Tips for Home Vocal Recording
If you need to lay down a vocal and you don’t have access to a professional recording studio, never fear. It’s perfectly possible to get a decent sounding vocal with only minimal equipment, right in your bedroom. In this article, I’ll step you through some basic ideas for clean home recordings on a shoestring.
1. The Room
Sound bounces off hard surfaces. Worse, if you’ve got two parallel hard surfaces (such as opposite walls), then sound will bounce backwards and forwards between them, creating an echo that will be very noticeable in recordings.
Since you likely don’t have the available budget to soundproof the room like a professional vocal booth, the next best approach is to create a “dead spot” – a small area of the room that’s acoustically deadened enough so that you can record in it. You’re not trying to process the entire room, you’re just making a small area of it useable.
Your best tool here is your ears. Start by walking slowly around your room, clapping. Listen to how the clapping sounds. In different parts of your room, the natural echo of the space will be far more “snappy” than at others. You’re looking for the spot where this is least noticeable.
Incidentally, the less furniture there is, the snappier your clapping is going to sound. Furniture, carpeting and wall hangings are actually very good things to have, because they break up the flat surfaces in your room, reducing echo.
Once you’ve located the least echo-ey spot in the room, set up your microphone there (more about microphones below). Then we can look at further deadening the immediate space around the mic using duvets, blankets and cushions. The aim is to prevent the microphone from “hearing” anything other than your voice.
One trick that bedroom engineers have been using successfully for years is to surround the mic with cushions on 3 sides, with you singing into the open side. This works extremely well, but if there’s a reflective surface behind you, try to drape a thick duvet over it to reduce the bounce-back.
This isn’t a bulletproof approach, but it will go a long way towards limiting the amount of room noise in your recordings.
While you can’t stop traffic, do whatever you can to minimise environmental noise in your home. This means turn off the TV, the washing machine, the aircon – anything that makes any kind of noise that’s within your power to shut off.
2. The Equipment
Contrary to what some people believe, you can get away with extremely limited equipment and still manage to record a thoroughly decent vocal performance. At your most basic, you’re going to need a computer and a microphone. Any more gear is a bonus.
Professional recording studios tend to favour condensor microphones with large diaphragms. They’re big, expensive and gorgeous, and a common wisdom is that if you have any money, invest it in a condensor microphone. This is a huge mistake.
Condensors are beautiful, extremely sensitive things – I’m not disputing this. But they’re so sensitive that they’ll be picking up every nuance of the crappy makeshift space you’re recording in. In short, your recordings will sound so good that they’ll sound horrible. You do NOT want to use this piece of equipment unless you’re recording in an equally sexy room – which you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
Instead, invest your money in a far cheaper dynamic microphone – products from Shure are always a good bet. Dynamic microphones tend to pic up only what’s directly in front of them, which is why live performers use them – it helps to limit bleed from the other stage performers and the audience.
A good dynamic mic will serve you far, far better in a bedroom recording environment than a condensor mic you dropped two month’s rent and groceries on.
You’ll need a computer to record your vocal takes into, and obviously some software to run on it – I’m going to assume you have this covered since the Internet is full of excellent free software. The only area that need some attention is how to plug your microphone into your computer.
It’s possible to use the default vanilla audio connections on the computer itself, but these tend to be noisy. If you go this route, your recordings are likely to be plagued with electronic noise from the hard drive and other computer components.
If you have any available budget, spend some of it on a dedicated external interface to plug your mic into, or get a mic with a USB interface. Either one of these will sidestep the noisy pitfall of the computer’s onboard sound card.
Snap, Crackle and Pop Shield
Put your hand in front of your mouth, and sing a few lines. Notice how every time you pronounce a P, a B, or a T, you can feel wind hit your hand? Well, every time that wind hits your microphone, it results in a popping noise that screws up your recording. You need sound hitting your mic, not moving air.
There are two ways you can get around this. One is to sing across your mic rather than directly into it, but this can be tricky to manage in practise. A far better solution is to build a pop shield – a screen that allows sound to pass through it, but disperses moving air.
Now, you can buy expensive commercial pop shields from audio shops, but they are a giant con, and work no better than the DIY pop shield method I’m about to describe.
For this project, you’ll need a wire coat hanger (or a piece of thick wire), some adhesive tape and pair of stockings. They don’t have to be new stockings, you can recycle a pair that you (or your partner) have laddered.
Shape the coat hanger into a rough circle – or a diamond, it doesn’t really matter. Leave the hook free for now, you’ll be using it to attach this contraption to the mic stand. Insert your wire frame into the stocking leg, and pull the stocking taut over the frame. Use tape to secure it at hook end, and trim off the excess stocking with some scissors.
You are now holding a ridiculously cheap pop shield that is every bit as effective as a commercially purchased one. Straighten out the hook of the coat hanger, and attach it to your mic stand in such a way that the mic ends up about 2 inches behind the shield.
When you record, sing through the shield, and it will reduce the impact your plosives have on the mic.
3. The Performer
That’s YOU. Presumably you already know how to sing, but there are a number of things you can do to get the best sound out of your voice.
It’s All in the Posture
To start with, stand up. While you can sing from a sitting position, it compresses your diaphragm. Standing allows your diaphragm to move naturally, allowing you to hold notes for longer, and producing a much more full sound.
Second, if it’s possible, hang the mic at your eye line. You’ll have to tilt your head up slightly to sing into it, which opens your throat better.
The Early Bird Sounds Terrible
Don’t try and record within an hour of waking up. When you surface, your voice sounds scratchy and thick, and takes a while to normalise. Unless you’re deliberately trying to sound like Tom Waits, give yourself some time.
While we’re on the subject of sleep, don’t sleep with a fan directed at you the night before. This is well known to dry out your throat, leaving you scratchier than usual in the morning. Open a window instead.
You Are What You Eat
Or drink, in this case. On the day you’re going to record, you have to avoid caffeine, alcohol and dairy at all costs. You’re drinking water today and that’s it. All of these things cause your throat to line itself with mucus, which will trash your sound. Just don’t do it.
So that’s no tea, no coffee, no sodas of any kind, no whisky, no beer and under NO circumstances any milk. It’s bottled water or nothing.
That’s it. Go make some recordings already.