RECORDING VOCALS PART 1
The lead vocal is typically the most important part of any song. As a result, recording vocals almost always requires the most attention to the details of performance and sound. Capturing a great performance is a byproduct of preparation, a good recording setup and great communications skills.
Because the vocal is the primary focus of most music productions its importance cannot be overstated. The following tips should help to make the process of recording vocals less stressful. To capture a great performance requires as much attention from the producer and engineer as it does the artist.
In Part 1 (this page) we will start with a brief explanation of the two basic aspects of recording vocals. The rest of the article will talk about selecting and treating the best place to record your vocals.
In Part 2 I will discuss, selecting a mic, miking techniques and the tools that are used to solve common problems when recording vocals. The article will also include the use of preamps, compressors, equalizers and effect processing.
In Part 3 I will discuss controlling the dynamics of a vocal performance. This will help to solve one of the most common issues encountered in the recording studio. The goal here is to capture an even sounding, well balanced recording of your vocals.
In Part 4 we will take a close look at the use of equalization when recording vocals and how to manage mic preamps on buss powered audio interfaces. These tips will help you to avoid the most common pitfalls associated with EQ and audio interfaces.
To kick off Part 1, let's start with a brief discussion of the two basic aspects of recording vocals.
The 2 Aspects Of Recording Vocals
There are 2 basic aspects to recording vocals. The technical aspect and the emotional and psychological aspect. The technical aspect of vocal recording is simple once you understand the basics principles of audio that most fundamentally affect the sound quality of a recording.
These basic principles will help you to make great recordings regardless of the quality of the gear you are using. They set the foundation for all the other techniques and tricks you use.
The second aspect of recording vocals is the emotional and psychological aspect. You need to make the performer feel comfortable and confident in what they are doing. This process is supported by creating the space from which they can perform well.
The recording studio is a very unnatural environment, and most people don't perform well without some level of inspiration. Many feed off the excitement of an audience or the energy of a live performance with a band. The recording studio, however, is a completely different experience.
Careful planning of the technical and psychological aspects of recording vocals is absolutely necessary to get the best performance possible.
The Technical Side of Recording Vocals
The technical aspects of vocal recording often get the most attention in engineering circles, and for good reason. The ability to hear subtle inflections in a performance and the ability to clearly understand the lyric and melody go a long way to adding to the listener's experience.
Unfortunately, this is not the whole solution to getting great performances. Discretion must be used when applying the techniques that give you a great 'sound' so as not to put the performer in an uncomfortable position. Ultimately, it is their performance that will make people want to listen, not the quality of the recording.
The following sections will break down the technical aspects that make great quality recordings while being sensitive to the needs of the artist. If you ignore this simple principle, you may end up with a great 'sounding' recording that nobody wants to listen to.
Selecting The Best Space To Record
The most important decision to make when recording vocals is selecting the right space to record in. Selecting a space that best supports the sound of the vocal while giving the artist a comfortable space to perform requires some careful attention.
Most people do not listen carefully enough to the sound of the space unless it is doing something obviously wrong. Each person has a unique voice with a unique tonal quality. No one space will work perfectly for every artist and for every song. The decisions made here affect every other level of the recording chain, for better or for worse.
What To Look For
In a professional recording studio, most engineers will record vocals in the biggest space available. The reason has nothing to do with the reverb but rather with way the early reflections will affect the tonal quality of the voice.
What happens in every recording space is that sound will travel in all directions from the sound source. The direct sound wave does not stop at the microphone, it continues past it and bounces off all the surfaces. Depending on the shape of the room and the acoustic treatments, the sound will return to the sound source and mic a short time later.
How long it takes to get back is critical. If it comes back within 20 milliseconds (ms) it will merge with the original signal and tonally color the sound of the voice. This is important to understand because this will greatly affect the tonal quality of the voice. It can make any voice sound hollow, bright, muddy, clouded or harsh no matter what mic you use.
A Little Math
It all starts with the speed of sound and the distance it has to travel. The rest is simple math. Sound travels at 1130 ft per second or 344 meters per second. This amounts to .88 ms per foot or 3 ms per meter.
