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Recording vocal at home for beginners

Many singers prefer to record their vocal at home rather than go to the professional recording studio. The reasons to choose home recording are all different. For some vocalists working atmosphere that a studio can provide is not engaging to best performance and they feel themselves more comfortable singing at home. Others try to save money purchasing a few necessary pieces of quality equipment only once and then spend as much time as they need to do the vocal recording. Some can not find a studio that has a choice of appliances good enough to use the best fitting gear to maximize the advantages of one’s vocal. Mainly all the merits of home recording are personalization of a working space, atmosphere and gear to fit the needs of a single performer.

The studio may have all the necessary gadgetry, it may be designed to produce the best sound quality possible, but if atmosphere is not engaging to sing, all the vocal recording session may be spoiled. Such little conveniences as your favorite sofa to take a break and home-made lemon tea to comfort a dry throat can be crucial in creating the right mood for a recording session.

The other important thing is that you have the full control over direction where the recording session is going. If you feel inspired and willing to work till midnight you can do that (as long as your neighbors don’t mind). In a recording studio you would feel rather uncomfortable to stop the session at the very beginning in case you discover you are not in voice/mood to sing and finally you will have to comply with a record of a poor performance when you were simply not in shape but too shy to tell about that. At home studio you can manage your time independently and it’s always a good time to start or stop a recording process.

In most recording studios you will find a variety of recording appliances, dozens of microphones and utilities. Such a large selection can be easily explained by the fact that each singer who comes to record a vocal track has own voice and performing manner specifics. The more gear the studio has, the more chances it has to fit personal needs of performer. However for the home vocal recording one microphone would be just enough as long as it fits your voice and style peculiarities. For those whose voice range and performing style vary significantly from song to song, two different microphones will be the choice.

NECESSARY GEAR FOR YOUR HOME STUDIO

To record a quality vocal track at home you will need the following appliances: microphone, preamplifier, quality audio interface, computer and software for recording. This list can be modified by adding some equipment you think will help, but the basics remain the same.

CHOOSING MICROPHONE FOR YOUR HOME STUDIO

There are two basic types of microphones: dynamic and condenser (aka capacitor). Dynamic microphones are designed mostly for stage performances. They help vocal cut through a dense live performance mix being less sensitive to noise. They are also sturdy in handling. Condenser mics are usually used for recording purposes in a studio. These mics are more sensitive and allow recording a high quality vocal track with a “presence” effect. For home recording this type of a microphone will fit better than dynamic one.

Usually a recording studio will have a bunch of microphones to choose from. For each new performer and song sound producer will choose the mic that fits best voice and performance peculiarities. Recorder will offer different microphones to the singer with soft, velvet vocal and the one with a strong, acute voice. Music style also matters. For home recording everything is a bit easier. You once choose the microphone that fits your particular vocal, purchase it and never come back to this topic. For those outstanding vocalists whose voice allows significant variances the choice may be to use two different microphones.

The question comes how to choose your perfect microphone. The advice would be to try singing with different mics and than choose that one that to the best reveals all the advantages of your voice and hides drawbacks. In case you have no opportunity to give a try to different mics, you will have to go with the best guess. Just remember one thing. You probably will not record a quality track with a microphone that costs less than $150. Here is a list of the most popular microphones for vocal recording:
Shure SM-58 – one of the most popular dynamic microphones used for both vocal and instruments. However, it is more suitable for performances rather than recording. Around $170.
Neumann U87 – Probably the most popular Neumann microphone. This is a professional model that costs around $2400.
Oktava MK-209 - As famous sound producer Paul White claims: “You could easily pay twice the asking price for this mic, or even more, and still not improve on the sound.” (Sound on Sound). Ideal for home recording as it produces the best possible quality in relationship to its price. Around $150.
AKG C 414 - This is a classic condenser large-diaphragm reference microphone. Around $900.
Audio-Technica AT 4050 – This is a professional multipattern large diaphragm condenser mic. It does a good job recording non-colored sound. Around $800.

