Home Recording Basics Part VII: Recording Vocals in Your Bedroom

Recording vocals is all about capturing the performance. At the end of the day, the vocal is telling a story, and the more human emotion that story has, the better.

It doesn’t matter if there’s a little flutter echo from the room, a little too much 8kHz from the mic, or a little sibilance from the positioning, as long as there’s emotion. It’s our job as engineers to capture that emotion.

Prince cut all of his vocals at the console in his control room. Kanye recorded most of Watch The Throne in hotel rooms while on tour. Wasting Light by the Foo Fighters was recorded in Dave Grohl’s garage.

Some engineers spend thousands of dollars building analog vocal chains with vintage mics, tube preamps, and outboard compressors, yet vocals for The Killers’ Hot Fuss, Red Hot Chili Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors were all recorded using a Shure SM57.

This is all to say that when it comes to recording vocals, it’s not about the room or the gear, it’s about capturing the performance — something you can do well even within the four walls of your bedroom. There are, however, some best practices you can follow when setting off on this path, and that's exactly what we're going to examine at today.

Treat The Room

First, let’s talk about some practical ways you can improve the acoustics in your room without the budget need to hire an acoustician. As with many things, the first rule is usually the simplest: clean your room. The less junk you have lying around, the better.

Anything you do have in that space might vibrate and cause unwanted frequencies to build up in your recordings. This includes your computer’s fan motor, the buzz from the ceiling lights, and the heat vent blowing air all around. Reduce as much unwanted noise as you possibly can.

Next, try to soundproof your room as best as possible. Review the basics of acoustic treatment, like the difference between absorption and diffusion and why 90 degree angles trap bass frequencies.

If semi–permanent treatment isn’t an option (due to funds, rental leases, etc.), try treating the most reflective areas of your room with blankets. Moving blankets are surprisingly good at providing acoustic treatment and can easily be hung and removed from walls using curtain rods. If you don’t have any moving blankets, regular blankets will do — the thicker the better.

You can also build an impromptu vocal booth. Mattresses provide excellent absorption, but you can also fashion a vocal booth using mic stands and blankets. It might not be pretty, but if it was good enough for Ray Charles, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

Choosing Your Mics

Once you’ve got the room treated as best you can, it’s time to find the right mic. Since you’re recording in a room you own, there’s no need to rush.

Try every single mic in your collection and see which works best with your voice for this particular song."

Try every single mic in your collection and see which works best with your voice for this particular song. You may be surprised: sometimes the budget mics end up sounding better than something more expensive.

If you have them available, try some different preamps on the mic you select and see if you can further hone your tone.

Mic Placement

After you find the right mic, focus on the placement. The mic should be roughly in the center of the room. The closer you are to the walls, the more likely you are to capture reflections and unwanted low–end build up. Avoid corners at all costs.

Make sure you set up a pop filter and, preferably, a portable vocal booth like the Reflexion Filter if you have one.

When it comes time to record, you’ve only got a few options.

  • Close (.5"~4")
  • Mid (4-8")
  • Far (8"+)
  • On–Axis
  • Off–Axis

As the singer gets closer to the mic, the vocals will become clearer and you’ll hear less room tone. But this comes at the price of low–end buildup and increased risk of plosives. Just make sure the singer isn’t so close to the mic that they’re actually touching it.

To help reduce plosives you can tilt the mic off–axis, but sometimes that can reduce the clarity of the vocal. Try experimenting with off–axis mic’ing from above the singer’s mouth, as well as below, since they have a noticeably different sound.

Mic’ing up–from–below the mouth tends to give a brighter sound and captures more of the sold pallet tone, while mic’ing down–from–above tends to give a deeper sound with more chest voice tone. Mic’ing on–axis tends to give a good balance of the two.

You could also try moving the mic farther away from the singer to help reduce plosives, but the farther you go, the more room tone you’ll get, which is generally undesirable.

Getting the Best From Your Vocalist

Alright, you’ve treated the room, you’ve picked the mic that sounds best on your singer today, and you’ve tweaked the mic position to get it just right. Now the real fun starts.

Be their biggest fan and their biggest critic. Push them to their boundaries and then force them to make new ones."

Art happens at the intersection of absolute narcissism and crippling self doubt. Artists are fragile, and you can use that fragility to coax a great performance out of them.

It’s different for everyone, but try to learn what your artist is thinking. Be their biggest fan and their biggest critic. Push them to their boundaries and then force them to make new ones. Use a firm but loving hand, as they say.

Remember, you are the documentarian capturing the raw emotion of the artist’s performance. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.


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