A few decades ago, the typical studio was designed with a vocal booth made specifically for recording the best vocals. Nowadays, it's easy to record vocals in the same quality with a few simple adjustments to your current set up, but first you need to understand WHY they had a vocal booth made specifically for vocals.
Imagine you’re standing in a cave. It's dark, and you have only limited senses, the main ones being your ears. What do you hear? Echoes? Reverb? This is exactly how a microphone works—it only has the ability to hear. Reflections and room sound can be a huge problem when it comes to mixing. If you capture enough reflections from your room when you come to add compression and reverb, you’ll find the vocals sound messy, noisy, and the reverb won’t sit well in the mix.
With this in mind, the vocal booth was conceived, and acoustic treatment was the mainstay of this creation. Usually, the only hard surface left untreated was the floor. Now, vocal booths made to a professional standard are very expensive—however, thanks to major advances in recording, you can now achieve similar by using a reflection shield such as the one by Studio Spares, or the Halo Shield made by Aston. These are designed to absorb the first reflections and eliminate the need for the expense of building out a major booth. I never record a vocal without one, and you shouldn’t either!
A second major must for recording any vocals is a pop shield. An old trick to get around this and the way the pop shield came into fashion was by engineers taping a pencil to a microphone to separate the airflow and push it around the microphone rather than a large gush of air suddenly hitting the capsule. This stops plosives and sibilance from a vocal ruining a good take or overpowering the microphone with a sudden rush of air from syllables such as ‘P’s, ‘B’s and ‘T’s. Make sure you use one during your next recording—best part is, you can find a decent one from most local music stores for less than $20!
FIND THE RIGHT MICROPHONE
Finding the right microphone is the key ingredient when it comes to recording world-class vocals. You need a microphone that brings out every detail out of the vocals, and one that will be reliable across the board with several vocalists. World-class recordings usually use very expensive microphones, made by well-known vintage brands, and cost thousands of dollars that most of us simply don’t have!
Luckily, we have created a range of microphones that compete with these. The Black Hole Series BH1 and BH2 are of outstanding sound quality, hand-built, and made to work with almost any vocalist in mind. The lightweight aluminum capsule equipped with the Golden Drop technology captures transients much faster than its gold plated counterpart, meaning you can capture far more detail and clarity in the voice than the average microphone - and the best part, it’s a fraction of the cost, and the same unmistakable quality you find on countless hit records across the world!
Check out MakePopMusic Producer Austin Hull walk through a recording he did with the BH2 Microphone, where he shows you exactly what we mean:
GET THE INPUT VOLUME RIGHT
This isn’t the most exciting topic in the world, but Gain Staging is the most important thing to master next to your knowledge of types of microphones and how to place them. Preamps are what allow you to add volume to your signal and control the amount of overall headroom you have in your recording.
Headroom is very important for one main reason—self-noise. All electrical equipment has self-noise, it’s unavoidable. But what is avoidable is how noticeable it is in the mix. If your signal to noise ratio is low (i.e., if the signal is quiet and the waveform is tiny), you’ll end up with a very noisy recording when you add EQ to the top end where the expensive-sounding crisp frequencies are, and especially with compression as you’ll bring the noise floor up and the signal down even further.
If you aim to have around -12db to -6db reading on your meter in your DAW, you’ll find you can do everything you need and avoid noise in your vocal recording almost entirely! Another great thing to do on top of properly gain staging is adding a soft release gate to your vocal chain, cutting off only the noise of the microphone and the preamp and nothing else.
TONE / TIMING/ PITCH
These 3 key elements are extremely important to bear in mind when trying to accomplish a Modern Pop Record.
The tone of your voice, and the way you project your vocals, can have a major influence on the rawness and emotion you’re trying to portray. Take the new Billie Eilish track, No Time To Die. There are points where she is singing softly, and some in falsetto, but towards the end, she belts out one note in the closing parts of the track to change the dynamic and create an overall track that has the epic flavor we’ve come to love from James Bond films across the board.
Timing is also a major factor, and it can also help in compositional elements as well. For example, coming in before the bar means you can add more words in, and it can create a sort of swing to the hook of a song—or dropping the first beat of the bar or a chorus can allow the track to punch slightly more, and then allow your vocals to breathe life into the track even further! You can even plan for a part to be catchy by following the kick drum pattern for example, or playing with the timing of the length of the words to allow them to merge into each other—very popular in modern, fast-paced vocals like Post Malone where he will elongate a word to add emphasis to the end of the bar like in his song, “Psycho.”
Lastly, pitch can greatly affect the sort of emotion a track brings to the listener and help divide the song, allowing the hook to be even more prominent. A lot of choruses in modern pop songs will change the pitch of the vocal from the verse purposely to accent the hook or the melody, allowing there to be a clear defining line between each part of the song. Pitch can also add emotion into softer parts, and parts of the track with more dynamics. Falsetto is a good example of a change of pitch, but also timbre in a track—circling back to the new Billie Eilish track, when the song dies down for the bridge sections, she moves the range of her vocal much higher in pitch and sings softer to emphasize that part of the song. Try these techniques next time you’re recording or writing, and you’ll see how much more of a professional-sounding vocal you’ll achieve.
GET THAT EMOTION / FIND MOMENTS WITH CHARISMA, CHOCKING, BREATH, VULNERABILITY
Emotive tracks are those that bring the listener close to having an emotive response to the song. This can be several different things, sadness, joy, anger, frustration, even acceptance in some cases—it’s entirely subjective on the listener and the moment in their life that they hear your music. But knowing this, you should always try to portray your emotions, your feelings, and the reasons why you wrote the song in the first place as best as you can so the listener can connect with you and your music on an emotional level as well as a musical one.
The performance, the way you enunciate, and say certain words can say more than the words themselves in most cases! Try anything you can to make this come to life as best you can—gritting your teeth for a line, heavy breathing patterns, more force in the vocal projection, and so much more! Remember, your voice is an instrument, and the way you play it is just as important as what's being played—the same as any other instrument.
Now go and make some music!