As a mixer that gets all kinds of recordings if you asked me the single thing that is the biggest difference in home and pro studio recordings my answer would be simple - the vocal production. Ultimately, despite what we may think the vocals are what make or break a song, and today I'm going to give you six key ways to easily up your game.
1.) Use a pop shield
Always use a pop shield when you record your vocals even if you are using a dynamic like an SM7B. Big plosives cause havoc with compression and aren’t the kind of thing you want to be trying to edit later if you never really have to worry about it in the first place. A pop shield also helps people to not move around and secret side benefit of having a physical place to return to each time when they sing, giving a more even recording.
2.) Don’t record too loud
Last year I got some tracks from a client - a great singer - that were distorted and unusable. She got mad at me as I told her she needed to do them again and my hands were tied. She didn’t ever send me new vocals, but whatever- I’m not here to take your money and lie to your face, I’m here to help you make a great record.
Distortion usually happens at one of three places:
Overloading the mic - lets say you have a super powerful voice, in which case you might overload a condenser mic( especially on the budget side…) Use the pad that is on almost every mic, and that will fix that.
The preamp gain is too high - again, some not so well made preamps can distort if they see huge level and don’t have a ton of headroom , so make sure you are running conservatively - if we want “saturation” we can add that later far more controllably.
You’re clipping the interface because you are recording too hot. This usually sounds horrible, and can’t be undone. You may be going full Tent Reznor in which case, fine - crack on!
One of the reasons this happens as there is no engineer keeping an eye on the level as you record if you’re doing it yourself, and that most of the time, we’d record with a compressor on the way in, even if conservatively to just reign things in and prevent any nasty surprises later; Do YOU want to be the person who tells the artist that just sang their heart out that they’ll have to do a section again because you screwed up the level as you weren’t ready for then getting extra loud as they were carried away with the performance and get fired? At home you don’t have that pressure, but there’s no reason you can’t approach the task with a professional mindset.
With 24 bit audio, there’s no need to worry about recording too low - you can record at a level that leaves plenty of headroom with no worries about being anywhere near the noise floor, so you have no excuse.
3.) Sing in tune
This might seem obvious but apparently it's not. I’ve been listening to a lot of music from my twitter feed, and often the lead vocal is out of tune. Not horribly out of tune, but just enough to make me turn it off.
People will say things like “but Bob Dylan, or Neil Young, or…whoever were kinda pitchy” and that’s fine. It’s always performance over perfection, and character over lack of character but most people aren’t Neil Young. Tom Waits is Tom Waits, and if you can pull off that kind of swagger more power to you. The reality is that being out of tune instantly turns a LOT of people off.
Before you say you are sick of autotune, or “changing things in the computer”, most of the best vocal performances of all time were done LONG before those tools existed, and were achieved by two things: 1.) singers that can sing, and 2.) hard work in the studio. Listen to any of the late 80’s RNB girl groups - and pay attention to the vocals. That was the result of blood sweat and tears with the studio clock running! You have the luxury of taking as long as you need at home, with no pressure and only your own quality control to answer to.
Depending on what works best for you, comp a master vocal from several run throughs, and if need be don’t be afraid to do a line again and again. Even the best singers in the world sometimes have to REALLY work for the gold, so give yourself the same break.
4.) Make your doubles tight
Doubling vocals has been happening forever, and has been used used on records by everyone from the Beatles, through disco and a ton of pop records to this day AND is often used a go-to way for a less than confident vocalist to be happy with their voce, cover up minor tuning issues and thicken things up. Depending on your point of view it can also be very cheesy.
However - if you’re going o double your vocals take the time and effort to make sure they are tight - VERY tight. Apply the same care you did recording the main vocal when you make your doubles. There is nothing worse than lines ending at different times, or a stack of “s” not lining up sounding like a den of snakes.
5.) Be consistent with your overdubs
Vocal overdubs and harmonies can take a vocal performance to another level if done well. Particularly in choruses, if you’re recording harmony tracks, be consistent. Many people record doubles of harmonies, then triples in some section, then for no good reason only have a single line for the very same section later throwing the whole thing out of balance. “Why does the second chorus sound weaker?” - you didn’t lay the same foundations. Think like a producer, worry about the detail, and don’t be lazy.
6.) Try to compile your vocals from the same session
There’s a lot that can be done to match things in, but if at all possible try to make your vocal take from the same days session. Everything from air temperature, to how tired you are can drastically change a singers tone, and drop ins recorded the next day with everything exactly the same can stand out a mile.