Record your vocals with as much isolation as possible

Lately I have received a good amount of files to mix that have a lot of room sound to the vocals. While I can still make it work with some extra plug-ins that I will talk about soon, it is crucial to get an isolated sound.

A dynamic microphone can be a great way to have isolated vocals if you are recording from home and don’t have a properly treated vocal booth. Dynamic microphones like the Shure SM7b only really pick up what’s going directly into it. Make sure when recording, you are close to the dynamic microphone.

Another way is if you have something like a walk-in closet at home full of clothes. When I was in college for recording, my little studio apartment had a walk-in closet and it worked well for a vocal booth. Still be very close to the mic but make sure you are using a good pop filter. Another thing to be aware of is the microphone preamp level. If the level is set really low, the noise and room sound will be more prominent in the mixing process. Have a nice and hot level that reaches 3/4 of the way up the meter in your recording program.

Sometimes I have noticed that bands going for a really organic sound in the studio will be far from the mic and want a very roomy sound. While this can be cool, it can affect the pitch correction process. The vocal will have weird artifacts while pitch correcting with the room prominent in the vocal recording. If you do go for the room mic vocal set up, just make sure the vocalist is absolutely killing it! It should sound good with no pitch correction. I’m not going to lie, it’s rare that this works but for certain rock or bluesy sounds it may just work depending on the singer.

If you are a mixing engineer and you run across this problem of too much room, one plug-in I use is SPL De-verb. This plug-in is designed to eliminate reverb or room sound from a vocal track. Use can also use Waves Rvox and use the gate slider on the plug in to gate out some of it in between words.

Overall it’s just very important to record the voice with no background noise or room so that when you send to the mixing engineer, he or she can effectively pitch correct, compress, eq, and add their own effects to the vocals.

Free plug-ins and included DAW plug-ins go a long way!

I want to share with you some great insight! You may overlook free plug-ins or not realize that there are free plug-ins but you shouldn’t sleep on this! I use a mixture of free and paid plug-ins every day and I definitely need both! I could even get by with just the free plug-ins if I wanted to! There are also included or some say “stock” plug-ins that come with your DAW that can be very useful!

First I want to go over a few very valuable free plug-ins! TAL Reverb is a free reverb that I use on every single mix. I don’t know what it is but I love the sound. I also love how basic it is. So many reverbs I’ve used have been so complex and it’s a struggle to get the sound I want. TAL reverb is a plug and play! Another free plug-in is TDR Nova. This is a dynamic EQ. Pro tools doesn’t come with any dynamic eq plug-ins so I tried this one out. Needless to say, it is awesome and I’m not the only person that raves about it! This plug -in gives you the ability to compress certain frequencies with a narrow or wide q setting. It’s very flexible. Even more flexible than a multiband compressor like a Waves C4.

Next I want to talk about included plug-ins for Pro Tools. AIR Enhancer is a really great plug-in that boosts harmonic content! This can be great to brighten up a vocal or even add lower harmonics to thicken up a vocal. I went years without taking advantage of this plug-in and now it’s in almost all of my mixes! The Pro tools EQ7 is also a highly talked about eq amongst audio engineers. It’s great for cutting frequencies and it’s very flexible. Even Pro Tools DVerb reverb plug in has come in handy many times! Especially when going for a cool “hall” distant vocal effect. Feel free to share any free plug-ins that you enjoy in the comments!

What separates you from the next producer?

Have you ever thought about this? Why should someone hire you instead of someone else? It’s important to know your strong qualities and really use them to your advantage. Maybe you are great with lyrics and add value by suggesting small changes while working with artists. Maybe your like me and you have a really good ear for vocal harmonies. You could be very talented with mixing and know just how to give that finalized sound. There is a long list of possible skills you could be great at, but it’s important that you sort of niche down. Instead of trying to be the best at all of them, just try to do the best and push hard at what your strong with. You will find that passion comes into play because you are working hard on the things you ENJOY doing not the things you are just trying to get good at to compete with the competition.

When you figure out what makes you special, and why someone should work with you…use that when talking to a new client. Paint the picture for them that you can add a large amount of value to what they do that may be hard for them to find elsewhere. It’s out there for them, but convincing them that you can fill that void will eliminate them having to go on an endless search for the right producer!

Take criticism to grow, don’t let it destroy you.

Someone who I work closely with asked for criticism today. She asked how she could be a better producer. She wanted my complete honesty. This my friends is called humility. She will now grow rapidly because she was open to my criticism. Everyone always has a mentor or someone they look up to and learn from. If you think you have arrived at where your knowledge needs to be….my friend you have lost and others will surpass you.

Find podcasts that you can learn from, spend some time on youtube seeing how others do your craft, and even instagram can teach you a lot. I’ve spent some time on instagram under hashtags like “mixing tips” or “producer tips” and I have found some really helpful stuff! Be like my friend and be hungry for criticism! Don’t let it be discouraging but instead uplifting. Find a mentor or an online influencer!

Can mood really affect a vocal performance?

So here’s an interesting topic…can a singer’s mood affect their vocal performance? It absolutely can! I have worked with singer’s before that were going through things that weighed heavy on them and they really couldn’t find the technique anymore. It’s like the singer had a wall constraining them from singing.

This is sad to see, but it also shows me how much mind power singing takes. Is singing more of a physical thing in your throat or does your brain drive the bus? It seems to me that singing is 85% mental and 15% physical. While this may seem extreme…think about how much better you sang when you weren’t afraid or nervous, when you weren’t angry or sad, or when you weren’t questioning if you were a good singer or not. Your mind plays a huge part in your performance. It’s important to be well rested, well meditated, spiritually prepared, and overall happy when you hit the studio!

