Better vocal recording pt. 1

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What do most people pay attention to when listening music? What is usually completed last in the writing process and not the first thing that most musicians listen to? This time I would like to shed light to vocals and especially how to make better vocal recording.

The most important thing when singing and in life in general is to do everything with emotion.
Noora Korppi / Faulty Messenger

The writing process

Unfortunately some bands still enter the studio with unfinished vocal parts. Yes, it sometimes can even lead to great results as we can fine-tune all parts in studio as mentioned on my Prepare for a session post. This way of working naturally takes a bit more time. Some decades ago vocals were the foundation of the song and music was there to support both the text and mood of the lyrics. I encourage bands to start the song writing with vocals and text. This will bring new (read: old) aspect to the writing process and definitely make the song stronger.

Write about what is important to you. Spill your heart to the lyrics and do not fear to be honest. Actually don’t be anything but honest. Honesty is what appeals to the listener and in this plastic-age we live in, genuine things are of great value! Sometimes writing lyrics isn’t too far from a striptease show as you reveal what is not revealed everyday. Don’t be shy and write about your feelings.

One of the most common problem we run into on most sessions is that someone wrote too many words and not enough breaks to catch breath. I ask vocalists to tell the person who wrote too many words for the lyrics few chosen words from me. For future songs it would be great not only to test how it feels to sing the song live but also not to fill every part with non-stop vocals. A note is equally important as a pause. To start a note at the right time is equally important as stopping it. Proper rehearsal and a live demo recording will reveal how your music sounds and if it can be performed live.

In vocal recording – as with everything else – the most important thing is that the vocalist feels good, relaxed, safe and comfortable. Your tool is your body and it is very sensitive to any distractions.
Mariina Niittymäki

The recording process

Now here’s something we have had the opportunity to see a vast amount of different approaches to. From our experience we do not recommend recording one line at time and we definitely do not recommend recording one word at time. Yes, we have done that and it’s not recommended. That kind of activity has nothing to do with a real performance.

We understand that a vocalist can sometimes be very insecure and wants to listen every take and that is ok. Still, recording one line or even one word and then after each pass coming to control room to listen will not lead to awesome results unless you have unlimited studio time & unlimited nerves and not always even then. Get into the correct state of mind and sing the song from beginning to end on one go. That usually delivers the best result.

Jari Väyliö from Oliver in Astia-studio

Astia-studio has always had a damn good sound in headphones. That has a huge effect on the vocal performance.
Jari Väyliö / Oliver

Learning to use the studio equipment, especially analog hardware can take up to decades and still this is only 5% of the job. The rest is psychology. It is about how to create a cool atmosphere and make every band member feel at ease. It is about gathering momentum from the morning up to the moment when vocal recording starts. Vocalist should feel they are in safe hands, that no matter what, no-one will laugh or make any rude comments. They should be encourage to think of themselves either singing on stage or singing to the person they wrote the lyrics to.

As a recording engineer Anssi is both easy-going and demanding. And endlessly positive! As singing is pretty sensitive and personal thing, it was almost a therapeutic experience to record vocals with the tender guidance of master Kippo.
Noora Korppi / Faulty Messenger

How many takes it takes?

Yes, we have demanded countless takes when recording vocals too. We learnt that with every musician good takes come in waves; few good takes, few dozen weaker takes and then again the wave of few good solid takes. Everything is a wave motion and goes on in cycles; audio, trends, the Earth, hairstyles and good takes. Nowadays we usually nail the vocals on 1-3 takes. On most of the sessions it is the first take, when we have successfully gained momentum with the vocalist, meaning that I have done my job well.

…recording on tape wasn’t as difficult as I had feared.
Petri Lindroos / Ensiferum

As I recorded three albums for Children Of Bodom, the vocals were usually done during one night for the whole album. Many of those were first takes. Alexi Laiho is great also when it comes to getting into the zone that sometimes can even be the twilight one…

At Astia there was a lot more focus on the emotion. The mood of the vocal booth, headphone balance etc. were thoroughly checked and then we started rocking. With other studios I’ve noticed that the first comments are about hitting the right note. That’s a great way to kill all emotion.
Jukka Pesu / The Rivet

Led Zeppelin song Whole Lotta Love has a nice live vocal bleed that you can hear in the end here. Vocals were re-recorded but the live take vocal track bleeds to the instrument tracks creating an awesome effect that is perfectly copied even on the cool Michael Winslow performance here.

Astia-studio Inner circle

Which hat you put on?

Many vocalists record their vocals home as it is cheap and they can work at their pace. This is great when making demos, but for professional stuff we do not recommend it. When you sing you are wearing the “vocalist hat” and immediately after that when listening you need to change to the “producer hat”. Before starting you had the “sound engineer hat” and so on. When you need to worry about the signal level and operate the equipment you are not fully concentrating on vocals.

