First Step: for Recording Vocals at Home

Choosing the right microphone

There’s way more to recording vocals than ‘just’ choosing the right microphone for the job.

That being said, let’s pick two for now, right up the top of this check-list.

This is a First Step article, so we’re not shovelling all the money into a great microphone just yet. Rather, we’ll allocate enough funds for either an Australian made Rode NT1-KIT (the black one), or a German made Sennheiser MK4. They are very solid choices.

NT1-Kit and MK4 are both similar, in that they are large-diaphragm condenser microphones with a cardioid pattern. Large diaphragm condenser microphones are not only a great choice for your first step to recording vocals at home, they’re also the first-choice for commercial studios. The large (usually 1″ diameter, or greater) diaphragm captures a full frequency range, tending to have a little more interesting flavour than you’d find in a small diaphragm (pencil style) microphone, due to the physical size of the membrane. If you need, check it out a little deeper here, via this article on the Neumann website.

Differences between NT1-KIT and MK4

As we said earlier, both these mics are very solid options. The RODE option comes with a pop filter included, but more on why that’s important when get down to ‘microphone positioning’.

Right out of the box, NT1-KIT has a push in the upper mid range, which sounds very pleasing to the ear on many voices. It has a ‘presence’ that almost sounds like it’s already been placed in the mix, ready for you to publish the song. On the other side, MK4 seems to be a bit ‘flatter’ all around. In comparison to NT1-KIT, it is somewhat fuller in the lower mids – perhaps giving you a greater palette of frequencies to play with after recording. Oh, one thing – we’re not talking about the ‘silver’ Rode NT1A for this article – strictly the black NT1-KIT.

Hint: every microphone model will sound different for each voice. If you’re purchasing for your own voice, come in and test to hear the differences. If you’re planning on recording a variety of voices for different artists and sessions, well… that’s not quite within the scope of this first step article.

Perfect Planning

These are the important first steps to vocal recording at home. Prepare yourself with as many handy hints as you can find by reading articles and talking with like-minded people. Everyone needs a mentor.

Some important bits we’ll cover in here to help create a smooth and successful vocal recording at home will be:

  • Style of session / song / production
  • Interface and choice of DAW
  • Simple room acoustics
  • Microphone positioning
  • Headphone choice
  • Studio Monitors*
  • Soundcheck for success
  • Hitting the record button

Style of session

Before we turn the cogs too hard, you can be sure that all the gear in this list is ideal for any kind of session you’re likely to come across where recording a vocal is important. The items we’re suggesting were very successfully deployed around Australia during the *trigger warning* sudden 2020 remote-work about-face, as part of our emergency kits for commercial voiceover artists. The kits allowed them to keep pumping out content from their own homes. These kits were also snapped up by a huge range of people wanting to record demos, or work seriously on their vocals.

Some of us have a spare room in the house where all of this gear can remain set up at all times. In that case, you can ‘go harder’ and add extra bits to your set up, including an external, esoteric microphone pre-amplifier, or a valve microphone – requiring an external power supply – or both. Already, this is sounding like it’s beyond our First Step, so let’s stop there. We are after quality gear that can either be quickly set up and packed away, can be mobile if required (or left in position) and, importantly, will definitely be fit-for purpose.

Song Writing vs Recording and Production

Depending on your songwriting partners and work-flow, it might not be necessary to set up the studio microphone for every session. When it’s not entirely DIY and you’re working with a partner, it’s often easier to grab a handheld, dynamic stage vocal microphone (like the SM58 or e935 you might already own), plug in a guitar or keyboard, and both of you start playing while the computer is recording. Kick back and workshop the song – cut it up and move bits around if you want, or keep recording different ideas until your demo sounds like it’s ready for more attention.

If you’ve got a permanent space in your house and everything remains set up at all times, you may find it quicker to simply just use the golden mic you’ve chosen.

The SOCK tip: if you’re leaving your gear permanently set up, it’s still important to stash your microphone. Why? Because dust getting into the microphone is no good for sound and longevity. At the very least, when you’re on a roll and have pulled a couple of long sessions, chuck a sock over the microphone when you hit ‘save’ and stand up. It’ll help keep some dust out of the important bits, while adding a bit of protection in case you get tangled in leads and knock the stand over. Prevention, protection and all that.

Interface and choice of DAW

Make no mistake, your laptop (or something larger) is a creative weapon in the right hands, and with memory so inexpensive – especially compared with the cost of 2″ tape found in commercial studios ‘back in the day’ – it has never been easier to record vocals in the comfort of your own home.

But quite frankly, your computer is not enough to record with. The internal sound-card (you know, the headphone output jack) simply will not cut the mustard when it comes to recording. You need to choose an appropriate interface that has the relevant connection for your computer (USB, Thunderbolt, etc) and needs at the very least – one input for a microphone and a headphone output. In fact, we are going to bump the spec up just a touch for this First Step to recording vocals at home.

