How to Record Vocals Like a Pro at Home
A Complete Guide to Recording Vocals Professionally
Last Updated: December 2023 | 5241 words (27 – 29 minute read)
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In this beginner’s guide to vocal recording we’re going to show you everything you need to know to get a professional sound right at home.
The ability to get studio quality recordings has become abundant – you don’t need a ton of expensive equipment to do it well.
Below, you’ll learn how to record vocals step-by-step, plus all the equipment you need, the preparation/setup/use of your gear and how to get a great performance.
Quick side note: be sure to check out our complete guide on how to make beats so you have something to record on!
Let’s get right into it.
Article Table of Contents
- 1 Vocal Recording Equipment
- 3 Recording Technique
- 4 How to Capture a Great Vocal Performance
Audio Version of Article
Before we start recording vocals at home, we need to prepare a few things.
One thing you want to always keep in mind in music production is – “garbage in, garbage out.”
You want every step of the process to be as clean and pro as possible, if you want the final result to really shine.
Vocal Recording Equipment
You don’t need a TON of studio gear to record vocals well. You just need a few key pieces that will get the job done.
Below is everything you’ll need, plus some suggestions on specific brands/models.
To record vocals at home you’ll obviously need a microphone. This is what the vocalist will sing/rap into.
And since this is the very beginning of our “signal chain” (the journey from acoustic sound to digital recording), we don’t want to skimp here.
Get as good of a microphone as you can afford. This is a place where price does actually matter.
Dynamic vs. Condenser Microphones
Since we’re recording studio vocals, we will need what’s called a “large diaphragm condenser microphone.” This type of microphone is very sensitive and picks up every nuance of a recording.
Dynamic microphones on the other hand are more rugged and are often used in live performance settings.
Really great studio microphones can cost thousands of dollars. But don’t worry, here are some affordable options for condenser mics that will get you a really good sounding recording:
- Budget Option: Audio Technica AT2020 (non-USB model)
- Mid-Range Option: Rode NT1-A
- Upper-Mid-Range Option: Neumann TLM-103
Don’t Use a USB Microphone
USB microphones might seem like a good, affordable option, but I recommend steering clear of them.
Audio conversion is a VERY important part of our signal chain. USB microphones that plug directly into your computer will rely on pretty low quality audio converters to turn the sound into a digital recording.
You’re not going to get studio level quality with that.
We want microphones that aren’t “bus powered” like USB microphones, but instead use “phantom power” from a pro audio interface (which will also have pro audio converters).
Remember, we’re talking about recording PRO level vocals at home.
The polar pattern of your microphone is simply a way to describe which side of the microphone you sing/rap into.
There are uni-directional microphones which record audio from one side, bi-directional microphones which record both front and back sides of the mic and omni-directional ones which take in audio from all directions.
If you’re only planning on recording a vocal, a uni-directional microphone is best.
Shock Mounts are usually included with the microphone you purchase and act as a “holder” for the microphone itself that then attaches to a microphone stand.
If your microphone didn’t include one, you should be able to buy one after-market.
Cable & Stand
Since we’re using a professional microphone, we’ll need to connect it to our audio interface using an XLR cable.
Depending on your recording setup, it can be useful to buy a VERY long XLR cable. A 6 foot cable probably WON’T be enough for you. Give yourself lots of length, just in case you need it.
As for a microphone stand, any type will do. Just buy the cheapest one you can find that is sturdy enough to last a long time.
The next part of our signal chain is a professional “audio interface.” In the consumer world, these are called “sound cards” and basically act as a go-between from your computer to your other devices (speakers/microphone).
The most important components of your audio interface will be:
- the Digital-Analog/Analog-Digital (DA/AD) converters
- the onboard microphone “pre-amp”
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Like mentioned earlier the converters are what turn the acoustic sound into digital recordings. The quality of your AD converters will determine how well that sound gets recorded.
As for the “pre-amps,” microphones are only able to capture and send out a very low level signal. So the pre-amp works to amplify that signal so it can actually be reproduced in a way that can be easily heard.
