How to take your vocal recordings to the next level - going from beginner to pro

While amateur recording is fine for many, there comes a point in every serious musician's life when they take the decision to grow to the next level. That level between recording on GarageBand and a full blown professional recording studio. We call it semi-pro. But where do you start? What's important? What's the next investment?

We've put together some vital factors to take your vocal recordings to the next, semi-pro level.

In music where your voice is front and center, the most important factor will be the instrument with which you capture it. Namely, the microphone. And since every voice is different and unique, each voice has different microphone requirements to show your vocals off in the best light. We'll walk you through the process of finding the best mic for your vocal type. Other important details will be covered, like how to position your mic, what kind of pop filter is ideal, and how to set up your space for maximum acoustics.

How to find the right mic for your voice

A regular $100 mic from amazon will be just fine for the amateur part of your career. But when you find a mic that's able to highlight all of the things that makes your voice one of a kind, you'll never be able to go back.  

Since we're talking about vocal recordings specifically, we can tell you right off the bat that you should be looking for a cardioid microphone. They're specifically designed to receive incoming sound from one direction, which is perfect for vocal recordings. Some microphones can be switched between cardioid and other settings, like the BH1s microphone.

The right microphone for your voice depends on a host of different factors. From the type of music you sing, your vocal range, even to how accurate and precise your vocals are. When it comes down to it, you have to know what vocal elements of your that you want to accentuate the most - upper tones, lower tones, round it out, make it softer, or bring out all the details.

Consider differences in vocal type

Every voice is unique. There are no two same voices, and therefore there can never be one “best” microphone. For that reason, you have to find the mic that does your voice the most favours. Here are some factors to consider:

Vocal range

When browsing mics, you'll find that you'll see a linear hertz graph. This graph shows you what range that microphone picks up the best. If the graph peaks lower, then it will pick up bass and baritone vocals batter, while peaking up higher puts a focus on picking up sopranos. For a wide range, you can pick up a well-balanced mic like the BH series as seen in the hertz graph above.

Baritones and sopranos usually benefit from warm sounding mics. The warmness takes out the shrill sound of the sopranos, while lifting out the baritone's notes. Vintage mics tend to be warm sounding.

If you have a soft voice, you'll benefit from a sharp microphone that lifts your voice and puts it on display.

The top of the line mics, like the BH series, pick up absolutely every last detail of your voice. For many, that's sometimes too precise. This mic is for those who have nothing to hide. Voices with many inflections and nuances need a microphone that is able to catch all of that detail. Think skat, opera, etc. You'll be looking at the BH1S series.

For a not-always-accurate voice, you'll most benefit from a soft sounding mic. It masks imperfections, while not compromising on sound quality. When purchasing a mic, make sure to listen to offered sound bites and read the available reviews online.

Unfortunately, mic sharpness is cannot be measured by any specific metrics - it has to be heard.

Here are two examples of different mic sounds so that you can hear the difference between what a soft or more crispy mic can do to the same voice:

Soft:

Crispy:

 

Pro tip: Most professionals use a standard V67 mic, as it both keeps the crispiness of the voice, while making it a little warmer. This is a safe bet if you're looking for a reliable, good sounding mic.

Understand your vocal pressure

First, a quick intro to how mics work. “Vocal pressure” refers to how much pressure the airflow of your voice is putting on the capsule (also called the element). The capsule is the component of the microphone that receives the sound, and sends it further. First, by converting the sound to mechanical motion, and afterwards, into electrical current. Therefore the more sound pressure exerted by your voice, the more motion.

Depending on the amount of “pressure” (also known as SPL, Sound Pressure Level) you're putting on the mic (think the difference between heavy metal vocals from a close distance versus lyrical, soft ballads from a distance), the equipment you need varies.

If your vocals are for metal music, then you're exerting a high level of pressure on the microphone. In that case, you'll need a mic that withstands a high SPL. Look for a microphone with an SPL of at least 130 decibels.

High sound pressure vocals require high quality capsules. A microphone typically has a high quality capsule if it employs a unique technology and high quality materials. In our case, that's the handcrafted Gold Drop Technology.

A high amount of pressure is not necessarily only loud. If you're standing very close to the microphone and speaking directly into it in, say, a loud whisper, you're also exerting a high amount of pressure.

