Home Recording: First Steps

Last week’s article on building a Recording Studio on a Budget was overwhelmingly popular, so I thought for those of you who have taken the plunge into recording yourself (either now or recently), we’d dive into some basic baby steps you can use to get better vocal takes.

These steps are prepatory in nature but will also help take your voice to a “record ready” standard for when you ARE ready to hit record.

Gear and Gear Setup

1. Use a stand for your mic and a pop-filter

Firstly, having your mic on a stand will help you keep your hands free for singing. Secondly, this will enable you to more easily use a pop-filter.

You can buy a pop-filter from Amazon via this link

Microphones work by detecting changes in pressure across a diaphragm. Certain consonants create very strong and aggressive pressure waves, like the ‘p’s in the word ‘pop’. These can hit the surface of the microphone diaphragm hard enough to create unwanted popping noises in the recording.

A pop filter is a simple device that sits in front of the microphone and breaks up such incoming pressure waves. It’s typically a mesh material (like nylon tights, etc) stretched over a frame. This will reduce or eliminate those nasty unwanted pops, thus improving the quality of your recordings.

NOTE: If you ended up buying the Rode M1 I recommended in my recording studio on a budget article, this already has some pop-filter capacity built in (but an external one is always recommended). And an external pop filter is also a very helpful tool in another way…

2. Set the pop-filter up 2-3 inches from the microphone, and sing 2-3 inches away from the pop-filter.

There is an optimal distance to sing away from the microphones. It’s typically described as 4-8 inches away from the grille of the microphone, though could be closer or further away for moments in song. As such, by placing the pop filter just 2-3 inches away from the grille, we can help ensure we don’t get too close to the microphone.

Also, by aiming to sing 2-3 inches away from the pop filter, we also have a guide for how close to get for good singing. If you find you keep sticking your lips on the pop filter, whilst I would advise you don’t get that close, you can always use this as a cue to move the pop filter a bit further away.

3. Once you’ve done this, set the input gain on your interface so it doesn’t clip

Where you plug your microphone into your interface, there’s a gain knob. This controls the level of internal amplification the mic signal is undergoing before it goes to the computer/iPad. Turn this up so that when you are at your loudest it’s not going into the red (usually a red light will light up). It’s safest to err on the side of quieter than too loud.

Practice and Preparation

1. View production and recording as a skill to master

Before we get going, there’s something important you need to grasp: I hate to break it to you, but your first recordings aren’t going to win any awards.

It’s normal to find recording and mixing even decent quality recordings hard at first. You’re trying to capture something organic, take it into an artifical domain, then compensate for all that artificialness so that it sounds like you just heard it when you played it back.

That’s why recording and production (mixing, mastering, changing the audio in your computer, etc) is an entire field that people spend their lives conquering.

Instead, see recording and production as another skill set to get good at. The goal is not to simply turn out a great recording with awesome production – the goal is to become skilled at recording and production yourself.

By focusing on just getting better each time you do some recording, then eventually every recording you do will be shades of good, and increasingly shades of great: simply put, good recordings are a by-product of being good at recording/production.

2. Start with 1 minute versions of your songs

On TV talent shows, singers typically get 40-60 seconds to win over the judges. They have to perform a simple short arrangement of a song, typically just a verse and a chorus. It’s not a full 4 minute track, but it is representative of what a full track would sound like.

To get good at production and recording, we need lots of practice. So instead of trying to tackle mammoth 4 minute productions, or 15 minute prog-rock epics, start with simple tracks that are just a minute or so long.

Longer tracks actually require not just more technical skill to create (and failure can lead to increased frustration), but longer tracks require a greater understanding of what constitutes good production and arrangement to maintain the interest of the listener. This is an intermediate to advanced skillset that takes time to even grasp, let alone master. Ergo, start small.

Arrange a verse and chorus of one of your songs so it sounds good as an abbreviated piece. Then, when you do the recording, you have far less to agonise over. That makes it easier and faster to learn from the experience. Little and often will improve your recordings so much quicker.

By approaching recording this way, you will garner a FAR greater level of understanding of the recording process every time you do it, and you’ll do so far quicker than if you try to tackle whole songs. This in turn will improve your skillset in recording, and will get you to turning out great recordings that much quicker. This leads me to my next point…

3. Practice your song til you can do it 99% right all the way through

No matter how short your song is, if you don’t know what the final version will sound like, or you think you can just fix any errors using clever software correction, you are not ready to record that song yet.

Let me say that again:

If you cannot sing your song all the way through 99% right, you are not ready to record that song yet.

The quality of the recording is only as good as what you’re actually recording. Poorly practiced parts will NEVER make a good recording. Making a good sounding track is hard enough without giving yourself sub-par results to begin with.

Practice the song til you can do it without thinking. Please note I didn’t say it has to be PERFECT, just 99% right from start to finish. As an organic instrument it’s natural to have the odd mistake or bum note slip through, but these should be the rare exception, not the norm when recording.

By putting the work in to your performance standard first, you will make recording so much easier and quicker. That way you can be 100% certain that any issues in the recording are unlikely to be your vocals, but lie in understanding the technology better.

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