It is time to get into the meat and potatoes of vocal recording. Using modern technology, it is possible to achieve clean, professional sounding recordings at a fraction of the price compared to traditional methods. Today, I am going to talk about some of the methods that I use, and elaborate on what I describe as a “bare bones” cost effective setup.
There are three main aspects to digitally producing professional sounding vocals: 1) Microphone 2) Interface 3) Plug-ins. This list can be expanded to include additional hardware like mic pre-amps, compressors and limiters, but in this example, for economic reasons, we are going to rely solely on the interface and plug-ins to accomplish similar results.
It is important to note that it is possible to spend upwards of $10,000 on any one of these three categories. And there is nothing wrong with that. But my goal here is to accomplish an expensive sound by only spending $1,000 total, which includes a $400 microphone, $250 interface, and $350 mixing plug-ins.
I am also assuming that you already have a digital audio workstation (D.A.W.) like Pro-tools, Logic, Ableton, or Cubase. If you can’t afford one, GarageBand comes free on Apple computers and serves the same function. The reason I am not going to elaborate on which D.A.W. is best is because they are all capable of achieving the same results. As far as D.A.W.’s go, it is not the tool that matters, it is the carpenter. The decision of which D.A.W. is best for you should be made based on personal comfortability and user-friendliness.
Choosing the right microphone is the most important aspect of recording. The source of the sound has to be right in order for the rest of your process to run smoothly. For this reason, I chose to spend 40% of our budget on the “Baby Bottle” by BlueMic http://www.bluemic.com/babybottle/ . This is a great all-around mic, especially for vocals. Ideally, an engineer should choose different microphones for each vocalist they are recording, depending on frequency of their voice (usually based on gender) and genre of music. But if I had to chose one mic, and was on a limited budget, I would choose the “Baby Bottle.” I actually use this mic often, even after experimenting with several more expensive options. While we are on the subject, testing microphones can be a great time to let your vocalist warm up, but be careful not to spend too much time experimenting and miss their prime moments. Some vocalists have endurance for multiple hours, while others are only fresh for less than thirty minutes.
Next, it is time to chose an interface. “Interface” refers to the hardware that converts the analog sound that microphones capture to a digital signal that your computer will understand. Spending money on expensive interfaces could yield better results, but a mid-priced interface will still get the job done for all practical purposes. Remember, we are only spending $1,000 on this setup. The M-Audio Firewire Solo is a solid economical interface. http://www.m-audio.com/products/en_us/FireWireSolo.html There are cheaper interfaces on the market, but they offer USB input instead of Firewire. I like Firewire because it creates less latency than USB. Latency has several applications, but in this case, it is the time it takes for vocals to travel from the microphone, through the interface, to the computer, and back to the singers headphones. Noticeable latency will throw off the singer’s timing when they hear themselves delayed through their headphones. The goal while recording is to have the least amount of latency as possible. Out of previous frustrations, I have not experimented with new USB microphones or interfaces in years. If this issue has been fixed, please let me know, as it is probably more economical than Firewire. But as far as Firewire interfaces go, the M-Audio Firewire Solo is the least expensive device I would recommend.
Plug-ins are third party software that provide additional features to existing host software. In this case, D.A.W.‘s are the host. The reason I advise buying mixing plug-ins instead of using stock packages that come with D.A.W.’s, is because not all compressors and equalizers sound the same. Even if they have similar looking knobs and dials, they all perform entirely differently. Even two compressors designed by the same company will not react the same way. As far as getting the most bang for your buck, I recommend the Renaissance Bundle by Waves http://www.waves.com/content.aspx?id=177 . I have many peers and mentors that agree. This bundle comes equipped with everything you need to get pristine, punchy vocals. In an upcoming post, I will reveal exactly how I use each plug-in. In the meantime, check them out for yourself. If you are unsure what they do, scroll through the extensive lists of presets until you get a feel for how they work. Experimentation is necessary to train your ear to recognize what each knob does, so dive in and twist those dials.
Now that you are set up with the right tools, it is time to get familiar with them. Given modern technological advances, experience is all that separates the amateurs from the professionals. I have read books and watched interviews by mixing legends, and they all say the same thing. Dave Pensado endorses the Waves Renaissance Package on his Youtube web series “Pensado’s Place,” which I highly recommend watching as well. And remember, if it sounds good, it is good. Do not over think your approach. What you should be listening for is a clean, noise free sound. Follow these guidelines, and you will be recording like the pros in no time.