the ultimate guide to recording great vocals with minimalistic equipment

The Ultimate Guide to Recording Great Vocals with Minimalistic Equipment

As daunting as creating fantastic vocals in a home studio may seem, it doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. If you’re a penny pincher like me, there are always ways around the old rules. Recording vocals is no different—now let’s make your music sound professional!

Being a newbie doesn’t mean you have sacrifice quality while recording and mixing. With the right equipment and the perfect room set up, you can record magnificent vocals that will sound just like they were recorded in a professional studio. This ultimate guide will go into detail regarding anything and everything you should know about recording vocals before you start.

First, we will start with the basic equipment you will need for your home recording studio. Then, we will discuss tips to optimize your surroundings so that the microphone focuses on your vocals and avoids distortions. Finally, we will talk about mixing techniques and the techie stuff sound engineers are paid a bucket load to know how to do!

What Equipment Will You Need?

I’m going to dive head first in with the equipment you will need. Despite the variety of options being advertised, you don’t need every high dollar item on the market to create a suitable home recording studio, especially as a beginner.

These items are the basics and are perfect for beginners or music veterans who want a new, minimalistic studio to record in. Don’t forget, the right equipment varies from person to person, from genre to genre. What works for someone else, might not work for you and what you’re trying to accomplish.

The Computer

the computer

You don’t need to break the bank for a brand new computer. Most of the time, a computer that has been bought within the past few years should suffice. Desktops are easier to hook up the necessary attachments (and cheaper), but others find it just as easy to use laptops, especially when they’re making music on the go.

Take into consideration that laptops tend to overheat more often than most desktop computers. You can also use tablets, but they can make the process a bit more difficult. I would strongly recommend staying away from recording on your phone if you want high-quality music.

If you are in need of a new computer, there are a few qualities to check out before purchasing. You can buy your machine used but you want to make sure that you’re purchasing a well-running machine that isn’t overloaded with spam and viruses.

The CPU (central processing unit) will be the first thing you’ll want to check out. The bigger the number, the faster your computer will run. This number also corresponds to the computer’s stability while using multiple programs. You can, and will, end up running multiple programs during the editing and mixing stage.

The RAM (random access memory) is next. The RAM is the main memory of your computer, also referred to as the short-term memory. It temporarily stores the data you use when you simply use the machine. Again, the bigger the number, the better.

The Infamous Musician suggests a CPU Dual Core of 1.9 GHz, a RAM of at least 4GB, and a hard drive with at least 250GB of space. Again, this is just a suggestion.

External hard drives aren’t a must for recording, but extra memory space is always helpful. Your music will take up a large amount of space on your computer, more than you may realize at first. Plus, they are always handy as a backup if your computer ever crashes.

Be sure to pay attention to the ports that come with your computer as well. The audio interface, which we will discuss next, will need a USB port, a Thunderbolt port or a FireWire port. You should always double check compatibility for all your hardware and software. Believe it or not, this is commonly overlooked and will leave you frustrated if you aren’t paying attention.

Audio Interface and DAW Software (Digital Audio Workshop)

The audio interface is the main hardware you will need. You will hook your microphone and headphones into the interface and then the audio interface will hook up to your computer. This sends the music to the computer to record so that you can edit it into the final masterpiece!

The audio interface is considered to be an external soundcard, which has a better recording quality than the soundcard that comes with most computers and laptops.

The latency of the audio interface is the delay between the vocals as you sing and the playback you hear in return. You want there to be little to no latency. Some audio interfaces have a switch for zero latency while you’re recording.

The preamp is the microphone amplifier. It simply amplifies the sound from the microphone to recording level and quality.

The 48V phantom power switch refers to the power needed to polarize the plates of a condenser microphone, which we will discuss in the microphone section. You will more than likely, depending on the microphone you choose, need this feature with the audio interface you purchase.

If you’re just recording vocals, a simple audio interface that hooks up only a microphone or two, a pair of headphones, and studio monitors will be perfect. You don’t have to get super fancy and the more ports that an interface has does not always mean better quality.

The DAW is the software that you will use to record, edit, and mix. This software has become inexpensive in recent years. Do your research on the software and read reviews, always! If you are a beginner, look for easy-to-use software. You don’t need anything too high tech to create the perfect sound. It’s cheaper and preferred to buy an audio interface and DAW combo so you don’t have to worry about compatibility.

