Getting Your Vocal Recording Setup Started

Whether you’re a voice over artist, songwriter, or rapper, chances are at some point you will be interested in setting up a personal recording system. For some people, simply getting the idea in a recorded fashion is enough. For others, they may want to actually release or sell the results. But getting started can be a little daunting. Have no fear, I’m here to help.

The goal here will be two fold – get workable, decent results, and to not break the bank. Here’s what you basically need:

1) Voice

It all starts here. A rich, strong vocal tone will translate well even on a low budget setup.

2) Space

You exist in a physical environment, and there’s no way to take that out of the equation. The most common error people make here is to record in the smallest space possible.

This is done because (a) you don’t hear as much reverberation in smaller spaces, and (b) because that somehow came into fashion. This is rarely the best setup.

You’re much better off using a medium sized room and creating some kind of gobo system. That could be those extremely overpriced auralex gobos, or you can make your own. The cheapest way is to mount up some moving blankets using mic stands or any other support system. For just a hair more money and a little more effort, you can do it using Owens Corning 703 fiberglass wrapped in fabric or burlap. The trick here is that you don’t put the gobos behind the mic. You put them behind yourself, generally in some kind of triangle configuration. This takes the most effort to get right – but for around $100, you’ll get much more distance from even a cheap setup. A cheap mic in a room with gobos will sound better than an expensive mic in a closet, 9 times out of 10. So take the time, do some research, and get this step right!

3) Microphone

You need to turn your acoustic voice into voltage. If you are doing voice over or rap I recommend going with a condenser microphone. Even in the $300 price range, there are some very good options. My personal favorite is the Audio Technica 4033a. This is a microphone that holds it’s own against microphones that cost 10x as much. You can get very professional results on this mic. But there are a number of options in this range that are good. I’m not a fan of the Rode NT1-A, which seems to be among the most popular picks. They give good results, but they tend to require a little more skill on the mixing end to get the best out of them. Also, microphone placement matters.

If you are a singer, you may want to try a dynamic microphone like a Sure SM7 or an EV RE20. These microphones have been used on countless classic albums and give killer results that rival high end condenser mics. The only reasons I hesitate to recommend these microphones to voiceover artists and rap artists is that they don’t have the most open/natural top end (important for a voice over, to hear the “reality” of the voice), and they tend to round out the transient sounds hitting the diaphragm (not as much articulation for fast rap vocals). That said I’ve record rap vocals with an SM7 quite successfully, so these things are fairly negotiable.

4) Preamp

The what?? A microphone signal is very low. It requires an amplification stage before it goes through your interface. A good preamp is imperative to a good sound. Even if you have enough cash to get a high-end mic, I would recommend getting a less expensive mic with a decent preamp. The average computer interface will have preamps built into them. Depending on your interface  those preamps might not be so good. You are better with a dedicated external one. Some good choices are the GAP73, UA Solo 610, or Focusrite ISA 1. None of these preamps will blow you away, and I might even say that the 610 and ISA 1 are a hair overpriced — but they get the job done.

5) Interface or Converters

Converters turn your continuous electric signal into a discreet signal that a computer can understand. “Interfaces” are devices that include preamps, converters, monitoring routing – several steps in one. Though there are cheap stand alone converters as well that skip this stuff. For an interface, I recommend the Apogee Duet, or the Mbox 3. These have the best sound overall to my ears. Standalone converters tend to be very expensive — however — the Behringer converters are very cheap and actually fairly decent (one of the better makes for their general product line).

6) DAW

There are a million DAWs out there. Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton Live, Digital Performer, Nuendo, Cubase, Garage Band, Reaper, Acid, and the list goes on. All of these things will do the most basic function of getting your voice recorded. The one you choose to work with depends a lot on what you are trying to accomplish and is somewhat outside the scope of this article. Good workflow is important.

7) Monitors

You’re going to need to hear your recording. While recording you will need headphones. Again there’s a lot to choose from, but my pick on the inexpensive side is Sennheiser HD280s. There are many options though.

For speakers, again, lots of options. If you plan to do a significant amount of mixing, your best bet is a pair of Yamaha NS-10s and an Adcom amplifier (like the GFA series). This may be a bit pricey and might not be appropriate for your needs. A cheaper but decent alternative would be a pair of active speakers like Event 20/20 series. TR-5 through 8s all make for a good choice. Yamaha HS series is also fairly good. KRK Rockits are pretty popular, I personally don’t care for these monitors. I find that while they sound fairly neutral in terms of frequency balance they don’t provide much detail to the sound.

Assuming you already have a computer – a complete, decent recording setup can be had for under $2,000. If setup properly, this will provide a set up that could allow for perfectly usable vocal recordings on an album or for voice over performance.

The other factor of course will be your know-how in terms of using your equipment. So keep checking back here for tips on getting the best for your sound.

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss engineers from his private facility in Philadelphia, PA. Credits include Snoop Dogg, Gorilla Zoe, Arrested Development, Dizzee Rascal, Gift of Gab, J-Son and many others. Get in touch at Weiss-Sound.com.
  • http://www.blueduststudio.com chris porro

    true.

    why don’t you like the rode? for me it’s too bright. but that’s my issue with most condenser mics. maybe i just need smoover vocals.

    for preamps and converters i tell people to fugetaboutit. what they contribute is soo little. it took me a long time to avoid that trap. ok, if your preamp is super noisy and cheap that may, may, be an issue. if it can’t power your mic (sm7 i’m talking about you!) that could be an issue. but for the most part fugetaboutit.

    i’ll plug reaper as one of the DAWs you mentioned. it just can’t be beat for the money. testify.

