Recording Vocals at Home #3: Acoustics & Accessories

Are your home vocal recordings coming out as clean as you’d like? Make sure to consider the acoustics of your space, avoid unwanted reflections, prevent rumble, vibrations and noises. Find out how!

By Craig Anderton

Recording Vocals at Home #1: Mic Choice & Technique

 

This is the third chapter of the “Recording Vocals at Home” series. Here you can find the full series.

Microphone performance can benefit from a variety of accessories. We’ll start with a basic, relatively inexpensive fix for a common vocal problem—the “p-pop.”

Pop Filters

When you sing close to a mic, the bursts of air from plosives (“b,” “p,” and similar sounds) can overload the mic. This produces p-pops—unpleasant, strong, low-frequency popping sounds.

A pop filter places a fine mesh (metal or plastic) between the vocalist and mic. This helps diffuse any bursts of air. Although some engineers feel pop filters can detract from a vocal’s tone, pops can detract from a vocal even more. If you don’t need a pop filter, that’s probably because you’re singing at quite a distance from the mic, or you are careful about where you aim your voice when singing.

Pop filters range from really cheap (an old nylon stocking stretched on a hanger in front of the mic) to really expensive. Most pop filters run between $20 and $100, with effectiveness loosely dependent on price. There are even higher-end pop filters, like the Pauly Ton Superscreen pop filter (Fig. 1).

The Pauly Ton Superscreen pop filter’s metal mesh minimizes the severity of air blasts that reach your mic

The Pauly Ton Superscreen pop filter’s metal mesh minimizes the severity of air blasts that reach your mic.

Although not as effective as a pop screen, engaging a mic’s low-frequency rolloff switch (Fig. 2) can also help. (Not all microphones have this feature built-in.)

A low-cut switch reduces low frequencies

A low-cut switch reduces low frequencies.

The “Virtual” Pop Filter

Another option is to use EQ when mixing to further reduce pops (Part 4 of this series covers equalization in depth). Because pops are primarily very low-frequency audio, a low-cut (high-pass) filter can reduce low frequencies, which makes the pop less apparent. Fig. 3 shows a waveform’s pop that has been isolated and then attenuated by using a high-pass filter.

The top waveform is the original vocal recording; the pop we want to reduce is highlighted. The lower waveform shows the pop after filtering

The top waveform is the original vocal recording; the pop we want to reduce is highlighted. The lower waveform shows the pop after filtering.

The Renaissance EQ settings in Fig. 4 were used to reduce the pop in Fig. 3.

The image on the left shows the Renaissance EQ bypassed; note the huge amount of bass from the pop (outlined in white). The image on the right shows how using a high-pass filter attenuates the pop

The image on the left shows the Renaissance EQ bypassed; note the huge amount of bass from the pop (outlined in white). The image on the right shows how using a high-pass filter attenuates the pop.

The audio examples show that even significant amounts of bass attenuation don’t affect the vocal’s timbre very much, if at all.

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The vocal contains a nasty plosive at the beginning of the word “past.”

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The Waves Renaissance EQ, using the settings shown in Fig. 4, has removed the pop.

However, it’s best to minimize pops at the source. This is why a pop filter is helpful, as is good mic technique where you’re far enough away from the mic to avoid the proximity effect that boosts bass. But no matter how careful you are when recording, you may need to reduce the levels of pops during mixing.

Mic Stand

Holding a mic can lead to handling noise, so it’s best to mount your mic on a mic stand. These sell at all price points, from $20 to hundreds of dollars, but it’s often worth spending a bit more for a model that’s solid and secure. Putting a heavy mic on a budget mic stand can be unstable, and you don’t want your precious mic crashing to the floor if the stand tips over. Condenser and ribbon mics, which tend to be heavier than dynamic mics, usually require stronger stands.

A boom extension (Fig. 5) is handy for vocals if you don’t want to situate yourself too close to the mic stand.

This mic stand has a boom attached at the top, which makes it easy to position the mic when miking a variety of instruments. (Photo credit: Jean-Joseph Napoléon on Unsplash)

This mic stand has a boom attached at the top, which makes it easy to position the mic when miking a variety of instruments. (Photo credit: Jean-Joseph Napoléon on Unsplash).

Shock Mount

Because a mic stand sits on the floor, any vibrations from the floor (like moving your feet, drum pedals, roadwork outside, etc.) can transfer up the stand to the mic and add low-frequency rumble. A shock mount isolates the mic from its mic stand. Some shock mounts work with specific mics, while others are universal (Fig. 6). A low-cut switch can sometimes help reduce these kinds of low-frequency artifacts, but it’s better to isolate the mic as much as possible with a shock mount.

