It is the dream of every budding musician - singer, pianist, guitarist, or anyone - to get a chance to record in a big, fancy studio with a renowned producer. However, with a talent pool like India's and the real constraints of budget, this remains a dream for most. Fortunately, with the evolution, accessibility, and affordability of technological equipment, a few easy hacks, some production knowledge, and a bit of patience, musicians can get their home recordings to sound almost like those in a professional studio.
One of the biggest telltale signs that a track wasn’t recorded professionally is how the vocals sound.
In this article, we will share some pro tips, which are very easy to follow, to help you get your vocal tracks right on the money, with the gear you already have at home. The first step to accomplish this is to set the right ambiance at home. In the absence of an environment, where you can’t relax, your vibe will be off. Make yourself comfortable, first and foremost, before setting about adjusting your other home recording equipment (headphone levels, mic position).
Pro Tips to Record Singing Voice at Home
In order to record your voice while singing at home, that is, in a non-professional environment, try to record in a neutral, dry room. Avoid cavernous rooms with reflections and reverberated sound as such spaces adversely affect the quality and the control later in the mixing process. There’s no way to go back to a "dry" sound from a "wet" sound. Thus, it is best to ensure that you start recording in a room with a controlled sound, leaning towards dry, but not "dead".
There are now available several free vocal recording apps for smartphone and computer users. Some of the most popular and high-quality ones are Audacity (arguably, the best in the business), Ardour, GarageBand, and ZyneWave Podium. Install one of these and let them work their magic on your already magical voice!
Find the Right Microphone
It is advisable to place the mic diaphragm facing your lips. Use your headphones to listen for the subtle differences. Try working out which sound is best for your chosen track and check for close (2/3 inches) or mid-distance (1 foot) mic’ing. Use a pop filter in front of the mic to tame your “P” and “T” sounds.
For those who don't own such a filter, you always have the choice to make one from scratch with a sock or stocking cap stretched over a wire hanger. Give your mic a few minutes to warm up, after which get the level into the preamp and on the DAW. Make sure your vocals are safely below the red to avoid distortion from levels that are too hot (also known as “clipping” or “peaking”).
Rehearse your song two or three times before going into detailed spots. Don't forget to relax and have fun throughout the recording. Remember, your emotions and feelings will be reflected in your voice! Attempt multiple takes for your recording and properly label all the tracks for easy reference later. In case you are not pleased with any of the takes, simply take a breather from recording the song because overdoing it can put unnecessary strain on your voice. Come back to your song and start afresh the next day!
Be Careful with Vocal Editing
In today's technologically-charged world, there is an abundance of software that offers incredible control over recorded tracks for editing. However, be careful to avoid overusing plugins and editing tools because they make you too dependent on technology. During vocal comping, try to use big portions of a given take so that you don’t ruin the vibe and original nature of the performance. Only fill in the less solid parts from other vocal takes.
Your focus should be on your performance, not the pitch. Any musician would tell you that a song is more attractive when it is not only sung well but also has a 'personality'. While Autotune and Melodyne are great tools, it is advisable to use them in moderation. Use them to fix the faulty words or sections. Don't put the tuning plugin on the whole track.
Processing Vocal Sound
Even the most skilled engineers and producers take years and multiple albums to figure out how to achieve a convincing sound for vocals. It is not possible to replicate that kind of experience in home recordings, especially if you’re just starting out. However, there is no need to despair. There are many high-quality plugins for DAWs that allow for a similar experience, provided you have the patience for it and a good musician's ear.
Here are a few recommended effects plugins that are ideal for home recording:
- A good parametric EQ to cut unwanted frequencies and enhance others
- A couple of compressors
- A de-esser
- 2–3 types of delays (short, medium, and long, to be used in different parts of the song)
- 1–2 high-quality reverbs (short and long, to be used creatively throughout the song)
EQ may not be necessary, for starters, if you have a really good preamp. In the case of jazz, folk, or classical song recordings, avoid using compression. For pop or rock, try using 2–4 dB compression and a slow attack. This will help preserve a more natural vocal sound. Hard compression may be used according to individual tastes, but also at your own risk! Play around with these effects to check their influence on the song's vibe and production. Experiment away until you find the right sound!
Home Recording Equipment Must-Haves
For singers just starting out in their careers, it is actually preferable to start off with just a simple studio. And, it is easy to set up your home recording studio. All you need are a few essentials.
Nowadays, almost everyone owns a computer. So, this essential equipment for recording your singing voice at home is not going to add to your expenses. And, virtually all computers are fast enough to, at least, get you started.
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DAW/Audio Interface Combo
The DAW or Digital Audio Workstation is essentially the software used to record, edit, and mix music on your computer. The Audio Interface is the hardware used to connect your computer with the rest of your recording gear. You can buy these 2 items either as a combo or separately.
To get things rolling at home, all you need is 1-2 quality microphones to get started on home recordings. Your choice of microphones depends on the instruments you plan to record with. For just recording vocals, the classic large-diaphragm condenser vocal mic is recommended. Some of the products recommended are::
- Rode NT1A
- AKG P170
- Shure SM57
- AKG D112
You will probably be recording by yourself at the beginning. For this purpose, you just need one pair of headphones. Consider these 2 very specific design standards for recording studio purposes:
- Closed-back headphones for tracking: They offer optimal isolation at the expense of lesser sound quality.
- Open-back headphones for mixing: They offer optimal sound quality at the expense of lesser isolation.
While open-back headphones are considered more of a luxury, closed-back headphones are a necessity.
While many home studios, nowadays, do the majority of their mixing on open-back headphones, conventional mixing has always relied on speakers. Or, as they are commonly known in pro audio, studio monitors, or nearfield monitors. Studio monitors differ from consumer speakers. The latter is designed with various tonal “enhancements”. Studio monitors have a much flatter frequency response, enabling them to provide a more neutral, uncolored sound to objectively judge your mix.
The stereo output of your audio interface must have XLR connectors for these cables to work. For the purpose of home recordings, you only need 3 such cables, including:
- 1 long XLR cable for your mic
- 2 short ones for your monitors
- Mogami Silver XLR 25ft (1x) (for the mic)
- Mogami Silver XLR 6ft (2x) (for the monitors)
Contrary to popular assumption, all mic stands are not the same. Investing in a solid mic stand is absolutely crucial for a new home studio to work. However, mic stands can be expensive and, so, for beginners, it is okay to opt for a cheap, but reliable stand.
Ear Training Software
Your ears are the one thing that is going to make the biggest difference to the quality of your recordings, more than any piece of equipment you choose to invest in, monetarily. Remember, there is a fine line differentiating a good “musician’s ear” and a good “sound engineer’s ear“. While musicians are adept at recognizing notes, intervals, and chords, sound engineers train themselves to recognize bands of frequencies. Unless and until you develop a good sound engineer's ear, in addition to your musician's ear, you wouldn't really know if things are sounding good or not.