Friday, June 12, 2009

Improving Your Vocals

Earlier this week, a reader wrote me and asked for some tips on getting better vocal recordings, especially in a home studio. As luck would turn out, I had already written up an article on that very topic for the tech/studio section of my website. It struck me that this might be useful to some of the readers here, so here it is...

One of the more frequent technically-oriented e-mail questions I get has to do with how to get vocals to sound better. This can definitely be one of the more difficult parts of the recording process for most electronic musicians, so below, I've tried to compile some tips I use in my own work that will hopefully be of some use to the up-and-coming musicians out there. (Or at least the ones that can read - I guess that leaves out the drummers - ZING!)

1. Garbage In, Garbage Out

Let's start with the harsh truth first. The reason your vocals sound like shit could just be because you are a shitty vocalist. Don't panic. Everyone sucks when they first start. Some of us still suck even after years of experience. Keep at it. Keep singing, keep pushing yourself to expand your abilities. You might even consider taking formal training. But remember that what makes a great vocal generally is not technical perfection, but the emotion - the feel, even the timbre of the voice. Think of Ian Curtis from Joy Division. The guy couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but his stark, paranoid vocals were the perfect compliment to the bleak world his lyrics painted. Don't sweat whether or not you hit a note perfectly. Focus on the performance and expressing emotion. The technical ability will come after time.

2. Make the Studio Comfortable

Recording vocals in a studio is an extremely unnatural situation for most singers - especially inexperienced ones. But regardless of the level of experience, the mere pressure of recording and trying to nail a perfect take may cause even normally great singers to choke up and give a bad performance.

A lot of the things that can lead to bad performances can be easily remedied, though. Whether you are recording yourself, or another singer, it pays to make your recording environment as comfortable and "homey" as possible. Something as small as dimming the lighting or lighting incense or candles can sometimes put a singer at ease and result in a much more confident and natural-sounding performance. Don't worry if your particular preference seems silly. If it makes you comfortable and results in a great performance, who the hell cares? What happens in the studio, stays in the studio. No one needs to know you recorded that great vocal while wearing a pair of SCUBA flippers and bunny ears. But if you do something freaky with a goat, people are definitely going to talk, let's be honest.

3. The Recording Environment

As important as the comfort level is in getting a great vocal recording, the noise level in your recording environment is probably even more important. Humans tend to "tune out" the background sounds in our daily environments, but microphones are not as forgiving. If your computer fan is loud... if traffic sounds leak in through your windows... if there is a TV on in the next room... if your air conditioning or heating vents are on... if your neighbors are having noisy sex in the next apartment - it is going to end up in your recording. A little of this is inevitable in a home studio, but there is a lot you can do to minimize these interferences.

You don't have to have a totally pristine vocal recording to get good results, as a lot of low-level sounds will end up being masked by the louder volume of the music (although compression may make them louder), but why not start with the cleanest recording you can? If your computer CPU or fan is too noisy, consider moving it into another room when you record. Try to record vocals at a time when there is less likely to be anyone watching TV in the next room or when rush hour traffic turns the street in front of your house into a mangled mass of dissonant horn-honking.

Keep in mind that the natural echo of the room you are in may also effect the quality of a vocal recording. Ideally, you want to record in an environment as sonically 'dead' as possible - which is to say, in a room with as little natural reverb/reflection as possible. This is always going to exist to a degree, but doing simple things such as putting thick carpeting on the floor or hanging quilts in front of, and in back of yourself when recording can do a lot to deaden those pesky reflections and give you a much cleaner slate to begin with. Of course, if you have the budget, you can purchase sound-deadening foam, but a couple well-placed quilts work just as well despite looking lame. (-50 rock n' roll points.)

4. Take Care of Your Voice

This might seem like a no-brainer, but few beginning vocalists really think about it. If you are going to record, you want your voice to be in the best possible shape it can be. You should avoid drinking anything except for water. Drinks alone can really wreak havoc on your voice if you aren't careful. For instance, milk has a tendency to "gum up" your vocal cords... the carbonation in soda can disturb your vocal cords... the acidity in many fruit juices can stimulate production of mucus/phlegm... and alcohol and cigarettes can REALLY mess up your voice (unless you are going for a Tom Waits sort of thing, in which case, knock yourself out!) Keep in mind that you will likely be singing the track several times, so the less you do to mess with your vocal cords, the better your endurance is likely to be.

