KnowHOW: Recording vocals 101
KnowHOW: Recording vocals 101
Gordon Moore explains where to begin when recording vocals
Worship music is enjoying an explosion of growth as musicians seek to express their faith through original compositions and new renderings of classic worship music and hymns. The easy availability of recording hardware in the digital realm, the constant improvement in technology and the attendant drop in costs have all lead to a resurgence in recording faith-based music.
This leads to the desire by many to record their music to share with others. This article will cover the technical side of recording vocals – a completely different art from running a front of house mix. We will discuss the equipment choices and techniques. There is another aspect regarding copyright, which won’t be covered here, but it is a subject that you should become familiar with to avoid legal problems.
Remember, recording vocals is much harder than providing an amplified house mix. Every little noise that is normally covered up by speaker restrictions, crowd noise, HVAC, etc. in a live house environment becomes very obvious in a recording.
Hardware requirements: Since we are discussing recording vocals only, we will touch briefly on the signal chain. First and foremost, you need a good, quiet microphone – we will get into the details on microphones a bit later. From there you need good, quality studio-level preamps to amplify the microphone signal before it is recorded. Then you need a recording mechanism – a method to capture the audio and save it for editing. Finally, you need your mixing tools.
Microphone selection: The microphone is the most critical aspect of any audio signal chain when dealing with vocals. Your microphone choice needs to be very quiet – that means it must generate very little self-noise. Self-noise – or equivalent input noise – is a signal generated by the microphone itself in the absence of any other signal; in short: hiss. Dynamic microphones, because they are passive devices, do not generate self-noise. All microphones that require phantom or battery power will have self-generated noise. The lower that noise is, the better. Generally speaking, for condenser or electret microphones, the quieter the microphone, the higher the price. Better quality is not free.
Pattern selection: Pattern control – the art of picking up only the signal you want from the direction you want – is critical in vocal recordings. Omnidirectional microphones are rarely used for vocal recording. They will pick up unwanted reflections, off-axis musical instruments or the sounds of clothing rustles, and they are mayhem in a recording situation.
Try to find a good, quiet cardioid microphone with a large diaphragm for vocal recordings. Cardioid mics have a wide enough pattern to pick up an active vocalist moving back and forth in front of the microphone and virtually no pickup from behind the microphone, avoiding reflected sound. Directional microphones do tend to be susceptible to handling noise, so invest in a good suspension mounting so you don’t get little bump sounds right in the middle of that special, quiet passage.
Cardioid microphones also tend to have proximity effect and are sensitive to plosive (the P, D, K and T) breaths of air that can cause a thump or wind noise in the recording. A pop filter and/or windscreen are essentials in preventing those unwanted noises in the recording. Most console preamps have a low-frequency roll off filter. Engage that filter to reduce popping and proximity effects.
Place the mic very close to the vocalist – the closer they are to the microphone, the better your signal-to-noise ratio and you will hear fewer outside artefacts in your recording. They should be about 15cm away from the microphone.
Hopefully, your mixing console has been equipped with good, quality preamps. How can you tell? There is a fairly simple test. First, turn all your channels completely down. While wearing headphones to monitor your signal, crank up the headphone volume control – how much hiss do you hear? That will be the self-noise of the headphone amplifier. Next, turn up the fader for an unused channel (if all inputs are used, temporarily disconnect the signal cable from one channel) and turn the preamp gain all the way up (with nothing connected). Does the noise get much worse? The difference between your headphone amp noise and the last test is the preamp noise. There will be some increase, but it should not be very much. Finally, turn everything to normal operational levels (about 30dB gain on the input trim, 0 on the fader and midpoint on the headphones). Is it nice and quiet? Excellent, you are ready to go.
Set your gain structure with the loudest possible signal from the microphone without any clipping when the singer is at their loudest level. No clipping is the goal for the raw recording. (You can always add it as an effect if you choose to do so later.) Ideally, your meters will bounce around 0dBu (analogue) or –20dBfs (digital).
Iso tracks vs mixed tracks
Many modern digital mixers will allow you to record the individual channels (or tracks) instead of the mix. If you have this ability, this is the best starting point. Individual, isolated (or iso) tracks will give you the best options for the postproduction stage.
If your system does not have the ability to isolate tracks for recording, then follow your best mixing practices for a live environment while wearing headphones, paying very close attention to your vocal blends.