The quality of your pre-amp will determine how clean the audio recording is.
This is another place you don’t want to cheap-out, but to get the best quality possible will cost thousands of dollars.
Lucky for you, there are some WAY more affordable options that are SUPER clean and very “pro” sounding:
- Budget Option: Audient EVO 4
- Mid-Range Option: Universal Audio Apollo Solo/Twin
- Upper Mid-Range Option: RME Babyface Pro FS
You’re also going to need some headphones. Not just any headphones, though.
The headphones for tracking (i.e. recording vocals) don’t need to be super high quality, but they do need to be a specific type – CLOSED-BACK headphones.
The reason for this is we don’t want any sound (or as little as possible) to bleed into the microphone from the headphones while we’re recording. Open-back headphones are VERY noisy on the outside, and not at all suitable for recording/tracking.
If you’re recording yourself, you’ll only need one pair. But if you’re recording another vocalist, you’ll need two.
And be careful, most audio interfaces only have ONE headphone jack, which means you may also need to pick up a splitter/adapter to use two pairs of headphones at once.
Check out our guide on the best studio headphones for our recommendations.
Computer + Software
And of course, you’ll need SOMETHING to record into. Since we’re doing this at home, we don’t need a giant mixer board or any crazy “outboard” gear (like you see in major studios).
All we need is a decent laptop and some software (a DAW, i.e. digital audio workstation).
As for your laptop, you don’t need anything extremely powerful just to record vocals, but it should be decent.
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They are SUPER FAST, and actually way more than you need to record vocals at home. But they’re a great option.
You can record vocals at home on either a laptop or a desktop computer.
Here’s some specs to look out for, in either case:
- Processor: either Apple Silicon (M1/M2) or Intel i5 or higher
- Hard Drive: 1 TB SSD Drive or the bigger the better – audio files can get pretty large.
- Memory: 16 GB of RAM (you can probably get away with only 8 GB if necessary)
BUT, beware of one thing – if your laptop fan noise is super loud, that’s no good. That fan noise WILL leak into the microphone when you’re recording.
We want to avoid that as much as we can.
As far as what software to use goes, there are lots of very affordable options. Pick any one, they all do the same thing:
If all you’re doing is recording (and not composing/mixing/mastering) all you need is the baseline – i.e. cheapest – versions of these software.
Pop Screens and Reflection Filters
Finally, let’s talk about pop screens and reflection filters.
Remember, our goal is to get the cleanest vocal recording possible. But there are acoustic things that can impact the quality of the recording.
A pop screen is that screen/mesh thing you often see in front of a studio microphone in pictures. These act as a barrier between the vocalist and the microphone itself.
Their goal is to cut down on “plosives” when we speak, sing or rap. A plosive is the “p” or “b” sound that can have a lot of vocal power behind it. These can overload our microphone if we’re not careful.
A pop screen helps to reduce these.
A reflection filter, on the other hand, is something you may see behind the microphone in a home studio setup.
All sound reflects off of the various surfaces around us – the walls, the screens, computers, equipment, etc.
The reflection filter will act as a barrier to stop some of those reflections from getting back into the microphone and muddying up the recording.
And that leads us to our next point…
Room Acoustics and Noise
As we just mentioned, sound bounces around a room and reflects off of various surfaces. These reflections can:
- alter our perception of sound
- negatively impact the cleanliness of our recordings
That’s why your recording room’s shape, size and equipment/furniture all have an impact on how your recording will ultimately sound.
The goal of acoustic treatment (the foam you see on studio walls) is to dampen these reflections. And unfortunately, it can be an expensive, never-ending battle to “treat” a room correctly.
Since we’re not in a huge space within a professional studio, we need to get creative.
Acoustic foam treatment can definitely help if you’ve got the budget and apply it properly. But other large, porous items can help to dampen reflections too.
You know those thick, large, furry blankets with crazy prints on them? They’ll help.
