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Recording Vocals on a Budget? Get a Pro Sound with Basic Gear

Historically, producing a hit recording meant hiring a recording space and working with the most sophisticated gear. Thankfully, technology has moved on, and home recording is no longer the pursuit of amateur musicians.

There's now even an entire genre of music dubbed 'Bedroom Pop' with many modern chart-topping records starting life as home recording productions.

Successful artists such as Billie Eilish, Car Seat Headrest, and Bon Iver have all recorded albums at home, meaning the divide between Abbey Road and the road where you live might not be as distant as you think.

Could the grand idea of a pro recording studio become obsolete? Perhaps not just yet, but it will undoubtedly be music to your ears that recording vocals on a budget doesn't have to mean settling for a demo-level recording.

To help you get ahead when recording vocals on a budget, we explain how you can best optimise what you already have and produce great-sounding recordings regardless of budget.

What Do You Need to Record Vocals at Home?

Everyone has to start somewhere – you will need:

  1. A Microphone
  2. A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
  3. An Audio Interface

    What Mic Do you Need for Recording Vocals?

    There is no 'one size fits all' microphone, and while it's true that studio mics can get quite expensive, you'd be surprised just how effective the more affordable models can be.

    You can get a decent sounding recording from affordable dynamic microphones. For example, if recording in an untreated room, a large-diaphragm condenser microphone will pick up unflattering reflections and sounds.

    Before opening your wallet to buy a condenser microphone, see what you can achieve with what you already have. John Lennon and Billy Idol often used SM57s and SM58s when tracking studio vocals. So while we wouldn't advise rushing to your nearest store and buying a cheap karaoke microphone, it's likely refreshing to learn that a humble live dynamic microphone costing less than £100/$100 could still do the trick.

    Along with the SM57 and SM58, the above advice also applies to other similar models, such as the Behringer XM8500, SE Electronics V7 or Tascam TM 82.

    Dynamic microphones such as these are designed to thrive in a live scenario. Most affordable options have a directional cardioid pickup response to avoid picking up sound from the sides and rear. Thanks to this directional cardioid pattern, it means you have a great microphone for home recording right there!

    If you have a large-diaphragm condenser microphone, this is brilliant. You will be able to utilise it to get super clean and crisp vocals, but pay close attention to the section about room treatment to ensure that your microphone picks up the sound of your vocalist and not too much of your recording environment.

    Ultimately, dynamic and condenser microphones both have pros and cons to consider when recording vocals.

    Software for Recording Vocals on a Budget

    Your digital audio workstation (DAW) is the engine behind your home studio. There are many different types, but at the core, they all record and process audio.

    Audio geeks will argue to the bitter end about 'which DAW is best', but the truth is, the best DAW is the one you feel most comfortable using, so don't feel obligated to use a specific program; choose what works for you. If you're still deciding on a DAW, I recommend trialling different options to see which format works best.

    The Audio Interface

    Your audio interface converts the signal from your microphone into 1s and 0s for your computer to process, and good quality starter options come are cheaper than you might think. For example, the Audient EVO 4 comes in at £99 ($130) with a great sound and simple design. Alternatively, the Focusrite Scarlett Solo can be found at £88 ($120).

    Remember, if you are using a large-diaphragm condenser microphone, then you will require an audio interface with phantom power. This sends electricity to the microphone and powers it; phantom power is often marked with a button that reads '48v'.

    Check out our full guide to the best audio interfaces to learn more.

    Room Acoustics on a Budget

    Ideally, you want the cleanest sound possible on your vocals and this means not picking up unwanted reflections from your room.

    What do we mean by reflections? Every room has reflections of sound bouncing from wall to wall.

    Go to your nearest car park and clap your hands; you will hear the sound bounce between surfaces. These reflections occur within your home too. It may not be as noticeable as in the echoey space of a church or a hall, but your voice will resonate around the room, eventually making it back to the microphone. Fret not; there are ways to minimise these reflections.

