UK singer/songwriter Cat Martin, is a multiple Beatport Trance #1 and Beatport Top 100 charting songwriter and vocalist with releases Sony, EMI, Armada Music, Enhanced, Black Hole, Future Sound of Egypt and more. Cat has worked with the likes of Robert Nickson, Ad Brown & LTN, Activa, Dimension, Thomas Datt, Blackmill, Factor B, Joni JPL Ljungqvist and Jason van Wyk and, together with her brother David, Cat owns sample label Martin Sampleware. Together, they’ve topped the Producer Loops charts, and Cat’s vocals have travelled the globe, heard on tracks played by an endless list of "who’s who?" in electronic dance music. Packed with years of experience, we invited this talented lady to write this article explaining some cost-effective ways to record vocals. Whether you’re recording your own voice, or inviting a vocalist to your studio, these tips should help you out.
Cat Martin: "I've written this guide mainly for producers who want to have a go at recording vocals in their studio. I also hope it's useful for vocalists who are thinking about recording at home, though I've assumed some prior knowledge of audio interfaces and a DAW. I've chosen not to go into too much detail about the technical aspects of fitting a vocal into a mix, or which vocal effects to use, as there are so many tutorials about this online. Besides, as a vocalist who mainly sends dry vocals off to producers, vocal post production isn't really my area of expertise. I hope by following these (mainly common sense) tips you'll be able to quickly get down to recording vocals that are good enough quality to use in a production."
Where To Record / Acoustic Treatment:
Ideally, you want the final recording to give away nothing about the environment you've recorded in. It sounds obvious, but you'll want to choose a recording area as far away from external noise as possible. Dogs barking, traffic noise, other people in your house, telephones, creaky floors, and even your computer fan will all be picked up by a microphone. Move away from external noise pollution, and perhaps invest in a silent fan for your computer, or get a longer mic cable and record your vocals in a room outside of your studio.
Pro Tip: If the fan on your computer or laptop is being picked up by your mic, try using a program such as SpeedFan to turn down how fast, and therefore how loud, the fans are spinning. This is a short term solution though, as you don't want to do intensive work in a DAW without your CPU getting adequate cooling.
There's nothing that can kill the buzz more than having to re-record what you thought was a perfect take because your neighbour chose that exact moment to fire up the lawnmower. Find a quiet room, clap your hands, and if the sound is dead and it's quiet, with little ambient noise and possible interruptions, then you're good to go. Although you might think you sound like Mariah Carey when singing in the bathroom, this is one of the worst places to record due to the natural reverb in the room. Your voice bouncing off hard flooring and tiles may sound great in real life, but it is extremely difficult to take out this effect in a recording. Always remember, it's MUCH easier to add these effects in later than to take them out. Equally, you might think that a very small, quiet room or even a cupboard will be a great vocal booth? Unless you have the right acoustic treatment in there, it won't, and your recording will sound very "boxy". There are ways to make the best of your surroundings without having to spend a fortune acoustically treating your recording area.
I use a Thomann TBone Mic Screen which attaches directly to my mic stand and sits behind the microphone. The mic screen minimises reflections in the room and helps to dampen ambient noise and any echoes, giving a "drier", but more useable end result. Be aware though, mic screens are very heavy, so you'll need a strong mic stand to hold one. Otherwise your entire stand, mic included, could come crashing to the ground. I found out the hard way and ended up damaging one of my mics beyond repair! For an even more cost-effective solution, you could try covering the area around your vocal recording spot with rugs, carpets, duvets, pillows, blankets etc. This will dampen the room sounds by soaking up reflections, giving you a much more dry sound.
If you really can't find the perfect spot to record, then choose a dynamic mic, which is much more directional and will record less ambient noise than a traditional condenser mic.
I don't profess to be an audio engineer and mic choice is completely subjective - a mic which sounds wonderful with your voice could sound dreadful with mine. And it's not always down to price either. It's not likely that you'll get the chance to try out a lot of different mics, but there are plenty of compare and contrast mic tests on YouTube for the more popular models. Pick a mic that sounds good to your ear when being used by a vocalist with a voice similar to yours/your vocalist.
I chose my current mic by asking other professional vocalists which mics they were using. I then chose a mic used by the singer with the voice most similar to mine, as I liked how she sounded in all of her releases. If you're recording vocals, you'll want a condenser mic, but if you're just starting out, you can probably get by with a dynamic mic which you might have used to record another instrument. I recorded my first track on Armada using a Shure 58a Beta, which is a very affordable dynamic mic. I then started investing in condenser mics, and since then, I have bought mics from Shure, AKG, and Blue, all with varying degrees of success. I do, however, love my new Rode NT1000. I much prefer the results through it than through other mics I've used for up to ten times the price.
I can't stress enough how important headphone choice is when recording vocals. If you think the Sennheiser HD25's that you use in your studio or to DJ will work just fine when recording vocals, then think again. They won't! As addressed earlier, you'll be surprised what a mic can pick up and headphone bleed (when the backing track can be heard in the vocal recording) is an instant way to make your vocal sound amateur, not to mention that it involves much more post-processing to get your vocal to a stage where it's useable. You need closed cup headphones which form a kind of suction around your ears and prevent sound from escaping. Many DJ headphones are closed cup, but be wary of using them as sometimes the mechanisms for listening with one ear can move about and that noise will be picked up by the mic. If you've watched any videos of vocalists recording in a studio, you might have seen them wearing a pair of Beyerdynamic DT770 headphones. I use the 80ohms version of these, or sometimes Audio Technica ATH-M50X, which are slightly cheaper and less bulky.