You could even find 4 of those bad boys, and just hang them up to create a make-shift vocal “isolation” booth for yourself.
Mattresses can also be good, as can large fluffy furniture. But you can’t exactly tape a bunch of couches/sofas to the wall, can you?
You could also just use a reflection filter, like mentioned above.
Quick Note: Empty eggs cartons don’t do shit… Movies lie.
Another problem area you’ll have to contend with is external noise. Remember, studio microphones are VERY sensitive and pick up almost any sound.
That means air conditioners, heaters, exhaust fans, computer fans, electrical buzz/hum, squeaking chairs, shifting clothing/jewelry, outside weather and traffic, foot steps…
These mics will pick up everything.
So when you’re recording, try to minimize every possible noise you can think of. Especially loud-ass people talking or walking in another room.
Great, now that we’ve got all the preliminary stuff out of the way, let’s talk about exactly how to record vocals, step-by-step.
First we’ll set all our equipment up together and then go through actually recording your various vocal takes.
Setting Up Equipment
Whatever equipment you buy will have specific instructions on how to set it up, so make sure you read the manuals.
But here’s a basic look at how the signal chain works:
Vocalist -> Microphone -> XLR Cable -> Audio Interface -> USB/Thunderbolt -> Computer -> USB/Thunderbolt -> Audio Interface -> 1/4″ Stereo Cable(s) -> Headphones/Speakers
So your voice will go from the mic, into the audio interface, get converted into 1s and 0s for your computer, recorded and/or processed, sent back to the audio interface to be converted again into electrical signals that will become the sound you hear again from the headphones/speaker.
So.. Let’s make it happen.
First, get your microphone out and carefully place it into the shock mount and attach it to the microphone stand.
Grab your XLR cable and place one end into the bottom of the microphone and the other end into the INPUT slot of your audio interface. If there are multiple input slots, choose INPUT 1.
Your audio interface should NOT be plugged in or turned on when you do this.
The next thing you’ll want to do is install the software for your audio interface (the “drivers”) and then connect it to your computer using the included wire.
(Make sure you check the specific installation instructions of your interface)
You can now turn on the audio interface, itself.
Now, turn on your computer and install or open whatever DAW you chose to use and make sure it is able to detect your audio interface in the software’s “settings.”
Connect your headphones to the microphone jack of your interface, and you’re almost ready to record.
Bit-Depth, Sample Rate, Buffer Size and Latency
Three of the settings you’ll see in your DAW related to your interface are buffer size, bit-depth and sample rate.
Sample rate and bit-depth measure how much detail your recording will have. You always want to record vocal at a minimum sample rate of 44.1kHz and a bit-depth of 24 bits.
You can get away with 16 bits, but it just makes sense to use more. However, the more detail you want (ex/ 88.2kHz + 32 Bits) the more processing power you’ll need in your computer and audio interface
Now, your buffer size is the amount of audio data stored in memory before being processed and played back to you. As a general rule, you want as small a buffer size as your computer can handle when tracking/recording (ex/ 32, 64 or 128), but here’s a guide to help you choose.
All three of these setting will work together to determine the amount of latency that you’ll experience. Latency is the delay between a signal being recorded/processed and it playing back to you.
For example, if you’ve hooked everything up and speak into your microphone and there’s a slight delay between you speaking and you hearing your voice back in the headphones – that’s latency. And it’s mad annoying when you’re trying to record yourself.
Our goal is to choose the best settings possible, while minimizing the amount of latency we will experience.
A good rule of thumb is that a latency of 10ms or less is basically unnoticeable by us. Try to get as close to 10ms or under as possible. Again, this will depend on the power of your computer and audio interface.
Microphone & Vocalist Position
OK, we’re almost ready to record the vocals. But let’s briefly talk about positioning.
First of all, if you’re using a uni-directional microphone, make sure your vocalist is singing into the proper side.
Trust me, I’ve recorded entire songs rapping into the back of a microphone like a complete idiot.