We’d be pretty comfy with any of the above audio interfaces for this task. Each of them is a USB interface with 2x inputs, 2x outputs plus a headphone jack.

Audient EVO 4 is the sleek black interface up the back in the image above. Its ‘smart knob’ can control anything from studio monitors, to headphones and microphone gain settings – plus there is a handy ‘auto smart gain’ setting if you want ultra-simplicity.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Gen3 is the red interface to the right. Rather than one control knob, it’s got more buttons and designated control knobs. There is also the tasteful AIR mode which you can enable on either or both inputs, giving a “brighter and more open sound”.

PreSonus Studio 24C adds level meters (via LED ramps) on the front panel, and has a dedicated MIDI I/O section on the rear. If you’re triggering sounds via a controller keyboard or pads, this is a definite advantage. We’re not overly stoked that the headphone output is on the rear, but that’s nothing a little headphone extender cable won’t fix.

Don’t forget: These audio interfaces are easily good enough to not only help you make a high quality vocal recording, but also to mix your tracks and produce some layered productions with a variety of sound sources. You can ‘up-spec’ your interface by instead choosing one with more inputs if you wish to record a full drum kit – but for the scope of our article, we are looking at vocals. Important to note: More does not equal better – if you’re after something with more inputs, get in touch and we’ll make sure you end up with something that suits your needs.

Which DAW is best to record vocals at home?

Ugh.. aside from the fact that most software manufacturers make their product promo shots look like everyone has a perfect studio… the simple answer is “choose one”.
BTW, DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation.

The extended answer is: “choose one that someone you know uses”. Because, as you get into it, you’ll need to lean on someone for tips, tricks, and workflow ideas. We reckon you can’t go wrong with any of these:

  • AVID ProTools (still the industry standard)
  • Presonus Studio ONE (always evolving, bringing new life to the old firm of DAWs)
  • Steinberg Cubase (been around seemingly forever, and with Yamaha as the parent company there is plenty of clout behind the brand)
  • Apple Logic Pro (not for Windows machines, but a super solid alternative for Mac users, with excellent MIDI integration)
  • Ableton Live (for those making beats and adding vocals, this is super flexible)

All of the Fab-5 listed above are excellent choices for recording, and with sophisticated vocal comping options at mixdown time, they’re all worthy – depending on your needs. Most of them have freely downloadable demo versions, so knock yourself out! Perfect planning starts now.

Oh, good luck googling “best DAW for vocal comping”. Like we said, talk with someone you trust. Everyone needs a mentor.

Making the most of your room

If it’s one of your songwriting and arranging sessions, sitting around your kitchen table with a laptop, a mic and a guitar is perfectly acceptable.

For more serious pre-production, or if you’re heading into the actual vocal session however, the kitchen is generally horrible. A tiled floor will help the vocal sound bounce around everywhere, causing reflective artefacts to spill back into your sensitive condenser microphone. When it’s time for mixing your song, it will be almost impossible to shape the vocal track the way you’d like to. Remember, it’s far easier to ADD some reverb and ambience to a vocal track at mixdown, than it is to remove it when there is too much natural reverberation.

If your kitchen has large windows with a lovely view of the neighbour’s washing line, this only exacerbates the problem(s). The glass is extra-reflective, which will help bounce those sounds around even further, while outdoor sounds (such as wind, rain and passing trains) leak into your recording room far easier through glass than what they would through timber and/or brick.

So why do big studios have glass between the control room and a performance area? Because there are usually multiple layers of glass with air gaps, and this actually reduces the transmission of sound. This, coupled with a choice of materials for the performance room, and careful selection of angles… you guessed it, out of bounds for this article.

Let’s work out how to make your room sound as good as it can for recording vocals at home.

Rule 1 – Use your hands and ears before you even switch on the computer.

Once you’ve ruled out the kitchen because of all the reasons mentioned previously, let’s assume you’ve found the ‘quietest’ part of the house. You’ll know where it is already. Now stand in that room and clap your hands. What’s going on with the sound? The worst part of the room is probably going to be in the dead-centre, and up against a wall isn’t going to be much better.

Rooms with wood often sound good (wardrobes are big and wooden). Open up the wardrobe doors one at a time and see if that makes a difference – with the sound dampening qualities of your clothes. Pop your mattress up against a wall, lay down a rug, whatever makes things sound better for you. Draw the curtains, experiment with any different materials you can find. Remember, it’s about perfect planning rather than looking for a good room 10 minutes before your session starts.

If you really can’t control the room, have a think about adding something like Aston HALO into your kit. Set the microphone up in front of its sound absorbing concave shape, and it will take a whole lot of the room out of the equation for you.

