Recording vocals is an emotional and creative process for singers. If it’s their first time in the studio, they can be nervous, overwhelmed, and even a little hesitant to give it their all. As the recording engineer on the session, it’s up to you to make them comfortable and coax the best possible performance out of them.
Long-time vocal producers know exactly how to do this. They build a repertoire with their singers, making them trust in their producer’s abilities. They align their goals with those of the singers to show that they want the same thing from the session.
While a huge piece of the process is developing that trust, there are a handful of technical pieces that every vocal producer and engineer should be addressing to get a great sounding vocal recording session. Here’s where you need to start:
Choosing the right microphone for a singer should be step one for any engineer. If you’re limited to a small selection of microphones or you’re just starting to build a collection, go with something smooth and transparent that can be easily tweaked later on. A very flat microphone is going to be more useful across multiple singers and sessions than one very colorful, expensive tube mic.
Many engineers choose to start their mic lockers with a basic large diaphragm condenser microphone or industry-standard dynamic vocal microphone for this reason. There are plenty of options in the sub-$500 range and even a few sleepers down closer to $100, but it’s worth putting your budget into the best single mic you can afford rather than buying multiple cheaper options at this price point.
You can always upgrade later on as you start building up a larger clientele that needs a larger selection. As you do, start doing shootouts of your microphones with singers to match the perfect mic to their voice for the song you’re working on.
Perhaps just as important as the microphone you choose is where you place it in relation to your singer. Some microphones can change their sonic characteristics quickly based on where they’re placed.
Many microphones are affected to a certain degree by proximity effect, especially those with a cardioid polar pattern. Proximity effect is essentially low-end frequency build up as the singer moves closer to the microphone. While this can be desirable in some sessions, placing your singer a bit further back from the microphone can help reduce the proximity effect in any microphone.
Work with your singer to develop natural compression by moving back and forth as they sing. Let them know that it’s okay (and encouraged) to move back from the microphone as they belt out louder notes and get closer to the mic for softer, more intimate parts. I can’t tell you how many beginners end up with terrible vocal takes because their singers think they need to stay robotic and glued to a spot exactly 6 inches from the mic.
Finally, consider how the height of your microphone affects the singer’s performance and the results you’re capturing. A microphone doesn’t have to be placed exactly even with a singer’s mouth. By placing it slightly above the singer, you’re encouraging the singer to tilt their head up, opening up their airways more and helping with projection. Lower placement can draw out more of a singer’s chest voice. Either way – you’re doing things that will help your singer’s performance that they subconsciously should be doing anyway.
Make It Sound Good In The Headphones
If your singer doesn’t have a good headphone mix, they’re going to spend their entire session struggling to get their performance right. Finding the right mix is about so much more than just asking “Is the vocal loud enough?” It’s about finding the right balance, processing & vibe. You need to learn what your singer wants to hear and help them find it.
When asking a singer if everything sounds good, the easiest response for them to give is “Yes.” They can hear themselves and the music, so to them, it’s good. You shouldn’t be satisfied with that though. Start asking better questions and get your hands dirty.
Give yourself a copy of their headphone mix or put their headphones on if you have to in order to hear what they’re hearing. Realize that vocals that are too loud commonly result in tuning issues as the singer struggles to find their notes with the rest of the song. Vocals that are too soft force the singer to push harder – wearing their voice out in the process.
You want to create a balance and vibe that makes the performance feel natural. If your singer feels isolated and detached from the mix, add some reverb for them. Use light compression on the way in so their performance sounds smooth and professional. They’ll be more receptive to going for the big notes knowing that they’re not extremely loud in comparison to the rest of the track.
What To Do After The Session
Once you’ve got everything tracked, you’ll have a great starting point to work from and a singer that’s excited to hear what the mix does to make them sound even better. After the session has ended, your work really begins. You have post-production work to do: vocals to comp and tune, delays to set up, etc.
To get the most out of your vocals, it really helps to have a guide to follow along with, which is why we created The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook. Inside, you’ll find all kinds of tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your recorded vocals.