But beyond that, the type of tone you get from your vocal recording will depend a lot on how the microphone is positioned and how close/far the vocalist is from it.
It can take some experimentation to find the best positioning for each individual song you record, depending on the vibe of the track.
Here’s some general rules of thumb:
- The closer the vocalist is to the microphone, the warmer and breathier the recording will sound
- If your vocalist is singing loudly or screaming, move farther away from the microphone, instead of turning down the microphone volume.
- A microphone slightly above the vocalist’s mouth will sound different to having the microphone slightly below their mouth (or directly in the center of their face)
A good general distance from a microphone would be 6 to 12 inches away from the “capsule.”
Setup the DAW Session + Levels
Now it’s time to setup our DAW software to be able to capture the various vocal takes we’ll be recording.
- Open your DAW
- Check settings to make sure your audio interface is recognized and in use
- Create a new project (use a 44.1 kHz sample rate and 24-bits if given the option)
- Set the project BPM/Tempo to whatever the tempo of the instrumental/music you’re using is
- Insert a “New Track” (stereo, if given option) and drag/import the instrumental music you’ll be recording over onto this track
- Insert a “New Track” (mono, if given the option) and label it “Record”
- If applicable, switch on the “phantom power” for INPUT 1 on your audio interface
- In your DAW, set the “Record” track’s “input” setting to INPUT 1 of your audio interface
- Next, “arm” the “Record” track to allow it to receive the audio signal from INPUT 1 – this is usually an R button or small record button on the track itself. Check your DAW manual to see how to arm a track for recording.
- Turn up the headphone volume knob on your audio interface and both you and your vocalist should put on headphones
- On your audio interface, gradually increase the “gain/input” knob of INPUT 1 (while speaking/singing into the microphone) until the audio meter on your DAW “Record” track PEAKS between -6db and -10db (this gives us enough “headroom” – i.e. space – for later). If the lights turn red, that’s called clipping and results in a distorted signal – turn the gain level down.
- Press the PLAY BUTTON on your transport control to play the instrumental while the “Record” track is still armed and ask the vocalist to sing their part as a “warm-up”
- While they are singing, keep an eye on the input gain (volume level) on INPUT 1 of your audio interface level and the “Record” track in your DAW.
- Adjust the volume/gain as necessary
Remember we don’t want any clipping (going into the RED on the signal meters). An ideal PEAK volume level at the loudest parts of the vocal should be between -6 and -10db.
This should result in a nice, clean recording.
What we just did was create a track to record audio into via INPUT 1 of our audio interface. We chose a stereo track for the instrumental because most instrumental music will have slightly different signals between the left and right speakers.
Mono tracks – for most vocal recordings – only consist of a single signal that’s duplicated in both left and right speakers.
We then set the recording input levels to something that won’t distort and will give us some additional space/room to work with afterwards.
You’re now ready to record your first take.
Let your vocalist know you’re ready to record your first take.
- Make sure your DAW’s “cursor” is at the very beginning of the “timeline” so you start recording from the top of the instrumental
- Make sure your Record track is still armed and receiving signal
- Press the RECORD BUTTON on your transport control or mixer in the DAW
- As the track gets recorded and your vocalist sings, you should see some audio peaks forming in the record track.
- If you notice any clipping on the audio meters during the take, you can manually adjust the input gain on your audio interface, but be careful – we want a consistent level of audio
- When the vocalist is done their part, hit the STOP BUTTON on your DAW’s transport control
- If prompted, be sure to “save” the audio recording
And now you’ve got your first vocal take fully recorded. Congratulations.
Now usually, you’ll want to do several takes of any given part, plus background vocals, adlibs and other stuff.
You can do this a couple of different ways:
- Insert a NEW track and set it up just like we setup the first track (input, arm record, etc), and then UNARM the first “Record” track and MUTE it. Next, ARM the new track you just created and use it as the new recording track
- Insert several NEW tracks, but don’t set them up to record. Only use the first, original “Record” track for the actual recording, and just drag the recorded audio down onto one of the new tracks using your mouse and mute it. Then you can capture your second/third/etc takes using the original “Record” track, and repeat the process of dragging the audio into one of the additional tracks and muting it.
