Recording Vocalists

Monday, November 25th, 2013 | by

Any recorded track lives or dies on the vocal: how it was recorded, how the emotion was portrayed by the singer and how the vocal sits in the track. Let’s explore how a producer, engineer and/or band can best serve the singer for maximum effect!


Vocals are usually the last, and most important step in recording a song, as the lead vocal is usually prominent in the mix. Before you record a vocalist, make sure you are familiar with the material to be recorded. Have the musician play the song live, send you a demo or rough recording, or even just a backing track. It is also very important that they send you the lyrics to the song, so you know what the song is about and where drama will be created within the song. Every song has an emotional and dynamic arc: introduction, establishment of the theme, climax, sometimes bridge, return to theme, and ending. The vocals are the primary way to convey this arc. Have a paper copy of the lyrics wherever you will be situated when recording, such as in the control room. You can also make notes on them that way, if needed.

Setting Up The Vocal Mic

You may be recording a vocalist in an isolation booth singing with their live band, which has some advantages in terms of energy and interplay, but most vocal tracks are done separately, recorded against a previously created instrumental track. Use a condenser microphone with a large diaphragm, for example a Neumann U 87 AiNeumann U 87. This type of microphone provides a faithful reproduction of the human voice. It is a standard mic for pop music vocals, but can be used for any type of vocal recording.

Set the mic up on a stand so the singer is neither raising their chin to sing up to the mic nor having to stoop. Some singers prefer to sit while singing, so have a chair or stool ready, but most will get the best breath support by standing. You should have a windscreen about an inch in front of the mic, and then put the singer about four fingers away from the screen. Look at the singer sideways so you can line up their mouth with the mic’s capsule.

First have the singer sing the song with an instrument (their guitar or piano) or backing track, but without a mic. Just singing a capella will not give you the proper context. This step helps you determine what kind of voice they have (soft and breathy, bold and loud, etc.), how large a mouth they have, whether they have a lot of dynamic range or are consistently loud or soft, and so on.

The Sweet Spot

Next, walk around the vocalist while they are singing so you can figure out the sweet spot, a physical spot where the singer’s voice is fully modulated–meaning that as they sing up and down the scale, the volume stays relatively consistent. You can find this spot by adjusting the horizontal distance between the mic and the singer’s mouth. Place the mic where you think the sweet spot is, record, and listen back. The recorded sound of their voice should sound as natural as it does when you are standing in front of them listening to them sing.

Headphone Mix

Now set up a headphone mix for the singer. Put headphones on the singer and on yourself, play the track, and have the singer sing through the entire song so you can hear loudest parts. Nudge the vocal up until you can hear them. Ask the vocalist if they can hear themselves (usually they will say “no”), and bring up their vocal while they are singing until they are satisfied they can hear themselves against the background track. Watch your levels, because as the vocalist becomes more comfortable, their singing volume will increase, so leave some room. Check back with the vocalist after the first few takes to make sure their mix does not need further adjustment. Some vocalists will tell you, but if this is their first time in a studio, they may not know or feel comfortable asking you to adjust their mix. If they can’t hear their own voice, they will generally be more inclined to sing off key.

Adjusting The Instrumental Arrangement

Now have the singer sing the same song again into the mic with the instruments or backing tracks playing. Listen to the track and make sure there is enough room in the frequency range of the backing track for the vocal to be easily discernible. When you add the vocals, if the instrumental track starts to sound thick, you should mute one or two of the instrument tracks, or rethink the arrangement so the vocal has more room, or transparency. Instruments which can typically conflict with vocals are cymbals and electric guitar, because they are in a similar frequency range as the human voice.

Comfort Brings Out The Best Performance

Singing is an activity that requires vulnerability. Be aware of the comfort level of the singer. Have they sung a lot in a studio, or are they completely new to studio recording? Anxiety does not promote the best vocal performance.

Always have water available. Let the singer warm up his or her voice. It can help to make a few jokes to set them at ease. If you are relaxed, that will cue artists to relax.

