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7 Steps for Recording Vocals At Home
As with any element of recording, tracking vocals comes down to having and executing a plan. You should know where you’re going to record, what equipment you’ll be using, and how to get the most out of your singer. Once you’ve covered those bases, you can experiment and play.
- Choose a proper space. In some ways, this will be your most important decision apart from choosing the right singer. (And if the singer hires you, then that part isn’t even a choice.) If you have access to a large room with wood floors, that can be great for classical vocals. For rock and pop vocals, you want a “deader” room with minimal reverb. If you’re in a small apartment, turn to your closet. Your clothing provides great sound absorption, and you can add reverb when you mix, thanks to the fantastic array of reverb plugins available in today’s digital audio software. (Although be warned that when it comes to vocals, a little reverb goes a long way.)
- Choose the right microphone. There are three types of microphones used to record vocals. Dynamic microphones are the simplest option and models like the Shure SM58 are ubiquitous at live shows. In the studio, many engineers favor the Shure SM7 which is much larger than the 58, with a more bass-focused soundstage. Condenser microphones are even more popular in the studio and options range from the very expensive Neuman U87 to the still pricey AKG C414 to the comparatively affordable Audio Technica 4033 or the Sennheiser MD421. And for a truly classic sound, many turn to ribbon mics like the expensive Royer 121 or the affordable Cascade FAT HEAD.
- Place your microphone in the right zone. As important as it is to choose the right mic, it won’t do you any good if it’s not placed properly. If you are using a cardioid condenser mic like the Rode RT1-A, you’ll want to place your vocalist between 4 and 12 inches from the microphone. With an omnidirectional condenser microphone like the AKG C414 (which can also be a cardioid mic), you can get much closer to the vocalist—they can practically be touching the mic as long as they aren’t singing too loud. Don’t forget to use a pop filter to block out annoying plosives on hard consonant sounds. (TIP: If you don’t have a pop filter, put a piece of fabric over the mic. Even a clean sock will work.)
- Use a good preamp. A great microphone will provide most of its own tone. But top studio engineers almost always send vocals through a preamp to add “warmth” (which is a euphemism for ultra-mild distortion). The ART ProMPA II is a bargain-priced preamp that can sound like something costing far more. If you have a large budget, splurge on the Universal Audio SOLO/610.
- Work with your vocalist to make them relaxed and confident. As an engineer/producer, you’re at the mercy of your vocalist for a great recording. So treat them right. Make sure they have water, make sure they like the temperature of the room, and make sure they’ve had time to warm up. If they seem anxious and self-conscious, have them do a few warm-up takes, but press record on those “warm-ups.” Sometimes performers are at their best when they think it doesn’t count. Be mindful of the singer and don’t push their voice into exhaustion—especially if you plan to record more than one song during your session.
- Do 3-6 takes and then stop. If your vocalist is properly warmed up and knows the lyrics and melody, you’ll probably get the full range of their abilities over the course of the first three takes. Additional takes can be useful if you want to experiment with mic placement or if the vocalist gets distracted or falls off the beat. Many finished vocal tracks contain excerpts from multiple takes. And if a performance is great with only a single error, just “punch in” the section where there was an error and don’t waste your singer’s voice on a whole new take.
- Effects come later. There are a lot of ways to manipulate vocals, from compression to reverb to delay to mild flanging and chorus (which creates a double-tracking effect). More than anything, you’ll want to EQ the vocals, emphasizing the upper mids for articulation and the lower mids for resonance. But save those for after you’ve recorded. You can always load up a clean vocal with lots of effects. But if you record with a bunch of effects, you’ll never be able to strip them away.
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