Vocal Production Guide for Singer-Songwriter-Producers
Singer-songwriters that produce their own music are a new kind of powerhouse coming out of home studios. Taking your song ideas from conception to final form can be really rewarding, after all, who could be better than you at deciding the song structure, instrumentation and sounds for your songs? Producing your own music can also be challenging, especially when you’re just getting started and vocal production is an area that you'll need to master if you want to reach your full potential as a singer-songwriter-producer.
Vocal production involves recording vocals, using microphones, editing and mixing audio tracks, and understanding the sound of different speakers and acoustics in studios. If you want other people to hear your songs and producers to take notice of your talent, then it’s essential that you learn more about the ins and outs of vocal production. In this blog post, we'll discuss what vocal production is, its various steps, and how to get started.
What is Vocal Production? The Vocal Parts and the Vocal Sound
Vocal production is an umbrella term for the process of creating a professional-sounding voice performance specifically for music. It includes writing some compelling vocal parts and then recording, editing and mixing the audio tracks. The most important part of vocal production is the finished vocal sound that you create. To be able to produce a great vocal recording you'll need to understand the gear and techniques used in the process. This includes the mic technique, the choice of microphone, and the use of effects processors like compression and reverb. The vocal performance is about the nuance in the voice, the dynamics, the tone and the delivery. The point of vocal production is to make sure that the lyrics sound great for the duration of the song. If you want people to hear your voice clearly, then it’s essential that you learn how to produce a professional vocal sound that fits your genre and audience.
The Vocal Recording Chain: Microphone, Pop Filter, Preamp, Audio Interface & DAW
The vocal recording chain is a series of connected components between your voice and your DAW software. A simple but quality vocal chain can help your voice sound great in a pro recording studio or in your home studio. The 3 key components that you will need for creating great-sounding vocals are a quality microphone, a pop filter, and an audio interface with a good mic pre-amp. You will connect the audio interface to capture your voice with your chosen DAW. The audio interface preamp is used to increase the gain of the microphone before it is recorded with the software. The pop filter is used to eliminate plosives from “p” and “b” sounds. Finally, there are headphones needed for monitoring the vocals while tracking so the musical backing track isn't picked up by the microphone.
Recording Vocals: Mindset and Recording Takes
After testing the connections and sound quality of your vocal chain, you will want to take some time to create a space with a vibe that will inspire the singer (whether that's you or someone else). Dim lights and a clear headphone mix are a great start. You want to create an environment that brings out the right amount of positive energy and confidence before the tracking starts. Record the whole song a few times through and keep each take. 3 to 7 takes will usually be enough raw tracks to work with. If there are words or lines that are difficult you should record a few extra takes of those sections.
The Lead Vocal Composite: Creating a Lead Vocal from Multiple Takes
A vocal composite is created from the many takes that were recorded. The final result is an individual track that sounds like one solid take with great pitch, timing and emotion. Listen to each of the raw stems and make notes of which was the best take and which lines or words from each take stood out. Use a copy of the lyrics to help identify the best parts. Some people use a numeric rating system while others color code the lyrics with a highlighter. Make a new track in your DAW to patch together the perfect take. this is called a vocal composite or vocal "comp".
Layering Vocals: Doubles and Harmonies
After the vocal comp is completed you can double the whole vocal take or just certain phrases or song sections. Vocal doubles and harmonies are a huge part of producing a professional-sounding song. When you layer vocals, you can create the lush sound that producers crave and audiences adore. Vocal production is all about the layers. For example, one single voice sings the verse up until the pre-chorus where that voice is doubled. Then when the chorus hits the two voices spread out to the left and right of the mix and are joined by two more harmonious voices. This type of vocal stacking allows for an impressive amount of subtlety and variation in the song that wouldn't be possible with just one person singing it on one vocal track.
Tuning Vocals: Pitch Correction and Auto-Tune
It’s not enough to just sing the parts, the voices need to sound professional and in key. The best way to get vocals in tune is to sing them that way. Pitch correction software allows you to fine-tune those great performances and pull the notes even closer to the desired pitch. Auto mode allows you to adjust the pitch of the whole performance and graphic mode allows custom adjustment for single notes. The two main settings allow you to adjust the amount of correction and the speed of the adjustment. The robotic "Auto-Tune sound" has also become a desired effect like reverb or delay. This is achieved when both settings are at their maximum amounts.
Mixing Vocals: Balance and Panorama
The balance is the adjustment of comparative volume levels between all of the tracks in the song. Ideally, the listener can hear everything that was recorded with some key tracks (like the lead vocal and kick drum) being more prominent. Panorama is the left-to-right stereo imaging of each track. Placing tracks in different locations allows for greater separation and clarity. The most important part of the mix is the balance of the instruments. After this balance is achieved the next part is adjusting the tone and processing the sound.