The shock mount on the left is included with the Neat Microphones Worker Bee, which is inserted in the mount. The shock mount on the right, from mic manufacturer Blue, fits several different mics

The shock mount on the left is included with the Neat Microphones Worker Bee, which is inserted in the mount. The shock mount on the right, from mic manufacturer Blue, fits several different mics.

Protective Box or Pouch

Good microphones are a significant investment, so take care of them. They don’t like dust or being dropped, so store mics when not in use. If you have mics set up and don’t want to put them away because they’re placed where you want them, take a non-porous plastic bag, turn it upside down, and cover the mic to keep dust out of it. Most mics come with a pouch, cover, or case for storage or transport (Fig. 7).

The pouch on the left comes with Audio-Technica’s AT2020USB mic, which is a USB mic designed for musicians on the go. The box on the right protects Audio-Technica’s AT3035 condenser mic in the studio

The pouch on the left comes with Audio-Technica’s AT2020USB mic, which is a USB mic designed for musicians on the go. The box on the right protects Audio-Technica’s AT3035 condenser mic in the studio.

Acoustics

The room in which you’re singing influences your vocals, specifically by sound reflecting off hard surfaces and coming back into your mic. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all reflections are bad. Although some vocalists prefer to sing in an acoustically “dead” vocal booth and then add reverberation while mixing, reflections can give a sense of space to the vocal.

There’s a famous story about the song “Louie, Louie,” whose unusual vocal sound was due to the singer singing into an overhead boom mic. It’s a good reminder that there are no rules in recording.

Acoustic treatment is a complex topic that could justify its own series, but fortunately, there’s plenty of helpful information on the internet. The short form is that acoustic treatment consists of two main elements: ways to absorb sound (to reduce reflections) and ways to diffuse sound (to scatter reflections and reduce their “focus”). Some home studio vocalists with big, walk-in closets use as much padding as possible (clothes, blankets, etc.) to deaden the sound. Ultimately, though, this can’t provide the same degree of treatment as a well-built vocal booth. Generally, you’ll find that singing in a room gives a better sound.

When acoustic treatment isn’t possible (e.g., you’re renting your living space), a mic shield (Fig. 8) can help reduce the level of reflections coming into the mic.

The Primacoustic Vox Guard is one of many mic shields that can improve the sound of vocals when room acoustics aren’t optimum. Note the window that allows the vocalist to see what’s happening in a session. (Photo courtesy of Primacoustic)

The Primacoustic Vox Guard is one of many mic shields that can improve the sound of vocals when room acoustics aren’t optimum. Note the window that allows the vocalist to see what’s happening in a session. (Photo courtesy of Primacoustic).

There will be some coloration because the shield’s material can’t absorb sound perfectly. So, some sound reflects off the shield itself. Also, a mic shield doesn’t do anything about reflections bouncing off a wall that’s behind you. Typically, if you use a shield, you’ll also want some sound-absorbing material (like a thick blanket) behind you. Mic shields vary regarding cost and ease of use, but most of them will produce better results when recording in home studios.

One of the most useful applications for a mic shield is to place it between you and your computer to keep computer noise out of the mic. An even more effective option can be to record your vocals in a different room and control your computer from a remote control app, using an iOS or Android device (Fig. 9).

PreSonus offers a free iPad/Android remote for Studio One

PreSonus offers a free iPad/Android remote for Studio One.

Another option is using a wireless QWERTY computer keyboard and learning the keyboard shortcuts needed for recording vocals (record, stop, etc.). You can typically be at least 20 feet away (and often further), even if there’s a wall between you and the wireless keyboard receiver. This receiver will be either in the computer itself or a dongle-like device that usually plugs into a computer’s USB port.

Now that we’re set up let’s find out how to bring out the best in your vocals, with signal processing techniques like EQ and dynamics processing.

This is the third chapter of the “Recording Vocals at Home” series. Here you can read chapter 2 on preamps and audio interface.

Musician/author Craig Anderton is an internationally recognized authority on music and technology. He has played on, produced, or mastered over 20 major label recordings and hundreds of tracks, authored 45 books, toured extensively during the 60s, played Carnegie Hall, worked as a studio musician in the 70s, written over a thousand articles, lectured on technology and the arts (in 10 countries, 38 U.S. states, and three languages), and done sound design and consulting work for numerous music industry companies. He is the current President of the MIDI Association. www.craiganderton.org.

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