Do you have hiss in your vocal recordings?

So everyone preaches “make sure the level isn’t too hot because of digital clipping”! While this is true, what I believe can be worse is a level too low. When your vocal signal is low it has a bad signal to noise ratio. Meaning when you compress the vocal to maximize it in the end, it will have a tremendous amount of hiss! This destroys recordings. You can try to use a noise reduction plug in but it takes a ton of frequencies out of the vocal that you need.

With that being said, lean towards a hotter level. No you don’t want it to go into the red, but if it goes into the red once or twice and there is audible clipping….I’ve used the plug in called izotope de-clipper and it has really done the trick. I have only really ever used it on recordings that I didn’t record because I pay close attention to levels while recording and redo the take if it digitally clips. I’m just saying that I have found that fixing clipping can usually be an easier fix than a bunch of hiss in your tracks!!

Does the chord progression take away from the vocal melody?

I ran into an issue this week that I feel is a great topic to talk about. Does the chord progression in the song take away from the vocal melody? I was working on this project for a singer and the bass guitar was playing the main chord progression. The progression was not wrong or out of key, but it was just as prominent as the lead vocal and was becoming distracting. It’s important to make sure the chords are the best progression and often times the simplest progression possible. I offered to change the bass guitar for the artist so I recorded new bass parts. It turned out way better and the vocal really became the focal point again while the bass took the backseat. This won’t just happen with bass. It may be guitar, or a really busy piano part that really distracts the listener from enjoying the vocal. I understand this is definitely just my opinion, some people love some busy and advanced instrumental elements. These people are often musicians. While that is totally okay, most of your listeners are not musicians and really like to connect with the vocal more than the instruments. One tip is to stick with intervals of 1, 4, 5, and 6 for your chord progression intervals. If you do a combination of those intervals you are bound to make a great chord progression that embraces the melody and doesn’t distract.

Writing vocal melodies that compliment the singer’s range….

One thing I have run into lately is songwriters writing songs for other people without keeping the vocal range in mind. My wife does a lot of singer-for-hire jobs remotely online and we have run into this a lot. A man will write a vocal melody intending a girl to sing the song and he’s singing it in the key that fits his voice. When my wife hears the demo she struggles to sing powerfully in that vocal range. We end up having to change the key of the instrumental to accommodate her voice and it definitely does a disservice to the instrumental.

If you are a songwriter that writes for other singers, you must have in mind who is going to sing the song when you write the song. I know this may not be something that you want to do, but you definitely should do it. Listen to some of the work that the singer has done before you write the song. Write something that’s tailored to their voice. This same thing use to happen when my wife and I would write songs for our pop duo project. She would write verse 1 to fit her vocal range, then say “okay John you have verse 2!” Needless to say I struggled every time. We all know that melodies have to stay very similar from verse to verse or it just doesn’t sound right.

Two different approaches for pitching layered vocals…

We always have to know what style of music we are working on and what makes sense for that style. It may be surprising, but how you pitch correct vocal layers varies depending on what type of music you are working on.

I’ll start with pop music. Pop music is a perfection type of music. All the vocal layers should be 100 percent on pitch. The vocal layers and harmonies all together should sound like a keyboard playing a chord. To achieve this, make sure that when you are drawing your vocals, the pitch lines are very straight. In Autotune graphic mode you do this by turning up the retune speed for each word you draw in. For Melodyne you can do this by using the pitch modulation tool. This also straightens the pitch line so it is not shaky. One way to effectively pitch layers of vocals that I do is hard pan each vocal to opposite sides and compare them. If there are more than 2 vocal layers just mute the others and just edit 2 at a time.

The other approach is for music like indie pop, indie rock, or just rock in general. This approach involves less pitch correction to give that “wall of sound” choir sounding vocal stack. What exactly makes a choir sound so huge? That’s pretty simple, it’s the fact that everyone is slightly off pitch and time with one another. When different singers are blending together and slightly off, it creates a deep, chorus-effect type of sound. However you don’t need a choir to achieve this. If you record all of your vocal layers, each layer is bound to be a little off pitch. This is good for this approach. When you go to pitch correct these vocals, use slower retune speeds using Autotune graphic and do less pitch modulation in Melodyne. Allow the pitch to be off but just slightly from layer to layer.

I will be doing upcoming tutorials so be sure to subscribe to the Perfect Vocals Academy YouTube channel!

Sometimes singers sing with strain…what should you do?

One thing you really can’t fix in the mix too easily is strain. Even if you pitch the vocal well, there is a characteristic in the voice that comes through as strain. Singing flat does sound like strain so if it’s pitched correctly it will sound slightly better, but strain can damage the tone of the vocal.

First you need to identify what is causing the singer to strain. Strain can come from not warming the voice up with exercises, being dehydrated, not hearing the voice loud enough in the headphones, being tired physically, having a hoarse voice from a recent performance, or singing notes that are above or below the vocal range that the singer is accustomed to singing. Even though it can seem overwhelming, as a producer, we must start experimenting with trying different methods.

I would first bring up a good vocal warm up on YouTube and have the singer exercise their voice. Then I would check the headphone mix and make sure their voice is loud and clear. If there was a recent performance that damaged the voice, then they need rest. Reschedule the vocal session. Lastly I would try pulling the mic out of the vocal booth and have the singer sing in a bigger room. Sometimes the sound of a room around the singer can bring an environment that they are used to. Comfort level is a big factor when recording vocals. No matter what, stay patient and help the singer eliminate the strain!