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Setup And Record Vocals

What you will need for a good vocal track
A microphone (condenser or dynamic) It is best to use a condenser microphone for recording vocals as it is more sensitive and will pickup a lot more of the transients that exist when recording vocals. When recording vocals I normally use a Rhodes NT-2 condenser microphone as this microphone give me a good clean but warm recording on both analogue and digital systems. If your chosen microphone has different setting then use the Cardioid setting for vocals as this will help reduce any unwanted sounds entering the microphone. While a Shock-Mount is not the most important aspect in achieving a great vocal sound, it will stop those annoying low end vibrations coming up from the floor. Most decent condenser microphones will come with a Shock-Mount make sure you use it.
Microphone pre-amp (most mixing desk per amps built today will give very good and quiet results).
if you are using a Daw then your sound card may have a microphone pre amp built into it.

Now for Hooking it up...
A microphone signal output is too low to plug right into your computer. This is where a microphone pre amp comes in, it boosts the gain of the signal to a high enough level to record with your PC. Microphone pre amps are usually pretty easy to figure out, they have an input, an output and a gain control (volume knob). So the chain of equipment goes mic-preamp-soundcard. If you are using a mixing desk then remember to plug the microphone into the correct socket and if the input is for both microphone and line then remember to select microphone and if you are using a microphone that requires phantom power then enable that as well. If you are using a PC to record your vocals then remember that most sound card built for PC's cannot supply phantom power and an external unit will be required.

If you don't have any recording software and wish to use your Pc for the recording then There is a really nice piece of freeware called audiocity that is great for one track or multi-track recording.

Optimizing the Quality of your Vocal Recordings
The most important factor that plays into the result of the quality of your vocal recording is the vocalist. You have probably heard the saying "good microphone technique" this refers to the singers ability to adjust the distance from them to the microphone to compensate for loud and quite parts of the song. There are also other factors that come into play like the problem of words in a song ending or starting with "s" there is a sharp unwanted hiss on the "s". this can be fixed in a number of different ways. One way is to get the singer to tilt there head slightly off axis from the microphone for a split second during the pronunciation of these sounds. You may run into this problem with the letter "t" as well. There is also a problem known as plosives this can normally be reduced drastically by the use of a "POP" filer. you can buy on commercially or make one out of some stiff wire and a double layer of mesh material i.e. a pair of ladies tights stretched over the wire does the trick. Place the "pop" filer between the signer and the microphone, as close to the microphone as possible without it touching the microphone. If possible use a microphone stand as hand held microphones with introduce noise into the vocal track. clip or tape the microphone cable to the stand so that it cannot bang against the stand during recording as once again this will introduce unwanted noise into your track. If the vocalist is using headphones ensure that they are comfortable as ill-fitted headphones will cause the vocalist to fidget during the recording and again will cause volume, pitch etc related problem. Also ensure that the vocalists headphone cable does not touch the microphone stand during recording.

How to Maximize your Recorded Vocals

A studio can work magic on a poorly recorded vocal track, let me begin with some methods of fixing any variance in the pitch. As to everything there is more than one way to do this. You can take the left channel and shift the pitch of the vocals up a few cents and take the right channel and shift the pitch down a few cents. This will cause a blend in the vocals, unnoticeable to the human ear, but it will fix the pitch shift in the singers voice but the best way to deal with vocals that are not pitched correctly is "sing then again". There are plug ins for current DAW's that can pitch correct a vocal track but be careful if you use one of these as it is quite easy to turn the vocalist into a robot! (I will cover the user of pitch correction in Cakewalk using V-vocal in another tutorial). The most well known of all the pitch correction plug ins is Autotune by Antares.

Another way is to comp the vocals this is a method used by almost all recording studios and engineers. This is done by recording 3-5 vocal takes then cutting and pasting the best of the 3-5 takes, in turn compiling a flawless vocal track to mix in the song.

Now you’re finally ready to start recording the vocals. We would suggest not using much compression at the recording stages, and definitely no EQ. Recording the sound with little or no processing allows more flexibility and control at the mix stage. Experienced engineers may use certain types of processing at the recordings stage, but this is risky. What might sound great when isolated might sound terrible in the mix. For this reason I would suggest recording with no effects or processing. A tiny bit of compression can work well, but make sure not to overdo it. You can always add more at the mixing stage! only make sure you don't blow any levels during recording.

When recording vocals it’s important to help the singer achieve the best performance. For starters, setting up a good headphone mix can make things much easier for yourself and the singer. The headphone mix must be well balanced, giving the singer a small amount of reverb or delay. It’s also a good idea to do a few test recordings and find out what headphone mix the singer likes. They may want to be smothered in reverb if that helps make them confident. As we mentioned earlier you don’t want any processing on the vocals during recording, so even though you’re giving the singer reverb, make sure it’s not on the recording. Simply add the effects and processing on the output of your channel as you send it to the microphone amp for the singer. You’ll want the flexibility to add different reverbs and see what sounds good later on. You always want as much freedom as possible at the mixing stage.