Last word on simple room treatment: don’t just think about trusting your hands and ears. Once you’ve found what you think is the ‘sweet spot’, don’t forget to set up the microphone, press record, and listen back to the results. Try at least a couple of different locations until you’ve hit the mark.

Microphone Positioning

Now we’re getting into the good stuff!

Here is where you’ll find that little adjustments make a huge difference.

X marks the spot – this has nothing to do with buried treasure, nor with using your buccaneers while recording. Next time you wander past one of those giant hardware stores that sell snags on a Saturday, head in and look for the flooring / carpet tile section. There’s usually a pile of inexpensive interlocking foam tiles that you’d imagine are great for a toddler’s playroom. They’re even better as a target for your vocalist. Plant your singer on the foam and not only will it decrease the sound of foot tapping or a reverberant floor, it will also give your vocalist an anchor. Once you’ve find that sweet spot with the microphone, it’s a bit useless if your singer has moved away from their mark during the actual recording. Perfect planning, this time with a Saturday snag!

Boom boom (don’t shake the room) – before we find the sweet spot, let’s lean on our planning stage again. Make sure you’ve got a good quality boom microphone stand, rather than a straight stand. Straight stands look great, there’s no doubting that – but when you’re recording a super-intimate vocal, and it’s “the one” that sends shivers through your headphones into your soul… imagine your horror when you hear the rustle of a sleeve knocking against a microphone cable, or an hand banging on the shaft of a stand. Ugh, Command/Ctrl-Z.

Hint – if your stand has lost one (or more) of its rubber feet, you may get some vibrations travelling up through the stand, affecting the recording. The easy fix is to grab an old mousepad, chop it up and pop a piece under each foot of the stand.

For the two microphones we listed up the top of this article, any genuine K&M boom microphone stand will work – even the lightweight 21070. For a heavier mic (like a valve microphone), you’ve probably already allocated enough funds for a heavier-duty stand like the 25600 – and you’re beyond this first step to recording vocals at home.

The elusive sweet spot

Check the photo above. It’s a great starting point. Let’s examine…

First thing you may notice is there is a pop filter in place between the vocalist and the microphone. Of course, this stops moisture damaging the sensitive microphone capsule, while also stopping the “plosive” blasts of air from words like PEPPER – [who’s ever heard the word “pepper” in a song, apart from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band] – from overloading the diaphragm.

Secondly, it acts as a physical barrier to the singer, to say “you shall not pass” – much like the foam pad they’re standing on, that we got from the snag joint. It can be very much a positional tool.

Distance = resonance vs intimacy – if there really is a magic distance, we’re going to call it 17cm.

In reality, there is nothing magic about the number 17, and all our positioning should be centred around what the song deserves, but let’s explore:

For a live-on-stage microphone, it’s not unusual for the distance between lips and microphone to be 1cm. On one of these studio condenser microphones though, that distance is going to be too close. You will find there is way too much bottom end, too many ‘plosives, and the resulting sound is simply unworkable.

Let’s make a rule – 8cm is as close as you should get.

As you pull away from the microphone, you’ll find that the bottom end disperses somewhat, and you’ll hear a little less intimacy (more of the room, less of the the tastebuds). Let’s set a maximum usable distance of 50cm.

The secret here is that there is actually no “magic” distance – it’s whatever suits the song and the vocalist, but a great starting point is approx. 6.5″ (17cm) between lips and microphone. When it comes to soundcheck time, you can get more serious with the distance. More on that later.

Is the height right? – experimenting is the key here. Level with the lips is a pretty good starting point, but zooming in to our singer – it’s just a fraction below that starting point. Why? Because it sounds better for that singer, for that song.

You can tie yourself up in knots with wondering what height is best, but the general rule is to make sure the microphone is at least pointing in the right direction. If you want more resonance and low-end love, start with the microphone lower than ‘the lips’ and you’ll pick up a fair whack of chest sound along the way, helping with the ‘richness’ of the sound. Conversely, if you stick the mic above the singer and pointing down… it may sound a bit ‘thinner’.

Teeth – since there are teeth involved, the sound won’t spit straight out – the upper frequencies actually bounce around a little. Placing the microphone just below mid-mouth level (but pointing into the tonsils) will catch some the top end, while also grabbing the meat of the sound. What sound are you after? Perfect planning says “experiment when you can”, not when you have to.

What else is in that photo? We’ve discussed the stand, the mic, the teeth… what about the cable? Buy a good one. Don’t even think about skimping. Grab yourself this XLR5, handmade by Factory Sound with genuine Neutrik and Canare components. It will possibly outlast the cockroaches that will eventually inherit Earth.