Pop filter

Getting yourself a mic is just half of the journey to professional sounding vocal recordings. Any recording specialist will tell you that a pop filter is a must. Not only will it improve the sound quality of the recording, but it will also save your investment in the long run.

A pop filter is a layer between yourself and the microphone. It's used to muffle or eradicate the little “extra” pop sounds that occur during your singing that are just human nature, like breaths, spitting, and notably, the high-resonating “pop” sounds from words that start with p's.

Most importantly, a pop filter will protect your microphone. It's just human nature to spit a certain amount of saliva onto the microphone if you're singing into it. For some it's more, and for some it's less. Since the capsule inside the microphone, which is the sensitive part that collects the sound, is made out of very fragile components, it's easy to throw off the balance, and negatively impact the sound of your mic.

When looking for a pop filter, you have to look for a protective layer that won't affect the sound. That's the difference between a $10 pop filter and a $100 pop filter.

Most amateur pop filters are two layers of nylon or worse, a foam cap. While this certainly does do the job in minimizing the pop sound, you're also by default losing sound quality and hertz. It's inescapable that part of the sound gets trapped in the nylon and never makes it to the mic. The two layers of nylon will also have reverberations as a result of the sound passing through. This will contribute noise pollution to your recording.

A semi-pro pop filter won't be nylon. You'll be looking for a metal mesh pop filter. It makes sure that there aren't any reverberations and doesn't impact the hertz passing through, leaving vocals clear. Most importantly, it'll protect your mic so that it serves you for many years to come.  

The positioning of the microphone

The positioning of the mic you're using can have a nuanced effect on your end result.

Positioning the mic lower than your mouth (left) will result in a more chesty sound.

Positioning it slightly higher (right) will accentuate the nasality of the sound, however will also pick up more of the high notes.

Pro tip: The generally industry-accepted distance for optimal vocal recordings is about one palm's distance between the mic and your mouth. By standing closer to the microphone, the sound will sound closer to the listener, giving it an effect that it's practically in their head. This is called the “Proximity Effect”.

Transferring the sound to your computer

An inescapable element of setting up your semi-pro home recording studio is getting the sound from the microphone to the computer. There are two steps to this: the audio interface and software to process the incoming sound signals. Here's what you need to know about both.

Audio interface

When working with a computer to process your recording, you'll require an audio interface. It's main function is to transform the incoming sound from analogue to digital, so that you can then process it with your DAW software.

For recording vocals, you'll find that the most cost-efficient solution will be to use a soundcard, which includes both a preamp and a converter. The converter is necessary to convert the signal from analogue to digital, and the preamp will give the mic additional power, which they need to bring the signal level up.

You'll find that soundcards are available within a large pricing range. Based on the descriptions alone, it's difficult to tell how they differ, for example, from the cheap end to the more expensive end. This comes down to the quality of the materials used, which will then impact the quality of the sound that comes out and the durability. In our experience, a mid-range soundcard starts at around $500. If you're moving towards professional recordings, this is a must.

Digital Audio Workstation Software

The program you'll be using to process your sound is called a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). One of the most common DAW that you'll have heard of is GarageBand for mac. It's definitely the most beginner-friendly DAW out there, but if you're looking to turn semi-pro, you'll need a more robust system.

There are many available out there, and essentially you have to choose the one that works the best for you. Here are some of the most commonly used DAW:

  • Pro Tools: The industry standard
  • Apple Logic Pro: Available for Macs. The next step after GarageBand
  • Steinberg Cubase Pro: One of the oldest, and thus most stable of DAW out there

There are so many more. Here are the top 20 DAW software available in 2016. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference and ease of use. So make sure to have a browse!

The quality is in the details

Each voice is unique. For this reason, there isn't one standard “best” microphone or “right” technique. You have to look at the complexities of your voice to understand what will most benefit you and your unique voice.

When looking to elevate your vocal recordings to the next level, make sure that you find the right mic for your style of voice, protect it with a pop filter, position it to complement your voice, and set yourself up with a good quality audio interface.

If you have any questions about finding the right mic for your voice, let us know! Leave a description in the comments or get in touch, we'd be happy to help you find the right mic for you.