A great vocal take can turn a simple song idea into a timeless classic. So many amazing vocalists have punched through a speaker with a searing vocal or razor-sharp lyric, and it’s safe to say that your vocals can make or break your song.
A lot of producers, songwriters, and engineers believe that great vocal takes can only be recorded in an expensive studio with world-class equipment. While these circumstances allow for seamless, top-quality recordings they’re not always necessary to get a great vocal take.
There is a long list of A-list musicians who have recorded and released tracks where the vocals were done wherever it sounded good to them. Billie Eilish famously recorded most of her debut album in her brother Finneas’ bedroom.
Similarly, Kurt Cobain’s famous quiet vocal on Nirvana’s Something in the Way was done with him sitting on the couch in a control room.
Today I’m going to show you how to capture strong clean vocal recordings without having to fork out big money for an expensive studio. I’ve personally used these means to record my own vocals, as well as a variety of singers, rappers, and voice-over artists.
It should go without saying that your vocals should be recorded in a quiet environment so that there is minimal interference with any of your vocal takes. Singing, rapping or voice-acting also takes a certain type of intrinsic focus, so isolation is highly recommended.
Place #1: Your Closet
If you happen to live in a house that allows you some silence to record vocals, you can turn your closet into a makeshift vocal booth. Regular studio booths are essentially soundproof boxes, so the general idea would be to mimic this structure using the shape of your closet.
Most closets are made using wood or wood laminates. This is a great base material for the structure of your vocal booth, but the ‘walls’ will need some form of acoustic treatment to diffuse any possible reflecting sound waves.
You can use your hung-up clothes to create the left and right sides of the vocal booth, provided that the clothes are fairly thick and there are enough to stack up evenly on either side of your microphone. You’ll also want to place a pillow or thick blanket on the back wall of your closet, as this is where you’ll get the harshest sound reflections.
I really enjoy the sound that I get out of my closet recordings, especially when recording softer vocal takes that have lots of air on top. Something about the tight space brings out the intricacies of delicate voices. However I do find louder, more belting vocals can sound a bit stunted in this type of recording situation.
I generally place my microphone at about one-third of the depth of my closet, which is about 1.2m deep for reference. I also try to leave a decent amount of space between the mic and the closet ceiling. Your mic placement will vary depending on which mic you use and the type of vocal you’re recording.
Place #2: Your Car’s Back Seat
Much like a closet, you can use the back seat of your car to recreate the box shape of a vocal booth. You can either run a mic line through the window into the car or simply set up a remote recording inside the vehicle if you have recording gear that does not require power. This is especially handy if you want to quickly track an idea while on the go.
You’ll still need to have your car in a quiet environment so that you minimize the amount of background noise captured in your vocal takes. Try to fit some blankets or sweaters over the side windows to catch any possible reflections. You can also place some pillows or folded blankets over the dashboard for the same purpose.
It’s pretty tricky to place a mic on a stand in your backseat, so I recommend finding a good microphone that you can do handheld takes with (my personal go-to is the Rode NT-1).
Cars are a bit more accommodating on loud vocals than closet booths. I’ve also used them for gang vocals with all the vocalists facing towards the center of the car. However you may need a bigger space if you are looking to record vocalists with big dynamic range. A car’s cockpit isn’t versatile enough to allow one vocal take that has very soft and loud parts.
Place #3: Your Bedroom
Your bedroom may not have all the elements needed to give you a world-class recording environment, but you can get pretty close with the right materials. If you stay in a quiet neighborhood or somewhere with little to no noise, you’ve already solved half the problem.
There are a few ways that you can record vocals in your bedroom depending on room size, shape, gear, and the type of vocal you’re recording. Try to take out any furniture or items in your room that might resonate or rattle during any vocal takes. Also, hang blankets up on the walls to help diffuse any harsh reflections.
If you’re in a relatively tight space it’s best to record the vocals somewhere towards the center of the room, and closest to the wall that has the most treatment. I also try to face the vocalist away from the windows and desks which may affect how my room sound is captured.
Good vocalists know how to execute mic control so that they can help you get strong, clean vocal takes. You can use a pop filter to stop your vocalist from getting too close to the microphone. This will help prevent the mic from taking in too many low frequencies, and also diffuse any harsh syllable pronunciations.
Place #4: A Rental Studio
If you’ve managed to save up some capital for a production budget, you can make use of a rental studio to record your vocal takes. Choosing the right studio means looking up local spaces that accommodate recordings and trying to find examples of their work for reference.
Not only will rental studios have the right types of structures and treatment for a reliable recording environment, but they’ll also employ someone to ensure that your recordings are done seamlessly. A second ear and a bit of assistance can be helpful for recording in unfamiliar spaces, so make sure to ask the studio if they have any advice on recording in their space.
When setting up to record a vocal in a new space I always try to have a few reference tracks on hand to help me with my choice of microphone and mic placement. I generally place a primary microphone in front of the vocalist, with a secondary mic placed a few feet away directly behind the first to capture some room noise.
There are no hard-pressed rules for which microphone works best for vocals. Some of music’s biggest hits have vocal takes that were done on a humble Shure SM57 while sitting on a couch. In the same regard, it’s equally easy to get a bad vocal take using top-of-the-range gear.
The recording environments listed above should be well within the reach of any aspiring musician or bedroom producer. You can also use these environments to try and record other live instrumentation such as brass or percussion.
With the right acoustic treatment and decent mic placement (and mic choice), you shouldn’t have to give your vocals too much cleaning-up or boosting in your DAW. However, there are some handy techniques you can use if you want to liven up your vocal takes.
If your vocal takes need some extra attention to have a look at our post on How To Clean Up Muddy Vocals. There are a handful of tips to help bring your lyricism to life. Thanks for taking the time to read through our list of the best places to record vocals if you don’t have a studio. Happy mixing.