My book Indie Rock 101 covers the basics on how to record and mix vocals, but since its publication I’ve recorded a ton of new tracks. So I thought I’d expand on the basics a bit by sharing a few new recording and mixing techniques I’ve learned that aren’t in the book—especially since I typically record myself on vocals. On a related note, I’m finishing up a new song with vocals I’m pretty happy with, so below is a video in which I go through the plugins I used in Logic Pro X.
Finding the melody
A lot of bands have the luxury of rehearsing their songs for weeks or months before going into the studio and laying down tracks. By then, each member of the band, including the singer, has had ample time to “find” their performance—the mood, the inflection, the melody, the vibe, etc.
For me, I typically write my material in my head, and in the quieter environment of my home office or local studio, without playing it with others. By the time I’m ready to record, I haven’t really sang it out loud much, so I know that I’ll need to sing takes until I get comfortable with the melody—a process I call “finding the melody" at the beginning of the recording stage.
It’s probably worth mentioning that bare minimum, I have to sing along and record to a click track and a few rough rhythm guitar tracks. Sometimes I’ll wait until drums and more “final” sounding guitars are laid down to record, but rarely. I really just need a few guitars and the click.
The magical third take
When it comes to actually recording, I typically stand right next to my laptop on a folding chair, the mic on a stand right next to that. That way, I can quickly lean down and comp takes. (For those who don’t know, “comping” is that process where you put together a great performance from the best pieces of multiple takes.)
I find that sometimes the first performance can be pretty good—sometimes great—so I’ll typically record that very first take, just in case. More commonly, I find that it usually takes me at least 3-5 times of singing through the entire song to “find” the melody I want. Then I know I’m in the zone. After that, I’ll record about 3 more takes.
By this point, I have around 6-7 takes, knowing that the last 1-3 takes will be the tightest for the lead vocal performance. The other thing about these later takes is that if you’re going to double your vocals in the mix—or use what I call a “buffer” track (basically the track you use to double your lead vocal track)—it’s important to sing the melody the same way each time, to get them locked. There’s a better chance of this happening when you’re being more deliberate about the melody in these later takes.
Recording straight through and comping
One thing I used to do until In Between the Spaces was record take after take, straight through the whole song, then comp the best lead vocal performance together from all those “raw” takes.
I still warm up by recording the song straight through for the first 1-4 takes or so, but now I just make sure my last 2-3 takes especially are solid throughout, with no major mistakes. That means more stopping and starting during those takes to patch bum notes and the like, but at least I know I don’t have to do as much work in the comping stage. What I’ve found is that the time spent in the recording stage making sure your “full-length” take is good is working faster than spending too much time hunting and gathering in the mixing stage (more on this ahead).
Getting the harmonies
I typically harmonize with my own lead vocals, mostly because I’m not in a band, and I can do it. In terms of “finding the harmonies,” the same process for lead vocals above applies here as well. I usually know where I want to put the harmonies, but I don’t really know what they’ll be until I actually sing them and record them. I try not to overthink things when I’m doing this, erring on the side of harmonies that come fairly naturally and sound right. I typically use the last two takes here, throughout the whole song.
Mixing the performance
Quick and dirty comping
If you’re one of those people who just wants to sing the song straight through and maintain your inspiration and spontaneity, I’ve found a great way to save a little time finding the good bits you need in the comping process.
Let’s say you’ve recorded 5 takes of a lead vocal track, and your voice is spent. You know you have what you need to mix the song, so you stop your session and start mixing the next day.
Print out the lyrics. Once you’re in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), assign a letter to each take (A for the first take, B for the second, and so on). Listen to each take, and assign a number from 1 to 3 to each line in the song, with 1 being unusable (flat, sharp, mistake, etc.), 2 being OK, and 3 being the best possible. Listen to each track straight through and write your “code” for each take above each line of the song, so eventually you see things like A3, B1, C2 above each line. Try to work quickly.
By the end of this process, you can stitch together your “1” pieces from each take for the lead vocal, use the “2” pieces for your “buffer” vocal track, and keep the “3”s for safety (recommended), or trash them. Create a new “primary vocal” track in your mix, drop in the “1” regions, and you have your lead vocal track. Create a new, secondary “buffer” track, and do the same with your “2” regions.
This system is flexible, so if you need five degrees of goodness instead of three, for example, go for it. If you want to record 10 takes straight through instead of 5, do it.
Pitching and Tuning
When I started work on In Between the Spaces, I have to admit I spent way too much time tuning the vocals. Making sure vocals are in tune is critical toward making a decent mix sound pro, but I was hand-pitching almost every note, and that was after comping every take. I liked the results but it wasn’t a practical way to work.
Now that Pitch Correction has been added back to Logic Pro X, I basically apply some mild tuning to the whole good take, and only manually apply Vocal Tuning for notes that really need it. If my vocal takes are solid, which they should be, taking this route saves a ton of time.
Compression and EQ
I talk about how to apply these in Indie Rock 101, and that has not changed much over the years. For compression, I like a fast attack like 10 ms, a pretty fast release, and a ratio around 2:1 or 3:1. A little boost around 20K in EQ gives it a little edge and helps my voice stand out, especially above heavy guitars.
You have to experiment to find what settings work best for your voice, and just as importantly, the mood of the song you’re going for. A softer, more intimate song probably won’t call for heavy compression and EQ boosts, whereas a more in-your-face rocker will sound better with that kind of treatment, along with a little distortion to get a grittier sound.
The big picture
Every song is different, but I tend to like my lead vocals with a bit of a buffer, meaning a doubled track, but with slightly different plug-ins applied. Sometimes I don’t use Pitch Correction on the quieter buffer track, to maintain more warmth and realness in the overall performance (…whereas I will always make sure the primary lead vocal track is very in tune… just never overdone or “AutoTune” sounding).
For background vocals, I tend to keep those at a slightly lower level, with the same plug-ins or settings applied. You may have someone in your band singing harmonies that are at a lower register than yours, in which case you may want to pump up the volume a bit.
Cutting through the mix
One thing I see constantly in tutorials is how to get your lead vocal track “sitting just right in the mix.” Applying the right amount of compression and EQ has a lot to do with this, but I’ve also found that taking away other effects can yield positive results.
For example, if you have some chorus and reverb applied to the lead vocal track, it can get muddy or lost in a louder mix. Dial back on the reverb and other “sweetener” effects like chorus, spreader and the like. It'll sound a bit drier, but it will sound much more present and up front.
Getting in the mood
Once you have your basic tracks recorded, the rough mix in place, and you start finessing your final vocal mix to go with the rest of the tracks, it’s a good time to think about the mood you’re going for in the vocal performance.
Is the song and the performance an in your face and punchy alt-rock kind of vibe? More of an ‘80s stadium metal sound? Maybe something more emo and dreamy, like the Cure, U2, or Coldplay?
All of these call for a slightly different vocal treatment. Just remember not to overdo it on the reverb, lest the performance sound too washed out and lost in the mix, especially for louder songs. Even then, a big rookie mistake is to overdo it on effects in general. People want to hear you.
Bringing it all together
I hope you’ve found this post about recording and mixing vocals helpful. For a clear, concise, all-in-one primer on home recording, check out my book Indie Rock 101.
Lastly, while there are many “best practices” in home recording, there’s always more than one way to do something, and everyone has a different style. I’m self-taught on this stuff, and I’m always looking to learn new things. So if you have a constructive tip or comment to add on how you record your own work, please feel free to share it in the comments below—I’d love to hear it.
Thanks for listening as always.