Recording a live show is best done by splitting the microphone signals between the FOH mixer, which provides the amplified sound, and the recording mixer. If a split like this is not possible, then use the direct outputs of your mixer (or the digital recording feed) to go to your recording computer. In my church, we have a Yamaha TF3 console. The live sound mix is fed direct via Dante to the amplifiers. The USB feed to the audio computer provides 32 channel iso tracks – pre-fader – that we can record and later edit in our editing software suite.
Live recordings will be noisier due to crowd noise, stage noise, reflections and bleed-over from the other instruments. Typically, the microphones used are the stage mics, which are not ideal for vocal tracks. You can resolve a lot of these problems in advance by using pop filters, windscreens and careful microphone placement. Most people, however, like the excitement of a live recording and tend to overlook artefacts that would be considered unacceptable in a studio recording.
Studio recording allows much better acoustical control. You can gather raw recordings with little unwanted outside sounds and mix them with added effects later.
A dedicated recording studio is always a blessing but, for many of us, one that is simply not available. You can, however, create a good recording environment in your home or church with a few simple tricks.
- While actually recording, turn off air conditioners and fans. Is there a refrigerator in the room? Unplug it. Turn off any equipment with fans or place it behind (not under) heavy blankets to block the sound. If your mixer has a fan, run your cables into the next room and place the mixer there.
- Treat the room to soften the reflections – hang blankets on the walls and over windows. If you can, use an interior room with no windows to avoid outside sounds from causing problems. ‘Soft’ rooms, like a bedroom, can be very good recording environments. You want to eliminate reflected sounds from bare walls.
- Place signs everywhere that you are recording – I have to post an assistant outside the room where we record to act as the ‘sound police’ to prevent hallway noise from corrupting our recordings.
- Playback tracks. Will you be recording the entire band or just the vocalist singing along with a recording of the band? If so, you will need an accurate playback system that can play the track at the same beat every time. By recording multiple takes, you can select the best of the best during postproduction editing.
Prep the artist
Your performers need to be aware of several things when they are recording vocals.
- Don’t wear jangly jewelry – bracelets, necklaces, noisy earrings can all detract from the recording. It is within your right as the recordist to ask they be temporarily removed during the recording session.
- Don’t wear silk. Silk is actually a very noisy fabric. Several years ago, I was recording a men’s acapella group. During the recording session, all seemed to go well. Later, in the postproduction mixing, I heard a swishing sound. It was the director’s arms as he waved them near the microphones – the rubbing of the silk jacket against his side. We had to re-record the entire session. I requested that he wear cotton that day. Normally a very elegant dresser, he showed up in a t-shirt – perfect!
- Be prepared to wear headphones – avoid hair styling that would prohibit wearing them.
Once you have your recorded tracks, you can use any number of popular editing software suites such as Adobe Audition, Audacity (free), Pro Tools, Cakewalk, Sound Forge, TwistedWave, etc.
There are many possible software platforms. Regardless of which one you choose, become completely familiar with the software and learn the full capabilities. Most have multiple effects such as reverb, equalisation, compression, limiting and special effects. Noise reduction – used sparingly – is useful if you are forced to record with noisy microphones. Many platforms also support plug-ins, which are additional software packages that integrate directly into your software package and bring additional effects and tools.
Just as you would for a live mix, layer your vocals in the final recording mix. Leads need to be the primary layer with the backup vocals mixed in ‘under’ the leads. Layer in your instruments carefully and experiment with left/centre/right panning of the various sources to give your recording more texture and spatial depth.
Make copies of your original recordings and edit them – always keep a pristine version of the original recordings. It is very easy to make an error in your postproduction mix that ruins a track permanently (or, worse, gets accidentally deleted).
Recording vocals is one of the most challenging audio tasks you can learn. Once mastered, you will find it an invaluable tool in your skillset that will not only make you shine as a studio engineer but will also reflect favourably in your role as the FOH mixer. Recoding vocals is hard; learn to do it well and all your audio challenges in the future get easier.
Be blessed and mix well.
Gordon Moore is the director of technical ministries at Rio Rancho United Methodist Church in Rio Rancho, New Mexico and president of Lectrosonics Inc.
This article was first published in the September-October 2019 edition of Worship AVL. Subscribe at www.proavl-central.com/subscribe/worship