Getting vocals to sound right in a home studio environment is a challenge. To avoid falling into the same traps many beginner producers do, we put together 11 common mistakes in home studio vocal production along with tips to resolve them.
1. Ignoring the room
With RX audio restoration tools like De-hum and De-reverb, it’s easy to ignore poor room acoustics and choose to deal with them after the take. While these tools will certainly help you clean up common recording gaffes, they should not be used in lieu of acoustic treatment. Get the best quality vocal from the source, then run it through RX if need be.
The first thing you notice in a professional vocal booth is how quiet it is. Acoustic treatment minimizes vocal reflections and allows for a clean signal to be captured. In a bedroom, sound will bounce off the walls and ceiling and back into the microphone, coloring the signal and degrading its quality. Ambient noise from outdoors, as well as hum from home appliances and electronics present another hurdle.
So what can you do to reduce these issues at home? Avoid recording in rooms with lots of hard surfaces and windows as a starting point. For more control, arrange absorptive acoustic panels or soft furnishings around the back and sides of a microphone to create a “dead zone” that stops sound from escaping and reflecting. Having a vocalist sing from inside a blanket fort may look silly, but it will produce as dry a recording as possible. GRAMMY-winning engineer Brian Warwick (Ludacris, Michael Bublé) shared his best practices for home vocal recording and building a DIY isolation booth in our interview with earlier this year—read on.
It goes without saying that room treatment should be considered before a vocalist arrives. They should not have to wait around for you to rearrange furniture, hang duvets, and take room tone tests.
2. Not troubleshooting first
Stopping a session multiple times to fix technical issues is a total time and energy waster, especially when a studio guest is present. With a recording space established, there are a few tests you should run to ensure your setup and equipment is operating smoothly. This too should be completed before the session starts.
At the most basic level, check that your microphone is plugged into your audio interface and your computer is receiving a signal. Have all the mics and cables you need prepared too. As you test your own voice, you might hear a lag between the time it takes for your computer to receive a signal and then play it back. While there is no way to completely eliminate latency in a DAW, it should not be audible during a session. It's very hard for a vocalist to perform well if there is a time delay in their headphones.
Audible latency is caused by CPU stress from busy sessions running multiple software instruments and plugins at once. To solve this, bounce the session down to a single stereo file or a handful of stems and import them into a new session to save CPU power. The latter option provides more flexibility because each stem can be named and then balanced to the vocalists’ prefered levels. Your new session should also have a number of empty tracks set up to receive microphone signals.
Other tips are to turn on your DAWs low latency mode and reduce buffer size. A high buffer size is beneficial for mixing but problematic for recording. Give yourself an hour to prep and troubleshoot technical problems.
3. Using the wrong mic
To begin your journey with recording you may have purchased an affordable all-purpose microphone or borrowed an old guitar mic from a friend. While good music is a matter of skill rather than tools, using the wrong mic will make it a nightmare to capture a solid vocal performance. If you plan on taking vocal production seriously, it is critical to invest in a quality vocal-specific microphone, a stand, and a pop shield. We outlined some affordable microphones options in this home vocal recording article.
If you have multiple microphones, set them up for the vocalist and have them run through a few lines with each. Critically listen to the recordings to determine which one best suits the timbre and singing style of the vocalist. Picking the right mic means that less EQ and compression will be needed to make the vocal cut through the mix.
4. Setting a boring headphones mix
Have you ever listened back to a dry recording of your own voice? It can be a pretty strange experience. Most vocalists feel the same way too. After settling on a comfortable in-ear level, ask vocalists if they want to hear effects in their headphones while singing. Oftentimes, a bit of reverb helps them feel at ease and lends to a more confident performance. In most DAWs, you can send an auxiliary reverb channel into a set of headphones while recording and not have the effect baked into the program.