Headphones and Studio Monitors

headphones and studio monitors

You’re going to more than likely prefer studio headphones over studio monitors. The headphones give you the ability to listen to the details of the playback without outside distractions or any sound bleeding through.

Studio headphones are slightly different from your average headphones. Normal headphones enhance certain frequencies, such as bass, to enhance your listening pleasure, whereas studio headphones have a flat frequency response so you can hear the true music and critique it.

Closed back headphones are used for recording and are most commonly used, especially in professional recording studios. The earpieces are sealed so the noise is isolated. They are perfect for if you are only recording vocals.

Open back headphones are a better option if several singers and musicians are recording at the same time. They’re preferred for doing the actual editing and mixing after you’ve already recorded the vocals.

The other feature you want to consider when buying studio headphones is whether you want over the ear headphones or on-ears headphones. For most, over the ears are more comfortable to wear for long periods of time.

You don’t want just any cheap headphones that can be easily damaged, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a large amount of money. You want your headphones to be super comfy since you’ll spend long amounts of time wearing them. Padded headphones are always a plus. You want to avoid irritating your ears at all costs!

If you do choose studio monitors over headphones, there a few qualities to look for that differ from headphones. Studio monitors usually resemble average speakers but instead, they create a neutral tone so you can listen for any pops and other distortions to your vocals.

Active studio monitors are easier to use than passive monitors. If it’s an active studio monitor, you only have to plug the monitors into a power source and into the audio interface. Passive monitors need a power amp to use.

You want to pay attention to frequency range as well. According to The Hub, your best bet is to purchase a studio monitor that ranges from 50Hz to 20Hz. The variation of frequencies is measured in decibels.

You’ll want near-field monitors for recording in a home studio. They work better than mid-field or far-field monitors in these circumstances. You have to be close to near-field speakers to listen, instead of the sound bouncing around.

Microphones

audio technica AT2020 cardioid condenser studio microphone

You should shy away from USB microphones despite the temptation. They tend to be cheaper, but you’ll sacrifice quality. Choosing the perfect microphone for your situation can be a difficult process. You want to avoid any distortions possible before recording, as these flaws can be incredibly difficult to fix after the fact, even with pricey software.

Ultimately, there are two main types of microphones: the dynamic and the condenser.

A dynamic microphone has a strong sound, often referred to as “robust.” These microphones have a thin diaphragm that is attached to a coil. This coil is suspended in a magnetic field and when sound hits the diaphragm, the coil moves. These microphones produce the same sound quality repeatedly.

A condenser microphone has a stationary back plate and a front plate that moves, and when the sound hits, it vibrates. While this type of microphone is more sensitive to sound, they also require more power, which is why phantom power is necessary, as stated earlier.

TuneCore recommends a large-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone and I’d have to agree. The large diaphragm is able to pick up a whole range of tones and is fantastic for dynamic vocals. A cardioid microphone only picks up the sounds directly in front of it, avoiding sounds coming from behind or to the sides and picks up higher frequencies than most other microphones.

Pop Shields/Filters, Microphone Stands, and Shock Mounts

NEEWER microphone suspension boom scissor arm stand

Pop shields are extremely underrated in most home recording studios, but they are a must-have for vocals. They’re surprisingly cheap so there is no excuse not to purchase one! They’re either made of nylon or metal, but nylon pop shields have two layers so they usually work best.

Pop filters are a screen that attaches to your microphone to filter out the pop noise that some singers create while singing, usually from the pronunciation of Ps and Bs. You want to place the pop shield about 5 inches from the microphone.

Audio Issues has a pop filter hack that you can create yourself with a wire coat hanger, nylon stockings, and a clamp. “Re-work the wire coat hanger into a circle, leaving length at the base to clip onto the mic stand. Wrap the stocking in around the circle and position it in front of the mic.”

You can also try singing to the right or the left of your microphone, instead of singing straight into it. although this is not your best defense against pops.

Microphone stands are another item to invest in that is commonly forgotten. You don’t want to be fumbling around with your microphone while you’re recording. Trust me: a microphone stand will make your life much easier!

Shock mounts aren’t a necessity but they can be quite helpful, especially if you’re recording your vocals in a room with hardwood floors. They stop the vibrations coming up from the floor caused by feet or outside disturbances. Most microphone stands come with shock mounts, but they are fairly cheap to purchase separately if needed.

How Should Your Recording Room Be Set Up?

The Basics

There are numerous, easy steps to take before starting your first recording session. The equipment is not enough alone for great vocals. Environmental factors play a large part in the perfect recording.

