Easy Guide to Studio Quality Vocals @Home

Quick, simple tips everyone can use to make vocals recorded at home sound smoother and glossier - alongside some of the BEST free plugins to help with this.

By Eimear O SullivanMusicngear Editor

Article photo - Easy Guide to Studio Quality Vocals @Home

Note: This article will focus more on the post production process - however before I go into this I will lightly touch on some simple recording tricks that will make what can be a rather difficult and very frustrating task - just a little bit easier.

Simple recording Tips:

A good signal chain is the foundation to all this - and is something that can absolutely be achieved on a limited budget. A good quality one input sound card ( I would recommend either the Focusrite Scarlett Solo or the Audient iD4)  and a good microphone go a long way.  There are innumerable amounts of good vocal mics - however wide diaphragm condenser microphones are especially good for capturing the full expression and scope of a vocal recording ( popular examples being Rode NT1-A Complete Vocal Bundle, AKG P420 or Audio Technica AT2020)

If you want to be as budget friendly as possible - you can go down the USB microphone route. However, if you do decide to do this - do as much research as you can as some of them generate a high level of self noise, which is hugely difficult to eradicate in post production.

Healthy input signal/input gain:

- Have a nice strong vocal signal coming in - this ensures that the full presence, strength and emotion of your vocals are captured. It might be worth doing a quick run through the whole song first in order to make sure that levels are not clipping in any specific section (or literally just so you know when to move your head away slightly from the microphone) 

Note: On a USB microphone the microphone input signal is generally set in the sound settings within your computer

- Don’t have the input gain of the microphone almost at max - aside from this adding unwanted hiss to your recordings - there is a much higher chance of the audio becoming distorted/clipped. It is far easier to bring up the volume of a lower audio recording than it is to try and reverse a damaged one. Also if the input gain is amped up too much - it is likely you will have to adjust the volume throughout recording which will be audible in the recording and will make mixing a lot more difficult.

Volume & Frustration

When a take isn’t going as well as planned - the go to reaction can be to turn up the volume in your headphones and keep going at it in a stubborn rage. However, ramping up the volume can confuse the ear even further as now it has even more coming at it - this problem can be rectified using the below steps:

  1. Take a quick break
  2. When you return -  turn the volume back down, and just listen to the track ( or the section of the track you are having difficulty with) 
  3. Hum along with it.  This helps MASSIVELY - and has worked for almost every difficult vocal section I have had to work through. It works so well because you are not thinking about how you sound - you are literally just familizaring yourself more with the part you are singing - and simultaneously making yourself looser with the melody and timing etc. This also helps considerably for landing flat or sound a bit off key in places.
  4. Now that you are actively listening and engaged, try singing along with the track - note if there are any levels etc that need to be adjusted and return to recording.

Vocal Arrangement:

Doubling and Stacking vocals:

One of the primary reasons why most vocals on commercial releases sound so lucious and full is because the vast majority of them have stacked vocals. To mimic this - find a vocal take you like, listen back to it and then record it again in the exact same way.

- Do this 2 or 3 times, then group them together in your DAW and lower their volume so that the effect is nice and subtle - and marvel at the difference! This trick works especially well in choruses as it makes the ear think that something bigger and new is happening, enhancing the overall impact of the vocals in the chorus.

For examples of this - listen to the chorus of Doja Cat’s track Say So:

Another example of doubling and stacking vocals in Mac Miller’s Object in the Mirror:

- In addition to this - recording airy,whispered versions of words or phrases you really want to stand out highlights them to the listener.

Spreading out harmonies:

- Have as many harmonies as you like - this is where most of the fun lies in my opinion! However - don’t give it all away in the first verse. My fear used to be that if I didn’t put them all in almost straight away then the listener would get bored - however this in fact only happens when the track has nowhere to go.

Spread out the harmonies and they will have so much more power and impact, and will keep the listener engaged.

Best High Quality FREE plugins:

Once your vocals have been recorded - here are some of the very best free plugins that will add a whole new sheen and character to your vocals.

TDR VOS Slick EQ by Tokyo Dawn Records

Article photo - Easy Guide to Studio Quality Vocals @Home
(Tip- for female vocals bump this slightly at 5000/7000 Hz and 10,000 Hz to add a nice, glossy shine)

WINDOWS:  32bit: VST2, VST3 // 64bit: VST2, VST3, AAX 
APPLE: 32bit: not compatible // 64bit: VST2, VST3, AU, AAX

TAL Reverb 4 

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This is modelled on 80’s style reverb, cannot recommend this highly enough!

Windows XP or higher (64 bit)
OSX 10.7 or higher (64 bit) 
Linux (64 bit or higher)


George Yohng’s W1 Limiter

Article photo - Easy Guide to Studio Quality Vocals @Home

This is a clone of Waves L1 and it does it justice in every sense.  (Tip - Outside of vocals - this is also brilliant as part of a final mastering chain)

VST (Windows, OS X) 64bit
AudioUnit (OS X) 64 bit
RTAS (Windows, OS X) 64 bit

Acon Digital Multiply Chorus 

Article photo - Easy Guide to Studio Quality Vocals @Home

This plugin gives your vocals the lucious sheen that a lot of commercial recordings have   (without being noticeably artificial sounding or electronic) - this can be used on instruments also. 

Windows - VST or AAX ( 32 or 64 bit)
OS X -VST, AAX or AU plug-ins (32 or 64 bit)

If you have any tips that you have learned along the way that make recording vocals just a little bit easier - let us know in the comments!

About Eimear O Sullivan

Eimear Ann O Sullivan is a multi-genre music producer, audio engineer and vocalist. After receiving a Masters in Music Technology from the CIT Cork School of Music, she went on to operate as a producer under the name Blakkheart. Her releases have received critical acclaim from Ireland's biggest music publications, such as District Magazine and Nialler9, alongside receiving heavy commercial radio airplay. She currently works in Cork recording studio Flashpoint CC. Previous clients of hers include the likes of Comedy Central’s Dragony Aunt star Candy Warhol, rapper Darce and Outsider YP. (Photo credit @Fabian Boros)

Contact Eimear O Sullivan at eimear.o.sullivan@musicngear.com

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In this section of the blog you will find recording advice, tips and tricks from fellow artists and music producers.

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