a solid foundation for recording high quality vocal tracks to further improve your overall sound as a hip hop artist.
1 - The Vocalist
When recording vocals, it is of the utmost importance to ensure that the vocalist is in prime condition for tracking.
Control The Environment
There are simple adjustments that can be made in the studio to create a comfortable space for the artist to work their magic. Setting the temperature cooler or warmer, depending on the artist's preference is always a good starting point. Recording in a darker setting by dimming the lighting, and using lamps and other light sources may help the vocalist feel less self conscious. Having only the artist, engineer, and producer is ideal in most cases so try removing any unneeded onlookers.
Prepare & Protect The Voice
Try not to overexert vocal chords by yelling or singing at high levels. A lot of times, singing in the car over the sound of the radio, car noise, and various other sounds will really add a lot of unneeded strain to the vocal chords as well. Warm up the vocal chords before recording by ascending and descending scales as well as loosening the throat, jaw, tongue, and lips. Drink a beverage, preferably none carbonated, to loosen vocal chords (hot tea or room temperature water works well). Hydration throughout the day is key because it keeps the vocal chords lubricated and functioning at their best.
Rehearse And Be prepared
Without proper rehearsing, a song will lack the professional sound that comes with the confidence of knowing exactly what you are singing/rapping. A great way to better memorize a song is to record a rough vocal track, then listen to it for a few days and sing/rap along with it. Avoid reading lines off a sheet of paper because it doesn't have as high of an energy level and the microphone could pick up unwanted sounds from shuffling through papers.
Control The Mood / Ambience
The emotional state of the vocalist really translates through a recording to the listener. A good night of sleep is important or else signs of vocal and mental fatigue will become apparent. Avoid recording when the artist is sick or in areas that may agitate their allergies because their vocal chords are affected immensely. Record when energy levels, focus, and confidence are high to really get the best takes possible. Being able to walk away from a session knowing it was the best performance the artist could possible give is the ultimate goal.
2 - Choice Of Microphones
There are plenty of reasonably priced microphones out there that can be used to get a clean vocal. Many artist's don't realize the differences between microphones, or how much of a difference the right mic can make. Finding the one that is the best fit for you musically and financially is the key. These are a couple of microphone options that are perfect for hip hop applications in a reasonable price range.
Electrovoice RE20 : Approx $450.00
This dynamic cardioid microphone is known for its broadcast heritage which makes sense as to why it is great for recording hip hop. It captures fast, articulate, high emotion talk with a high dynamic range. It handles plosives and sibilances (p's, b's and ess sounds) very well and also could be used as a kick drum mic in the studio.
Shure SM7b - Approx : $350.00
This versatile mic provides warm, crisp, clear, bright and has been used by a variety of artists from Michael Jackson, to Red Hot Chili Peppers, to Mystikal. It's a great option for home recording because it doesn't pick up background noise. It does, however, require quite a bit of gain from the pre amp but the quality of recording is excellent.
3 - Using Pre-Amps
After choosing the right microphone, it is important to pair it with a pre-amp that enhances the vocal track. A lot of times, a pre-amp with a warm mid-range and smooth high frequencies is the best choice. Like any other piece of gear for the studio, it's all about finding the right price and sonic characteristics that best suit your needs. Here are a few affordable options for your home studio.
AVID Mbox : Approx $500.00
This easy to use interface has pre-amps, converters, and drivers included. It has 2 XLR inputs as well as 2 quarter inch inputs built in, which is ideal for recording vocals and various other instruments. The Mbox includes ProTools Express software, so you'll be ready to record tracks in no time.
M-Audio MobilePre : Approx $150.00
For more affordable pre-amp, the MobilePre is an excellent option. This portable interface includes 2 mic/instrument inputs as well as ProTools SE software. No external power source necessary: just plug in your computer and record anywhere. This pre-amp is a great option for beginners trying to record some pro-quality tracks while saving a few bucks.
4 - During The Recording
Finding the right microphone for your voice will definitely improve your sound, but you will not fully reap the benefits unless it is used properly. Here are some basic steps to get the most out of your mic and the best recordings possible.
Using A Sound Booth
If a sound booth is not available for tracking, it is possible to easily construct your own. Try positioning the vocalist towards a corner and hang up thick blankets or padding around the vocalist to dampen reflecting sound waves. Sleeping bags or foam bedding work just fine if a professional acoustic treatment is out of your budget.
Provide A Good Headphone Mix
Providing the vocalist with a good headphone mix that they can adjust the volume on is best. Add a bit of compression and/or reverb to the vocal mix as they record. Be careful not to turn up the mix too loud so the sound does not bleed out of the headphones and into the microphone. A solid headphone mix will really boost the vocalist's confidence which will ultimately result in better tracks.
Reduce Unwanted Sounds
To reduce unwanted sounds from movement and varying distances, always use a mic stand as opposed to holding the mic. It's a good idea to use a pop filter attached to a mic stand when recording. The ideal distance between the filter and the microphone is about 3 inches. Although hip hop vocals are very rhythmic in nature you don't want too many unnecessary pops, plosives, and sibilances to distract from the listening experience. Keep in mind, that subtle noises in a mix may be brought out more, especially when they are mastered.
Position The Microphone
In order to avoid low end build up from proximity effect, a good distance between the vocalist and the mic is anywhere from 6 to 9 inches. Depending on the style of the vocalist, this distance will vary. Whatever the distance is, the ultimate goal is to generate a consistent input level that isn't too hot or too weak and spreads evenly across the vocal frequency spectrum.
Record Multiple Takes
Don't steer away from recording verses or phrases and punching into parts that need some improvement. With rapping, a lot of words can run together and become unrecognisable so it might be a good idea to clean some up a bit for the listeners sake. Recording multiple takes can also allow for editing during the mixing process to get the most clarity from the vocals and allow options for choosing the best take in the future.
5 - Equalization
In most hip hop songs the vocals and the drums are the highlighted features of the songs. It can sometimes be a bit tricky to keep these parts from clashing and work well together in their own sonic space. In the mixing process there are some easy ways to improve the tone of the vocals with a few EQ adjustments without sacrificing the drum level.
If the vocal tone is lacking clarity and crispness in the higher frequencies, try a broad boost (low Q). Be careful not to add too much boost or sibilances will stand out more. In that case try adding a de-esser to the plug-in chain.
This part of the spectrum is the texture quality of the vocals. This area requires a lot of experimenting which can help some character stand out from the voice that would otherwise go unnoticed.
It is usually a good idea to add a hi-pass filter to eliminate the unneeded frequencies at the lower end to allow more room for the bass and drums.
A good rule of thumb is to keep in mind that whenever frequencies are subtracted, it allows other frequencies to shine through more. Also, work in 1dB to 3dB increments and listen for the best sounds. It is ideal to add as little EQ adjustments as the recording will allow.
Hip hop is all about expressing your thoughts and feelings to an audience through rhymes, beats, and rhythm rich music. The music may sound great, but if the vocals are lacking then you are unable to effectively get your point across.
With some fundamental knowledge of recording vocals, it's possible to record professional, radio-quality songs for a wide audience from the comfort of your own home.
About The Author
Sage Audio is a mastering studio in Nashville, Tennesseee on legendary Music Row. Sage Audio provides professional cd mastering services for all genres and artists all over the world through an easy to use online system.