For the past ten years, I have been engaging in many vocal recordings for others and my band, and one obvious truth I’ve learned is that the vocals’ quality is decided during the recording phase. Sans a sound recording, you cannot have good vocals in the final mix and even in the remastering process. Hence, how you mic and record vocals are crucial to an excellent vocal recording result.
3 major Techniques on Micing/Miking Vocal
Professional singers and vocalists can produce nuances of tones ranging from soft and very low volume to harsh and grating sound during the actual recording. Plosive and sibilance can be very irritating. Moreover, the vocal dynamism and the diverse vocal styles can also pose a significant challenge to the audio engineer. In my years of recording vocals, I have learned the following vocal techniques that I think would be useful for aspiring sound engineers and producers:
1) Doubling the Vocals
Doubling vocals is precisely what it sounds, for it implies reproducing a vocal track. You need to replicate the lead vocal track, turning them into two tracks. Then, you combine them automatically or manually. In doing this, you can enhance the vocals.
There are two ways to do vocal doubling. You can either record the vocals again in another track, or you automatically double the track. The recording engineer of the Beatles, Ken Townsend, was the one who pioneered this idea.
Doubling the vocals can work well for two apparent reasons. First, it strengthens the vocal sound; second, it fills the gaps and hides the tuning inconsistencies.
In my experience, doubling vocals would not work well if both vocal tracks are the same. So, it will help to make the second vocal track lower in volume. In this way, the other vocal track can complement the original vocal track well by plugging the weak points without necessarily sounding doubled.
2) Vocal Stacking
I used to play with a four-piece band, and I was the vocalist who didn’t play any instrument. So, technically, we only got three instrumentalists. When we recorded our DIY album, my friend, our lead guitarist, had to do guitar stacks. On my part, I engaged in vocal stacking, recording several tracks of vocals to create better harmony. The trick worked, and the result was more succulent and solid vocals. I did it in the chorus and recorded three vocal tracks.
It will help to note that each vocal track should be a bit different from each other. You can vary the distance of the recordings. You can experiment with the distance and figure out what is best to make the vocals fuller.
You can also use a doubler plugin. You can copy and paste a track then apply the chorus to give the vocals more modulation and variety of signals. However, I wouldn’t advise doing this, for stacking tracks should happen within the recording sessions and not during the mixing process.
When recording vocals, I would record several tracks of vocals, at least a minimum of three. You can also stack the background vocals and harmonies.
3) Vocal Comping
It isn’t easy to come up with a single take for vocals. Besides, not many vocalists can do that. Yet, I have known a few who could record flawlessly in a single pass. Most audio engineers, however, make use of a technique called vocal comping. Vocal comping is compiling the best bits from many takes to come up with a master track.
Comping, short for compiling, has become a standard technique for engineers and producers. Many vocalists like comping because it facilitates everything for them. All they got to do is record three times, and off they go.
The engineer and producer then set to compile those best bits to come up with a master track. To systematically engage in comping the vocal track, it will help to have a copy of the song. Then, divide the lyrics into segments of phrases.
After meticulously listening to the tracks, then piece together an excellent vocal. Mark the segments as sharp, flat, good (G), very good (VG), bad (x), and can’t decide (?). If you have three vocal tracks, divide each of the tracks into similar segments and mark them with the abovementioned markings.
If you are not satisfied with comping using phrases, you can comp by words or syllables. You can also use pitch correction to rectify a pitch. You can utilize a DAW for this purpose because most contemporary DAWS allow quick and easy comping via lanes.
Other Factors to Consider On Miking The Quality Vocal
Aside from the abovementioned techniques when recording vocals, it will help, too, to consider the following essential factors:
1) The Right Choice of Microphones
If you want to make audio recording your bread and butter, you need to obsess yourself with microphones. The microphone choices are endless. Moreover, microphones are expensive. Yet, it doesn’t mean that you are assured of the best recordings of vocals if you have the most expensive mics. Besides, it is not the gear that matters most, but the engineer who does the recording and mixing.
