6 Mistakes to Avoid When Recording Vocals

Recording vocals is arguably easier than recording a drum kit, but there are still common mistakes to avoid when laying down vocal tracks or recording vocal talent. Here's six things to bear in mind.  

Joe is a musician, engineer, and producer in NYC. Over the years, as a small studio operator and freelance engineer, he's made recordings of all types from music & album production to v/o & post. He's also taught all aspects of recording and music technology at several NY audio schools, and has been writing articles for Recording magaz... Read More


Great article, Joe. However, I do have one thing that I could never really understand, although everyone seems to agree it's the right thing to do, I am missing something.

I have a nicely treated (DIY) room, a decent condenser and a preamp combo. The techs all there, the room is there, however, I don't have an "isolated" room so the condenser will pick up EVERYTHING when recording quiet, intimate parts.

Here's my issue - recording at -12dBfs (or so) is an easy concept to grasp but I don't get HOW I can crank it up later when all it's going to do in those "intimate" parts is, well, noise, especially when compressing.

What is the trick, method, idea? I'd REALLY appreciate it.
Joe A
Hi Baraba-

You're right, if there is noise/leakage in the recording it will also come up whenever you raise the level of the track or compress it. Recording down around -12 is designed to avoid possible input clipping, but at any level, if the room is too noisy, those sounds will intrude later. The best approach is to prevent that leakage at the source -- try and isolate the mic a bit better, taking advantage of its directionality (aim it away from noise sources) and using baffles (commercial or DIY) if possible to block out a quieter area in the room. Try to eliminate or isolate noise-generating elements (fans, whatever); seal windows (if outside sound is part of the problem).. You could build a small iso booth (as I did), at a fraction of the cost of commercial options, if you're handy enough—a little research should turn up some books/websites with suitable plans.. If none of that is possible, running the track through a noise gate in playback (or using the DAW's "Strip Silence" function) may eliminate the leakage between phrases, but won't help if unwanted sound is audible at the same time, under the vocal. Ideally, you'll want to find a way to create a less noisy environment at the source..

"An incoming vocal signal level whose peaks max out between -12 and -6 dBFS is a healthy recording level, with plenty of headroom (safety margin) for the occasional dramatic shout or belted high note. Though the resulting wave may look a little small in the DAW, you can always crank it up later, if need be, with no negative consequences."

When you say you can always crank I up later, which Volume control do you use to do this? Is it on the actual track in the DAW (not the mixer track)?so the wave WAVE FORM becomes bigger?
Joe A
Hi Dimka -

As you noted, cranking up a track with its channel fader will increase the level but won't make the wave appear larger. But there should be a couple of ways to do that.. Many DAWs have a waveform zoom feature that increases the size of the wave visually, without actually changing its level. To increase both level and waveform size, you could use the DAW's offline audio editing feature, if it has one (i.e. Audio Editor in Logic, AudioSuite in PT) to (destructively) increase Gain. Many DAWs also have a region-based Gain feature (i.e. Clip Gain in PT, region Gain (in the Logic Inspector), etc)--this would let you non-destructively increase the level of the wave before it passes through the channel strip, and the size of the waveform would reflect the gain change, just as if it had been recorded at a louder level in the first place..
And you don't want to record vocals in an untreated, rectangular room, either. It picks up unpleasant standing waves. I've seen effective "Vocal booths" made up of hanging clothes forming a "V" with the Mke in the middle.
Stephen Gomes
Really?? dont use an SM58 in the studio
not the best advice a professional should be giving newbies, If the mic suits the voice and sounds good then why not?

Joe A
You certainly can use a '58 for recording (as mentioned in the article), and sometimes it'll work well for a particular vocalist, but for most recordings there are many, many mics—nowadays more reasonably priced than ever—that will sound much more detailed and open, so why not suggest that one of them might be a better choice?
Stu Hughes
Hi, I've just started to try and record a bit of my own vocals using my I pad with a couple of different apps one being cubasis. Now I'm a complete novice but almost every time my vocals they record low and if I ramp the audio interface up which I'm using my YAMAHA mg10xu at the moment I get the pops and crackles. Is there something I am doing wrong. Thanks
Joe A
Hi Stu -

Hard to say without hearing the audio & seeing your settings, but if I was to guess, I'd say it could depend on HOW you "ramp up the audio interface". There are several gain controls in the path of a mic signal on that mixer (as on any mixer), and they all need to be set at the best positions for good, clean sound -- this is called "gain staging".

I'd start with the Pad off, and the Trim ("Gain") and channel Level and master Stereo Level knobs at Unity Gain (the triangle). I'd also set the Compressor knob to its lowest position and the EQ flat. As you sing, advance the Trim (Gain) until the Peak LED on the mic channel starts to flash, then back off slowly until it stays dark. Then increase the mic channel's Level knob until the level on the mixer's LR output meter goes no higher than -6 dB (making sure the Peak LED still stays dark).

In the DAW/app, make sure Pre-Fader Metering is enabled, set the channel strip’s main fader to ±0dB (Unity Gain), and check the level there as well. Assuming the mixer is also your (USB) interface, it should show a similar setting. If the gain is too low, assumedly you could increase the (h/w) mixer channel Level or even the Stereo Level a little, but again make sure the channel Peak LED doesn't flash and the LR output level meters on the mixer go up to around -6 without going into the red.

A "good level" would be anywhere from around -12 up to -3 dB on the DAW's channel strip meter -- again, assuming you have the meter set to "Pre-Fader Monitoring". Assuming you're recording at 24bit resolution, even a slightly lower level should be fine. If the wave is too small to see clearly, you could either make it larger graphically (if the DAW has an option for that), or via clip gain (if available), which will also crank the audio level (I don't know if any of that would be available on an iPad app). If the level is too low in the mix, increase the channel strip level; if that requires too much of a boost above ±0dB (Unity Gain), then you could insert a Gain/Trim plug-in, and boost the level there.

Now all that is assuming that what you describe as "pops and crackles" is in fact caused by audio overload in the mixer/interface. Most people describe the sound of overloaded audio as "distorted" or "crunchy"; the term "pops and crackles" is more typically used to describe intermittent noises that are typically the result of too low a Buffer setting in the interface's Audio setup, but that shouldn't occur only as a result of level settings, it would normally happen independently of level.

Anyway, try the gain staging I described (if your settings are different), and see if that helps..

Stu Hughes
Thanks Joe for the detailed information I shall have a go. I do have a focusrite 2i2 audio interface but unfortunately an i pad won't power it as it's powered by the USB. I just don't want to spend any money yet though till I'm confident with the software.

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