Solo vocalist’s or karaoke artist’s guide to good vocal recording

What equipment do I need to start recording my vocals?


Audio Technica AT2020USB
Studio Condenser Microphone

With the prices of recording equipment and electronics having come down, starting to record your vocals and making good quality mixes is possible for musicians on almost any kind of budget.

Choosing your audio interface is one of the first steps towards making good recordings of your vocals. A good audio interface and preamp makes sure that the signal that you record using your vocal mic is transferred to the computer as best as possible.

If you don't want to invest in a sound card yet, and just want to use a good mic directly connected to your computer through the USB port, the Audio Technica AT2020USB Studio Condenser Microphone is one of the best options at USD139. Read the reviews and you will know why it is very much value for money. More about vocal mics.

Include a pop filter like the Nady MPF-6 6-Inch Clamp On Microphone Pop Filter and a shock mount – e.g. Samson SP01 Shock mount Spider Mount for Condenser Mics to complete the vocal recording equipment needs. (Why shock mount and pop filter?)

Shure SM58 is the most popular vocal mic, especially for stage use. Even if you own a condenser mic, it is usually a good idea to have this sturdy dynamic microphone since it can be easier to work with, especially for rough work.

Click to view PDF (6000 words) on Tool kit and Home recording with minimal equipment. Right click and save as to download.

Line in and mic in

Most often we find two different audio inputs – line in and mic in. These inputs may not be sufficient for any serious work. SM58 dynamic mic through an audio interface or a USB mic directly connected to the computer is what one should go for.

Clipping, preamp and trim – level of recording

Digital signal is made of 'steps', where the number of steps is decided by the level of the analogue signal.

The number of steps that a digital signal is made of is called its resolution. If we set the analogue input level lower than possible, the number of discrete steps formed in the digital signal will be lesser, thereby reducing the resolution of the signal.

If the level is kept too high, the signal is clipped. Usually this means a red light on the audio interface and an abrupt flat part on the image of the recorded signal in the sequencer.

Trim setting on a preamp is what decides the level of the analogue input. The part in the signal route where the signal strength is first decided. Even when you don't have a trim knob or if you are not using an external audio interface, make sure that you are recording the signal as loud as needed, while not too loud to make it clip.

16bit / 24bit and sampling frequency – sequencer setup

Record using 24 bit. It has its advantages. Sampling frequency is something you need to decide upon based on your needs and liking. 48khz is a useful sampling rate since it is more than the basic 44.1 khz while not too high to start using up lot of the computer resources. More about bit rate and sampling frequency.

Vocal mics – dynamic and condenser

Just a few more things about mics. Vocal mics can be dynamic or condenser mics. Among condenser mics, they can be large or small diaphragm. Audio Technica AT2020USB is a USB connectable affordable condenser mic. It has an even less expensive non USB version also: Audio Technica AT2020.

Shure SM58 is probably the most popular vocal mic. It is a dynamic mic. Condenser mics record audio using the movement of condenser leaf which is lighter than the diaphragms used by dynamic mics. Therefore, condenser mics record transients (sudden changes, subtleties) and high frequencies better than dynamic mics.

Start with these less expensive models of mics. They are more than enough to make very good recordings. Reasonably good equipment and a good setup of the mic when recording, along with diligent use of effects will give you very good results irrespective of the price of your mic.  Later if the need be, you can start looking at more expensive condenser mics if you find that they can add good color to your recordings.

Effects

Vocals are modified, corrected, adjusted and melted into the mix by the appropriate use of effects.

Compressor and equalizer are used as insert effects while reverbs are added as send effects.

When using a software sequencer, the insert effects are added to the insert slots available for each individual channel. Send effect is added as a effect to which any channel can 'send' a percentage of its sound, to be treated by that particular effect. (more explanation about it in another article soon.)

How to work with effects in a software sequencer?

Many software sequencers – Audacity, Logic, Nuendo/Cubase – have effects built in. These include Equalizers, reverbs, compressors and other usually used effects.

But most often, we prefer to use effect plugins specialized to do these tasks instead of using what is already present. These effect plugins are added as VST. Here is a sample list of paid and free effect plugins available for your effect needs. 

Additive vs Subtractive Equalization

Equalization or any other effect is a digital modification to the signal, and any modification is bound to reduce the quality of the signal to one extent or the other. Cutting away (subtractive) unwanted frequencies is preferred over boosting frequencies (additive) to modify the sound.

Cutting off unwanted frequencies doesn't need the equalizer software to synthesize and add anything of its own to the signal. A part of what exists naturally is cut away. So cutting carving away (subtractive equalization) is a less intrusive process when compared to additive, where the software is made to 'add' things unnaturally.