    If you already have acoustic panelling in your room, then this is great - you're on your way to a Christmas number 1, but if you can't invest in posh room treatment just yet, there are still ways you can optimise your room for recording.

    Firstly, furniture helps; big objects like sofas, beds and chairs are great at absorbing sound and stopping those reflections, so try recording in a room that has some furniture.

    In studio environments, you will notice acoustic panelling on the walls. Some studios will have a large piece of furniture, such as a sofa. Objects such as sofas or beds can reduce reflections because they're not flat surfaces.

    Think about a tennis racket; the strings are pulled tight so they are as flat as possible and give the best bounce. If you had a tennis racket or a trampoline that wasn't tightened and had sections jutting out, then you wouldn't have an effective or accurate bounce. This concept also applies to the movement of sound in your room.

    Continuing the trend of minimising flat surfaces, try covering walls and windows with soft material; you can use objects such as quilts and blankets to achieve this.

    Windows are the enemy of home studio spaces due to their flat, highly reflective glass surfaces. For the best sound, record in a room without large windows.

    Coats are also effective at absorbing sounds. Place them in front or behind wherever you are recording to lessen those bouncing sounds. You can also consider going one step further by fashioning a makeshift recording booth out of blankets and duvets—covering the front, top and sides of the vocalist. In most cases, though, some light treatment of your room consisting of furniture and bedspreads will do just fine.

    An obvious but important point to make; keep your door closed. If you've gone to the trouble of taming reflections to create a clean sounding space, the last thing you want is sound coming straight back in from the neighbouring room! Further to that, your flatmates, parents or pets might not appreciate listening to you recording your latest metalcore record.

    Recording Your Vocal

    Assuming you are all set up with microphones, blankets and computers, you are ready to record. Make the space cosy with a good vibe. Creativity is born out of good spaces so candles and LED lights would not go amiss. (Be sure to keep said candle firmly away from any drapes or blankets, not for acoustic reasons, more so that your house doesn't burn down!).

    Do not rush the recording process. Give it time as you work out what sounds good and what doesn't. Before diving into recording, take a look at these quickfire tips for recording vocals to get the best sound possible and give yourself as much flexibility as possible.

    Tip1: Try a click track:

    If your vocalist isn't hitting certain moments at the right time, then a click track (also known as a metronome) will give them a consistent beat to stay on.

    Tip 2: Put on headphones:

    You want to avoid the track, and also the metronome, spilling into your microphone and being audible in the song; headphones are an effective way to prevent this.

    Tip 3: Avoid holding the mic!

    As we have established, condenser microphones in particular are known for their sensitivity. Holding a mic as you record will incur unwanted sounds as air and hands make contact with the microphone. If you are using a dynamic mic, you can hold it, but using a microphone stand will invariably yield better results.

    Tip 4: Give your microphone some space

    The vocalist's mouth should not touch the microphone. It feels very natural to cup the top of a microphone and hold it against your mouth, but this will result in a muffled and bass-heavy sound. There is no need to stand a long way back but do leave a couple of inches between the microphone and vocalist.

    Tip 5: Keep ALL your files

    If a take didn't quite hit the spot, consider deactivating or muting the track instead of reaching straight for the delete button. You may find the following day that the performance was actually favourable. If your vocalist makes any mistakes, keep those recordings too. You may find them hilarious in weeks to come.

      Tip 6: Make the Vocalist Comfortable

      Before you embark on the big recording day, record a demo vocal with your vocalist beforehand. This process allows you to establish what works, what kind of technique, inflexions or phrases to emphasise while also providing your vocalist with a guide track.

      What a vocalist prefers to hear in their headphone differs from person to person; some vocalists will find they want a loud click track with a guide vocal, others may opt for no click but instead want to hear the live signal from their microphone. Different strokes for different folks.

      We advise not spending all day in your studio endlessly recording for hours on end as the human voice is a fragile thing, even for professional singers.

