Capture Killer Vocals! Vocal Tracking Tips from Studio Pros

Michael Raine
July 12, 2022

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Adam Gallant

Recording vocals is often the most important part of the record making process. For this year’s recording feature, let’s touch on the broader concepts that surround capturing the human voice as well as a few details about the technical and creative sides. I’ll be writing from the perspective of a tech who is catering to a vocalist, though keep in mind that all of these principles apply to an artist who is self-producing.

Pre-Production: Establishing Your Sound

Perhaps the most important aspect to tracking vocals is having some kind of a vision of what you want to hear in the final product before you start. Is the vocal supposed to sit in the track or on top of it? Will the genre of music inform the vocal performance and treatment? Should the vocal be pitch-perfect? Knowing where you’re headed in advance will save troubleshooting and creative headaches along the way.

It will also help you commit to your decisions about vocal performances and treatments earlier in your production, making you a more effective record-maker. The more experience one has, the faster answers to these questions will come. Here are a few tips that will help inform the process before tracking begins:

1. Know the Genre: Share reference material with the vocalist to get an understanding of what will be needed in terms of skill, techniques, and equipment to achieve the desired results. For example, pop music tends to have layered vocals. Knowing how precisely things need to be sung on doubles or how many harmony layers are desired will inform your workflow and scheduling.

2. Know the Vocalist: Understanding a vocalist’s physical limitations (or lack thereof) will inform decisions like song keys, anticipated harmony layers, and how much endurance a vocalist has. Understanding the vocalist as a person can be even more important. Having a great rapport and knowing when and how to coach a singer is a very personal thing. Being able to read people and gauge boundaries is a valuable skill when it comes to achieving great performances in the studio.

3. Warm Up: I will typically ask vocalists if they would like to take a few minutes to get warmed up. Stretching, breathing exercises, and a few minutes of lip rolls in the key of the song can go a long way. The results are often a richer tone, better pitch control, and sometimes, greater endurance. If I am working with a vocalist who doesn’t sing regularly, I encourage them to warm up every day leading up to our session. There are some really excellent vocal warm up videos on YouTube that I frequently share with clients.

Staying hydrated is also incredibly important for vocalists. Vocal chords have air passing by them constantly and they are the last organ to become fully hydrated. A well-hydrated vocalist will have better endurance and fewer mouth-clicks to clean up.

Microphones: Options & Implications

When I was starting out, I found it easy to feel as though most microphones sounded alike; however, I’ve found over the years that differences that used to feel subtle are now stark and choosing the right microphone for the voice and setting is extremely important. There are three popular types of microphones, each lending its own benefits and compromises:

1. Condenser Microphones: The classic studio vocal microphone is a condenser. Condensers are bright, detailed, and have broad pickup patterns. They are sensitive, hyper-real sounding, and often reproduce a lot of the space in which the vocals are being recorded. If you are in an untreated or noisy room, a condenser can be a questionable choice. If the vocalist has abnormally loud or high-pitched esses, a condenser may not be the most flattering microphone to use. Cheaper condenser microphones can sometimes sound harsh, while high-end condensers will have an airy top end and the ability to reproduce very low frequencies.

2. Dynamic Microphones: A dynamic is the classic live performance vocal mic. Rugged and often neutral-sounding, dynamic mics have a tighter pickup pattern and will give a boost to the low end the closer they get to the sound source. One of the most famous dynamic microphones for recording vocals is the Shure SM7, which Michael Jackson used on Thriller. If you are a home recordist with an untreated room, the SM7 is an ideal vocal microphone. It does require a lot of preamp gain, so further hardware might be needed for optimal use.

3. Ribbon Microphones: An un-common microphone for a lead vocalist but a very vibey choice. Ribbon mics tend to sound dark and often require lots of additional high mids via an equalizer to work in a mix. I tend to use ribbon mics for background vocals to give contrast with the lead. Ribbon microphones are inherently a figure-eight pickup pattern and much like condensers, they work much better in a vocal booth or treated room.

Environments & Their Implications

The room you are recording in will have an effect not only on the sound of the vocals, but also their performance. A lot of pop vocals tend to be recorded in dead-sounding rooms so that all of the detail and intimacy can be conveyed in playback. In a reverberant room – even a small room with no treatment – the reflections tend to blur the perceived sound more and will often make it feel as though the vocals are sitting back in a track. If you don’t have a treated room to work in and you’re after a focused vocal sound, try hanging towels from microphone stands around the vocalist.

When it comes to adding background vocal layers, I generally enjoy a bit of room sound and will often have vocalists take one or two steps back from the microphone to help create space around the lead vocal. This might not be possible if you are in a noisy room with lots of HVAC sound, street noise, or the room is simply not flattering.

Worth mentioning is the importance of a great-looking space. Singers are creative people who love creative environments. Good lighting, nice décor, and comfortable seating will affect performances.

