This Article Originally Published March 2002

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Here's an example of just one of the questions covered:

How to Record a Lead Vocal

There are so many ways to record a lead vocal, that it would be impossible to cover them all in the space given here. But, here are some rules of thumb.

  1. One of the main objectives is to make the singer feel comfortable so he or she will deliver their best performance. Make sure the studio and control room lighting, room temperature, and general ambience are what the vocalist feels most comfortable with. Unless the singer is the type of performer who likes a room full of people while he overdubs, ask everybody to clear the area. Send them to dinner. Send them home for the day.
  2. Make sure the vocalist has exactly the kind of headphone mix they ask for. They need to hear what they need to hear, not what you think they should hear. Check the cue mix by listening to headphones yourself. Don't rely on the monitors to tell you what the singer is hearing. A little reverb in the cans is usually a good thing. Don't print the reverb to tape.
  3. Most engineers use condenser mics to record vocals, but there will be rare cases when you'll find that a dynamic mic works better. I generally start with two or three mics that I think will sound good on a particular singer. Record all three to three separate tracks (simultaneously), then play them back and compare. The mic that sounds the best "raw" is the best one to work with. Once it has been chosen, then you can eq and limit accordingly.
  4. The choice of microphone will often be affected by the octave the singer is working in because that will help determine the timbre and texture of the singer's voice.
  5. Make sure to note the singer's exact position relative to the mic. They will undoubtedly take breaks or work on the same track another day. If you haven't marked their spot, and noted all console and outboard setting relative to the vocal, it will be very hard to match the exact sound.
  6. When in doubt, pad the mic. If the mic doesn't have a pad, pad the input at the console.
  7. If you're overdubbing the vocal (which is usually the case), it's a good idea to use the microphone in omni. The frequency response will be better, and the overall sound will generally be more "open" or transparent.
  8. If you're recording a sensitive or dynamically quiet piece, make sure that you're not picking up air conditioning noise or other low-end rumbles like trains or jets passing overhead. The microphone's roll off switch is a handy tool for that. So is the console's high-pass filter.
  9. A pop filter or windscreen is a beautiful thing. I recommend the nylon stretched over a hoop variety over the foam "condom" type. You can usually avoid pops without a filter by angling the mic slightly across the singer's mouth rather than pointing the mic directly at the singer's mouth, but be careful not to point too far off axis. That will cause a degradation of frequency response unless you have the mic in the omni pattern.
  10. For a loud, dynamic vocal, try placing the mic at least six to eight inches a way from the vocalist's mouth. For a more intimate, less dynamic vocal part, try getting the vocalist closer to the mic, but watch out for pops and lip smacks.
  11. Because the human voice is one of the most dynamic "instruments," it's a good idea to use a limiter to catch the peaks. There will be times that you will want to compress the vocal by setting the threshold lower, and using a 5:1 ratio, rather than the normal starting place of 3:1.
  12. You may want to try adding a little 8 or 10Khz while cutting the vocal. You may also want to roll off some bottom as previously mentioned. Generally, it's best to print the vocal with minimal eq, and save the rest of your eq'ing for the mix when you can judge how the vocal needs to be eq'ed relative to the other instruments in the track.
  13. Performance means everything with vocals, so I recommend cutting the track top to bottom and not stopping the vocalist for punch-ins too often. Go for "vibe." Cut several takes on different tracks, then listen back, find the best one, and punch in the fixes on that track. Many engineers will make a composite vocal using the best sections from several tracks, then bouncing them to one composite track. That way, you will always have your original tracks intact until you've built a composite that you're happy with. Then you can erase the original tracks, and punch-in on the composite to clean up any remaining faux pas or bad notes.
  14. Don't beat the track or the vocalist to death. Sometimes you'll hit the point of diminishing returns. When you get to that point, take a break. Go to dinner. Work on another song. Work on another instrument. When you revisit the track you were originally working on, the vocalist will be fresh and more productive.