How to Record and Mix Vocals at Home
Recording vocals at home can be an effective and affordable alternative to using a studio. However, if you don’t use the right equipment then you could get poor recordings. You also need to consider mixing the vocals you’ve recorded.
Get the necessary equipment, including a mic and computer for recording vocals at home. Recording professional studio quality vocals is more challenging in a home studio but not impossible. Mixing vocals is also important in getting a professional vocal track.
Setting up a home studio will make things much easier for you. However, whether you have all the equipment you need or just the basics, we’ll show you how to record professional quality vocals at home.
How can I record studio-quality vocals at home?
- Use the right recording equipment
- Get a DAW on your computer
- Record at the right input level
- Treat your room
- Record multiple takes for comping
- Record lead and harmony parts
Equipment you need for recording vocals at home
- Mixing headphones and/or monitors
- XLR cables
- Audio interface
- Mic stands
- Pop shield
- Reflection filter
- Acoustic treatment
You need to start off with a computer, headphones and a microphone. Headphones will be essential for a home studio but monitors are great for mixing. If you are using a USB microphone then this might be all you need as some USB mics come with a stand and cable. However, a more traditional microphone will require an audio interface to record into your computer.
If this is the case then you will also need cables to connect everything together. This will typically be an XLR cable but you may also need a USB or Thunderbolt cable for your interface and computer. You can also get a pop shield and reflection filter to attach to your mic stand that will help improve the sound quality. This comes into room acoustics, which we will get to later on.
How to record studio-quality vocals on your computer
You need to get a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, that will record the sound from your microphone. The sound waves from your voice get picked up by the diaphragm in the microphone but are very quiet. Interface preamps amplify and convert them into a signal that can be recorded by the DAW.
What level should I record vocals at?
The audio interface preamps can adjust the level of the recording. They will clip if they are set too high so you are advised to leave plenty of headroom. The best way to do this is to be as loud as you can and make sure your preamps aren’t clipping. They will usually go red when they clip and stay green when you’re at a good level.
The recommended headroom level is around 10db. This means that you need to dial back the preamps when you’ve determined how loud you can be. Don’t roll it back so that the signal is almost non-existent, especially if you are a quiet singer. However, it’s better to have more headroom than have the level too hot to handle.
What else do you need for recording vocals at home?
A pop shield is a small filter that attaches to your mic stand. Some mics have one built in but it is best to have one anyway. It basically reduces the sound of plosives which are the ps and bs of words. These plosives are like a small blast of air from your voice that can cause the signal to distort, which is why you should get a pop shield.
A reflection filter is designed to help isolate a microphone from the sound reflections of a room. This helps create a more isolated vocal sound that reduces unwanted reverb. This is especially useful if your room doesn’t sound very nice. Try clapping in a bedroom and you may hear some unwanted ringing frequencies.
You could also use acoustic pads to treat your room. This will help prevent the sound waves from reflecting in the first place. You could also use big blankets or carpets as a replacement. Doing this combined with a reflection filter and pop shield is the best way to protect your vocal takes from unwanted acoustics.
Recording vocal takes
It is good to start off recording a couple of guide takes to get a good feel for your song. From there you can listen back and see where you need to improve. You can record you takes one section at a time from to make sure you really nail important bits like the opening and chorus.
You should be able to view and edit the different by recording on the same track. Most DAWs will have this feature and when it comes to mixing, it is known as comping vocals.
If you are struggling with certain lines, you can loop the bars of a certain section and do takes of the same phrase. You can also do this for harmonies and double tracks that you might want to add. You aren’t paying for studio time so you can make the most of your own facilities and really make sure you nail it. Don’t spend too long recording though because you want to look after your voice.
The final takes that you may want to do are adlibs. These will be off the cuff phrases, responses or harmonies to add a bit more life to your take. The main point of them is to record yourself having a good time and create something spontaneous that will add more character to a track.
The vocal arrangement doesn’t just mean adding harmonies. You have to think about where your vocals are going to be placed in a recording. Record a lead take but then think about extra tracks in the centre, as well as left and right. You could be panning different harmonies to different sides and really get creative with the sonic arrangement.
Vocal recording techniques secrets
Cardioid microphones have a proximity effect that increases bass frequencies as you get closer. However, did you know that omnidirectional microphones don’t have the proximity effect? This means that you can get as close to the mic as you want without overloading on bass frequencies.
Another great technique is to really get to know your microphone. Microphones may sound different depending on where in the mic you sing into them. You might find that one side treats your voice more favourably than another.
How do I make my vocals sound professional?
Now that you’ve recorded your vocals, you’re probably wondering why they don’t sound professional yet. This is because you’ve got a whole set of takes that haven’t been mixed. Mixing is the next stage and it is where your vocals get refined and processed to fit in with a track.
How do professionals mix their vocals?
Professional recording studios have a lot of expensive equipment that can make a big difference in a recording. Studios mix with professional mixing monitors and high-end headphones, as well as vintage outboard gear such as equalisers and compressors. They also tend to have effective plugins downloaded to their DAW that can be added to tracks.
Another important consideration with professional studios is that they have their rooms acoustically treated. This helps them to make accurate assessments on how something really sounds and adjust it to sound as good as possible. This is very hard to replicate in a home studio, which is why it isn’t uncommon to record at home and mix in a studio. If you are going to mix at home, here is what you need to do.