To get past the 20 ms delay time, you must be at least 12 ft or 3.5 meters away from any surface. The reason for this is that the sound must travel to the surface first before coming back to the mic. The total length of travel from the sound source will determine the delay time.
Because of gravity, the reflections from the floor are mostly beyond your control. They will always create a delay within 20 ms. Most engineers use rugs to help limit this transmission. The rest of the surfaces will require a bit more attention. In a large recording space this is not an issue. In a small recording space, it can be a big one.
The knee-jerk reaction is to completely deaden the space with foam or absorptive materials, but this is not a truly effective solution. This will create an unnatural balance of low to low mid frequencies that are the bigger source of the problem.
Get Out Of The Closet
I am not a big fan of recording in small spaces. I find they rarely, if ever work, and are largely uncomfortable claustrophobic spaces. Not exactly the best environment to perform in for most artists. From a technical point of view, very small recording spaces create enormous problems that far outweigh the convenience.
Surfaces too close to the source signal will create an enormous amount of resonant constructive interference in the low mid frequency range. The result is often a boomy, muddy or flat sound that is unbalanced and unnatural sounding. Covering the surfaces entirely with foam will only serve to further cause imbalances in the frequency response.
It's not the deadness of a space that creates the sense of dryness or immediacy. It is the balance of dry to reflected energy that creates that sense. Without the reflected energy in the sound the sense of space is entirely lost and the dry signal flattens out and loses its sense of aliveness. There is a reason nobody records in anechoic chambers.
It's important to understand the difference between tonal coloration and frequency response. Tonal coloration comes from reflections that return to the source within 20 ms. Signals this close in time get merged together by our brain. This process is called temporal fusion. Once these tonal imbalances are recorded, they cannot be removed with EQ.
How To Record Vocals In A Small Room
Just because small rooms are not ideal recording spaces doesn't mean that you can't get great results. There are many ways to control the effect of early reflections without sucking all of the energy out of a room. While some of this will involve acoustic treatments, the process starts with something more fundamental.
The first step in getting a great sound involves finding the best placement for the vocal. Start by having the vocalist sing the song as you walk around the recording space. If you have more than one space to work with, walk through them all until you find the best sound.
Try to focus on the tonal quality of the voice and not the reverberant energy of the room. Notice if the tone becomes boomy, hollow or thin sounding. As you walk around the space take note of where the voice sounds most balanced and natural. This is the best place to start.
Treating The Space
The standard procedure for recording vocals in a professional recording studio is to build a semicircular booth around the vocalist in the biggest room. The booth is created by using gobos. A gobo is a freestanding acoustic baffle that can be easily moved around a room. The ones used for vocals stand at least 6 feet tall.
The booth should be large enough to allow freedom of movement by the artist without creating a claustrophobic feeling. A rug is usually set on the floor inside the booth area. In addition to absorbing reflections from the floor it also serves to minimize noise from shoes and vibrational energy transmitting through the stand to the mic.
The reason this works is that it minimizes the effect of tonal coloration from the early reflections (less than 20 ms) and also minimizes the reverberant energy from getting into the microphone. It's important to note that it doesn't eliminate them, just minimizes their effect.
With a little resourcefulness, a very similar approach can be used in the home recording environment. Suspending heavy packing blankets from the ceiling around the recording area can achieve a similar effect.
The difference between this approach and layering the walls with foam is that the sound will get absorbed from both directions. Leaving the booth and returning to it after reflecting off the wall.
Layering the walls with foam does not minimize the early reflections nearly as well as the booth and it kills all of the higher frequency reflections that make a recording sound alive and present. By allowing those frequencies to propagate around the outside of the booth, a subtle sense of presence will be added to the vocal recording.
The acoustics of any recording environment will always have the greatest impact on any recording no matter how close you place the mic. The effect of early reflections, less than 20 ms, can only be perceived as a tonal coloration, not as a separate quantity like reverb. Learning to work with and mange these reflections will give you enormous control over the quality of your vocal recordings.
In Recording Vocals Part 2, I will talk about the microphone setup and all of the options available leading up to the mic preamp. Now that we have found the best acoustic space, let's time to set up some microphones and make some noise!!!
Vocal Recording Part 1
Vocal Recording Part 2
Vocal Recording Part 3
Vocal Recording Part 4
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