Studio Tricks and Tips Lesson 2: Recording Vocals

source: SAE online

Disclaimer: While a lot of this is great "FYI" for engineers in post, we do NOT recommend you send anything other than a completely dry vocal recording when auditioning.

Studio Tricks and Tips Lesson 2: Recording Vocals

Vocals are probably the most important part of a mix, they are the 'whistly' bits, the bits people hum when walking down the street. Many musicians may differ in opinion but take it from me vocals are pretty much the most important thing in a mix. So we've got to get them right!

Room choice

You what? Yes room choice is important!

Ok so look at it this way - recording studios will pay a small fortune to acoustically treat a room. The room will be treated to be what's known as 'dead'. This is jargon for non-reflective. The walls, furnishings, carpet tiles and ceiling tiles, and the whole room has been constructed so that when a sound wave hits a surface it does not bounce off it, it is absorbed. If you don't understand this aspect of acoustics it doesn't matter for now, but you do need to know that sound behaves just like any wave and it will reflect off surfaces. You know what's it's like when you sing in the bath, right?

Why does a studio want this?

This is the big issue. Why does a studio want an acoustically 'dead' environment for vocals (and not only vocals). Well the more control over the sound an engineer has, the more pure the sound, without room sound, the better she/he can paint a picture, to an extent. If you record vocals in the shower room the sound of the vocals will always have that open 'live' sound. You can't get rid of this later. We want to be able to add the reverb artificially by using our lovely reverb unit most of the time, not always of course, but fairly often.

Not a rule

Of course sometimes you can break the rules and use a particular acoustic space for an effect. Like recording the sound of a choir in a cathedral, you do want the acoustic room sound then. But generally speaking for POP vocals you want a 'dead' room so the vocals can then be produced.

I don't have an acoustically dead space for vocals

So you might not have the luxury of an open bank balance to build your acoustically dead space, but you can use your imagination. I've created dead spaces many times. I've used tables and chairs, brooms poles and heavy drapes, blankets, duvets etc, to make a chamber where sound is absorbed as much as possible. Dense material is best like lots of pillows, roof insulation is good but watch out if made from fibreglass. - Use your imagination.

Microphone choice

So if you are making a record forget about using anything other than a capacitor microphone or at least a VERY good dynamic mic. A capacitor mic is a mic that needs power either from a battery or phantom power (+48vdc) which good desks have, as do most pre-amps. You might see vocalists using a sure SM58 (because they are rugged) on stage but forget about that in a studio as their frequency response will not get the lovely bits you want for stunning clear vocals. I'm not going to rant about this mic or that mic but something like the akg 414 will sound very good.

Mic pickup patterns

Ever heard of this one? Well this is how the microphone picks up sounds from all directions. Some mics will pick up sound only if you sing directly into them some will pick up sounds from behind them. Mics have what's known as a polar pattern, or pickup pattern. Imagine a clock face and 12 O'clock is 0 degrees. 6 O'clock is 180 degrees. Some mics pick up well at 180 degrees others don't.

There are names associated with pick-up patterns such as:


I'll cut a very long story short here for the benefit of this paper and point out that uni-directional (meaning one-way) will be a good choice because you'll only pick up the sound from 0 degrees (12 O'clock). This will help if you are recording with the shower room effect, as the reflected sound will not be picked up so much. If you use an omni-directional pattern all the reflections will be picked up which is generally undesireable!

Pop shield

Ever seen the crazy looking thing in front of the mic? Looks like a pair of stockings over a disc. Well it is! You can make one yourself if you get a pair of your own nylons (or mother's) and stretch them over a hoop.

You what?

Yes, this is known as a pop shield. The voice is prone to making blasts and pops when singing or speaking the P and B sounds. They are very similar sounds and can be a real pain when recording vocals. You can help reduce this problem with the stockings. This is known as reducing plosives.

Over to the vocalist

Trained vocalists possess good microphone technique. This means they move to and from the microphone to help with the dynamics of a performance. In-experienced vocalists are not great at this and they tend to stick the microphone in their mouth and try to eat it, especially rap artists. Which is fine, but hard work for you! So try to educate them so as to get a better sound by not munching the mic. If they insist you might have to use a limiter.


