These actions will make your home studio more purpose-built for your voice -says Juliet Russell.
1. Soften the Hard Surfaces
A recording studio is purpose built to record sound, whereas our homes aren’t. Hard surfaces reflect sound so the microphone might pick up, not only your vocal sound, but the reflections of this sound; “the room”. If you have a great acoustic in your room, you’re lucky and you can use this, but if not, we want to “deaden” the sound of the room, particularly in the space around where we record vocals.
An easy way to do this is e.g. to hang a blanket on the wall behind you, close the curtains, put a cloth on the desk – fabric absorbs sound.
Where you stand in the room is also important. If you stand in the middle, there are likely to be many more reflective frequencies combining. Ideally stand with your back to a soft surface (closed curtains) and not too close to a facing wall, unless you’ve got your blanket up!
I also use a microphone reflector shield (also called a reflection filter or screen), which can cost between £45 – £150
2. Use The Best Mic You Can Afford & Experiment
Most of the tips in this article are no or low cost, but recently I’ve had a microphone rethink.
For home recording I have a cardioid condenser mic, which costs around £200 (You can buy very usable mics cheaper than this though). It suits my voice and works great for demos and for creating vocal and choral arrangements.
During the demo phase of my Earth Meets Sky album, I borrowed my friend’s Neumann U87 and the results were significantly better than recording with my usual mic. This mic costs ten times what mine costs so indeed they should be. With it, I created a professional vocal from my home studio and these “demo vocals” made it to the final cut of the album. For a professional singer that does a lot of recording or sessions from home this kind of outlay is probably worth it if you can afford it, but would be way over the top if you’re just starting out.
Conversely, I had a recording deadline this week for a voiceover session, but my own mic was in another city. I borrowed a Samson CO1U USB mic, which costs about a quarter of what my mic cost. I had to do a lot of playing around with proximity, my own voice quality and recording levels to get the sound I was after, but it did this particular job very well indeed. Even with a very accessibly priced mic, in this situation I got what I needed.
Choose the best mic you can for your budget and, whenever you can, try out other equipment and experiment. You’ll learn a lot.
Bear in mind that if you have a brilliant mic in a very imperfect space, you’ll still struggle to get professional results. Good home recording is a combination of factors.
3. Eliminate Background Noise
We become accustomed to the sounds in our home because they are so familiar. However your microphone will hear them. Have a really critical listen to your room or turn the mic on and record. What can you hear?
Whether it’s water running through a radiator, air conditioning or the washing machine in the kitchen, get rid of any extraneous noise by turning it off.
I have a few recordings where my cat and dog are an accidental feature (vocals and keyboards a speciality) so if pets can be in a different room, that’s good too.
4. Take Time to get Levels Right
Take a bit of time before you record and you’ll benefit once you’re in the zone.
A. Recording vocals
Record too loudly and you’ll get a distorted vocal or a clipped sound, but record too quietly you’ll hear the imperfections of the room and surrounding sound from cables, equipment etc. Take time before recording to sing the loudest and quietest parts of the song and set the recording levels accordingly.
B. Headphone monitoring
Before recording make sure that your headphones are set at a level where you can hear yourself well in balance with the music. If your headphone levels are too loud you may not sing loudly enough to get an optimum recording level. If they’re too quiet you may lose your pitch and rhythm references and waste a potentially great take. Again, listen to the loudest and quietest parts of music and vocal before you hit record.
Add reverb to the headphone mix as you like, but not to the vocal recording until afterwards.
5. Invest In or Make a Pop Shield
A pop shield is a brilliantly simple, but effective piece of kit. Whatever microphone you have, avoiding annoying pop sounds and unnecessary breath noises on your vocal track is essential. You can’t remove them later easily and often not at all.
Pop shields provide a filter between your voice and the microphone. They cost between £6 and £30 or are easy to make from a wire coat hanger and a nylon stocking or pair of tights.
My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry
Brooke Wharton - How Can It Be?
I really enjoyed listening to you. You have a lovely folky as well as pop quality to your sound and I loved the dynamic control in your performance, particularly in the choruses. You had a great emotional connection and you really made me listen to the lyrics. I hadn’t heard the song before, but feel that I got to know it really well in a short space of time thanks to your excellent communication skills. If you’re not already singing at a professional level, you definitely could be.
My only constructive criticism is to do with sound quality and not about the vocal performance itself. There’s quite a lot of reverb in the sound and it actually takes away from the clarity of your voice. It’s worth playing around with different reverb settings as your voice would suit a brighter sound.
Over all though, you have chosen a song that really suits you and you sing it very well. It’s an accomplished vocal performance. Well done.
Juliet Russell has completed a unique tour which sees her joining forces with a different community choir in locations across Britain. Hundreds of voices performed Juliet Russell’s new album, Earth Meets Sky, creating a series of unique live performances. These have been recorded, filmed, and broadcast throughout the tour on social media. Visit her website for more information.