5. Rehearse and Warm Up

Which brings me to the next point. Much as an athlete doesn't run out onto the field to compete without first stretching and warming up, a singer shouldn't try and record a vocal without doing the same for their voice. For warming up, singing musical scales is probably the best thing you can do, but I find just singing the song itself several times usually does the trick nicely. But before you even get to recording, be sure to rehearse the song as much as you are able to. Especially if you plan to layer your vocals, you want to be sure you know the timing of the song inside and out and can give a consistent performance.

6. Mic Setup and Technique

It goes without saying that a good mic is also a must for getting a decent vocal recording. (Ideally buy a decent condenser mic if you can afford it, but otherwise a Shure SM-57/58, which are probably the best dynamic mics you can buy for most practical purposes). Once you have the mic, however, it is also important to know how to set it up. You will want to have a mic stand for sure. Although it may feel more natural to just hold the mic, even small things like changing your grip on the mic can produce thumps and "body noise" that will ruin your recording.

A pop filter is also a must (these are cheap, but in a pinch, you can stretch some pantihose over a wire hanger). Make sure the mic is facing in the right direction (unless it is an omnidirectional mic), and adjust the mic stand so the mic's pickup pattern is around the height of the vocalist's mouth. For most general vocal purposes, the vocalist should stand about 6"-12" from the mic. However, special effects can be produced by singing very close to the mic if you are going for the Barry White sound.

The final thing to consider is what is called "mic technique". If you watch one of those wailing diva type singers like Mariah Carey doing their thing, you'll notice that they adjust the distance between the mic and their mouth according to how loud they are singing. When they belt out the really high notes (which are generally louder), they pull the mic away from their mouth a bit. This keeps the volume of their voice a bit more consistent. When recording vocals, you should be mindful of this sort of thing. If you are singing a passage that is louder than others, step back a little from the mic. While it is true that you can even out dynamic differences with a compressor, you will have a much easier time of it if you even them out just a bit in your performance, especially if you tend to go from a whisper to a scream. Great. Now I have that Icicle Works song stuck in my head.

7. Recording

So now you're ready to actually record. Let's get this out of the way. You are going to screw up. Probably a lot. Don't sweat it. This happens even with seasoned professionals. You're a human being (and if you're not, let me be the first to welcome our new singing robot overlords...), and that means you make mistakes. When this happens, don't let it throw you. No matter how badly you screw up, don't stop recording and try to recover and keep singing as soon as you are able. If you are recording another vocalist, resist the temptation to tease them or laugh at their mistakes, no matter how goofy, as this will only throw them off their game and make for an uncomfortable recording environment. So keep it going. Even a take with a bad screw-up in might have a totally brilliant verse or chorus later on that you are never able to top. Which brings me to the next thing - keep ALL of your takes. Even the ones with the off-key notes, coughs, and nervous farting. When you get to the next stage, you will be glad to have as many takes as possible to choose from. I generally record 3 good takes for a song, but how many you take depends on your preference and if you want to layer your vocals or not. If you think you can make it sound even better by doing just one more take, then do it!

8. Compositing

So by now, you've probably noticed that it's a lot harder to get a take that is perfect from start to finish than you thought it would be. On one take, you may have nailed the first verse, but you messed up the lyrics on the chorus. Another take might have a perfect first half of the chorus, and yet another might have a perfect take of the last half of the chorus. Wouldn't it be great if we could build a perfect vocal track by cutting and pasting these individual parts together? That's what compositing is. (Click here for an article on compositing in Logic I posted earlier...)

And before the purists start complaining that this is cheating somehow... SHUT YOUR DAMN PIEHOLES! This is and has been a regular part of recording for decades. Any modern professional recording you hear is almost certainly guaranteed to have a composited vocal (or a composited guitar solo, etc.). In the old days, this had to be done by cutting up the tape and re-assembling it. Fortunately, with the advent of computer recording, this is a much less painful process now. Compositing can be as complicated as you want to be. If you want to find the best takes of not just verses, or individual lines, but WORDS, you can do that. Many professional recordings even get down to the syllable level. This can be arduous work, but the efforts can be well worth it.

