A lot of recording discussion tends to center on things like plugins that give you a godlike guitar sound, or put Abbey Road’s echo chamber in your bedroom, and so forth. But if your approach to recording vocals leaves something to be desired, you’re likely to lose your audience before they hear all that other stuff anyway.
Which is why you’ll want to spend at least as much time ensuring that the vocal melody and any background harmony is prominently mixed and sonically pleasing. Here we consider some simple strategies for achieving the right singing sounds, from adjusting the backing track as needed, using equalization to help vocals properly “sit” in the mix, experimenting with different microphones and mic positioning, and more.
Remove the intruders. Do your vocals seem decent when isolated, but then lose focus once you pull up the backing track? Occasionally the problem has more to do with the sound of the instruments—as well as their placement in the mix—than the vocals themselves.
Since vocals tend to occupy the mid-to-upper end of the frequency spectrum, possible culprits could include anything that’s bright and sits in the same pathway, such as open hi-hats, tambourines, shakers, or synths, for example. To determine what’s actually causing the problem, start by dropping everything but the vocal parts, then gradually raise the track faders on the accompanying instruments. Reducing the level or trimming the brightness on any problem parts may help fix the issue; if percussion is getting in the way, you might redo the drums with hi-hats closed, or drop the tambourine part altogether, in order to “clean” the frequency space around the vocal tracks.
Finding the right instrument blend is also key to achieving vocal integrity. On an electric guitar-based track, you might try several different versions of the basic chord progression, one using a relatively clean sound, another with some overdrive, and so on, then bring up the vocals and see which combination of guitars works best. Above all, try to avoid overstuffing the rhythm track, as the more moving parts there are, the greater the chance of burying the vocals.
Carve out a distinctive tonal space for the voice. You’ll also want to create a tonal “color” for the voice that contrasts with the song’s instrumentation—if, say, the mix leans dark, you might consider using your recorder’s equalization to reduce the low-end on the vocal, while slightly boosting the treble and/or midrange until the track has sufficient clarity. You can also make these adjustments when setting up to record rather than after the fact—if you have a condenser microphone, try rolling off the bass using the mic’s highpass filter switch, or put a bit more space between yourself and the microphone (but not too much) to deter the bass-inducing “proximity effect.” Additionally, consider experimenting with different types of mics, such as dynamics or ribbons, which typically have a flatter frequency response than full-bodied, large-diaphragm condensers.
Fix the mix. Another thing we’ve frequently touched upon is using your pan controls to properly spread the backing tracks across the stereo field, thereby creating as wide a path as possible for the vocals. Since lead vocals are usually situated right in the middle, for starters you’ll want to pan anything that doesn’t need to be dead center as well—for instance, you might place a guitar and a keyboard at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock respectively, so that the instruments “flank” the centered vocals. Don’t go too wide—sometimes just moving the parts ever so slightly is enough to ensure a clear vocal sound.
Do it again. Recording a duplicate part—otherwise known as “double-tracking”—has long been a favored technique for adding heft to both lead and background vocals. Rather than using a composite vocal throughout, it’s often more effective to double-track select portions of the song in order to add a sonic contrast, such as during a chorus and/or bridge section, for instance. Also, you may find it preferable to trim the level on the duplicate part, so that the “doubled” track is actually half the volume of the main vocal.
Some additional tips:
Get a good headphone level - Even the most confident lead singer will have a hard time getting a solid take if they can’t hear themselves over the backing track, or for that matter if the track is too low in the mix.
Go for comfort - Make the space around you conducive to singing, such as reducing harsh overhead lighting, placing throw rugs around the perimeter of the vocal mic for added comfort, as well as adjusting room temperature as needed.
Compile the best takes - Unless you’re particularly adept, it may be difficult to get a master vocal in a single go. One way to take the pressure off is to compile (or “comp”) a vocal track by recording a number of takes from beginning to end, then use your editing facility to stitch together a completed vocal using the best portions from each performance—a chorus from Take 2, a bridge from Take 3, and so on.