You want to eliminate all outside noises that you can, including any noises coming from other rooms. Unplug all electronics in the room and turn off any items that make noise, including buzzing or vibrating.

If possible, avoid rooms with carpeting. Carpet is bad for acoustics since it absorbs the high frequencies, but doesn’t absorb low frequencies. There is a large debate on whether hardwood is better than carpet, but I prefer hardwood (or tile) over carpet any day.

If you are recording several instruments, a large room is preferred. Thankfully, since you’re just recording your vocals, a small room will be perfect for your little home studio.

Believe it or not, where you set up your microphone stand is important as well. You don’t want to be directly in the middle of the room nor do you want to be too close to any walls or windows. Your best bet is to stay a good distance from your computer too.

Any acoustically treated or padded walls should be behind the singer. We will discuss this further, later on.

Test all equipment before you start recording and don’t be afraid of doing a few test recordings before you begin to get serious. This will help you judge how well your recording will go.

Reverb and Reflection

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Reflection is commonly confused with an echo, but it’s slightly different. An echo is a noise bouncing back after the initial sound while reflection is the sound bouncing off other objects in the room and the remainder of the sound left behind. This becomes a reverb most times.

You can utilize reverb in many cases, to create an interesting sound but it depends on the situation. It can make the vocals hard to hear and can also affect the pitch of the singer. Too much reverb may create a washed out sound as well.

If you can afford it, I’d suggest acoustic panels. They are, unfortunately, very pricey and the bigger the room, the more it will cost you.

There is also acoustic caulk, something many home musicians forget about. This caulk is used between acoustic panels or other soundproofing material, for added protection. This sealant is very flexible so it won’t shrink or crack. If you choose acoustic panels, it’s something to check out as an added benefit without much-added cost.

Luckily, there are ways around purchasing acoustic panels. One of your options is to purchase a reflection filter. These filters are made of different materials that surround the microphone.

Even better, there are DIY projects to fight reverbs and reflection. You’ll want to focus on the wall behind the singer’s head since this is where most issues occur. One option is to tape a blanket on the wall, the thickest one you can find. Egg cartons and memory foam will work just as well. Get creative!

Just to be clear, acoustically treating your room is different than soundproofing it. Acoustically treating your room is to create a “dead” room to get a great recording. Soundproofing stops sounds from escaping into other rooms.

The Proximity Effect

The proximity effect refers to the fact that the closer you are to the microphone while you’re singing, the bigger the bass boost sound you create. There are pros and cons to the proximity effect.

Cardioid and dynamic microphones are very susceptible to the proximity effect. The closer you bring the microphone to your vocals, the warmer the sound. However, it all depends on the sound you want. Test out how your vocals sound up next to the microphone and then move it further back, to get a feel of what you want to portray in your song.

Generally, if the microphone is about 10 inches from your mouth there will be no proximity effect. If you want to avoid this effect but find yourself subconsciously moving the microphone closer and closer, try adjusting the pop shield out further so you couldn’t bring it closer, even if you wanted to!

Gain

Too many people record their vocals too loud, much too loud like they did in the past. Thanks to technology, you don’t have to record your vocals loudly anymore.

Clipping is considered the moment your vocals read at the maximum level of the audio interface and DAW. This will cause extreme distortion and signal clips. You want to avoid this.

Gain knobs are similar to volume knobs, making them easy to control. Usually, a setting of -12 decibels to -7 decibels works great. If the volume of your vocals doesn’t change drastically throughout the song, you should be able to keep this setting. However, if your song ranges quite a bit, you’ll want to test and see what works best for you.

Warm Your Voice Up!

This is just common sense! Whatever warm-up exercises you use for your vocals, go at it before you start recording. You can also try out new vocal routines on YouTube or across other platforms on the Internet. Warm those vocal cords up for at least fifteen minutes, if not longer.

Keep room temperature water within reach if your voice starts to feel scratchy; recording can be time-consuming and harsh on your vocal cords.

Record Multiple Times

Record the vocals all the way through the song each time. Recording bit by bit takes the dramatic, intimate feeling out of the vocals.

I don’t care if, after the tenth recording, you think you’ve got it perfect… Record at least five more times! You may think you have it, and maybe you do, but the final recording may be the best one yet.