Spend five minutes at the start of the session getting the vocalist excited about the way they sound. Will a bright EQ help? Tuning effects? Saturation? For vocalists with a wide volume range, compression has its advantages. Keep a few effects on an auxiliary channel ready to go.
The next step is to dial in the backing track. Slowly bring the music in and have the vocalist gesture to you when it is loud enough but not overwhelming. You want them to be able to hear themselves, but also get into the song rhythm, melody, and feel. Throughout the session, check in for status updates regarding headphone levels and effects. Which leads us to the next mistake...
5. Not running the session
As producers, we can be shy people who feel most comfortable behind the screen and focused on sonics. While this is OK to do on your own, a few more skills are required to run a vocal session.
For starters, it's important to anticipate vocalist needs. Some will want to run through a few warm-ups and do vocal exercises before hitting record, whereas others walk into the studio ready to go. Be prepared to do both and have enough water on hand to keep vocalists from going thirsty.
Between takes, remember to offer a few words of encouragement. This is easy if the take was a knockout, but can prove a challenge when the opposite happens. A poor choice of words can offend and derail a session. So put a positive spin on criticism with suggestions such as “sing like no one else is in the room” or “give it a more playful vibe" that instills confidence.
Establish an atmosphere where the vocalist can express themselves. If the energy of a performance is low, ask them to explain the meaning of the lyrics or to visualize the song. This will bring them closer to the narrative and improve following takes.
All this to say—it's important to communicate well with the vocalist. If you need to re-listen to a take or make a quick edit in your DAW, let them know what is happening. Instead of turning up the gain when a take is too low, look to see if the vocalist has wandered off from the mic and ask them to move closer. From another perspective, a vocalist may request a massive hall reverb or long delay in their headphones. This will make it hard for them to hear their voice clearly and keep pitch—it’s your job to inform them. That being said, don’t interrupt vocalists, force an unnatural workflow, or provide baseless advice for sake of it.
6. Poor gain staging
Establishing the input level of vocals coming into your computer is an overlooked and misunderstood facet of vocal production. I suggest the following—record a test take where the pressure is off for the vocalist and use this time to adjust input levels. If the input level is too low, the resulting vocals will struggle to stand out in the mix, whereas high input levels risk tipping the threshold into distortion. Keep in mind that the vocalist will probably sing louder after their voice warms up. To maintain headroom, aim for a vocal level between -12 and -18 dB. If the loudest peaks in the test reach -6 dB, subsequent takes might be too loud.
One critical thing to note here—to adjust vocal recording level, the mixing channels in your DAW will not be of aid. These channels control the output level of vocals after they have been recorded. To adjust input levels, look to the gain knob on your interface.
6. Recording too little (or too much)
You may be overconfident or distracted and wrap up a vocal session after just two takes. This is a bad idea. Once you switch into critical producer-engineer mode you will undoubtedly find intonation and vocal delivery issues that plug-ins cannot quite fix. Having multiple takes to work with gives you more creative options for piecing together the best bits later on.
With the test take completed, move on to do three or four more full passes of the song. The vocalist should have a good feel for the song at this point. Listen back to what has been captured with the vocalist to get a sense of which sections still need work, then ask them how they want to proceed. Should the verses be taken care of, then the choruses? What about line by line? Follow a method that is best for them.
Unless they are total bombs, don’t get rid of early takes even if you think the most recent pass is better. Several takes in, it's easy to forget what was captured at the start. You never know, the low-pressure test may be the most convincing of the whole session.
Conversely, it is possible to record too much. Having to sift through 10 or so full takes will be a total pain when comping—more on that next.
7. Obsessive comping and editing
Once you’re confident with the takes you have, the next step is to string together the best parts from each into a single, seamless lead vocal. This processes is called comping. Vocal tone, delivery, and timing, as opposed to pitch are the main considerations at this stage. Pitch can always be corrected later.