Once you've selected the right headphones, it's time to find the most comfortable way of using them. Personally, I listen with only one ear in the headphones (I kill the backing track to the ear I'm not using). I find that having one ear free helps me keep pitch and dynamics more in check as I can hear my voice in the context of the room. Others prefer to hear the backing track through both ears of the headphones and hear their voice played back to them (monitoring). This just isn't for me but it might be for you? Whatever you do, try not to have the backing track so loud that you have to sing loudly over it. Not being able to hear yourself properly will lead to pitching issues and unusable recordings. Also, as I mentioned above - headphone bleed.
Pop Filter & Mic Stand:
A pop filter will minimise the undesirable "punchy" breath sounds (known as plosives) which can happen when you sing certain sounds, such as the letters B, P or T. You don't need to spend a lot here, in fact you've probably heard of people using a pair of tights stretched over a coat hanger to get this effect! However, a pop filter and mic stand should be essential features of your vocal set up. There is no way to record a studio quality vocal holding a mic, as the sounds of your hand and your body moving will be picked up in the recording. Equally so, if your mic is one of those with a small desk stand, you won't be able to get into a good enough position to sing properly. Go for a proper mic stand and fit a shock mount (usually these come with a good quality mic) as this minimises any vibrations being picked up by the mic stand. As mentioned above regarding reflection shields, the stronger and more stable your mic stand, the better. If you've spent a decent amount of money on a mic, the last thing you want is it crashing to the ground.
Even if you're a one-take-wonder and can nail that vocal the very first time, you'll still need to record each line a few times. Three minimum. These extra takes can be stacked or even transposed into additional harmonies. I use Melodyne to get new harmony ideas, then re-record the new harmony properly so it sounds natural. Multi-tracking will give you a much fuller sound and open up many more options in post-production than just delivering one topline WAV.
Your DAW will likely allow you to record on a loop so that you can focus on getting the perfect take for a particular part of a track before moving on. Just be careful not to spend too long on one part in case you end up having to finish the vocal another day as this can throw you off your stride. If you are recording over a few sessions, make sure to take note of the input settings for the mic on your audio interface and your DAW so you can replicate those exact settings another day. When listening to a dry vocal it can be very easy to tell when parts have been recorded at different times due to slight differences in volume and even the enthusiasm of the singer. If you have to record over different days, record all of the verses one day, the chorus or bridge on another day etc. so you can maintain some continuity in the sound of each segment.
The Comp Track:
Depending on how precise you want to get, it's possible to mix and match individual phrases, words, or even parts thereof, to get the perfect final vocal. This final vocal is your Comp Track (short for Composite Track), as it's composed from individual parts of your different vocal takes. Once you've decided on which parts will form your Comp Track, it's important to ensure that the individual parts fit together as seamlessly as possible. To do this, I crossfade each segment together. After crossfading, I then listen back to the Comp Track without any effects to make sure that the final article sounds like it's all been recorded in one take and that no parts are unnecessarily loud or have a dramatically different dynamic.
Effects like reverb can hide poor pitch, so only when your comp track and any additional harmonies or multi-tracks sound good against your backing track without any effects, should you add them. If you're a vocalist working with a producer, you'll have to send your vocals dry (without effects) anyway so that they can add effects and fit them into their mix. Only use effects when you're doing a guide track (more on this later) for the producer so they can hear how your vocal idea fits with their production or if you want to give yourself an idea of how the track might sound so that you can expand your idea further.
Depending on the track, breath sounds might be desirable, particularly in Trance, Ambient, or even RnB. Left in, they add authenticity and warmth to the vocal but a producer can always use a fade-in/volume control later to minimise their effect. I always leave mine in a Comp Track but drastically cut the volume in any harmonies or multi-tracks as their cumulative effect can be a bit over-powering.
Pro Tip: Removing all breaths from your vocal, will make it sound plastic and unreal. Make sure you leave some breaths in your vocal mix.
The Guide Track:
A guide track is an mp3 demo which allows your collaborators to get an idea of how you've placed the vocals over the instrumental. It is fine to use some effects on your vocal to make it sit more naturally over the instrumental, but you don't want to drown yourself in reverb and delay or other effects. The point of the guide track is to let your collaborators hear the vocal clearly and see the picture you've painted with the lyrics. If you're sending a vocal which will later have a production created around it, then your guide track might just be a vocal accompanied by pads, a simple beat or a piano/guitar, etc.
Pro Tip: Send a guide track if you are waiting for a contract to be signed or a payment to be made before you part with your dry vocals in WAV format.
Bouncing The Vocal:
I always go for 24-Bit WAV 44.1kHz quality when exporting, but some microphones only support 16-Bit so be aware of this when selecting your mic. The industry standard format for vocals is WAV, so never send an mp3 unless it's just as a preview or your guide track. The vocal should ALWAYS be exported dry, with absolutely no effects whatsoever. As ever, it's easier to add the FX in later. When exporting, it's best to give your vocal segment some context, so I suggest exporting the file as a stem (a file which is the length of the track you're working from so the producer knows where in the track to place each vocal segment). Or if you're recording the vocals first for a producer to create a production around, export the files so that they are full bars of say 8 or 16 bars, and make sure to let the producer know which tempo/key you've worked in.
Ableton Live 9 & Ableton Live 8
Rode NT1000, Blue Bluebird LG, Shure Beta 58A & AKG C414
Thomann TBone Reflection Shield
Roxdon Pop Shield (Metal)
Audio Technica ATH-M50X & Beyerdynamic DT770 headphones
Yamaha HS7 Monitors
Roland Quad Capture Audio Interface
We would like to thank Cat Martin for sharing her expertise and we hope it will help you achieve better results in your future vocal recordings.