How to Mix Your Vocals to Perfection Once They’ve Recorded

Background Noise

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, there will always be some background noise that you accidentally recorded. Of course, this background noise distracts greatly from the vocals. You could go through manually and remove any background noise, but that can be a tedious process and gating is great for this. Using a noise gate, you set the threshold so that only vocals are heard. At times, this can lead to a strange sound to the vocals, but a bit of tweaking here and there will fix that right up!

De-Esser Plug-in

De-essers are an important tool. Some singers create a hiss when they pronounce letters like S and T. This hissing sound is called sibilance. You want to avoid this hissing noise because it can distract from your great vocals. De-essers are a compressor and plug-in that picks up on this sound and fixes it.

If the hissing sound caused a problem during recording, you’ll need to cut it out immediately. The de-esser plug-in makes this simple. Locate the part of the song causing the issue and tweak the threshold settings.

Instead of purchasing a de-esser plug-in, if it’s not included in your software (in most cases, it is), there are a few hacks you can try while you’re in the process of recording.

The first hack is as simple as raising the microphone a bit above your lips while singing or sometimes lowering the microphone can help too. Another hack you can try is to use rubber bands to hold a pencil along the length of the microphone. This can also block hissing.

Mind you, sibilance isn’t a problem with every singer. It varies from one voice to the next according to an individual’s pronunciation.

Equalization

Equalization, also known as EQ, brings out the best qualities of a singer’s vocals whether by adding needed reverb or making the vocals fit perfectly with any instruments or music. However, you don’t want to overuse equalization. It can completely ruin the singer’s vocals.There are several vocal problems that can arise and a highly attuned ear can catch these issues and fix them with the equalization settings in your software or DAW.

You want to attempt to cut the highs out of the voice to sound warmer before you even try boosting the lows. Boosting only makes the vocals different whereas cutting makes the quality much better.

It’s a general rule to cut anything below 80Hz. This is usually background noise that you missed in the previous step and it can create a “muddy” sound. You can use a high pass filter to fix this.

Boom-type sounds to the vocals are usually found between 100Hz and 350Hz. Never, ever boost this frequency. Your best bet is to cut it out entirely.

Nasal tension is a common issue to listen for. We all know that nasally, stuffed up sound that comes from a cold. It is caused by the suppression of high-end tones, which distort your midrange tones. It usually occurs between 600Hz to 2kHz and varies for each singer. When you find the trouble spot in the vocals, cut it out.

Glottal closure is another term for vocal frying. It can cause a brassy sound and usually ranges from 400 Hz to 700 Hz. Cutting this area can help but it won’t always fix the issue so listen for it during the actual recording process.

A husky sound is from extra energy in the low midrange and is commonly caused by the microphone or the shape and size of the room. It usually ranges from 300 Hz to 600 Hz. You’ll want to be careful while cutting this one because you don’t want to lose the fullness in the voice.

To provide more clarity to the vocals, cut some bass to achieve this. This usually ranges from 100Hz to 300Hz. If this doesn’t create what you wanted, you can try a small boost between 2kHz to 6kHz.

You always want to use equalization before you attempt compression. Compression tends to bring out the biggest flaws of the vocals. Cutting is much easier than compressing and doesn’t affect the quality nearly as much.

The lower the frequency, the more energy the frequency creates. This energy doesn’t work well with a compressor and causes it to compress too harshly.

Dynamics and Compression

Turn to compression only if equalization doesn’t fix all the vocal issues first. Dynamics are the ranges in the tone of your vocals. Changing the dynamics is much like changing the volume.

The four basic settings of compression are attack, ratio, release, and threshold.

You can set a compression threshold for the vocals. If they vocals go over the threshold that you want, it is corrected by your selected ratio. The attack determines where correcting starts and the speed at which it starts. Feel free to play around with the settings until it sounds perfect to your ears.

Pitch Correction

Depending on the singer or the day the singer has had, you may luck out and not have to touch the pitch of the vocals at all. However, even the best singers make mistakes and have off pitch days and you may not have the time or patience to sit through another day of recording.

I don’t recommend overusing autotune, which happens quite frequently in the music industry. However, it is great to have as a backup to correct bad pitches. Autotune uses an algorithm to find the upset pitch and correct it. Always double check after using autotune, since algorithms can go wonky.

Conclusion

Setting up a home studio and creating great recordings don’t have to be terrifying. That being said, there are several factors you’ll want to give the utmost attention to. It’s the details that matter, no matter where in the process you happen to be at.

This ultimate guide has been created to help you through the process so you can record and edit the perfect vocals. Don’t be afraid to test different hacks and settings to see what works for you!