9. Effects

Vocal effects could well be the subject of an article all by itself. Since the types of effects being used is largely a matter of taste and genre, I'm not going to detail every possible effect you might want to use on your voice. Instead, I will concentrate on the basics that almost all vocal tracks use and you can move on from there.

• Compression. Compression is one of the most useful and hardest to understand effects, if only because to untrained ears, it can be difficult to hear what the effect does. Indeed, if you set a compressor up correctly, its effect SHOULDN'T be obvious. A compressor's job is to even out the dynamic changes in an instrument or voice. You can imagine it as a little man with his hand on the volume knob that alters the volume so soft parts and loud parts are closer to the same volume level. This is especially important for vocals, as most singers don't have perfect dynamic control. A more dynamically even vocal will also sit in the mix better.

• Equalization. Equalization (or "EQ" as it is more commonly known) is the process of increasing or decreasing the volume of different frequencies in a signal. You know the "bass" and "treble" controls on your car stereo? That is a very basic form of EQ. I generally put EQ in my vocal effects chain in two places. First, I put it before the compressor. I use this EQ to filter out the really low frequencies (say, below 140hZ or so). The reason I do this is that you don't usually need those frequencies in a vocal, and those frequencies can effect how precisely the compressor can work. (Not to mention muddying up the low-end of your mix!) I also put an EQ after the compressor. This instance is used to do the actual "sculpting" of the sound. The key here is subtlety. I usually add a small boost (1-2 db) in the 1.5k range (this increases the intelligibility of the vocal and helps it sit in the mix better) and that's about it. For backing vocals, you might want to cut out even more low frequencies and maybe give a boost in the upper ranges to lighten and brighten them up.

The key with EQ is to always try cutting before boosting. If you want the vocal to sound brighter, try cutting some of the low frequencies. Unless you have a very muffled recording, this has the same psycho-acoustic effect as a boost in the high frequencies, but it does it without hogging bandwidth in your mix, so your mix will end up much cleaner.

• Reverb.
Reverb is the simulation of the natural reflections that exist in the real world when a sound is produced in an environment. For instance, if you are in a huge church and clap your hands, the sound doesn't abruptly stop, but trails off and slowly decays. Even though modern mixing styles are much drier (ie less heavy on the effects) than in the past, even a recording that sounds dry probably has some slight ambience on it. A vocal without any reverb on it will sound unnatural, and most likely, unprofessional.

That said, the key with reverb is to use it in moderation. Nothing makes a home recording sound more like a home recording that over-use of reverb. It is also important to use reverb on vocals as a "send" effect. Effects like EQ and Compression are known as "insert'" effects. This means that the entire signal is effected. With effects like reverb and delay, however, you want to set them up as send effects. This basically entails sending the signal to another mixing channel (usually a dedicated effects return), and then using a dial on your mixer to select the amount of the reverbed or delayed signal that is mixed with the dry, uneffected signal. 15-20% is probably a good starting point for your send level with a reverb effect. Check your manual on how to set up effects sends in whatever program you are working on. You didn't think I was going to tell you EVERYTHING, right?

• Delay. A delay is a timed repeat of a sound. or echo. If you shout into a canyon and hear whatever you shouted repeated back to you after a short time, that is delay. Delay can also add "space" to your vocal and can add some nice rhythmic complexity. Again, moderation is key. Set it up as a send effect, and find a percentage of wet/dry mix that lets you hear the delays without being obnoxiously loud.

10. In the Mix

So you've recorded, composited, and effected your vocals. Congratulations! You only have one more step to worry about! Getting a vocal to sit properly in the mix can be a rather time-consuming step, however. The biggest mistake most beginning vocalists make is to make the vocal too quiet in the mix. This can be partly out of self-consciousness, but also, after all the previous steps, you are probably intimately familiar with the vocal. Thus, the lyrics may be totally intelligible to YOU, when they are difficult, if not impossible for someone else to hear clearly. The advice I give to beginning vocalist about mixing their vocals is to find the level they feel is just about right, then boost the level by about 2db. It's by no means a perfect method, but it will probably get you closer to where the vocal really needs to be. Of course, as your experience with mixing increases, you won't have to rely on this technique because you'll have a better feel for how loud the vocals should be. Sometimes the vocal level will mostly be right, but some passages don't cut through as they should. As mentioned before, a slight boost to your midrange EQ (around 1.5k or so) might do just the trick. If that doesn't make the crucial difference, you may need to compress the vocals more. Be careful, as it is easy to overdo it, but it could simply be that the dynamic levels are still too varied. Finally, if there are still sections where the vocal doesn't cut through (for example, perhaps the vocal level is fine during the verses, but during your chorus where the arrangement is more dense, it gets lost.), try using the automation features of your DAW program (pretty much all of them have automation these days), and have it boost the vocal by a db or two during the crucial moments.