Vocal EQ: Removing Mud and Providing Clarity
EQ stands for equalization. It is the process of altering perceived frequencies of sound to compensate for a lack of fullness or reduce harsh frequencies. It helps define the voice and make it more clear. In vocal production, the main thing will be to remove mud from vocals or enhance the air and clarity in the singer's natural tone. With a traditional parametric or semi-parametric EQ, the frequencies can be identified and then boosted or cut by the desired amount. With parametric, you have greater control over where you want certain frequencies to stand out or recede into the background with respect to each other. Dynamic EQ can be used to analyze and boost or cut frequencies in real-time automatically.
Dynamic Processing for Vocals: Compressor, De-Esser & Expander
Dynamic processing is the use of compressors, de-essers, and expanders to make your voice sound closer, louder and more professional. These tools can be found in any digital audio workstation (DAWs) like Pro Tools, Ableton Live, FL Studio or Logic Pro X. The first tool you should consider using is a compressor. A compressor is a device that brings up the level of the quieter parts while controlling the level of the louder parts. Next up is a de-esser. A de-esser is a frequency-dependent compressor that automatically removes sibilance (s's) from words and phrases without sacrificing too much clarity in the voice. It does this by automatically detecting s's and removing them from words or phrases where they would otherwise be heard as harsh "sss" sounds. Finally, an expander can be used to reduce any room tone or noise bleeding through the vocal take during the times when no vocal is present. These three components: compressor, de-esser and expander can be added to the vocal tracks in series and their order can be adjusted to achieve the best results.
Vocal Effects: Delay and Reverb
Different spatial effects are used to make vocals sound fuller or more distinctive. The two most popular effects for vocal production are delay and reverb. Using these effects will help you distinguish your voice from the rest of the mix and will help it stand out. You can use them to create an overall effect or specific effects like adding depth, emphasizing certain words, or making a particular word sound bigger than others. Delay is the most common effect. It's a bit like reverb but it doesn't have as much ambience behind it. A short delay before your mic input gives your voice a thicker quality and makes it sound louder on top of the mix. The longer you have the delay, the more depth it'll add to your vocals in terms of space rather than time. Reverb adds depth and sustain to the voice and helps make the vocal sound bigger than other instruments in the mix.
Conclusion: Vocal production is the process of writing, recording, editing and mixing a compelling layer of voice recordings that become the main focal point of a song. The lyrics, melody, harmony and sound layers combine together to create something powerful and memorable for the listener.
What are the best microphones for vocals?
There are lots of great microphones available in every price range. Here are 4 that you can always count on to be great choices for vocal recording:
Shure SM58: This may be your best choice. It's super durable and not very expensive. The SM58 is a great-sounding microphone capable of capturing both live and studio vocal performances exceptionally well.
Shure SM7B: If you have a little more budget and a very good preamp in your audio interface you might want to try the SM7B. It's amazing for podcasts and all types of vocals but it has a very low output that needs to be paired with a preamp that has lots of mic gain.
Electro-Voice RE20: Another great podcasting and broadcasting mic that is also great for vocals. The RE20 captures a lot of the solid foundation and bottom of the voice.
Neumann U87: The most expensive mic in this list is also a condenser mic that will require phantom power (+48V). Known for its expensive-sounding top end and extra clarity in the treble range, the U87 is another great choice for vocals.
What makes a great headphone mix?
Singing with headphones will provide the best isolation for the vocals tracks but it can be difficult to adjust for a singer who is not used to using headphones while singing. To help them out it's usually best to keep the headphone mix as simple as possible by giving them only the main components they need to sing and be inspired. Kick, snare, hi-hat, bass and the vocal itself should be the main elements. Lots of the bass instrument (either synth or electric) is helpful for the singer to find the key of the song and the pitch of each note. Use panning (or only use one side of the headphone) to provide some separation if necessary.
Where should I start with music production?
Choose a DAW that suits your needs and then focus on the 3 fundamentals of music theory, sound theory and song structure. While you get more comfortable with your DAW you can practice more advanced recording, editing and mixing procedures.
Where can I learn more about music production?
There are tons of resources available to help you learn music production from YouTube tutorials to online courses. By learning music production solo, you can improve your understanding of the process and develop your own style and then use that knowledge to produce your own songs or recordings. The only problem with solo learning is that there's no feedback or accountability and let's face it, a lot of the magic happens when you learn with a group of like-minded people. That's why I created my live online music production course. You can learn and collaborate with a cohort of up-and-coming songwriters, beatmakers, singers and music makers of all styles. I'll cover everything you need to kickstart your songwriting and music production career.
Learn Music Production with my 24 week live online classes and on-demand video training:
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