Your job is to gently direct the singer and discover where they are the most comfortable so the emotion of the song is liberated with the least amount of anxiety. Often, not looking at the singer helps. For this reason, I prefer to avoid recording in a control room, facing the singer through glass.

Make sure your engineering setup is as prepared as possible so you can grab those first several takes. These may have flaws, but they often are the best because they are the most natural. As the takes add up, the singer will begin to think more about singing and less about emoting and the story of the song. Record everything, because often the initial run-throughs have gems in phrasing that cannot be recaptured later. Don’t do more than four takes through the whole song because you will get diminishing returns. Take a break, or work on other material.


I recommend not listening immediately to playbacks in the studio with the singer, because this will result in self-consciousness and a desire to overdub and “fix” things. It is very hard to be objective about one’s own vocal performance, so vocalists will be very critical of themselves when listening to raw takes. Just take the best of each vocal take and cut them together. This way, the vocalist will hear the best of each of their multiple takes (or perhaps the best single take). As the engineer, you are more objective than the singer, so you will often be better able to discern the best performances.

When It Is Just Not Working

If you just feel that the session isn’t working, try a different mic, a different position for the singer, or a different song. If the singer has a cold or is low on energy, postpone the session to a different day. In general, the voice will be more relaxed in the evening, so that can be a better time for some vocalists to record, although too late in the evening can be tiring.

Your Job Is To Capture The Emotion

Make sure you know from reading the lyric where the emotional strong points are in the song. Discussing this ahead of time with the singer. This will facilitate the expression of these moments in the song during recording.

Encourage the vocalist to feel the lyric, and to invest everything they have in their studio performance–now is not the time to hold back for fear of making mistakes. Encourage singers to give as much energy and heart as they can. Vocal mistakes can be “fixed in the mix,” but a lack of emotion cannot.

By getting your mic and room set up properly, understanding the lyrical and emotional arc of the song, and, most importantly, putting the vocalist at ease, you will capture the best performance in the shortest amount of time. Everyone wins, because you will end up with a high quality take for the least amount of time and money.

Serving the vocalist in this way will make any recording shine, because vocals are the focal point of most songs. Remember that your job is to minimize the chance of vocal mistakes, maximize the emotion in the song, and capture the magic of the vocal performance.

Additional Resources

To get the best of a live and studio vocal performance, we recommend that vocalists work with a good vocal or performance coach. We have worked with Jan Linder-Koda, in LA, who works in person and via Skype with many artists and teaches at the TAXI Road Rally. As a trained actress, song-writer, and singer herself, Jan has a unique approach to helping vocalists achieve their best performance.

Stevie Adamek is a studio musician and producer, currently in the two-piece band Solveig and Stevie. He was originally signed by Scepter Records (with the See Band) and then Columbia Records (Bighorn), and has also composed for, and performed with the iconic Seattle band, The Allies, one of the first to have a music video on MTV (Emma Peel). Click to download Solveig and Stevie’s EP, Zombie Lover.

Posted in Studios, Technique | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Recording Vocalists”

  1. John McCortney

    November 26th, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Great advice, Stevie. You can’t over emphasize the importance of making the singer (or any performer) comfortable, both physically and personally. No one can perform well if they’re distracted by any aspect of your set up or feel that you’re not interested in what they’re doing. I used to tell interns that personal skills were at least as important as technical skills.

    I also strongly agree with the need to record EVERYTHING, including the rehearsals. You never know when the magic is going to happen. If the performer looks at you and asks, “did you get that?”, the answer has to be yes!

    Happy Holidays to all.

  2. Andrew

    December 5th, 2013 at 4:25 am

    “Any recorded track lives or dies on the vocal”
    Except instrumental music, of course.

  3. Stevie Adamek

    December 6th, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Dear Andrew, thanks for your comments, of course what i wrote applys to capturing the magic of a lead instrumentalist, stevie

    Dear John, thanks for your comments, when a singer knows you care they will sing like a bird abd connect with the listener, stevie

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