There's many reasons to record vocals at home including location, money, time constraints, and even being shy. Whatever the reason, sometimes it's just necessary. The following is a helpful guide for anyone working on their own demos, tracking vocals to be sent off to a mix engineer, or even tracking in the studio for a professional release. It doesn't sound possible, but with the right knowledge, gear, and practice, anyone can record vocals at home and produce professional results. Let me repeat that last part: PRACTICE. The right gear and access to the right knowledge can still turn a great vocal performance into garbage if the engineer has no practice. I recommend practicing with multiple mics, preamps, vocalists, and even rooms if you can before you attempt to produce your own vocals at home. Don't just set up the gear, experiment with as many parameters as possible to discover the best combination of gear and vocalist to yield world-class results. And read those manuals. How can you get the best out of your gear if you don't know what it can do?
This isn't the sexiest place to start, but it's so much more important than anyone would guess. The wrong room can negatively impact your recordings by up to half. Seems impossible but take it from a teenage kid that set up a microphone on a snare drum in the middle of his bedroom at age 16 and tried to record it. Welcome to the worlds worst recording. The reflections off those bare walls filling up that microphone made the recording completely unusable and totally unlistenable. That dumb kid was me and I quickly learned how important the room was when recording pretty much anything. First issue was the size of the room. Both large and small rooms have their own problems. In a small room like a closet, the reflections bounce back into your mic immediately and in large rooms like living rooms the reflections bounce back into your mic a little later but still have the same negative impact. I prefer a medium to small size room. Something like a walk-in closet is perfect.
The trick to making a room usable for vocals is to control the reflections. Don't worry about things like bass buildup, your vocals will never achieve standing waves of bass buildup the way a bass guitar would. For now, just focus on those mid and high reflections bouncing back into your microphone. Stand in the middle of the room and clap your hands. Do you hear a loud echo and reverberation? If yes, we need to treat the room. For DIY at home treatment, it really doesn't matter what you use. You just need large, soft, dense, spongey materials that like to absorb sound instead of small, hard, lightweight items that like to bounce sound. Any one of these things can improve your room: hanging clothes, carpets, couches, mattresses, blankets, curtains, egg crate foam, and even bookshelves, . Any combination of these items can help to absorb the room reflections so you can achieve a warm and dry sounding vocal that you can process and mix. You don't have to pack your room full of these materials until it's completely dead, just use your ears, the clap test, and test out the microphone to get close enough to a dry room ready to record vocals.
THE RIGHT MIC
Pairing the right microphone to the right vocalist is so underrated and misunderstood. A lot of engineers will pair up a bright large diaphragm condenser mic with a female pop vocalist because the track needs to be "hi-fi and in your face" and they spend days trying to tame the sibilance and breathiness of the track. Or pairing up a dark dynamic mic with a low growling male metal vocalist because "this mic is an industry standard on metal vocalists". Both are common mistakes that rob the mixer of what they need to get a good product. Often times, you'll want to pair a mic with a vocalist that accentuates their strong suits and minimizes their flaws. I never start tracking without trying out at least two microphones. I'd rather have a dull mic on a dull vocalist if it reduces their breathy sibilance than a mic that accentuates the bad parts so I can spend a full day drying to fix problems that shouldn't be there in the first place. If you only have one mic, focus on getting a performance that suits that particular mic. Here's a good place to mention that mic choice also affects how much noise you'll pick up from outside the room. If you're using a quiet dynamic mic with a loud screaming vocalist in a basement in a quiet neighborhood, you have nothing to worry about. If you're using a loud large diaphragm condenser mic with a quiet singing vocalist in a living room in a loud neighborhood full of motorcycles and running lawnmowers, you have a big problem. If there's nothing you can do about soundproofing your vocal room, try tracking in the middle of the night when the neighborhood his quiet.
PICKING A PREAMP
Most of you won't have the luxury of auditioning multiple preamps to find one that fits the vocalist the best. If you only have one to choose from, do your best to coach, engineer, and produce your way through any shortcomings your preamp may have. For instance, if your preamp tends to overload easily on loud parts, try tracking soft parts and loud parts separately and adjust the preamp input level to match the performance. If you do have multiple preamps to choose from, test them out and pick the one that suits your vocalist better. Try the same line of the song multiple times using multiple preamps to get a solid test of each preamp. You may find that a tube preamp suits your vocalist and the vibe of the song better than a transformer preamp. Or you may find that you need a warm and colored preamp to add to the dark character of the song rather than a clean and polished hi-fi preamp. I like to set the level of the preamp based on the vocalist's loudest volume and then turning it down just a little more. You want the level as loud as possible without distorting.