If you've made it this far, I hope you've found that these tips have helped to polish your vocal tracks to a higher level of professionalism than you had attained before. This tutorial is clearly very basic and is not meant to be the end-all be-all instruction on vocal production. Look at it as a starting point and search the web and your favorite music magazines for more tips and constantly seek to expand your knowledge of production techniques. Most of all, don't be afraid to experiment. Most anything you do with computer recording these days is completely non-destructive, and so long as you've saved copies of your work, you can always go back to the original if you completely mess up your pristine vocal track.


blinkingtears said...

GREAT post Tom!
This is positively the best synopsis of years of learning myself with some new tidbits I'm going to try:)

nulldevice said...

I think a lot of people overdo the "sonically dead" room thing. Aside from the fact that it's *really* hard to do right - it's easy to kill HF reflections, not so easy to kill LF properly - I think a lot of people spend too much effort trying to convert closets into completely anechoic spaces, when all they're really doing is creating unnatural-sounding environments. Sometimes a little natural "room sound" helps out vocals tremendously, and even in the era of convolution reverbs few of us can really afford the super-natural-sounding 'verbs that would replace some natural sound. Of course, few of us have decent enough vocal rooms either, so it's really sort of a wash.

A step I would add would be between the mic and the recording - the preamplifier/interface. I know guys who have stunning mics but are running them through bargain-basement pres and converters, basically making that $900 Mojave sound like ass. And conversely, I know a guy who can make a 57 sound like gold on vocals because he's got a sick set of pres.

Now, I wonder, are you going to take on the dreaded topic of...Autotune? :)

Line of Control said...

actually, i've found that a goat in the studio can be quite beneficial...

Anu said...

I agree with all of Tom's comments above - all very solid advice.

Figuring out the right amount of compression and EQ for your voice in the mix is often the difference between "wow that sounds like a real record" and "ick".

Also experiment with doubling/over-dubbing. Most people are trying to make their vocals sound like what they hear on records.

Close listening will reveal a surprising number of vocal tracks - many styles of music use at least a doubled vocal, with the double being mixed in just a little rather than the 70s-ish double-the-same-volume sound.

Tom said...

Good points from everybody!

@nulldevice - You're absolutely right about the 'sonically dead' thing being made into a bigger deal than it really is. I personally have never used any deadening at all when recording vocals and they come out pretty damn clean. My current studio is pretty reflective, but you can only even hear the room on higher or shouted/loud parts, but that all disappears in the mix. Still, I've heard some other vocals recorded without deadening that sounded like they were in a giant tin can, so it really depends on the space.

@Anu - I can't believe I forgot to put in a section about doubling. Good tip and one I use all the time!

John said...

Great article, cheers Tom! Further to the deadening discussion, I bought an sE Reflection Filter to help with getting a nice dead vocal take in my poky room and it's really helped, not a bad $200 investment...

Tom said...

I thought about getting one of those, but I've heard really mixed reviews... Oliver Chesler over at Wire to the Ear thought they were worthless, for example. But you find it works well?

John said...

Look, it's no silver bullet, but it certainly has a positive effect in reducing the room interaction. For me it seems to create a more 'black' background with less of the residual noise mentioned, maybe a 10% reduction? If you stick your head in the spot where the mic goes you can actually hear (not hear...?) the filter deadening out the ambient sound from the room quite a bit.

Other folks mileage may vary but it's worth trying I think, particularly if your local pro audio store has a loner or a return policy...


Seph said...

Good sound advice, I've often relied on a bit of honey too as it soothed my vocal chords. Whether or not it helped the voice coming out is open to debate.
Once you start to find your voice, I guess the most important part is delivery, and in the end I'd sacrifice a bit of sound purity for a better performance. What says you?

Paul, Italy.

Frora Bosh said...

I like the all point especially about the mic, many people just concentrating on their body language and voice but don't understand how use or handle the mike.....

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