Headphone Choice

There is no choice. You need something that is fully enclosed. If your headphone packet has the words “semi-open” anywhere, don’t use them for recording. Generally speaking, hi-fi and “lifestyle” headphones aren’t an ideal choice. We’re looking for something designed specifically for pro audio applications.

Let’s start with ‘budget’ headphones. The above two are great choices. Audio-Techica ATH-M20x is far and away the most popular option in our store, while Sennheiser HD200PRO are also comfortable to wear for long periods and, most importantly, they keep the sound from leaking back into the microphone.

Both of these brands have better models in their range, and if you want to shell out some extra $ to treat yourself and your singer, it’s totally worth it. Beyerdynamic DT770PRO-8 is also a fantastic choice if you’re spoiling yourself.

In ear monitoring – valid?

If your singer is already comfortable on stage wearing in-ear buds, make sure they bring them to the vocal session. The is no doubt that in ear monitoring is effective and will definitely stop bleed or spill into the microphone. For beginner singers it’s not the best choice.

Don’t forget – if you are recording a vocalist (not recording yourself), you’ll both need to wear headphones. Your audio interface may only have one headphone output, so grab yourself a headphone splitter amplifier, such as Presonus HP4. As always, chat with us if you want other options or more information.

Studio Monitors*

*Hang on.. we’ve got a whole room dedicated to a massive variety of studio monitors in our store – so why the asterisk?

This first step article is about recording great vocals, not mixing the song. Studio monitors are most definitely helpful during the recording process, but they are not essential.

Importantly, they help reduce fatigue during the session. Our next step (soundcheck) is where they are most useful. Still… there’s an asterisk for this article. If you’ve got some, great! Use them.

Soundcheck for success

Your soundcheck is the most important part of the whole process. All of your perfect planning should allow this to be the most fun – and the most creative part of the vocal recording.

Everything we’ve discussed comes in to play now. You’ve already found the best sounding part of the room, the microphone is set up in roughly the right position, and you’ve sent a rough mix of the track or beats to the headphones.

Get your singer in the ‘right’ position, and get them to sing a verse and chorus. You don’t need to press record just yet.. you are setting the gain on your audio interface input. It’s important that you don’t peak the channel. Peaking will be an awful sound, and your vocal track will be useless if that happens.

Adjust the channel gain to be as high as your dare, without the chance of it overloading the input. This comes with practice, experience, and also a deal of faith that your singer isn’t sandbagging during the soundcheck – you know, they sing quietly until you’ve adjusted everything perfectly… until it’s time to hit the record button, and then they’re all of a sudden Smilyana Zaharieva.

Once the gain is roughly set, have a proper listen to the microphone/voice combination. Press record. Don’t get your singer to move… it’s time for you to get busy and move the microphone into the perfect position. Adjust the height, distance, angle (or swap to another mic if you’ve got something else in the cupboard), until it’s just right.

Have a listen back to the sounds you’ve just recorded. Do this with your singer. An experienced singer will already know how all this works, but a new talent will find the process truly illuminating. If you’ve got Studio Monitors, now is the time to use them.

Using headphones for long periods can be super-fatiguing, and since we want our vocalist to be fresh for the actual recording, it’s good to kick back and listen to soundcheck results on the monitors.

If this is a collaboration, your singer will want to be involved with ideas for sounds, including the results of mic positioning. If you’re the boss… well, that’s up to you to enforce!

Was the headphone mix ok? Did the singer feel comfortable? Are you both ready?

Active soundcheck summary – Record your sound check. Sit back, listen. Adjust, discuss, repeat.

Hitting the record button

It’s time for you both to shine now.

Producer, engineer, talent.. it’s a hard (but rewarding) gig if you’re wearing all three hats.

It’s not much easier if you’re ‘just’ the producer.

We’re not going to deeply delve into how to be a vocal coach, but here is a reminder of the super-important bits. Ensure the singer is hydrated and comfortable. Stick to no more than 3 takes before taking a break to have a listen.

Actively monitor (headphones) how each take is going. Pitch, phrasing, diction, feel. Make sure the channel hasn’t peaked. Suggest alternatives. Encourage experimentation. Listen with an eye into the future – have you got enough to construct a vocal comp for the whole song? Keep a lyric sheet in front of you, and highlight bits you want to revisit. Break, listen with your singer. Repeat.

Reminder to keep your singer in the right spot – Did the first vocal take lose some of your wonderful microphone positioning along the way? Use any trick you can think of to stop a wandering singer… grab music stand and place a lyric sheet there to give them something to focus on, which will help minimise movement away from the microphone position.

Here are some things we didn’t cover

  • Get even more depth from your vocals – this can include adding to the signal chain with an external microphone preamp, better microphones, better audio converters
  • Setting the mood with lighting for a better performance
  • How to actually use your DAW (let YouTube be your guide here)
  • Mixing vocals

This was the first step to recording vocals at home.