When you’re up on stage (or in the shower), singing can feel like the most effortless thing in the world. But when you’re standing in front of a microphone with an open laptop and unlimited tracks in your recording software, sometimes it’s not so easy.
If you’ve ever found yourself doing any of these things, this article is for you:
- Agonizing over the right inflection and phrasing of each line
- Re-writing lyrics on the fly between takes
- Getting carried away adding harmony after harmony until you wind up with 20 vocal tracks
- Singing the same line so many times that the words stop making sense
- Guzzling so much tea with honey that you make yourself sick
The secret to getting good performances without driving yourself crazy is all in the mind—after all, recording is as much about psychology as it is about gear and mic techniques. Read on for some creative strategies to help you get yourself in the right headspace to record the best vocals you can!
THE ALL-IMPORTANT VIBE
Let’s face it, you can’t do your best work if you’re not comfortable (sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone, but we’ll cover that later). If your mind is still on work, school or other external factors, you won’t be able to give your all when recording. If you can put yourself in the right headspace, however, you might be surprised at how naturally everything comes together.
Before you start recording, take some time to prepare yourself by doing whatever you need to do to reset your focus. This can mean finishing up those last work emails for the night, doing some vocal warmups, going for a walk or even taking a bubble bath (hey, whatever works). Just try to avoid anything that might negatively affect your voice, like eating a spicy dinner that will make your throat ache or doing a high-intensity workout that could leave you winded.
When your mind is focused and free from distractions, set up your space with whatever you need to get in the zone. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
- Turn on some mood lighting, matching the colors to the vibe of your song
- Light some candles and incense
- Surround yourself with plants and natural objects
- Crack a window for some fresh air (just be sure to point your mic away from it)
- Dress up like you would for a show
What you hear in your headphones has a huge effect on how you sing.
DON’T NEGLECT YOUR HEADPHONE MIX
Just like the quality of the monitor mix can make or break a live gig, a good headphone mix is crucial for recording. What you hear in your headphones has a huge effect on how you sing, so it’s worth spending the time to dial in a good headphone mix. You don’t need to labor over it like you would for the final mix; the most important thing is that you can feel the energy of the song.
If you don’t mind changing your mix and correcting it later, start turning tracks up or down until the mix feels good to sing along to. If you like to mix as you go and don’t want to undo your work by messing with the levels, you can set up auxiliary sends on each track and use these to create a separate mix just for your headphones.
When tweaking your headphone mix, think about what you need to hear in order to sing your best. For example, some people don’t need their own vocals in the mix at all, while others can’t record without hearing what they sound like. When setting your vocal level, turn yourself up just enough to hear your vocals clearly, but not so loud that it makes you sing quieter. Here are some other strategies to consider:
- Crank the drums or percussion to let the rhythm guide your performance
- Turn up the backing vocals or use a pitch-corrected scratch track to help you stay in key
- Mute distracting mix elements like samples and other “sweeteners” so you can focus on the tune
Of course, it helps to have a good pair of headphones. Blue Mix-Fi studio headphones offer audiophile-level sound quality with an over-ear design that helps block outside noise so you can hear your headphone mix as clearly as if it were coming out of your speakers.
If you need even more isolation, use what the pros use onstage: Ultimate Ears PRO in-ear monitors are a custom-fit alternative to earbuds that form a tight seal around your ear, reducing outside noise by an impressive 26 decibels.
Singing through effects plugins can be a great source of inspiration, as long as you minimize latency.
EFFECTS AS VOCAL COACHES
If you like to put effects on your vocals in the mix, why not record with them on, too? Recording engineers often give singers a bit of “confidence reverb” in their headphones to flatter their voice and coax out a better performance—it’s the same effect that makes you feel like a better singer in the shower. You can always change this in the mix later, so use whatever kind of ‘verb feels right in the moment. Hall and plate presets work great for mid-tempo and slower songs, while small room reverbs or short slapback delays are better for fast tempos.
It’s also a lot of fun to get weird with vocal effects while recording. Send your vocal signal to a new track, insert a distortion plugin, phaser, pitch shifter or (almost) any other effect, then route that signal back to your headphones. You can blend this signal in with your dry vocal or listen to just the effect track—whatever sounds most inspiring. Just keep in mind that plugins add latency, so you’ll need to set a short buffer time in your audio software (256 samples or less) in order to avoid hearing an audible delay.
Even if you don’t like a lot of crazy effects on your vocals, you can still enhance your voice with a bit of compression and EQ. Recording engineers often add analog compressors and EQ units to their vocal recording chains, but you can achieve the same effect with Blue VO!CE software if you have Yeti X.
If you record with an XLR mic and audio interface, see if your interface’s monitoring software has any built-in effects you can use while recording, like Universal Audio’s Realtime Analog Classics. Since you typically can’t undo these effects after recording with them, it’s a good idea to make them fairly subtle.
STEP INTO YOUR UN-COMFORT ZONE
If you’re still not quite getting the results you want, try mixing it up with some unusual vocal recording techniques to inspire you by pushing you out of your comfort zone. Here are some things to try:
- Sing much louder or quieter than you think you should, then raise or lower your vocal in the mix as needed
- Take a page out of producer and engineer Sylvia Massy's book and run around the block a few times before a take
- Gesticulate wildly with your hands to emphasize every word (and don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself)
- Hold a prop while you sing, such as a broom, a heavy book or a stuffed animal
- Record a video while you sing and send it to at least one person so that you have an audience to perform for
DON’T OVERTHINK IT
We hope this article has given you some ideas for your next track. One final word: don’t get in your own head too much while recording. Often, the best performances happen in the moment without too much thought!