Learning to record and produce rock vocals is one the most integral parts of audio engineering. In almost all styles of music, the vocals are the focal point of the song. The vocal melody and lyrics evoke the emotion and story that the artist is trying to convey. As audio engineers, it’s our job to help the artists vision come to light through recording, if we fail to create a clean vocal that’s intelligible and full of energy, we have done a disservice to the music. In this article I will provide you with a guide to getting a great sounding vocal through recording and production techniques.
MIC CHOICE AND PLACEMENT
The first and what I believe to be the most important part of recording besides the performer is mic placement. You can spend all of your hard-earned money on amazing microphones but if you don’t know how to properly place them then you have negated all the aspects that make that gear great. A general rule of thumb I follow is to have the singers face around six inches from the mic with a pop filter in the middle of that distance. Try experimenting with the distance and see what works best for your singer. Different vocalists sing at varying volumes and you may need to compensate accordingly. Remember that being too close to the microphone can cause plosives and being too far away will pick up more of the room noise.
During the placement of your microphone you want to think about the room in which you will be recording these vocals. This guide is focused on rock style vocals and for that style I prefer to place my mic in a dead sounding area. You don’t want a lot of room sound in your vocal recording because it won’t provide you with as much mobility come mix time. You want the vocal to be tight and focused allowing you the freedom to choose how you place it in your mix. If you are working in a home studio or just don’t have the budget to fully treat your room there are many options you can take to control the sound of your room. Simply hanging moving sheets or blankets on the walls around your vocal area can massively decrease the reflections off the walls and give you a quieter room. If you have a bit of a budget and don’t want to spend time hanging sheets there are great portable vocal booths such as the sE Electronics RF-X Portable Vocal Booth.
With your room quiet and no extra noise that would be picked up you now need to choose a microphone. The choice of microphone for recording vocals is one of the biggest questions asked around and it’s honestly a difficult one to answer. The human voice is incredibly unique and that is never made more obvious than when recording it. I’ve had mics over the years that sounded absolutely wonderful on many singers but there would be times a vocalist just didn’t sound right with that microphone. There is no one-stop-shop microphone for vocals, but I have a few recommendations in varying price points.
The Shure SM-58 is considered an industry standard for live vocal performances and studio situations. With a fairly balanced frequency response range and slight bump in the high end the SM-58 is an excellent microphone for recording vocals. Sitting in the mid-range price point and my personal preference for rock vocals is the Shure SM7B. The SM7B has been very popular in the realm of spoken word recordings and radio broadcasting but has been found to be an outstanding mic in the world of rock music. It adds body to thinner sounding vocals and is easily able to handle the intensity and loudness of rock singers.
Another great touch on this mic is the built in pop filter for protection against plosives. Lastly sitting in the higher end of affordability is the Slate VMS ONE Virtual Microphone. The Slate VMS One is a modeling microphone which emulates some of the most recommended microphones in the industry. The mic comes with eight different models and has two expansion packs available. The great thing about this microphone is that it addresses the issue of certain singers not shining through certain mics. This microphone lets you change emulations on the go allowing you to find the perfect sound for that singer without you needing to own all of the most expensive and coveted mics.
When mixing a rock style vocal compression is your friend. Compression is one of those topics that can be quite polarizing as you will have parties on either side saying too much compression is bad or that a lot of compression makes your mix punch. As with all things in the audio world it is truly subjective. Use your ears and find the sound that you like, don’t mix with your eyes. If it sounds great and it works in the mix then it doesn’t matter if you’re compressing with 10dB gain reduction or 2dB! Though as a guide, you want to try and make the vocal as even in loudness as you can. Some parts will always sound louder or quieter due to the tone and integrity of the performance but you will find that a balanced vocal will have more flexibility in your overall mix. A slower attack time and a faster release will generally yield you a smoother sound In your compression as well as a 4:1 ratio. A popular technique used is to chain two compressors together such as a Universal Audio 1176LN into a Universal Audio LA2A. There are many plugins on the market emulating those two compressors so you’re bound to find the ones you like best! Splitting the compression duty between two compressors can give you more control and a different character to the vocal! Experimentation is one of the beautiful things about audio so get out there and start turning knobs!
EQ is the trickiest tool to give advice on because of the many differences between vocalists. All vocalists will have different sweet spots in their frequency spectrum so you’ll definitely need to sweep your bands to find those problematic as well as sweet spots. High passing up to 80Hz is a good idea as those frequencies are not very audible in the voice and will just muddy up the rest of your mix. Other muddy areas can be found in the lower mid areas around 400 – 600Hz. A wide Q boost in the 7k range can bring out some presence in the vocal and add clarity but be careful of making the vocal sizzle too much as it can become quite piercing.To counteract some natural sibilants and other piercing frequencies using a de-esser is a must! A de-esser will help to tame those annoying “S’s” and “T’s” that pop out in a vocal performance.
Reverb is another amazing tool used in all facets of audio production. It can be used to add size and depth to an otherwise flat instrument however I find that using delay on a vocal instead can create that same size and depth without muddying the performance. I will use reverb as an effect instead of using it to strengthen the vocal. A delay can thicken and widen a vocal without taking up as much space as a reverb. A stereo delay with different times on the left and right side is a great trick to give your vocal some more size. I will use faster delay times under 100ms to achieve this. I will then add reverb as needed in certain sections if I am trying to create an effect of the vocal being pushed far back. Or if I am trying to recreate the sound of the vocal being in a separate place from the rest of the instruments. In typical scenarios a rock vocal will sit tightly and just above the rest of the band. The key to rock music is a tight sound.
Other fun things that can be done to give a vocal some interesting character is to add a flanger of phaser in sections. If you have a dark and haunting passage adding one of those effects can really emphasize the desired theme of the music. Try using all sorts of different effects to create unique vocal parts. Routing your vocals through guitar pedals or plugins can produce some truly diverse sounds! Experiment! Be curious!
My biggest advice is to have fun and remember in music there are no “right” or “wrong”! Music is about creativity and passion, create what sounds good to you! If you’re not getting your desired result then experiment, try something new! There are a million ways to achieve the same result, it’s all about what works for you!
Now start mixing!