Processing While Tracking

The culture and history of hardware and software that treat vocal recordings is extensive. I’ll touch on a few key treatments and focus more on the tracking side vs. mixing.

The workhorse of equipment chains for most top-tier producers is a Neve 1073 preamp into a Universal Audio 1176 compressor. These units have been emulated by many hardware and software designers and versions of them are available at most price points. The Neve preamp is loved for its ability to saturate a signal with a pleasing and subtle amount of distortion and the 1176 has a variable attack and release time that can suit most genres at most tempos.

When it comes to mic preamps for vocal recording, there are two schools of thought: clean or dirty. Knowing how much saturation (dirt) a vocal recording calls for often comes down to genre and taste. Playing it safe and aiming for a clean sound while tracking is a wise decision. The downside to having a clean vocal sound coming back at an artist while tracking can be a lacklustre headphone mix and a less emotive performance. The downside to cranking up your preamp and having a dirty vocal sound is committing to it can be destructive and removing distortion is less feasible than adding it later.

A good solution is to add saturation or distortion via a software plug-in instead of hardware. I tend to use Waves’ Scheps Omni Channel for this job. It is zero-latency and has three flavors of distortion that vary from subtle to fuzzy. Other great plug-ins for this job are FabFilter’s Saturn and Soundtoys’ Devil Loc. Another option is to set up two vocal chains: one dirty and one clean. I will sometimes take a cheap dynamic microphone through a guitar distortion pedal and set it up next to my main vocal mic and record both tracks. If the phase relationship is perfect, these microphones can be blended. The cheap microphone will get more distortion and bring out mids, allowing the vocal to push through a dense track.

At our studio, I tend to aim for a clean signal path on vocals. We track through an API 512c into a Rupert Neve compressor, then an SSL EQ. If I want a dirty sound, I will patch in a Standard Audio Level-Or or go for a plug-in for distortion.

Using reverbs and delays while tracking is a matter of taste. I find that more experienced vocalists tend to desire a dryer sound, as the added clarity can help with pitch articulation.

My go-to setup for tracking vocals is a plate reverb and two separate delays, all via separate auxiliary sends. The plate reverb’s length is often determined by the tempo and genre while the delays end up being pretty consistent. The first delay is an extremely short stereo delay that widens the mono vocal signal to spread across the stereo spectrum. I put the left side at 1/64th of a beat and the right side at 1/32nd of a beat and use very sparing amounts – just enough to help the singer live above the track. For the second delay, I use a long feedback and an 1/8th note delay to give a sense of depth and excitement. Again, very little goes a long way; vocalists have a lot to focus on, so if these applications are at all distracting, they are not worth introducing.

Another classic treatment for vocalists is a subtle pitched delay via an Eventide H3000. This behaves much like the short delay described above, but with an added tier of chorusing that gives a classic widening sound.

If you are working entirely in the box, note that some DAWs and plug-ins will add latency to a vocalist’s mix; this is to be avoided at all costs. A lot of interfaces have latency-free routing and a lot of plug-ins have zero-latency versions. It’s important to look at your DAW’s hardware buffer size and mitigate latency. If I am deep into a mix on a session and a vocalist needs to come in for overdubs, I will often bounce the track down and start a new session from scratch to take the processing needs down (as they add latency). Then I can turn down my hardware buffer as low as possible.

I recommend setting everything up before the client enters the room and getting your own headphone mix dialed in. Troubleshoot anything and everything so when the tracking begins there are absolutely no hiccups.

Getting the Best Possible Performance

Singing is an expression of emotion and with that comes a certain amount of vulnerability. Treat vocalists like royalty. Have tea, water, coffee, beer, whiskey – basically anything they might have the slightest desire for on-hand. Lighting options are important as well; it’s not uncommon for me to be sitting in a dark room at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday for three hours while cutting vocals.

Before a vocal session, I set up a stool as well as a standing pad and will ask the vocalist if they prefer to sit or stand. There are no rules here – whatever the artist needs for comfort is key. Need to strap on your guitar and randomly clack along while singing? Great! I might switch to a dynamic mic to reduce the noise and I will likely do some repairing with iZotope RX, but whatever the vocalist needs, I will cater to. The goal here is to put the technical side of things as far away from our minds as possible and narrow in on making the performer feel spoiled and supported.

In terms of workflow for recording a conventional song, I have great success taking three full takes of a song without offering critique unless asked. Once these three takes are done, if the artist or I feel more takes are needed, I will focus in on troublesome sections and offer feedback if it feels welcome. I like to create a seamless recording loop of problem sections and have vocalists repeat the section until I am confident all the words were executed flawlessly. Once I am confident all the material has been captured, we will move on to a new song or the artist will be done for the day and I start editing the performance.