Another good choice for a home studio is a USB-microphone which comes along with built-in ADC (audio-to-digital converter) and preamplifier. It allows fairly quality digital recording without additional supplies such as preamplifier and audio interface. One example of such gear is Samson C03U that costs around $400. This is an ideal for limited budget home voice recording.

CHOOSING PREAMPLIFIER

First of all the following question has to be answered. What is preamplifier and why would a vocalist need it? Preamplifier (or simply preamp) is a device that detects and strengthens weak signals that come from the microphone and than sends those to the audio interface. Sometimes preamp can perform functions other than strengthening the signal, such as compression, sound saturation (lamp preamps), coloring your vocal and making it sound warmer or brighter, nevertheless, these multifunctional preamps cost a lot more than simple ones. You need to notice though that preamplifier will usually color your vocal even if it is not meant to do so. Truly transparent sound as well as truly quality effects you will get only using expensive preamps. Cheaper models will most likely do some coloring of the sound and you have to keep in mind what kind of microphone and vocal characteristics you have, in order to choose the preamp that best fits them. Warm sounding microphone will most likely not work too well with a preamp that makes bright and thin sound. Trying some combinations will possibly help making the best choice. As long as vocal recording will require condenser microphone in most cases, you have to make sure that your preamplifier has +48v phantom power. Otherwise your condenser mic simply will not work. Here are some of the most popular preampifiers:
DBX 376 Tube Channel Processor – this preamp has been used by musicians for over 25 years. In includes some additional features such as 3-Band parametric EQ section, Compressor, De-Esser and digital outputs. Costs around $500.
ART Tube MP Studio – even though the price is not so high (around $120) this preamp is very effective for quality home recording of vocal.
M-AUDIO Fast Track Pro 2 – USB connected preamp with phantom power and outboard effects inserts. It’s compatible with most PC/Mac music software. Price: around $300.

CHOOSING AUDIO INTERFACE

Audio interface is in simple words a sound card but in a more general meaning. Usual PC will have a built-in sound card, but this is not something you would use for quality recording. Those built in sound cards have a lot of noise distortions and a very poor quality DAC/ADC (digital-to-analog/analog-to-digital conversion).

There are three basic types of audio interfaces. Those of the first type are inserted into PCI slot. The main disadvantage of such sound cards is the noise distortion that comes from computer. It is possible to minimize this noise if you put card into the lowest slot and use upper slots for other devices. The greatest advantage is the highest bandwidth possible. That is why some very expensive audio interfaces such as ProTools use this type of connection. The other type is USB connected interface. When USB 2.0 first appeared it become possible to make USB interfaces that work comfortably with up to 4 audio inputs and outputs. These interfaces sacrifice bandwidth but have no distortions and noise coming from PC. Fire-wire connected audio interface is the third type which is basically the same as USB connected, but with higher bandwidth, which makes them more popular for professional recording.

COMPUTER

Most likely PC that you use to read this article will fit. This depends on the software that you will use for recording. If your PC is powerful enough to run that program comfortably and no error messages appear, then it is fine. One thing to remember here is that the quality of the sound depends solely on the DAC/ADC of your audio interface and has nothing in common with your processor, memory or hard drive.

SOFTWARE

The software you choose for your home studio depends directly on your needs. In case you want to record a single track of an acapella singing you will most likely need the simplest audio editor. One example of such freeware editor will be free Soundforge.

Nevertheless you will most likely need multi track software to have the music playing in one track and do the vocal recording to another one. For this purpose it is possible to use Audacity – free open source editing and multi track software. It has no track limits, but neither MIDI support (in case you are interested in one). Another example of such software will be Kristal - free multi-track audio recording software available. ASIO and VST FX support, 16 audio track limit, no MIDI support.

Sequensers are more complicated and multi featured musical software designed for music writing, editing and recording. One good example of such program will be Tracktion. It is recommended for those who need more then a simple recording of vocals and are interested in using other more complicated features.

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