How to mix vocals step by step
- Break down into sections or phrases
- Comp takes to get the best overall lead vocal track
- Comp and arrange harmonies around the lead vocal
- Use time flex to correct timing mistakes
- Compress vocals
- Add EQ
- Correct pitching issues
- Add vocal effects
Break down a vocal track
The first thing you might want to do is look at the vocals section by section. It is good to start with the choruses as these tend to be the most important part of a song. Looking at sections individually can help you focus on one thing at a time, helping you understand what work needs to be done to different parts.
For example, if a singer is going for it in the chorus, this section could be louder than all the verses. This means that processing that sounds good for the chorus might not be as effective on the verse. Therefore, it is better to separate the verse and chorus to make sure they are both processed individually and effectively.
Comping vocal takes
You want to make sure that you put the best take together for your lead vocal. As mentioned earlier, this process is known as comping. Listen through your takes and choose what parts you want for each phrase. For example, you might have a great take except for a couple of lines. You can comp and replace those lines with better performances from other takes.
You should also remove silences between parts as this will only contain unwanted noise. There can be a lot more background noise in a home studio so you should definitely get in the habit of doing this.
Use your other takes to for a double track once a killer lead vocal is established. You can use this double track to boost important lyrics or sections like the chorus. You could even use it throughout the whole track and use another take to add emphasis. From there, you can start building you harmony takes around the lead to really build a powerful vocal. Be wary of adding too much as it could drown out the instrumental.
Correcting timing mistakes
So now you’ve got your best takes comped together as your lead, double and harmony tracks. However, there could still be mistakes related to timing. Most DAWs will have a feature such as Logic Pro X’s Flex Time or Pro Tools’ Elastic Audio. Quantizing will take the starts of the audio and drag them in line with the start of a bar. You can even go as far to quantize to the beat and there are options on how vigorous you want to apply it.
Quantizing will help all of your vocal takes fit together and will keep them in time. However, this can sometimes sound artificial and quantizing can make mistakes too. If you do use timing correction, have a good listen through and remove it on any parts that you don’t like. You could also leave a few vocal takes unedited to give it a more natural feel.
Compression reduces the dynamic range of a sound. This means that it makes loud parts quieter and quiet parts louder. It is great for vocals as some parts can go from really quiet to very loud quite quickly. Compression will help level your vocals to make it fit better in a mix and can make them sound fuller and more together.
Compression can be overused and if you’re too aggressive with it then your vocals may sound a bit strange. It can also increase the volume of any background noise so be cautious of how much you’re compressing.
It is also a good idea to add a noise gate before compression. A gate will essentially let sound through at the threshold of your vocal take and shut when you are singing. This will help remove any background noise that you haven’t comped out.
What EQ frequency is vocals?
The human voice tends to cut through at around 1kHz but there are other frequencies you should pay attention to. Add 125-250hz to bring more of the deeper chest sound of a voice. Boosting 2khz to 4khz improves consonant sound and can also bring a vocal forward in the mix.
Like compression, you can overdo EQ very easily so a golden rule is that it is better to take away EQ than add. By reducing the bandwidth, you can create notches that will remove a small group of frequencies. Initially, you want to boost this notch to find the unwanted frequency and bring it all the way down.
A similar principle applies to bring out desired frequencies. For example, you want to bring out the chest frequencies of 125-250 Hz. Instead of boosting this section, take away from around 400Hz and under 100Hz. Unlike notches, you want to only take away a small amount and over a larger frequency band.
Pitch correction for vocals
You are probably eager to add effects after you’ve processed your vocals. However, it is good to look at the pitch first because it is a lot harder to correct with effects on it. You can correct your pitch before processing on DAWs with direct pitch editing, such as Flex Pitch on Logic Pro.
Alternatively, you can add pitch correction to the processing chain. You want to add pitch correction to each track individually because adding it to a set of harmonies is not going to work. Be careful of how much you set pitch correction to a whole track. It can even make in tune vocals sound autotuned and it is better to only add pitch correction when it is needed on mistakes.
A good way to do this is through automation. This is where you can turn the pitch correction on and off at a certain point in the track. Different DAWs have different automation settings so find out what will work best for you. Overall, this can be far better than applying pitch correction to a whole take that might not need it.
What vocal effects do singers use?
There are loads of effects that can be used on vocals from extreme autotune to heavy reverbs. Chorus and phaser can also be really interesting on a vocal and delay is a great effect to help fill in an empty space. It is best to experiment with different effect and learn to identify what is used in professional recordings.
Automation is very useful for adding effects because you might only want a massive delay on a certain word or phrase. This about what lines you want to emphasise with effects and only add it to that part.
It is a better idea to add effects to a bus, which is a separate channel that you can send multiple tracks to. A bus will keep the effects separate from the original vocal but you can also route the track so that is plays through the bus. This gives you the option of keeping the original take with an effect, such as reverb or delay, alongside it.
Recording vocals at home without a mic
Maybe you want to go as basic and simple as possible with your vocal recordings. There’s no way to record without a microphone but you could use a built-in mic that is found in most computers or laptops. You could even use your phone and record into an app. Be aware that this tends to be poor quality compared to a studio microphone.
However, if you are truly a phenomenal singer then this will show regardless of what mic you use. Whilst you should still use recording equipment for a professional release, a basic built-in microphone might be all you need for a record label demo.
Have you been recording vocals at home? Or have you recorded or mixed any other vocals? Share your recordings below!