  • http://weiss-sound.com Matt Weiss

    Hi Chris!

    I don’t prefer the NT not because it’s broadly bright – but because it seems to accentuate the 8k area in a very unflattering way. For someone with a very round voice it might be ok in this regard, but every time I mix one of these mics I feel I have to make compromises with the top end in order to make it comfortable to listen to. I also find the representation of the uppermids to be a bit edgy, and the low mids to be a bit loose. It’s certainly a usable mic, but I find it requires a little bit more mixing to fit into the pocket for vocal applications.

    As for the preamp I have to disagree. The difference between poor preamps such as the ones found built into interfaces, and semi-decent preamps as the ones listed above is pretty distinct. Now, a semi-decent preamp can go a long way, and the difference between good preamps is not as dramatic as the difference between good microphones. The real killer for me is not noise in a bad preamp, but overall fidelity. A poor preamp sounds like not all the sound is getting through – it will sound thin, and not in the way that there is simply a downplaying of bass or low mids. Like there’s just bits of sound missing – or what I might call a lack of “detail.”

    Reaper – absolutely! Very good DAW, and for the money it is exceptional. Although my experience with it is fairly limited my initial feeling was that it belongs right along side names like Logic and Pro Tools, regardless of its price point.

    • http://www.blueduststudio.com chris porro

      maybe i haven’t done side by sides on enough pres. but with my pres i don’t hear anything worth worrying about. RME stuff, FMRs, even some cheapo behringer. my art pre is very noisy though. maybe i should take another listen side by side.

      do you think what you are hearing is about matching impedance? that can dull things.

      have you done a post doing a pre-amp comparison showing what you hear?

  • http://www.robertvenable.com Robert Venable

    Pop filters (windscreens) are also pertinent in recording a good vocal track, depending on the vocalist. Not only could they save the perfect vocal take, they could also prolong the life of your microphone. Pop filters screen out the plosives (P-pops, or blasts of air from the singer’s mouth) that could cause your preamp to clip, or just sound nasty in the track. Sometimes a pop filter isn’t necessary; some microphones have pop filters built in, but others (ribbon mics) are very susceptible to damage from even the slightest breeze. You can pick up a cheap pop filter for around $15, a small investment if you ask me, but it could save you in the end.

    I like to attach my pop filter to a separate mic stand so I can have complete control over the placement of the filter relative to the microphone.

    Note: make sure you have an intern, assistant, or friend around. SOMEONE needs to clean the pop filter from time to time… What, you don’t like the potato chip smell coming from the pop filter?!

  • http://www.blueduststudio.com chris porro

    +1 on pop filters. i went to the aes project studio expo sessions this past weekend (http://chrisporro.com/?p=1848). they had a plosive trick i’ve never seen. rubber band a pencil to the mic right in front of the diaphragm. wha? i gotta try that.

  • http://www.littlefishaudio.com Vocal Microphone Choice

    One of the most difficult things to do these days is get to try out a bunch of microphones before buying. Vocal recording is so much easier when the source is captured with the microphone that accentuates the right parts of the performer, and de-emphasizes the less flattering. What I listen for in a microphone is primarily the low mids (200-500hz). It they are scooped, then siblance seems more apparent. Clarity and sheen come above 15k. Some microphones definitely have this and others don’t.

    If you think about it, compression, or a lessening of dynamic range, begins at the microphone. Different diaphragm sizes and weights make for a more or less compressed sound. Track with a Shure SM7 a U87 and a Cloud ribbon mic (which sounds like a recording in a cardboard box) and you will get three completely different sets of dynamics + frequency responses. My rambling point is this. Start at the source: Microphone choice.

  • Caio Toru

    Hi..
    I’m begining on recording and mixing stuff, your advices are such a wondeful help for me..
    I’d like an opinion about condenser microphone..
    I was almost buying an AKG C214. Then you mencionated the audio technica.. I’ m in a cruel doubt right now.

    • http://weiss-sound.com Matt

      Audio Technica without a doubt. The 214 is based on the C414XLSII design – which flatters some voices and sounds terrible on others. The 214 is that without as much definition.

      I’ve never heard the 4033a sound bad on any thing except bass cab.

  • http://www.blueduststudio.com chris porro

    hey caio. if you are just starting i really wouldn’t spend that much time deciding on the mic. there are many good ones out there. buy one that is a staple or standard. that way you don’t go horribly wrong.

    after you’ve been recording for a while you’ll start to understand how different mics sound. then you can start searching for a mic with the sound you want. but that’s a long way off. the important thing is to start listening to and working with a mic.

    • Caio Toru

      Thank you very very much!
      And i have a m-audio fast track c400 as an interface..to improve my sound recordings is it necessary just a pre amp?

    • http://www.blueduststudio.com chris porro

      that looks like it has 2 preamps and they have phantom power. so you don’t need anything else (just a mic).

  • Caio Toru

    Hi guys!!
    What do you about blue baby bottle??
    Is it good?

  • Sebastian

    Hey thanks for this article. I’m working with RME fireface and 3 Rode mikrophones two nt 5 and one nt1000 with good results for vocals on every recording. I just can’ t afford the Neumann stuff- it’s better, but for me not necessary. Sometimes i’ m using my apogee One to record vocals with decent results and it works on a low Budget for a Lot Instruments including vocals. Keep on rocking