How to Record Vocals on Hip Hop Beats. Part 1

Can you record vocal tracks from home and make them sound like they were recorded in a top commercial recording studio? Are there any advantages for recording vocals at home other then, of course saving a lot of money?
The answer is: YES!

You’ll be surprised to know that some of the vocal tracks you hear on the radio were actually recorded at a home studio. When it comes to recording a source of sound with a single microphone like vocals, you can get the same sound quality as a commercial recording studio if you take the proper steps.

Vocal Recording Software
Any software such as FL Studio, Pro-Tools, Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer or even the Garage Band software that comes free with your mac will do. Almost all of these software have the same technique for recording audio (or if we want to call it in it’s technical term, converting digital audio to a file on our computer). Some voice recording software that you download for free online might not have the capability of recording CD quality tracks(at least: 44.1KHz 16 bit). IMPORTANT NOTE: Make sure that the software you use is for music recording.

Choosing the Right Audio Interface for Vocal Recording

Recording vocals requires a sound card/audio interface with high quality Analog to digital converters and a low latency audio driver. This means that you although you already have a microphone input built in to your computer, connecting a microphone directly to your computer won’t give you the sound quality you’re after. There are many brands that produce high quality audio interface for recording vocals on a budget. For example: M-Audio Firewire Solo ($249), M-Audio Fast Track ($149), Avid’s MBox Mini ($269), and many others. When you buy your Audio interface for vocals, always make sure it has an XLR, BALANCED connection. Here comes the fun part: Almost any card that you’ll buy will have the same sound quality. I know many readers would probably kill me for that sentence, but guys, it’s true! Almost all semi-professional audio interfaces are using the same chip made in China and the only difference in the driver is the amount of input/outputs (which doesn’t matter to you cause you’re using only 1 channel to record vocals), preamp and design. I tested a $149 audio interface with Pro-Tools’ 192 A/D converters (worth $4500) and I could barely hear the difference.

monitorPreamp for Recording Vocals

I’ll try to explain what a preamp is in a simple paragraph. When you sing to a microphone you create analog sound that needs to be amplified about 1000 times in order to reach zero DB (which is the level of music played in your headphones). For more info, wiki it. All the audio interfaces I mentioned before, have a preamp built in. If you are on a budget under $1000 for your home studio, you are fine with the built in preamp and don’t need to buy an external one. If you do want to buy an external one, like a tube preamp to “warm up” your vocals, try reading recommendation on Gearslutz. However, if you hire a mixing engineer, warming up your vocals with analog outboard gear can be done in the mixing stage – not necessarily in the vocal stage. Again, it would be very hard for you to tell the difference between your built in preamp in a ~$100 audio interface and a high-end preamp that costs $1,000.

Microphone for Vocal Recording
When it comes to microphones there is a noticeable difference with compering a $200-$300 mic and a ~$1000 mic. The materials of the microphone such as the membrane metal type and thickness are crucial for picking up low frequencies as well as high level vocalists screaming into the mic net.

Here’s a short guide to buy your first microphone:
You want a condenser microphone, not a dynamic one.
Don’t be afraid of buying a cheap microphone “made in China“… they sound as good as well known brands but cost 30% less.
Don’t count on specifications only. Almost all microphones under $1000 aren’t being tested individually and the specs are being calculated in “factory conditions on a specific mic”.
Here are a few recommendations for good vocal microphones: Audio-Technica AT2020n ($100), Neumann TLM 102 ($700), AKG C 414 XL II ($1,000) or any early edition of this mic… (I LOVE the AKG 414 and so do the StudioPros’ musicians!)

One important note: Don’t save on the microphone cable. Make sure your are using a good XLR, Balanced microphone cable, not longer than 15′-25′. There’s no point in buying a high quality microphone if you’re using a cheap cable.

access pointVocal Recording Tips – Vocal Booth and Acoustics
This might be THE MOST IMPORTANT section of this entire vocal recording technique guide. The acoustics of the room, the place you choose to position your microphone and the distance of your lips from the mic are crucial for getting a good vocal sound. Here’s a short vocal sound engineering that will dramatically improve your vocal recording:

Acoustic Space:
Try this: Stand 1″ from the wall and try to sing. You’ll hear that your voice echoes off of the wall. This happens in rooms that are not acoustically treated. In order to record high-quality vocals, you should reduce the amount of reflections coming from the walls, ceiling and floor. The key is to use heavy item with rough surfaces around the room to absorb the sound. Put a thick carpet on the floor, use a library shelf with books, a sofa, etc’. For more professional acoustic treatment, I recommend 2″ Studio foam Wedges. Portable Acoustic Treatment like the SE Electronics Reflexion Filter or the MudGuard are highly recommended!!!

