How to record vocals to beats: Part 1.

Most customers lease beats from the website with the intention of recording vocals over the instrumental. If you have access to a studio and engineer, great! On the other hand, if all you’re armed with is a home computer and some basic equipment, I’m here to help. This first part of the guide will focus on preparation, equipment and software. Part 2 will talk about recording and production techniques. Let’s jump in!

What equipment do I need?

The absolute essentials are a computer, microphone, headphones and pop shield.

What type of microphone do I need?

To record vocals in the studio, most people opt to use a powered, condenser microphone. Typically, these microphones are mounted on a stand – usually with a shock mount. They look distinctly different from the sort of microphone used for stage performances.

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Most microphone manufacturers have an extensive selection of condenser microphones to choose from at a reasonable price. Good starts would be the Rhode NT1 and SE Electronics SE2000, but you’ll need an audio interface for these. See below…

USB microphones.

USB microphones plug directly into the USB port of your computer, bypassing the need to use a dedicated audio interface. Most also have a dedicated input for your headphones, providing everything you need to record vocals.

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USB microphones tend to be USB enabled versions of “proper” studio vocal microphones – a far cry from the cheap sort used for Skype and online gaming. I’d highly recommend a USB microphone if you’re just “starting out” recording to beats. A good example is the Audio Technica 2020USB – but most manufactures provide at least one model.

Where should I place the microphone?

The aim of a good recording is to capture a “dry”, full sound which will give you the most options to edit later.
A “dry” sound is a recording without any room echoes or other artifacts. Effects and ambience can (and should) be added by software to give you maximum flexibility at the mixing stage.

For a typical space, the best place to record is often the center of the room. If you record near walls, your voice will “bounce” or echo off the hard surface and this will be picked up by the microphone as unwanted ambience. Surprisingly, a typical household room is often ideal for recording vocals. Furniture such as chairs, sofas and carpets help absorb sound reflections.

If you want to improve your recordings further, try hanging a duvet behind the vocalist. This helps prevent sound reflections entering the most sensitive part of the mic and can be the single most effective way to cut down on unwanted ambience and echoes.

How far should I stand from the microphone?

30 centimeters is a good start. If you stand too near the mic, your voice will sound “boomy” and you’ll probably overload your audio input! If you stand too far away, you’ll start to pick up “reflections” from your room – echos of your voice bouncing off the walls and being picked up by the microphone.

Audio interfaces.

Normal microphones can’t be plugged into your computer! If you choose not to use a USB microphone, you’ll need an audio interface. These usually take the form of a box connected to your computer via USB or Firewire and usually have audio inputs for one or more microphones. M-Audio and MOTU are popular manufactures of audio interfaces. If you see your recording needs expanding beyond a single microphone, an audio interface is the way to go.

Headphones.

Headphones are used to monitor your instrumental backing track (and previously recorded vocals) whilst recording. Using your iPod headphones is not a great idea! The sound will “leak” out and be picked up by the microphone. I recommend using a pair of “Closed Back” headphones.

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The primary advantage of the closed back design is that the sound is “enclosed” in your ear and doesn’t leak back into the microphone. Typically, the sound quality is superior. You’ll be able to turn the volume up and really get a “feel” for the performance.

Pop Shield.

Last but by no means least. A pop shield looks like a net suspended in front of a microphone. They help avoid excessive “popping” on plosive sounds such as ‘P’ and ‘B’ consonants by scattering the air which would otherwise hit the microphone full force. This “popping” sound is incredibly difficult to get rid of once recorded.

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Most pop shields come as an attachment for the microphone stand. If you’re really stuck for cash, you can fashion a pop shield using old stockings and a coat hanger. Remember to wash the stockings first..

What computer do I need?

Contrary to what most “experts” and forums say, any modern PC or Mac will be up to the job of recording audio. Computing power has come a long way in recent years. An iPhone has many times the power my first music PC had! If you decide to use your computer for some audio recording, bear in mind the following tips:

1. Make sure you have plenty of room left on your hard drive. Audio data takes up a lot of space!
2. Close all other programs running on your computer (such as browsers, mail etc.) Leave your computer processor free for audio related tasks.

What software should I use?

That depends on your computer! If you have an Apple Mac, “Garageband” should already be installed on your machine. This program is ideal for recording vocals over instrumentals. If you don’t have Garageband, it can be purchased as part of the iLife software bundle from Apple.

If you’re using a PC (or Mac) there’s a growing selection of cheap and free software you can use to record your vocals. Here are some of the better ones:

Audacity is one of the original “free” programs and is still going strong. It’s a bit “techie” but well supported, and is available for Windows and Mac. It features pitch correction – so if the key of the instrumental is not ideal for you, it can be changed using Audacity.

Jokosher is another free offering. It’s described as a “simple yet powerful multi-track studio” by the makers and is worth a shot if you’re low on funds!

Myna is a slightly unusual offering as it actually runs in your computers browser. It features an array of audio editing tools and effects. Worthy of your time.

Magix music maker is a commercial offering and at the time of writing is on version 16! There’s a nominal fee to download the program, but it’s fully featured and includes a library of sounds and loops if you want to experiment with producing your own beats. Audio editing tools and effects are also included.

What are the “pro options” for audio software?

If you’ve got cash to spare there are a number of other programs available and most have special “cut-down” versions available for less money. These versions may be all you need to record over your instrumentals. Pro-Tools is used by most professional studios worldwide but comes at a premium cost and requires special hardware. Cubase and Sonar are the most popular programs for PC and come in special “cut-down” versions: SONAR Home Studio and Cubase Essential. Apple Logic is the logical choice for Mac owners.

That concludes part 1. In part 2, I’ll be covering preparation and recording techniques. Thanks for reading!

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