Recording Dry vs. Processed Vocals
There are two ways of recording vocals professionally – dry (no effects processing during the recording) or wet/processed (applying effects like compression, EQ, etc during the recording).
Personally I think recording dry vocals is best because you can always process them (add effects) however you want afterwards.
If you’re recording through effects, then you’re stuck with it forever. Maybe you end up not liking what you did to it anymore after a few listens. Too bad, you can’t change it now. You’ll have to re-record.
If you really know what you’re doing on the mixing and mastering side of things (outside the scope of this article), then you can try recording wet vocals, but if you’re just starting out I definitely recommend AGAINST it.
How to Capture a Great Vocal Performance
Recording vocals isn’t 100% a technical process. There’s an art to it.
There’s an art to microphone selection, pre-amp selection, microphone positioning, etc. that all impact the greatness of the final product.
But beyond that, there’s an art to actually getting the vocalist to perform their best as well. That’s a part of your job as the producer and recording engineer.
Here are some tips to help with that.
Comfort and Vibe
Comfort and vibe is a HUGELY important aspect to the recording process. It can be a difficult, intimate and frustrating process.
So making sure your vocalist is comfortable is of utmost importance.
Don’t do anything or say anything to make them nervous, or second-guess themselves. Don’t be pushy or controlling. Don’t be too hard on them if they’re not getting the take exactly as you want it.
And beyond that make sure the vibe of your studio is right. You don’t want super bright fluorescent lighting like a classroom. You don’t want a messy room or a room that smells bad.
The vibe NEEDS to be right.
The vocalist/performer should feel as ease. Almost like they’re just chillin at home.
Vocalist Warm Up + Hydration
It’s also a good idea to have the vocalist warm up a bit before actually recording them. Just to get their blood flowing and vocal chords working a bit.
You also want to make sure you offer them either water or tea to help keep them hydrated and their mouths/throats from getting too dry.
Here’s another tip about “warming up.”
While you’re setting microphone levels with the vocalist, have them sing through their part and tell them you’re not recording this take. You should, however, be recording the take. You don’t have to use it in the final version, but you never know how good it will turn out.
The reason for this is that sometimes when a vocalist knows they’re being recorded, their performance is impacted. Sometimes, when they’re not in their own head, they can let loose and get into it more.
There have been times where I’ve had “warm up” takes that ware performed spectacularly, and much better than the rest of the vocal takes.
Full Takes vs. Chunking
There are a couple of different ways you can record a vocalist and it will really depend on the performer themselves.
Some people will be able to sing straight through an entire song in a single take. Other people may do better singing the verses and choruses separately. Others, still, will get their best performance by going line by line.
There’s no right way to do things. It’s all about doing whatever it takes to get the BEST OVERALL VOCAL PERFORMANCE POSSIBLE.
Try doing it in different ways if one way is not getting you the results you expected.
Punching In and Vocal Comping
Remember that with the power of computer software, our options are pretty much limitless. We can re-record over and over and over again without wasting any resources (except time).
That can also be a hinderance. You don’t want to have 100 different vocal tracks to sift through when it comes time to complete the song.
A good rule of thumb is to have 3 separate vocal takes for each piece of the song. Record the pre-chorus and verses 3 separate times. Do the same for the choruses and the bridge.
You want to have 3 takes of everything. You can then easily choose between the best takes.
But you can also mix and match the best parts of each take into one final “super take.” Maybe the singer has a really strong first line in take 1, but a better ending in take 3. You can slice and drag these pieces on to their own DAW track and combine them into a single take.
That process is called “vocal comping” and it’s very common.
You could also “punch-in” if necessary on one of the takes (or your “super take). Punching in is when you setup the vocalist on a new track to record, but only get them to sing a specific line/word/phrase in the middle of an existing take.
In this approach, the vocalist will hear the rest of their vocals, and come in only one the word/line/phrase they need to re-capture.