Vocal booths are huge booths with acoustic treatments that allow you to get absolute silence when recording your vocals. However, those are very expensive, require a lot of space and are pretty ugly :) … Not my cup of tea. Avoiding the unwanted reflections are crucial for a good sounding vocal track. This is more important than buying the right gear or software. You don’t want to place the microphone close to a wall because of the wall’s reflections, but you also want to stay away from all source of noise like computer fans and windows. It’s obvious that you better record your vocal tracks in a room that’s doesn’t have noise from the outside or inside of the house. Remember: any sound will be amplified 1,000 times and might be noticeable when mixing your vocals.

Most Common Mistakes of Recording Vocals
Use a pop filter: A pop filter will help you avoid booming the microphone with the air pressure cause by saying the letters P, B, and others. If you’re not sure what I mean, put your hand close to your month and say: “Popcorn”. You’ll feel the pop of air coming from your month. You microphone doesn’t like those.
Your lips should be approximately 2″-6″ from your microphone. The closer you are to your microphone the more bass you’ll have. The further you get away from the mic, the lower your vocal would be comparing to the overall noise and reflections in the room.
This last mistakes is very silly, but I’ve seen it happen so many times, I can’t even count. When you sing – don’t touch the microphone, don’t hold the mic stand and especially don’t tap your foot on the floor. (Some people gets very excited when they sing their song…)

To sum up the how to record vocals guide – Part 1
You can record great sounding vocal tracks with semi-professional gear on an independent musicians budget. No matter how good your gear is, it’s more important to know how to get the most out of it. Your mission is to provide high-quality sources of vocals. A good mixing engineer will be able to take it to the next level afterward.
Join us in our second part of how to record vocals to learn about how to get the best vocal take and a little bit about editing vocals.


 How to Record Vocals Part 2

lightbulbDim the lights, get in the mood, you are about to record a killer vocal track for your song. You’ve put a lot of effort into recording your song and even put some money into buying your own home recording studio gear for recording vocals. Now it’s your turn to get the most out of your vocals to complete your song’s production.
Singing Tips that Work!

Stand up! Most chances are you’ll get a better vocal performance standing rather than sitting. When you stand up, it’s easier to breath and sing with full strength.
Use the right headphones: Your condenser microphone is very sensitive. It will pick up almost any noise, even the noises that come out of your headphones. Make sure to use Closed Circumaural headphones that will keep the audio from reaching the microphone. For example: AKG K 271 or Sony MDR-V150. Sing full takes: Nowadays it’s very easy to punch in and record one part at a time. But the best advice I can give you is start by singing the entire song from start to finish. At the very end of the vocal recording, after you’re 99% happy with your full length take, punch in at a few places and fix that last 1%. Singing your song from start to finish rather than one part at a time, will make it sound more dynamic and capture the moment of the song. Singing a song is like telling a story. Singing from start to finish helps make it more authentic. Listen to yourself: After you record your first take (from start to finish), take the time to listen to it and write down the things you like and don’t like about it. Do not rush and skip this step. Listening to yourself singing will give you perspective of what you’re doing right an wrong and keep you from repeating your mistakes. Hearing yourself while singing is a very hard to do. Most singers can’t tell their mistakes while singing.

Keep every take: You might find yourself going back to the first or second take you recorded that day, even if it’s just for one section. Keep all your vocal takes and label them correctly.