Mixing & Processing Vocals:

Once everything is recorded and you've compiled your favorite takes to create the master and cleaned up any unwanted noise and breath effects in the gaps, you can use a variety of processing and mixing effects to touch up the vocals to get the final polished sound.

EQ

When it comes to EQ there’s nothing set in stone. Although following the list below will help you start to clean up the sound:

Removing some of the 150-450Hz range will remove some low-mid range boxiness.
Boosting Frequencies around 8 kHz + can add a nice airy tone, and crisp effect to the sound. However, watch out for the ‘S’s and ‘T’s as any brightening will inevitably boost these.
When using EQ make sure to boost and cut as little as you can get away with. Drastically changing the sound with EQ will give an un-natural sound to the performance.
Compression

This is my favorite part of processing vocals. A compressor works in 2 ways. Firstly the main purpose of a compressor is to even out the peaks and dips in the recording. By squeezing the volume of the recording a compressor will make the loudest parts of a recording sound closer in volume to the quietist parts. This gives a smooth, even volume and is kind on your ears.

The second and more important aspect of compression is the musical energy that it gives to a recording. When used correctly compression adds an immediate pressure and energy to very dynamic recordings that can really bring a vocal take to life. Listen to a radio DJ and you’ll be able to hear the compression pumping away to keep the volume of the voice on an even level. Radio compression is excessive so as to protect peoples hi-fi speakers so I’m not suggesting you use such drastic settings but experiment and you’ll soon discover that compression is the most important tool in processing of vocal recordings.

Aiming for about 6-9dB of gain reduction, using a ratio of between 2:1 and 7:1 on the loudest parts in the track should give you a good starting point. Make sure when setting the attack and release time you get an even sounding reduction. It’s important not to get that ‘breathing’ effect. You don’t want to hear the compressor working, you just want the vocals to sound even.

Reverb

Reverb is really all about personal taste. While some engineers and singers use the smallest amount possible, others will use as much as they can get away with. A plate emulation is usually the common setting used when mixing urban vocals. Plate emulations are good and often serve to settle the vocal into the mix. Try these settings on your vocal sound.

Plate Reverb
2.3 Seconds Length
High pass Filter
0.24 Seconds Attack Time
2.10 Seconds Decay Time
6 ms Pre-Delay
-44dB Reverb Volume
2.4dB Wet Reverb
Double Tracking

To create that thick wall of sound vocal effect that just sounds huge you're going to want to double or triple track your vocals. By this we mean record an extra take onto a new audio track and play it alongside the original. This often smooth's out any pitch imperfections and adds a 'chorusing' type of effect to the voice. The differences in the two different takes combine to make a lush, dense sound that you'll already be familiar with.

If you decide to double track the vocals. We would recommend doing it for real. Trying to fake a double tracking effect will usually give poor results and make your hard earned vocal recording sound amateur. Although if you must fake the double tracking then follow these tips. Double Tracking your vocals using pitch variations and not aligning the audio files up perfectly can give great results. Copying your vocal take to another track, (you can even do this more than once, known as ‘vocal stacking’) and using a plug in such as auto tune, or Melodyne you can introduce slight pitch changes in the copied vocal. Also adding a delay of 50 - 120 ms to the copied vocals can also fake the ‘2nd part’ vocals well.

De-essing

De-essers can be used either at the mixing stage or recordings stage. If your singer has a particularly sibilant voice you are going to have problems. My advice is to get the singer to back away from the mic so that there is a 10 inch space between the singer and the pop shield. Also ensure that the singer is off-axis (not pointing directly) from the mic diaphragm.

The downside to this is that the recording will loose some of its warmer bottom end and the proximity effect will be gone. The upside is that you’ll be able to record a clean usable vocal with only mild de-essing required at mix stage.

So, what is a De-esser?

A De-esser is a tool that engineers can use to take out the very pronounced and harsh ‘S’ and ‘T’ sounds that some singers can produce. If the problem is really affecting the recording then you will have to use electronic ways of reducing just the sibilant peaks. Think of a De-Esser as a compressor that only works on the ‘S’ and ‘T’ sounds. Anything in the 3-6 khz range to be specific. With a de-esser, make sure to use light settings when possible, otherwise you may find your singer has a slight lisp to their recording. If your going to use a De-esser, we recommend spending money on one that really pinpoints the correct frequency range so the rest of the recording is left unchanged!

There are many hardware and software signal processors and mastering tools that have De-esser presets but in my experience you’ll need to do some tweaking to hone in on the problem frequencies that need to be compressed. Record the vocal correctly with the right room treatment and you’ll only need very subtle de-essing if any.

Make sure you plan the recording process, take your time with the singer and mixing stage and have fun. Experiment with different techniques and find what works best for you and the singer you’re working with. By reading this article you’ve taken your first step to achieving the industry professional vocal sound you’ve been looking for. Good luck!

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