Vibe and comfort are the top priority. Vocalists need to be able to focus intensely for uninterrupted periods of time, so curbing distractions is a must. Simply leaving space for the vocalist to fully express themselves in all ways is paramount to building trust between the producer and performer. Once you’ve established trust, vocalists are more willing to put themselves on the line emotionally.

Adam Gallant has worked in all facets of digital audio production, from music composition to location and post audio for television and film. He currently owns and operates The Hill Sound Studio in Charlottetown, PE.

Bill Bell. Photo by Dan Lim

At the Console:
Bill Bell
(Tom Cochrane, Jason Mraz)

Go-To Vocal Setup:
When I first started recording and plugging a Shure SM58 into a small Mackie console, I was wondering why it didn’t sound like the pros. Then, when I started recording with Tom Cochrane years later at his home studio, I finally got it. Tom is an avid gear collector and had me plug his Neumann U67 into a Neve 1073 preamp then into a Urei 1176 compressor. That was it!

Now I use BAE Audio mic pres – some of the best pres out there in the Neve/API style. Choose a mic that suits the singer. If you’re on a budget, try a Shure SM7B. It’s around $500 and it’s a lot of singers’ preferred mic, from Bonnie Raitt to Steven Tyler. Then, a compressor will take down peaks if you feel the singer needs it. I’m currently using BAE’s 10DC, which is a fairly transparent compressor, but if I’m doing a rock track or want a more compressed sound, I’ll go to an 1176 or LA-2A.

The right gear really does matter. It’ll make your job much easier and inspire you and the singer for an optimal performance.

CM: You’ve worked with an array of singers from various genres. While I’m sure it differs from case to case, how do you typically forge a good creative relationship with a singer in the studio to get the best possible performance?

BB: Be responsible for the energy that you bring into the space. Energy in the room is everything. It’s not about you; it’s about the singer, who has to emotionally connect to the lyric in order to sing an inspired take.

Try to gauge what the singer might want – tea, lots of light, less light, light-hearted jokes, no talking at all... It’s their space while they are recording. Try to make it as comfortable for them as you can. Upbeat positivity goes a long way.

Sam Guaiana

At the Console:
Sam Guaiana
(Silverstein, Story Untold)

Go-To Vocal Setup:
The “for-sure” things are a vintage U87 and a Neve 1073. Super original, I know, but it really is an amazing combo and it’s almost impossible to make it sound bad. The EQ points on a 1073 do so much with so little. The only thing that changes is either a distressor or a blue stripe 1176 after. This is usually vocalist-dependent – the softer stuff gets the distressor, the louder vocals get the 1176. Also, if a vocalist is a bit nasally, I’ll probably opt for the distressor because the 1176 is very aggressive in the same range as the vocalist.

CM: When it comes to the heavier genres you work on, whether you’re mixing the project or getting things primed for an outside mix engineer, how do you make sure your vocal is going to be fully present and cut through the mix?

SG: Compression! Aggressive vocal compression for aggressive vocals is the key. And using compressors with character – usually a blue stripe 1176 plug-in and a bit of Soundtoys’ Decapitator really makes a vocal hit hard in heavy music. You want the vocals to occupy this dense space and you can’t have it fighting with other stuff. Sometimes people think the solution to that is more reverb, but I find it’s actually less. More short delay and slap over a lush reverb is my go-to in those situations.

Hill Kourkoutis

At the Console:
Hill Kourkoutis
(Madison Violet, The Cliks)

Go-To Vocal Setup: I use a UAD Apollo as my main interface so my vocal chain makes use of UAD’s incredible Unison pres. I usually opt for the Neve 1073 as it is one of my favourites, followed by applying some gentle compression with the Teletronix LA-2A or Tube-Tech CL 1B. I also use the UAD Capitol Chambers plug-in in the vocalist’s monitor mix for the sake of the performance but the actual signal being recorded is captured from the preamp and compressor. My go-to mics are usually a Neumann TLM-49 or my Shure SM7. I tend to go with this combo as it provides me with a warm and lush vocal but, of course, I do modify it from time to time if I feel it does not complement the vocalist’s timbre.

Once the performance is nailed, I will apply additional vocal treatments to achieve a more stylized sound but I always like to work from something warm and dry to begin with so that I have more versatility on the back end.

CM: During the producer’s panel at CMW this year, you were talking about the trial-and-error that went into miking and then getting an optimal performance from Luke Stapleton, the beatboxer in a cappella outfit Eh440, for their Boss Level record. Can you take us into that process and how you ultimately ended up with your final product?

HK: Eh440 is not your traditional a cappella group; they are a contemporary pop group that has some mega tunes, so I wanted to explore a mega sound with a vast sonic spectrum to match that despite the fact that the record was made entirely with human voices.

