Well, once you’re in front of the microphone, you better not screw it up. Vocal recordings are by far the most popular in music, so if you are going to sing or capture the voice of someone else, it’s good to know and follow a couple of guidelines… and sometimes it’s also good to not know anything. What do I mean? We’ll get there soon. Here’s some dos and don’ts.
– Know the song inside out. You might be able to get away with reading the lyrics, but the performance will surely be lacking. One of the reasons why it happens is because reading something and singing freely activate different parts of your brain. So just learn those lyrics and let them become your second nature. You’re a pro, after all.
– Rest your voice before recording, because you’ll need to last for at least a couple of takes. A little bit of warm up is all that you need. If your first take sounds tired already, you won’t ever have a chance to try and beat it. You’ll just make the mixing engineer’s job harder when he tries to comp an O.K. performance out of your lifeless takes.
– The first take is king. Why? I don’t know. It’s usually magical. Even if most of it gets beaten by later takes, there will be some charming, natural quality to it, that will make the 1st take distinctively different from the subsequent ones.
– Set up the microphone so you get the kind of sound you want. Don’t settle for something that’s not perfect, and don’t fall for the seemingly impressive low end that proximity effect gives you. It’ll get EQ’d out anyway; it also screws things up if you are tracking vocals through a compressor. Use a pop filter and set up your distance from the mic with it (3 – 4 inches are a good starting point), so you can sing into the filter without having to be concerned about the correct distance all the time. And while we’re at it, don’t bother with boutique/custom pop filters, they are usually extremely high priced stuff you could make yourself at home for free.
– Work that microphone. While the above distance you have set up with the pop filter supposed to be your closest position you ever get to the mic, you should get used to move away when you sing a louder part, and move close again at the more intimate parts of the song. It’s also worth to learn to turn your head sideways just ever so slightly when pops or esses come. Even though they can be edited out in the mix, some of the natural quality and energy will get edited out with them as well. So you better just learn to sort of “mix” your own vocals on the fly the above way. You’re a pro, after all.
The other end of this coin is, if you are the person who’s recording the singer, learn to ride the fader on the fly, even if he/she is working the mic like a pro. That way you guys will provide the ultimate dynamic control together, way before even the mixing process begins.
– If you’re monitoring with headphones, put some reverb/delay in the headphone mix, so the singer will have enough cues to get the feel of a real space hearing him/herself.
– Make the headphone mix simple but pleasant sounding; the singer needs good references as far as pitch and groove goes. Don’t overcrowd the headphone mix; use only a couple elements that are steady pitch wise, and add the main rhythmic element as well. Don’t add too much of the singer’s voice; they first and foremost need to hear the references, i.e. the music itself, not their own voice. If you feel you have to remove one of the cans, you can give it a try, but watch your pitch.
– If you sing better with guitar in your hands or while playing the piano, by all means, just record it that way. It’s all about capturing the best possible performance, so whatever it takes.
– Get complete, coherent takes recorded, where you sing the song all the way through. While it’s pretty much legit and accepted to do punch ins, only a very few people can make a vocal track that was edited together from snippets or punch ins sound believable, not to say exciting. Try to always capture as much of a real, honest and true performance as you can.
– Sing your heart out and enjoy it.