How to Record Clean Vocals? Part 1.
Updated: 4 days ago
A question that gets asked almost daily (and sometimes several times a day) in this group is about how to record some combination of clean/clear/crisp etc vocals. In this series I will be writing about how to achieve this. In part 1, we will talk about the setup.
Often times, people who are new or less experienced in recording chase after many things they think will finally make their recording sound professional. Things like a new mic, preamp, isolation shield, analogue equipment like compressors and Eqs. However, these are not the things that need to be taken care of before you take care of the most important aspect of your signal chain: The Room!
I know, that isn't what you want to hear. That's not sexy. Not like a new mic, or fancy preamp, or buying an Apollo! Now that's sexy! (insert picture of the guy from Kush here). The thing is, none of those pieces of equipment will give you the result you want, if the sound going into them sucks. You will just end up with a really high fidelity turd, possibly with lots of analogue warmth, but it's still a turd.
So what do we do? How do we get a golden nugget instead of a turd? You take care of your room. One of the differences between microphones and ears, is that everything you hear with your ears is processed and filtered by your brain, which means that you will ignore certain things. Microphones don't do that shit. They pick up everything equally and relay that to you at varying levels of quality. So we need to control what the microphone is hearing. This can be more or less challenging depending on what you're recording due to volume levels, and frequency ranges, so let's stick with recording vocals for now, but these general principles can be applied to anything you want to record.
Think of your microphone like a flashlight. I'm going to assume your mic has a cardioid pickup pattern for now. So if your mic is a flashlight, the area that is lit up would be the area that the microphone is most sensitive to a.k.a. Whatever it's pointing at. So this would be your singer, as well as whatever is BEHIND the singer, and to a lesser extent the sides as well. So now you want to grab whatever you have that is: large, soft, and dense. You can use just about anything for this, like the pillows on your bed, cushions from your couch, your mattress, your duvet(or comforter for you non Canadians). Place this stuff behind and to the sides of your singer and point your mic into the treatment. Because we are assuming a cardioid pickup pattern, the microphone is already not going to pick up reflections from behind it, and this treatment will help to prevent most reflections from bouncing off the walls and coming back to the mic where it is most sensitive. We really want to tame any and all early/strong reflections because you will get comb filtering which sounds awful.
Now that you have a nice cozy spot to record, we should talk about noise floor. Most people on the internet talk about noise floor as if the gear (read mics, and preamps etc.) is the only consideration. You also have to think about the noise floor of the room. You want maximum signal to noise ratio that you can get. You don't want that fan, or crap from the open window to get into your recording. So turn off the fan, turn off the AC, close the window. Yes it'll get hot, just deal with it unless you can afford a really good HVAC setup. If you need to, crank the AC in the room for 20 minutes before you start. Now I've saved the best tip for last, and before you call me a weirdo, this a tip from the film world and used by location sound mixers on the biggest Hollywood productions. This is a tip from the absolute experts of home/field recording, guys who make over 1k a day. Turn off the fridge and put your keys inside it. The fridge will turn on and make a super loud hum at the absolute worst time it possibly can, guaranteed. It will ruin your best take, and then throw you off your game so you can't get another good one. But wait, why are my keys in the fridge? What does that have to do with anything? You put your keys in the fridge so you remember to turn it back on when you're done, silly! Last thing you want is to ruin all the food in your fridge because you left it off for too long. It also doesn't have to be your keys that go in the fridge. Just put anything important that you will miss when you're done recording. When you say “oh hey I need to run out and grab some food, I'm starving” you will have to go to the fridge to get them and remember to turn it back on.
The tl;dr of this post is basically to make your space as quiet as humanly possible, and to put absorption in the area that your microphone is most sensitive to, which is the direction that it's facing.
Topics that we will talk about next time will include, what kind of mic should I use? How do I setup a mic to record? How loud should I record? How do I get a good performance etc.
Happy recording and mixing everyone!