We began with the “beds” – in this case, Luke – so I threw up a fancy condenser mic and after many takes, it just wasn’t working. The performance felt flat and didn’t quite sound right, so I went into the room with Luke and asked him to beatbox in the air. I immediately noticed that a lot of his performance and energy came from the movement of his body. I also directed my ear to his mouth and neck and realized a lot of the “sub” sounds were coming from his neck, whereas the primary attack or articulation of the beatboxing was coming from his mouth.

Getting Luke to stand still in front of a single condenser mic did not capture any of these integral elements so I ran to Long & McQuade to grab a lav mic and to Shoppers Drug Mart to grab a sponge and a razor. When I got back, Luke shaved off a patch of his beard on his neck and we taped the lav to the spot where the sub sounds were coming from. Then I grabbed my Sennheiser e865, a super dynamic cardioid handheld mic, and duct taped a sponge to it so that Luke could hold the mic and move around for his performance without hearing his hands rubbing against the mic. Finally, I threw up some room mics for some dimension so it didn’t sound too direct. We pressed record again and the results were incredible. Luke recorded all of his main grooves with this set-up and then to give us more control in the mix, I got him to overdub individual snare, kick, and hi-hat sounds that I layered in with the main grooves in order to control individual levels and effects and make everything sound bigger.

KR Moore

At the Console:
KR Moore
(Snotty Nose Rez Kids, The Sorority)

Go-To Vocal Setup: I like to work with the UAD Apollo. I love how the LA-2A and 1176 sound on there, and a lot of time I’m working with those two plug-ins from the jump. They get me a nice, clean sound going in.

I normally track through a Neumann TLM-103. I love that mic. It’s really versatile and I’ve used it for a bunch of different artists. I try to keep the sound clean going in, and then do whatever we might want to do with it in post.

For monitoring, I may add some more compressors from the UAD into my DAW. I’ll monitor through a vocal buss I have set up and I’ll start with an EQ from PreSonus StudioOne or FabFilter, then I’ll go into an API 560 to add a bit on top for some colour and brilliance, and then probably run it through an SSL channel strip with a little more on top, then some more compression. That levels out the sound a bit more. Sometimes, I’ll go into another instance of the LA-2A, but it’s not doing too much – just grabbing the peaks – and then I’ll put that through a de-esser. As soon as the artists hear themselves through the headphones, they feel like they’ve made it [laughs].

CM: Is there a particularly unique vocal track or session you’ve worked on that really went outside the box in terms of gear, set-up, or recording environment? Tell us a bit about what you did and what you like about the result.

KRM: We did some really out-of-the-box stuff with Snotty Nose Rez Kids on their last album, more to do with mixing than tracking. I used a lot of different styles of effects. For example, when it came to ad-libs, I would use an EQ with an LC filter and roll off a bunch of low end, run it through Waves’ CLA effects, which is Chris Lord-Alge’s signature plug-in, and then through a flanger and add a ton of reverb. It’s a bit unorthodox but sounds amazing – just as long as you dial in a sensible amount to work with the record.

Tracking is usually pretty straightforward, but the editing and mixing is where I tend to break a lot of the rules. I’d suggest learning the rules first to know where and when you can break them to still have it make sense.

Olivia Quan

At the Console:
Olivia Quan
(Luca Fogale, Hey Ocean!)

Go-To Vocal Setup: It starts with an AKG C12A and a Chandler TG2 preamp. From there, I use a DBX 902 de-esser, the left side of an Empirical Labs FATSO Jr. into an 1176 into the right side of the FATSO Jr., and then into my DAW. For the most part, this chain is quite simple; I just have to be mindful of gain staging.

CM: Is there a particularly unique vocal track or session you’ve worked on that really went outside the box in terms of gear, set-up, or recording environment? Tell us a bit about what you did and what you like about the result.

OQ: Half of the battle when it comes to recording vocals is creating a space that gives the singer the best possible chance at a great take. Developing a rapport with the artists I work with is crucial in order to find out how they’d be most comfortable delivering their performances. Some singers are most comfortable cross-legged on the floor, standing on the couch with a handheld microphone, or in the pitch black.

I’m also really big into tracking effects pedals in parallel. I like to get a unique sound, close to how I think it’ll exist in the finished track, and mix that into the singer’s headphones. Even if the effects get ditched later in the mixing process, the performance remains captured. Allowing a vocalist to get immersed in a song, rather than just having them sing over top of a track, has always yielded really amazing results for me.

Michael Raine

Michael Raine is the Editor-In-Chief at NWC, publisher of Canadian Musician, Professional Sound, Professional Lighting & Production, and Canadian Music Trade magazines. He is also a co-host of the popular Canadian Musician Podcast. Michael has extensively covered nearly all aspects of the Canadian music business, as well as the pro audio, musical products, and the lighting and production industries.