Given the visual, detail-oriented nature of comping, it's easy to get carried away with the number of edits you make. Some producers will cherry pick words and even syllables from several takes in a quest for technical perfection. There are times when this kind of accuracy is required, but to keep a consistent mood it is recommended to make as few edits as possible. An effective approach is to start with the best overall performance and swap out the worst phrases and words with stronger versions from other takes. This way editing is kept to a minimum and musicality remains intact.
Note—aside from briefly checking vocals edits on solo, make sure to comp vocals together with the backing track. Otherwise, you will needlessly edit tiny flaws that otherwise go unnoticed within the context of the music.
9. Aligning vocals to the grid
Its normal for vocalists to be early or late on the delivery of certain phrases and words. But even a slight timing delay can manage to throw off a song. Your job is to get the performance back on beat.
Like comping, the reliance on visual waveforms to adjust timing has a downside. To keep a session looking neat, a common rookie mistake is to align vocals based on the metronic grid of a DAW, as opposed to the natural song groove. This is likely to introduce more timing problems than there were before.
Some phrases and words will be perfectly quantized, but this will not be the case for the whole performance. If you are having trouble getting the timing right, ignore the visual cues on screen and let your ears guide you instead. Similarly, align double vocals or harmonies to the lead vocal—the consonants should line up within a few milliseconds.
9. Fixing dynamic issues with static solutions
A vocal performance is rich with dynamic variation. Within a matter of seconds a vocal can transform from a whisper to a roar. Yet to fix frequency-related issues, many engineers turn to a static EQ, which cuts or boosts frequencies independent of changing audio.
Setting an EQ to attenuate shrill high frequencies when a vocalist is at their loudest is a good idea, but this same decision might negatively affect vocal clarity at a quieter level. In these cases, a better solution is to use a Follow EQ in Nectar 3.
This same concept applies to audio repair in RX 7. Do remove clicks, pops, and other unwanted noises from a vocal performance, but tailor the values used to process them by region. Take sibilance for example—the De-ess settings required to smooth a piercing S sound might swallow an equally-annoying, but less present F sound later in the take.
10. Adding effects without intention
Adding effects to a vocal without a driving strategy is a common mistake that can quickly degrade the quality of a mix. Most vocal-related effects are versatile so its important to know their standalone purpose and role in a chain. Take compression, for example. Among other case uses, it can even out loudness peaks, tighten up dynamics, and bring out details. Before piling on compression—or any other effect—it’s worthwhile to know what you want to draw out first.
I’m all for experimentation, but in some cases, it's better to have a plan mapped out. Before starting a mix, listen to some references that match what you want the vocals to sound like. Make note of what the engineer has done to get the vocals to stand out and let this guide the choices you make with effects. This will make it easier to hit commercial standards, while adding in your own techniques along the way.
11. Not automating
As engineers lose steam near the end of a mix, automation can feel like another mountain to climb and its often skimped on or totally ignored as a result. I’m here to tell you otherwise.
EQ and effects bring out the details in a vocal performance. Automation allows engineers to shape these details over time to fit the development of a song. It’s a whole new level of creative control that lends to more professional-sounding mixes.
Shape reverb and delay tails as they fade away. Manipulate distortion and saturation to change the overall timbre. Increase levels in the second chorus to compete with the added guitar tracks. Modern pop vocals are not supposed to recreate a natural performance.
So long as it sounds good, don’t shy away from automation that seems unconventional in practice. There is a lot to be gained from automation—just about every parameter in your DAW is fair game and you can be as precise as you want.
Mistakes are a natural part of production. We all make them at one point of another and learn to avoid or better navigate them at a future date. Truth be told, there are more than eleven things that can go wrong over the course of producing a vocal, and some of the mistakes listed in this article may not fit your exact situation.
It should be clear, however, that the most frustrating vocal production issues arise at the start of a session—preparing the room and equipment and working with a vocalist to get the best possible take together. If this part is done well, editing, adding effects, and mixing will come easier.