Computer seems to lose the brightest edge from the emotion. It’s clear when I’m recording demos and listening the tracks.
Jukka Pesu / The Rivet

Most people think they can do many things at the same time. I used to think so too. Try concentrating on one thing at time and you’ll soon notice improvements in all areas of life.

The biggest difference with computer and tape recording is that with tape the vocalist sounds more human in all fragility, energy and presence. That’s simply priceless.
Noora Korppi / Faulty Messenger

How to improve the atmosphere

Now here’s something we cannot underline enough. If you sing on stage where you cannot hear your voice, the light points directly to your eyes and it’s either way too hot or cold. All these things will affect on how you sing and that is why we at Astia-studio have put a lot of effort to create a care-free atmosphere with a little bit of luxury to minimise all possible negative things.

Hella from Jellyfish Inn in Astia-studio vocal booth

Astia-studio vocal booth is pure hygge!
Hella / Jellyfish Inn

When the first Finnish Idol’s competition winner Hanna Pakarinen was recording few songs with us, she was blown away by our atmosphere. She was used to recording vocals in a bright room standing on two feet in the middle of a big room. Our vocal booths have carefully selected colour schemes with relaxing mood. We lit candles and dim the lights. 

Astia has the best facilities. Anssi has a way to make the musicians feel at ease and the level of his professionalism and equipment will remove all worries from everyone.
Mariina Niittymäki

The wedge

I recorded Impaled Nazarene album Nihil when mr Mika Luttinen (vocals) asked me to bring a wedge to the vocal booth. I told Mika it’s not needed as he’ll be wearing headphones for monitoring. Mika laughed and said: “When an old man shouts his back starts aching. You bring the wedge, I’ll put one leg on it like I do on stage and I can shout the whole day without getting my muscles jammed”. I thank Mika for this brilliant idea and ever since our vocal booths have had a wedge so the vocalists can imagine themselves on stage. This has definitely improved the emotion on vocals.

Petri Lindroos in Astia-studio A vocal booth

Astia vocal booth has always been atmospheric with dim lights and ever-so-important wedge that takes you on stage. I use it without any exception.
Petri Lindroos / Ensiferum

When Hanna Pakarinen returned to us, she said while working on other songs in other studios she’d taken blackening curtains, candles and a wedge with her. She kind of replicated the Astia vocal booth in other studios and said the quality of her vocals was improved.

About headphones

We recommend every vocalist to sing with one ear half-out of headphones. This sometimes improves the tuning and works great especially when recording choir parts with many people singing at the same time. There are exceptions to this trick too.

I believe headphone balance is a huge factor in emotion that singing delivers.
Jari Väyliö / Oliver

When doubling, do not have the original vocal track on. If the vocalist hears the previous take, there’s no way of knowing which voice comes out of the vocalist and that usually leads to detuned vocal takes.

Computer recording usually has a small delay especially when monitoring is done from the output of soundcard. In guitar this leads to loss of touch and in vocals it makes vocals feel strange. We are happy to deliver a delay-free headphone monitoring in A-studio using Furman HDS-16 personal monitoring system. 16 channel personal mixer guarantees perfect headphone balance and you will hear everything in realtime without the delay of digital conversion.

Jukka Pesu from The Rivet in Astia-studio vocal booth

Feel the eyes watching your back, standing straight like a choirboy just doesn’t feel right, fluorescent lamp and egg cartons on the wall isn’t exactly a sight for sore eyes along with headphone balance that’s not right.

The solution: close the curtains, put your leg on the wedge, candles and a cool eastern rug bring more emotion and to adjust the headphone balance yourself…. so far possible only at Astia-studio!
Jukka Pesu / The Rivet

To tune or not to tune

Instead of tuning vocals with a mouse, maybe it would be better to sing those parts again or leave the part a bit detuned. Not many people disagree that Kurt Cobain wasn’t necessarily the most perfect vocalist when it comes to vocal tuning. Now don’t get me wrong here. His emotion and songwriting are amazing, but he doesn’t always sing exactly in tune. Imagine if his vocals were tuned! Like in style of Justin Bieber or most pop stars!?! I think Nirvana would not have sold as many albums because it definitely would not have sounded honest. Now his vocals along with the music is 110% pure and that is how music should be!

If your vocals “must be tuned” without exception, then maybe you should give up your dream of being a great vocalist and start a new hobby like baking or collecting stamps or maybe become just a sound engineer.