When booking the tracking session, have a conversation with your vocalist about good vocal health. Maintaining good vocal health before AND during tracking is important to achieve the best possible performance. I strongly advise against performing a live show within 3 days of a studio tracking session. The vocalist should warm up every day before tracking. The vocalist should abstain from unnecessary talking/yelling/screaming between songs and tracking should be spaced throughout the project and not all piled together into a single marathon vocal tracking session at the end. Consuming cold beverages while tracking can restrict your vocal chords and is strongly discouraged. Try recommending room temperature water, tea, or products like throat coat to keep their throat and palette moist and their bodies hydrated. Instruct them not to change their smoking, eating, or exercise habits before tracking in the studio. Maintaining a consistent lifestyle will help them achieve a better performance. And I suggest scheduling tracking sessions for whatever time of day your vocalists feels their best at. Asking a touring vocalist that's used to performing every night at 8pm to come in and belt out their best performance at 8am is nonsense.
Depending on how loud you're tracking the vocals, you may need to coach your vocalist to reduce unwanted noise in the vocal room. To minimize as much noise in the microphone other than the vocals as possible, turn down your main monitors, remove any jingling keys from pockets, or even remove your shoes if the room has hard wood floors. Whatever it takes to get a super clean vocal track. Use a pop filter to remove unwanted sibilance and plosives as well as a quality mic stand. Get a pumping headphone mix that's loud enough for the vocalist to really feel the music but not so loud that it's escaping the headphones and bleeding into your vocal mic. Coach your vocalist on maintaining a consistent distance from the mic, where the diaphragm of the mic is located, and where the sweet spot on the mic is. Reduce the volume of the breaths being recorded by teaching them to turn slightly away from the mic when taking deep breaths or pulling back a little from the mic. I prefer the former because it's easier to maintain a consistent distance from the mic.
Let's record! Your job is to coach your vocalist to their best possible performance. There's many ways to do this and helping them be comfortable is an important part of getting great vocal takes so go slow, take your time, and create an atmosphere that's patient and fun. Some vocalists prefer to do a single take of the entire song a couple times, some prefer to start with the choruses, and some prefer to start at the beginning of the song. There is no wrong answer but I do prefer to do a few full passes of the song before digging into the details. The second or third take is almost always a great take. If you need the vocalist to try another take, explain to them how you would like the next take to be different than the previous one. For example, you might ask for a different note, tighter timing, better pronunciation, or a little less breathiness. Don't be afraid to layer multiple takes or try alternate takes of a line to see if it fits the music better, or anything you can think of to make the song better. Your job as a producer is the make the song the best it can be BEFORE it heads off to editing, mixing, and mastering. If it doesn't already sound massive and punchy before you call the song finished, then try again. This goes for vocal producing as well. Just keep adding layers to make parts bigger where needed. Especially choruses. Your mixer doesn't need to use every track you send them but it's better to have a few too many instead of not enough. Just don't overload your mixer and your vocalist. You have to know when to call it quits and try again later so you don't burn out your vocalist. Give them plenty of breaks and opportunity to review their vocals on the main studio monitors to gain a little perspective on their performance. And tell them when they deliver a great performance, don't just offer pointers for how to do it better.
Remove everything from the tracks but the vocals. This includes breaths, noise from outside the room, bleed from the headphones, or sections of the track with no vocals. Don't leave anything behind that's not a vocal performance. And don't forget to fade in/fade out and crossfade your tracks to further increase cleanliness. I like to clip gain each section to maintain an even volume level throughout all of the tracks in the project. And I like to slip edit any syllable that doesn't land close enough to the beat and again crossfade all of my edits. Use a vocal aligning plugin to edit the timing of the vocal layers to match the timing of the lead vocal track. For clean vocals, use a tuner like Autotune to clean up notes that didn't quite hit the way you wanted. And don't forget to properly label your tracks before exporting if you'll be sending tracks to a mix engineer.
SESSION MANAGEMENT & EXPORTING
It's important to keep your sessions from getting cluttered and unmanageable. Especially if you're planning to send your tracks off to a mix engineer. Keep your lead vocal performances on one track, your vocal doubles on another track, your vocal backups on another, and so on. Any tracks that should be mixed the same way should all be on the same track for easier processing by your mix engineer. And don't forget to include the words vocal or vox in the name of the track so the mix engineer knows what it is without having to listen to it. And it doesn't hurt to add information about panning or fx in the track names as well. Naming a track something like: "Vocal - Lead - Left - Delay" can go far to translating your ideas as the producer over to your mix engineer. If working on multiple songs, I suggest tracking every song in a single project. This keeps all of the songs consistent, makes exporting easier, and it certainly makes importing faster and easier on your mix engineer. Unless you want to include a stereo effect like a stereo delay in a track, all tracks should be exported without processing of any kind as a mono WAV file. If the track does contain a stereo effect, export as a stereo WAV file. Just be sure to properly label processed tracks and include a note for your mix engineer about what you intended with the track. That goes for all effects that are integral to the song. In this case, tracks should be exported with the processing enabled. Export the entire song starting at the beginning, not just the individual parts of the songs where the vocals occur. This allows your engineer to line up every track at the beginning of the song and it will all synch up without issue.