As independent musicians, we all know how important vocals are to a song. It can affect its emotional impact, marketability and a lot more. And we all feel those times when we just can’t get that insane vocal track we have in our own minds and ears. If you’re new to recording, it can be frustrating not knowing why your vocals don’t sound like some commercial music. But there are a bunch of different tricks you can use in the studio to make your vocals sound better. These 3 simple tips will get your vocals sounding hot. And no, we’re not going to deal with EQs and Compressors.
Trick 1 – Layer your vocals, with and without harmonies.
Next time you’re in the booth record a few different takes. Sometimes musicians can go overboard and want to do 50-100 takes before they settle for something they still end up hating. Don’t be like that, but still try to record a fair number of takes so you can have more control over the final vocal during the editing of the track. Here’s a great way to still get a lot of good takes and still not go overkill.
1) PRACTICE your vocals BEFORE jumping in the booth.
- This is important. Make sure you know your part back and forth – have it memorized like its second nature.
2) Record 3 separate takes of your lead vocal track.
- Give each of these tracks everything – go all out.
3) Listen to the 3 recordings and choose the best ONE
- Try and choose the one that is overall the best
- If you like certain parts of each track, comping or punching-in is ok
4) Repeat step 2 and 3 for the double vocal track (Only 3 takes)
- Record your double OVER TOP of the lead vocal (i.e let it play in the background)
- For the double, record yourself singing/rapping exactly the same as you did in the lead vocal. Or try a higher/lower and softer voice – this can be a really sick effect in the right song
5) Repeat step 2 and 3 for a harmony/supporting/adlib vocal track
- i. This is where you sing in a different but matching pitch/tone than the lead vocal.
- ii. Don’t harmonize the whole track, just where it fits. Use your ears to judge.
- iii. Even if you’re a rapper adding some harmony can end up being dope as hell
- i. This is a track where you record yourself repeating important phrases throughout your lyrics to add emphasis and impact – yell, scream, cry, laugh – say it with more emotion/passion somehow
- i. This is a track where you’re adlibbing or saying related things on top or in between your other vocal tracks. It’s done a lot in hip-hop music but can work for singers too.
Now you may not use each of those final vocal tracks you can record in every song, but mix and match them for some really amazing sounding vocal parts. It may seem like a lot of work, but trust me it will pay off.
Trick 2 – Clean up and align all the vocal tracks
This next trick can be pretty time consuming as well, especially if you have 4 or 5 different final vocal takes in a single vocal part. But the difference it can make to the professional shine and quality of a vocal is amazing.
Once you’re recorded all your takes and you’ve chosen the best ones, head over to the multi-track software (Cubase, Logic, Pro-Tools, Reaper, etc.) and stack the vocal tracks one on top of the other, starting with the lead. The final lead vocal track will be the template we use to align all the rest of the vocals. Mute out all the other vocal tracks except the lead and the track right below it.
Zoom into the two track both horizontally and vertically so that only those two tracks are the full length/height of the multi-track window. You can usually do this with the controls in the corners of the multi-track window’s scroll bar. In a program like reaper you can simply use the mouse scroll button to zoon in and out.
Now, look at the two vocal tracks and you should be able to tell if certain wave forms are out of line with each other. When you see something that does not match up exactly, slice the word/phrase so you can work with it individually from the rest of the audio. What you want to do is align/match the sliced piece in the second vocal track with the lead vocal track so they match up as closely as possible without sounding choppy. Again, use your ears.
Doing this to all of your vocal tracks can make them sound amazing when played back together. It’s an often overlooked part of music creation but has a huge impact on the listener. They will never be able to tell, but when they hear it they’ll know. Finally, cut out any dead space you see to help clean up the final mix-down.
Trick 3 – Use Your Pans Creatively
Aigh, so now for the actually-simple part of this post – using your panning knobs. When you’re listening back to all your vocal tracks together, start playing around with pans on each track. Leave your lead vocal in the center position, but move the other tracks around. Try hard-panning adlibs 100%, or slightly panning the harmony or double/supporting tracks. Be creative and play around until you hear something that just sounds right. This can add a whole new dimension to your entire vocal track. Try it out and you’ll see what I mean.
If you’ve never recorded your own vocals, sit with your recording/mix engineer and explain to them how you’d like to do your vocals. If you start getting attitude from your studio guys, consider learning to record your own vocals. Nowadays it’s hella cheap and not that hard to set up a decent space with decent equipment and record yourself all night long.
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Thanks for reading.