It’s not exaggeration to say that the vocals are the most important part of the song; music listeners naturally tune in to the vocal performance on a song before any of the other parts, because, well, it’s quite literally speaking our language.
If you’re a home recording enthusiast, you’ve likely found that recording vocals can be difficult, and that every vocalist is different (making every recording session different). Regardless, some things hold true in spite of the specific singer you’re working with. Here’s how to get the best possible sound out of their takes.
Prepare the voice. Like any instrument, the voice is prone to damage and needs to be tuned a bit before being played. Have the singer drink warm liquids and practice on some scales, ideally an hour or so before recording even begins.
Put the microphone slightly up from the singer’s head. Just an inch or two, not a whole lot; you don’t want your singer’s head to be pointed straight up, but if the head is slightly tilted upwards it opens up the vocal cords and makes hitting higher notes much easier.
Make it intelligible. The vocals are a song are most effective when the audience can completely make out what lyrics the singer is singing (in most musical styles, anyways). Work with your vocalist to accent certain words or to correct any enunciation problems before recording, and read along with the singer’s lyrics as he sings them to make sure you can understand everything. When it comes time to mix the song, make sure that the vocal stays loud enough to be intelligible.
Use compression and reverb. These are two of the most important vocal effects. While there are some songs that don’t need compression, most of them will benefit from it if applied correctly. Generally speaking, compression from 2:1 to 4:1 can sound good, depending on the song; use less compression if you want more dynamics for the vocals and more compression if the band is loud and the vocals need to be present and uniform.
The reverb is going to depend on the song and is largely to taste. I would recommend using as high quality a reverb effect as you can, since it’s essentially the most important effect in a song. If you’re mixing digitally and you don’t have a whole lot of processing power to spare, use a high quality reverb and mix down the effect to stop it from having to process every time. It’s worth it to make sure that the vocal sounds good and well placed in the song.
Most importantly, don’t rush the vocalist. Give him or her time to get the perfect take. Have frequent breaks scheduled in to the recording session, and make sure they’ve got what they need to record a strong, appropriate vocal track.
Remember, the vocals are the most important part of most songs. Treat them that way.