A limiter it basically a compressor turned up full at a particular threshold. This means that when the vocal reaches a certain level the limiter will not allow it to go above that limit. This is really very good for controlling the microphone munching problem. In fact limiters are used a great deal in live work. So for example if Alice Cooper were to slam his microphone into the drummer's head, the PA will not blow a driver as the level would be limited. This is very useful for tricky performers. They can shout as much as they like but it wont go any louder man!

Headphone mix

You want to have the vocalist really 'get-off' on the headphone mix. Happy performers sound better than irritated ones. Give them what they want by saving the killer vocal takes for when the song is nearing completion. You know, if the song is really 'kicking in the cans' the vocalist will get into it. Don't loose sight of the fact that this is a performing art. Also note that as you are creating a headphone mix you have a great deal of power in couching the performance. Shall I add more reverb? Is it too flat? How can I get the performance angry? A very interesting area and very underrated job is headphone mixing!


I usually apply a little compression at the recording stage and then tons at the mixing stage. Some guys don't record with it, and others do. You should experiment with this but remember you can't get rid of it once you have recorded it, unless you have multiple undo functions in your software. When mixing I'll use compression to bring out the breaths and fatten up the sound, and I love multi-band compression.

Aural enhancement

These boxes add extra harmonic content to the signal making the sound have more 'top end' and clarity. You have to careful though as too much "top end" can sound nasty on the s and t sounds. You might have to use a de-esser (compression at a specific frequency band), which will reduce the level of the troublesome frequencies.

Turn them up

Don't forget to turn them up in the mix. And if the tune is for a radio mix we turn the lead vocals up by between 3 to 6 dB. That can be twice as loud! Listen for yourself to an album version then a radio version.

Re-read it a few times and start trying some of the ideas yourself.

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Comment by Duane DTheEngineer Richard on August 25, 2010 at 2:06pm
The "Limiter" definition is WRONG !! A limiter is a "compressor" with the "ratio" turned up not threshold.
The ratio for a limiter starts at 8:1. Brick wall limiting starts above 10:1.
Comment by Voiceover Universe on August 22, 2010 at 10:34am
This is stuff (as posted above) is from SAE online, a school that specializes in audio engineering and not just specifically for voice-overs.

Trust the trained engineer, because they are the last people to touch whatever you send in.
Comment by Barry Trussell on August 22, 2010 at 3:20am
Okay, I've got an empty soda can( that I've lined with an old tube sock to avoid tinneyness) and a string, so how do I get the sound into my computer? Just kidding....good stuff Zurek.
Comment by Marsha on August 21, 2010 at 9:27pm
Great post although I do disagree about wanting a "dead room". A "dead room" is so devoid of sound, it feels (and sounds) as if an electrolux vaccum has sucked everything out.

There have to be a few flat surfaces for sound to "bounce" around in order to have a "live" sound to your voice.

Just my "ear" on things.
Comment by Joe Van Riper on August 21, 2010 at 8:55pm
Garbage in... garbage out.

For VOs, keep it simple: the best mic you can afford, ditto the pre-amp, keep the original recording "flat" with peaks at -10 db (digital... you can pound analog harder), and leave the processing to whoever is doing the final mix.

If you're doing your own mixing, just trust your ears and always keep "snapshots" of the stages in your process so you can go back a few steps if something doesn't work as planned.

Music vocals and spoken word vocals are apples and oranges... what works for one may be counter-productive for the other. But choosing a mic always comes down to "what sounds best"... usually in direct proportion to the cost of the microphone. But, while a Neumann U-87 may sound great on a male "thunder-throat' announcer, an AKC-414 may be a better choice for a higher-frequency female voice. Yet she might sound annoyingly screechy on an expensive Senheiser.

It's all determined by the individual voice and the natural properties of the microphone. The one constant is that everyone will sound like crap on a $20 cardioid pickup!
Comment by Voiceover Universe on August 21, 2010 at 4:58pm
The information you're receiving above is from a professional engineer, not a voice actor, and only applies to those in the business of mixing vocals.
Comment by Jerry McClellan on August 21, 2010 at 4:53pm
Lani, please clarify . . . are you suggesting a small diaphragm mic is better for voiceover in the home studio environment rather than the usually recommended large diaphragm? Don't you mean, " . . half their probs wouldn't be eliminated"?
Comment by Lani Minella on August 21, 2010 at 3:57pm
While a lot of this might be considered helpful info, I contend that a lot of it is overkill and if people didn't necessarily use large diaphragm mics for home recording, half their probs would be eliminated.

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