How to Sing Better, Staying in Tune and Keeping The Beat
The next singing tip is so simple and yet, so important that you’ll kick yourself in the butt for not trying it before: Take one ear out of the headphones and listen to yourself sing! The headphones often prevent us from hearing our own vocals clearly. Many recording engineers like to add Reverb and Delay effects to help recording artists get into the mood of the song. While this can help the vocalists get comfortable in the studio, it sometimes covers up the fine details of a vocal track. This technique blends your vocal with the song and makes it very hard to stay in tune. I recommend singing without effects while tracking and add them later to sweeten up the performance.
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Find it hard to keep the beat? Turn the click track on. Most likely you’re not recording live with a band but recording each instrument at a time. The glue that holds the instruments together in this case is a click track. You probably want to have the click louder than the song. However, make sure that your microphone isn’t picking it up as well through your headphone bleed.

Take breaks: If an hour has passed and you’re still feeling like you just can’t nail that take – Take a break. Your voice is not an electronic instrument. After singing for a while it won’t sound and perform the same (that’s why your first or second take might be better than the 15th take). Singing also depends on mood. Since you’re recording at your home recording studio, you have the privilege of getting back to recording your vocals on another day. When you finish your vocal session, create a rough mix of your vocals and listen to it in your car or even email it to fellow musicians. They might have some good insight for you.
In our 3th and last part of how to record vocals, you’ll learn how to edit your vocals and prepare them for mixing.



How to Record Vocals Part 3

In this part in the series of How to record vocals, I’ll talk about vocal editing, and preparing your vocals for mixing. If you reach this part, you already have one or more vocal takes that you like and now you’re in the process of piecing together your final vocal track. Start with the take you like the most. When you get to a sentence or a phrase you don’t like, look for an alternative in your other takes. Remember to always go back to the original take after you’ve fixed that part. This is important to keep your vocal take at the same overall level and avoid odd volume changes.

Pro Tools’ playlist is probably the best tool for building up your perfect final vocal track from a few vocal takes. Almost all other vocal recording DAW’s such as Cubase and Logic have a similar feature that make it easy to perfect one vocal track from a few takes. It’s very important to be in ‘Snap to Grid’ mode and setup the grid to 1 bar. (It’s unlikely that you’ll need to move your vocal parts 1/4 or 1/2 bar from it’s original position)

After you chose the best parts from all of your vocal takes it’s time for editing. You’ll find out that some words start before the beat and were cut by the editing. Switch to slip mode (or turn off the snap to grid) and drag the starting point of regions to fit the wording. Pay attention to your breathing and always crossfade between two regions.

audio knobBouncing Vocals and Preparing Your Tracks for Mixing
After you’ve finished editing, it’s time for bouncing your vocal tracks. Bouncing will turn all regions in the channel to one track, from start to finish. If you’re recording your vocals for Studio Pros’ music production, the rough mix you’ll get from us to record your vocals will include two bars of clicks before the song begins. When you bounce your tracks, you need to include those clicks in each one of your vocal tracks. It will help us make sure that your vocal tracks are 100% in sync with your music. If you’re planning on exporting your tracks and not bouncing them as I suggested, make sure to keep your vocal tracks WITHOUT any processing such as compression, gates or EQ as well as any effects such as reverb or delay. Those will be added by the mix engineer. A common mistake is exporting your mono vocal tracks to stereo tracks. Your vocal tracks should always be in mono. If you are using export, always send your vocal channel to a mono bus and export a mono track. Again, bouncing is a better choice than exporting.

When you hire Studio Pros to record your songs, you can send a rough vocal mix back to our music producer Kati O’Toole for a free consultation. It’s a free service that can help you perfect your vocals before sending them for mixing.

Auto Tune Software, Pitch Correction and Vocal Tuning
Vocal tuning won’t turn really bad vocal tracks into a masterpiece. However, they WILL help you fix flat or sharp notes and clean up the tuning of your vocals. Auto tune softwaralarme such as Antares Auto Tune or elemony Melodyne are great, but they require a lot of sound engineering experience and often make your vocal tracks worse than they have been before you used them if you aren’t experienced in the software. That’s why we offer a detailed vocal tuning service at Studio Pros done by an experienced audio engineer. Tuning each and every word individually note by note rather setting up an auto-tune setting that will affect the entire song is the best way to achieve professional vocal tuned tracks. I highly recommend sending your vocal for a vocal tuning service prior to mixing your vocals to give your songs a professional edge. Don’t be ashamed of vocal tuning, most tracks you hear on the radio have been tuned by an engineer prior to mixing. That 3rd and last article concludes our three part series of how to record vocals.


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