Some thought and highlights from the 2019 NAMM convention in Anaheim, CA.
Everyone is looking for advice about how to get those sweet full-sounding vocals into their mix. There are many options out there and I can only offer my thoughts and experience, but I encourage all engineers to think outside of the blog, book, or videos. Come up with your own way of recording vocals and you'll be much happier with the final mix. It's a great idea to take information and techniques from multiple sources and experiment to find out what works best for the music and the equipment that you have access to at the moment.
Microphones are a major factor when you're recording vocals. Not all microphones are created equal and they certainly all won't give you the same sound. The price of a microphone isn't a concern that you should worry about when searching for the right mic for your vocal tracks. Focus on a mic that will give you what you're looking to track as a solid base for your vocals. If you're looking for clean and crisp vocals, try to find a mic that has a flat frequency response or one that at least has a smooth response in the range of the vocalist. Some mics are specifically tailored for vocals and they typically do a great job. If you have the ability to audition mics before you purchase them, I'd highly recommend that route.
Now for the first tip / secret that I use to get great sounding vocals. Placement of the mic is by far the most important place to start. Move the vocalist around the mic to find the right spot for the amount of presence and clarity. Don't just have the vocalist stand right in front of the mic. Many times, vocalists will stand too close to a mic. This causes too much presence in the low frequencies and tends to pick up a lot of sibilance. A pop filter placed right in front of the mic won't alleviate this problem. But it is a good idea to use a pop filter to guide the vocalist to the proper distance from the capsule of the mic. There's not a specific amount of space that you can use on each vocalist, you have to work with how loud and what type of tone the vocalist has for each individual track. That's why they have a goose neck for being placed in different places depending on the vocalist. Plus, it's a great idea to mount the pop filter on a separate mic stand. This allows you to move the mic around while maintaining the spot where the vocalist stands. Keep in mind that the vocalist doesn't have to be on axis with the capsule of the microphone. It's quite alright to experiment with having the vocalist sing off to the side of the mic. This technique may reduce the amount presence and help the vocal fit right into the mix.
I hope this information helps you get started with tracking amazing vocals. The vocalist can be the most amazing singer in the world, but how they're recorded is half of the quality. So work with your vocalists and talk to them if you're hearing something that doesn't sound good. It's perfectly normal to have a vocalist do another take if there are problems with the recording. Never fall back on the notion that it can be fixed in the mix. Strive to be the best engineer you can be and do everything you can to get solid vocal tracks. Less is more and this goes a long way when you start to mix and the vocals already sound perfect. A few tweaks here and there and you should be able to get the right sound for the mix. Please leave a comment if you have any questions about the techniques that I've listed here.
If I had a nickel for every time I had to turn down levels on the tracks I receive when I'm doing a mixing session, I'd be a millionaire. If you want to hear what your mix sounds like at a louder volume, try turning up the volume on your monitors first. Don't push the faders all the way up or use a compressor/limiter, you're only doing damage to your mix.
Set up a reference track! Just import your favorite song into your DAW session and listen to it through the monitors. You have an idea what that song sounds like so you can use it as a reference point to calibrate your system and get a good point of reference for your mix. Mixing without a reference track is like driving a car blindfolded. Not a good idea.
Most DAWs come with a metering plug-in or a metering software program. Use it! It's there for a reason. Metering helps you get a good idea of how loud your mix actually sounds. If your DAW doesn't show RMS levels, there are a bunch of programs out there that are free and will give you a good reference point for your RMS levels. Try and give each of your mixes at least 10dB of dynamic range. If possible, give your mix anywhere between 15dB to 20dB of dynamic range. You'll notice a huge difference in the audio quality of your mix if the dynamic range has lots of room to breathe.
Louder is not better if your mix has a bunch of digital distortion. If no one will listen to you music, it's probably not the content, but rather the lack of quality mixing that was put into the music. Take the time to give your music a real good listen. Critical monitoring is so important to making sure that you get a good mix. Don't over compress and don't smash your limiter or compressor so that your meters are all the way maxed out at 0 dBFS.