This goes back to the comfort/vibe of the studio session. You don’t want to be a slave driver – take breaks and don’t push too hard.
Again, you’ll get the best performances when everyone’s comfortable, not on edge.
It may be a good idea to do a few takes, take a quick 5 minute break and then analyze the takes. You may then want to go for another few takes.
Or you can work on the verses, and then take a break before recording the pre-choruses. Or you record the lead vocal and take a break before recording the double, background vocals or harmonies, etc.
And if you’re just not getting the type of performance you want then it’s ok to take a longer break and come back at it (maybe even the next day).
Finally, it’s important to experiment with things. There are some general guidelines when it comes to producing music and recording vocals, but they’re not exactly set in stone.
Why not try recording a distorted vocal? Maybe it’s exactly the vibe that the track calls for.
But beyond that, it’s important to experiment with things like microphone placement or vocalist position.
You can even try experimenting with the microphone you use on a particular vocalist. Certain microphones will just naturally sound better on certain types of voices.
The more you try things, the more likely you’ll find that golden sweet-spot that gives you a pristine and beautiful recording.
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Vocal Editing, Production and Mixing Primer
Before we wrap things up for this guide, I want to briefly mention a couple of things that are very important to the music production process.
Vocal editing is hugely important once you’ve recorded the vocal. Your job isn’t done yet. You see, humans are beautifully imperfect – and those imperfections are great and a part of the package.
But sometimes, the imperfections are a little bit too off. And so sometimes you’ll need to edit the vocal track to take out (or lower in volume) pops, lip smacks, loud breaths, etc. And sometimes a vocalist’s timing will be off and you’ll need to adjust it to get back in “the pocket.”
Another part of vocal editing can be “pitch correction” where a vocalist hits a note a little sharp or flat and you fix their pitch afterwards. (This is what tools like Autotune and Melodyne are for).
There’s also the task of vocal production. This includes things like deciding what type of background vocals or harmonies you’re going to layer on the main lead vocal. It also include how many stacks of vocals each part will get. Are there going to be adlibs? All these are part of the vocal production process.
And that leads into the mixing part of the production process.
What you have right now is a RAW vocal take without any processing done to it. It’s going to be a clean recording, but it doesn’t have that “industry polish” on it to help it really shine.
This is where a mix engineer will take all the different tracks (vocal and instrumental) and literally “mix” them together in the optimal way to let everything shine.
In the case of vocals, they’ll use compressors to get an even volume, EQs to reduce any harsh frequencies in the vocal track and then things like saturation, reverb and delay to really make the vocals pop and come to life in the track.
All of these areas are way beyond the scope of this article, but it’s important to be aware of them when you’re learning how to record professional vocals.
We will have future guides on all these topics right here at Deviant Noise.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, voice recordings are accurate but sound different to us when we listen to recordings of ourselves. That’s because we hear ourselves talk through our body, which impacts the tone we hear. The recording of your voice is an accurate representation of how you sound, depending on the clarity of the microphone used.
Vocals are normally recorded in mono since most microphones are single channel audio sources.
You should record vocals at a maximum loudness of -6db to ensure there is enough headroom in the audio to allow for mixing.
No, you should not record vocals with effects unless you’re very experienced as a recording engineer. It’s better to have complete dry vocals that can be effected after the fact, rather than printed into the audio itself. This allows for more flexibility.
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And there you have it – a complete, comprehensive guide on vocal recording for the home studio.
It will take some time to really get used to the entire process, but the important thing is to just start doing it.
Don’t sweat the equipment too much – most entry level stuff (microphones, audio interfaces) is pretty damn good quality nowadays. If you go with our budget picks, you’ll have REALLY GOOD – and affordable – sounding equipment to work with.
And as with anything, the more you do this process of capturing a vocal performance, the better and better you’ll get at it.
So get to it…
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Thanks for reading this entire guide on how to record vocals for beginners – at home, and like a professional. I hope it was helpful.
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