The best sound engineer is the one who can find the exact microphone for the singer’s voice. If you are recording a pop singer, you might as well go for a large-diaphragm microphone. It is your safest bet. Most pop songs need dense mixes, which necessitates the vocals to cut effortlessly through.
Condenser mics come with low noise and feature extended top end. With this feature, you can hear the voice diction clearly. For a naturally sound deep voice, it will be useful to make use of medium diaphragm microphones.
2) Axis Orientation of Microphones
Finding the right position and axis orientation for the microphone can be a bit tricky. Yet, if you are a sound engineer, you need to look for and decide which mic orientation is best. Here are two caveats that can help you choose where to position the mic.
First, you should not set the mic at the center of the room. The reason is that standing waves build at the center of the room. Moreover, it will help not to position the mic near reflective surfaces or walls. These caveats lead you to position the mic far away from the walls.
Distance is also a significant factor when recording due to the proximity factor. Besides, with proper distance, the head and chest resonances are well represented, while extraneous sounds like plosives dissipate quickly at a certain distance compared to the resonances.
Furthermore, higher frequencies beam a bit downward, so you need to position the mic below the nose and mouth for brighter pickup. The ideal microphone distance, however, depends on the voice of the singer. For some, the 8-inch distance can be too close, while 10 inches can be very far. So, 9 inches away from the mic can be the ideal mic distance.
3) Room Setup and Ambience
Once you’ve decided which mic you are going to use for the recording, you should also figure out where you would like to position the mic in the room. In high-end recording studios, of course, there is a recording booth where singers record their vocals.
Yet, if you are a DIYer producer who owns a home studio, finding the right place can be tricky. If you are recording a loud voice, then too low a ceiling can be a problem, for it may cause the room to vibrate at specific low and mid-range frequencies. If the room is sounding too big, you can remedy it by placing gobos around the singer.
It will help if you decouple the mic from the floor to get rid of too many low-frequency vibrations. Ideally, the room should be as neutral as possible. In this way, the room ambiance and sound can never color the resulting recording.
4) Microphone Height
When recording vocals, the height of the mic is crucial. As mentioned above, the high frequencies move a bit downwards. Hence, if you position the mic below the mouth, you’ll get the vocals to sound brighter. Yet, if you raise the mic above lip level, you reduce the highs and bass, which leaves the mid-range more pronounced.
The recommended level is the lip level, though this may leave the vocals sounding bland. Besides, it may lead to the capture of more plosives and sibilance. You can also try placing the mic several inches above the lips, a bit pointing downwards. At this level, you can boost the lower midrange while reducing the highs and the bass.
5) Eliminate Lip Smacks, Breath Blasts, and Pops
If you do not figure out the mic’s perfect placement, you may end up with a vocal recording characterized by pops, breath blasts, and lip smacks. Such recoding is considered bad by almost everyone. Yet, with proper mic placement, you can resolve all these issues.
You can position the mic several inches above the lips to do away with plosives and pops. Point the mic downwards toward the mouth. The mic won’t pick up the breath, popping sounds, and plosives in this position. You can also turn the mic a bit off-axis if the popping continues.
Moreover, you can choose the omnidirectional pickup pattern if the popping sound goes on. You should also not forget to use a pop shield. Position it several inches away from the microphone. With this fine-mesh shield positioned between the singer’s mouth and the mic, you can do away with the plosives and pops.
Nowadays, you can buy good vocal mics for a few hundred dollars, making it possible for almost everyone to engage in DIY vocals recording. If you intend to record vocals on your own like a professional, you can subscribe to the abovementioned tips, and indeed, and learn the usual issues concomitant with vocals recording. You can employ the techniques mentioned above, like doubling vocals, vocals stacking, and comping to ensure that you have stronger and fuller vocal lines.
Knowing the techniques and the caveats when recording vocals can help you avoid and overcome the usual pitfalls that hound vocal recording. Remember that the vocals recording quality is almost determined during the recording process and not during the mixing process. Hence, it will help to ensure that you do it right during the recording process.