      Singing for extended periods will damage the vocal cord tissue. For every 60 minutes of singing, take a long break and ensure it includes a decent sized bottle of water.

      It may seem a moot point, but allowing time for the vocalist to warm their voice up is vital. Mo Farah doesn't rock up to the Olympics and immediately run the 800 meters - similarly, a vocalist should avoid singing without giving the voice an adequate warm-up.

      Comping Your Vocals into a 'Super Take'

      Combining the best sections of different takes is an effective way to give yourself a great sounding vocal track. Imagine that one line was sung perfectly, but the next line was sung out of tune; you can usually fix this problem by stitching the best parts of your recording day into one 'perfect' take.

      Some DAWS have a built-in comping function, allowing you to cherry-pick the best bits. Ableton Live 11, Logic and Pro Tools all have a comping feature as standard.

      Do not overload yourself with several dozen takes, as this can give you too much to work with and can be counterproductive. Instead, record four or five good takes of the vocal and then stitch your favourite parts together.

      Post-Production

      Capturing a great performance and energy is only half the battle. And while we do not have the space here to provide a fully comprehensive rundown on processing and mixing your vocal, there are some essential points to consider—namely, compression, equalisation (EQ), and effects.

      Vocal Compression Basics

      A compressor reduces the dynamic range of an audio track; it makes the loud parts quieter and the quiet parts louder. How much compression you use on your vocal will depend on what kind of vocal it is. If you want a vocal that is loud and at the forefront of your mix, you may be inclined to use more compression, whereas if you have a vocal that is softly sung you might wish to use less compression.

      Compression takes time to wrap your head around, so if you're new to the concept, we recommend following our guide on 'how to compress vocals'.

      In addition, you can listen to similar songs—or what we call reference tracks—to understand how a commercial mix sounds and act as a benchmark against your own work.

      Vocal EQ Basics

      Equalisation controls the volume of different frequencies, from the bass to the treble. For vocal post processing try something called subtractive mixing, where you remove unsuitable frequencies. This will provide more headroom (more volume in your track to play with).

      Start by reducing the band of frequencies your EQ is processing (often denoted by a 'Q' function). Now boost the volume of that band and scroll through the frequencies listening for harsh or unwanted sounds. Then reduce the volume of those frequencies, not by much, but by enough that the sound is more pleasant. (Some plugins, such as Oeksound's soothe2, make lighter work of this process).

      A key point is to not mix with your eyes but to mix with your ears. This may sound obvious, but there can be a tendency to mix according to what the audio visualiser is displaying. Close your eyes and trust your ears.

      Basic Vocal Effects Processing

      Effects such as delay and reverb can add a lot to your vocal track. The key is using just enough and learning when enough is enough. Using a send and return track will give you flexibility and control over these effects. As the vocals should be at the centre of your track, avoid having effects that might overshadow or 'cloud' the vocal.

      Lastly, an important tip when mixing your vocals; don't mix them entirely soloed. You want to hear how the vocal actually sounds in the song. Unless you are writing an acapella, the audience will never hear the vocals alone, they will always be heard within the song's context. You may want to mix certain details of the vocal that require soloing that track, which is perfectly fine; just remember to check the bigger picture and regularly reference the vocal in context with the entire track.


      Recording Vocals on a Budget - Summing Up

      There are many approaches to recording vocals. The genre, the vocalist's style and a degree of personal taste will dictate the right approach for you.

      This guide provides several tried and tested techniques used by home studio veterans to achieve great sounding vocals on a budget. There is ultimately no right or wrong way to record vocals, so we encourage you to get stuck in, give it a go and discover what works for you.

      You wouldn't read a book on swimming and expect to jump right into the pool, but it's helpful to have some understanding of the standard techniques before you get started.

      There are many books and guides in the big wide world of recording, all containing valuable information, but the most effective approach is to start recording, mess about a bit, see where you go wrong (or where you go right), and learn from that. Most importantly, enjoy the creative process as you grow in confidence as a producer.

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