If there is a need to create frequencies, use harmonic enhancer and exciter plugins specifically built to create and enhance frequencies and harmonics with detailed complexity. A multi-band compressor can apply different amounts of gain reduction to different sections of the frequency spectrum. This is a case where compression is used to control the frequencies. Waves C4 is a good example, which is included in the Waves Diamond Native Plug In Bundle

More about equalizers, compressors and reverbs

Basic equalizer setting for vocals

With a basic understanding of how to use equalizers, we can work with the frequency, gain and width parameters to carve out frequencies to make the recorded vocals sound better and to fit better in the overall mix.

When recording with SM58, you will need the following tweaks:

  • 12 – 16kHz boost for the 'air'
  • 8kHz boost for clarity
  • cut at around 400 – 600 Hz
  • cut away smoothly below 100 – 150 Hz

If you are recording with a condenser mic, you may not need much equalizing since the higher frequencies will be represented well in a condenser mic recording, when compared to the dynamic mic. Just listen to the recording, see if there are any frequencies which sound a bit too much, reduce them 'surgically' by placing a very small width cut at the exact frequency, after finding the frequency using an Equalizer 'sweep'.

Grouping tracks for convenience

Many sequencers offer the option to create group channels. Individual vocal tracks can be channeled to one of these group channels. Changing the level (automation is possible to create detailed level changes) of the group channel changes the level of the individual tracks as a whole. This is convenient since the relative levels between the individual tracks remains the same while the level of the vocal group as a whole can be adjusted throughout the mix by using the group channel level control.

In Nuendo or Cubase and most other sequencers, group channels have insert effect and send effect slots, equalizer control and other options available for an audio channel.

Group tracking is obviously useful when a set of tracks can be considered as one instrument – example a 9 piece drum kit can be grouped to a group channel and the level of the overall instrument controlled with the volume setting of the group channel. Group vocals is another obvious set of tracks that can work as one big instrument. Strings, orchestra, all can benefit from the use of group channels.

In fact any instrument that uses more than one mic or track can be handled better with the use of group tracks. Two sides of mridangam or the two parts of tabla can be miced separately and grouped into a group channel, for example. When a guitar is recorded with two mics one each on the right and left side for stereo effect, they can be grouped into a group channel with the individual tracks panned to right and left for the stereo image.

In fact double tracked vocals – recorded two times and played together – produce rich satisfying sounds and interesting textures.

Pitch correction

Autotune and melodyne are the two popular pitch correction softwares. Though automatic correction settings are convenient, for serious work it is better to do the pitch correction manually using the interface provided by either of the plugins.

Non human voices or voices that sound like 'squares' without curves are popular in today's music. This can be generated by setting extreme correction values in the pitch correction plugins.

Output effects

Izotope Ozone is an example of a suite of plugins you can use on the output buss to apply effects on the overall mix.

Effects applied on the overall mix can be:

  • EQ
  • Reverb
  • Multi band compression
  • Maximize
  • Limiter
  • Stereo effects
  • Bass related plugins which keep the bass unidirectional

The output effects will affect the vocal sound and other individual tracks also. The EQ, dynamic compressor, harmonizer etc which we use at the output phase will act in addition to the effects we place on the individual vocal channel.

So, remember to adjust the effects on the individual channels after you place and tweak the overall effects.

If you are using a karaoke track in your mix, enough equalizing may have already been done to the karaoke track that any boost on the frequencies can be too much. If this is the case, do all equalization on the individual vocal and other tracks without using an overall equalizer plugin.

You can still add a compressor with a mild compression setting to the overall mix since that can help gel the tracks together to give you a coherent mix.

Vocal gelling with the mix  – reverb, eq, level

Use the equalizer to carve the frequencies so that the vocal track fits with the rest of the mix, the karaoke track.

Listen to mixes you like, commercially produced CDs, use them as a reference to decide the vocal track level in the final mix.

Adjust the reverb level and length of the reverb tail in a way that the reverb effect is felt enough while the vocals is not muddied by the reverb. More about reverb.

Which sequencer

Audacity is a very good open source software sequencer.

Nuendo, Cubase, Logic, Protools are the most popular software sequencers.

Use any good sequencer since they will never be the reason for a bad quality mix – they are all technologically good enough to not harm the audio quality. The choice of sequencer is more a matter of ease, what suits your working style than the sound it can give. Recording using reasonably good equipment, with enough signal strength and further using the effects properly is what decides the quality of the final product, whatever your sequencer choice be.

Posted in Production, Vocals

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