In music made today it seems that the sound of the vocalist is lost along with all the small mistakes. That’s what autotune is for and I think it should be banned. I’ve been watching Idols on tv and it’s not something to cheer for. I think most teenagers do not understand that the songs they try to sing are heavily autotuned. Natural seems to be going extinct in this plastic world we live in…
Jukka Pesu / The Rivet

Astia-studio Inner circle

Here are things you should do when aiming for as bad vocal performance as possible:

#1 Spend long time choosing the microphone and other gear while the vocalist waits.
#2 Make the vocalist sing the song as many times as possible during testing.
#3 Use bright light in vocal booth.
#4 Put lots of reverb on vocals to hide poor performance during recording only to find vocals badly detuned during mixing.
#5 If vocalist doesn’t deliver the best possible take, say: “get the f*ck out of there!”.
#6 Make the vocalist wait again while patching, trying different equipment or restarting systems.
#7 Make the balance with vocals either too loud or too quiet.
#8 Do not let the vocalist adjust the vocal level.
#9 Start vocal recording as early in the morning as possible.

On our previous session we compared tape and computer recording. Sound lost the beefiness and seemed to become a lot more flat. It’s difficult to put down in words, but tape seems to capture more.
Petri Lindroos / Ensiferum

Vocal microphone

We mainly use a Neumann U67 tube microphone from the 60’s for vocal recording. Yes, that is also modelled and you can get it as plugin too. The plugin is equally close to the real thing as a Playstation horse riding game is to riding a real life horse. Not exactly the same I’d say… This amazing microphone had been the choice for The Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Queen and most world-class vocalists as it captures vocals in a way that no other mic captures them. I said we mainly use this mic because sometimes the tone of the vocalist demands another mic. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all.

I would like to highlight the fact I learned from comparing computer and tape approaches in recording – sometimes old ways are the best ways. …I am more satisfied with recording vocals on tape, because it sounds closer to what I am in real life.
Hella / Jellyfish Inn

We like to track as close to final sound as possible hence we use eq and compression on the way in i.e. during recording. Like we wrote on our How to improve bass sound blog, to use eq during bass recording or even mixing is something that we cannot remember doing as we always tweak the sound source until the sound is correct. Same applies vocals, but then again how to tweak a vocalist. With Neumann U67 microphone eq very rarely is needed during recording and even during mixing. The distance to the mic affects the sound as well as how loud the vocalist sings.

Mariina Niittymäki in Astia-studio vocal booth

Analog seems to deliver the nuances and emotion better. Sound is a lot more warm and somehow it seems like the analog sound would be much more gentle to the vocalist.
Mariina Niittymäki

Compression

On the compressor department it depends on the style of music and vocalist. Some vocalist has difficulties singing evenly with three hardware compressors evening out the performance. Some vocalist can sing great without any compression. Once again, the plugin is very far from the real life equal. We mostly use Universal Audio 1176, usually two channels compressing very lightly. Sometimes we’ll add La2a to the chain either before or after the 1176’s and sometimes just use the La2a or no compression at all.

Juho Koski from Spell Of Torment in Astia-studio vocal booth

Digital seems to lose all energy and then again from tape recording the energy is delivered on a whole new level. Vocals seem to be alive along with a mystic side to them. When listening to vinyls the difference between computer and tape recording is very clear.
Juho Koski / Spell Of Torment

No matter if you record on tape or computer, compressing on the way in makes a difference. Just make sure not to ruin the sound by over-compressing as that cannot be undone. The more options you leave for mixing, the longer the mixing takes. We like to narrow things down during recording so we know how the end results will be. This also makes mixing fast and easy.

I recommend tape recording to everyone regardless of the music style.
Petri Lindroos / Ensiferum

To recap our tips for better vocal recording and sound along with writing tips:

#1 Start song writing with vocals and create music to support the vocals and text.
#2 Be honest and write about what you feel.
#3 Atmosphere helps to get the mood right in studio and on stage.
#4 Record vocals from beginning to end on one take and not in small pieces. Avoid copy/paste.
#5 If you always record vocals yourself, try working with an engineer to fully concentrate on singing only.
#6 Try singing one leg on a wedge in studio too.
#7 One ear half out of headphones can improve tuning.
#8 When doubling mute the original track.
#9 The importance of the microphone, preamp and possible compression.
#10 There’s no plugin or hardware device for emotion. That too must come from the vocalist.

Noora Korppi from Faulty Messenger in Astia-studio B vocal booth

Recording harmony parts was one of the coolest recording experiences ever. I had no backing vocals figured out when entering Astia-studio as I had heard rumours about Anssi’s phenomenal ability to create cool harmony parts on the fly. And that’s exactly what happened.
Noora Korppi / Faulty Messenger

Read more from: Better vocal recording pt. 2

End of part one

Thank you for allowing us to reveal what we think will lead to great vocal recording. Try our tips and do your best to avoid what we have found not to be the way to success.

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I cannot wait to reply your questions and comments so please do leave them below. You can contact me privately here. I share special sound tips, that I do not share on this blog, only with my inner circle. You too can be in my inner circle by clicking here. Thank you very much and all the very best!

Astia-studio is a full analog recording studio located in eastern Finland with 25 years of experience. Bands and artists from all over the world including USA and the furthest corner of Russia, Vladivostok have arrived to us for tape recording sessions.

Astia-studio Inner circle

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