As one of the top vocal coaches (and arrangers) in the world, I am often inundated with questions about which mic to use, vocal and recording techniques, recording better vocals, and how to sing with more power and emotional expression.
While there is a lot to this, from vocal technique to emotional interpretation techniques, to recording techniques, I wracked my brain to come up with a list of my “best of” advice for how to make your voice sound like your favorite records.
Recording is an art unto itself and the more you do it, the better you will get. If you don’t have a home studio, get one. Learning how to record good vocals at home is one of the quickest ways to improve your voice on your recordings. It’s relatively inexpensive these days and it is the first step to perfecting your recording savvy and skills. Who doesn’t want to sound like their favorite records?! My goal as a singer was not to be the most famous but to be a great vocalist. To be able to deliver a standing ovation (I got one at Town Hall, NY), and to make an award-winning record (luckily I achieved that too). Wherever you are with your voice right now, just know that with a solid vocal technique (like we teach) your vocal dreams are achievable. Talent is good for starters, but Skill is what you need. Those that do the work will get the results. I have countless stories of singers I have coached who went from average to awesome (blush: including myself). If I can do it, and if they can do it, so can you!
How to Make Your Voice Sound Like Your Favorite Records
1. Set the Distance from Your Microphone.
Start with a good microphone. Condenser mics are the way to go. The Shure SM7B is a favorite for quality at a good price. AKG 414 (pre 2000) and Neumann are great mics for a higher price. But heck, I’ve heard a good vocal come from a Shure SM57 – which is a total fluke! (it’s a performance mic). A great pre-amp also helps, see below. If you really want a professional mic chain at home see #3 below.
Then set the right distance (see #2 below) so you have enough signal but don’t hit overdrive when singing loudly (distortion).
2. Use a Pop Filter.
Pop filters are enormously handy when recording vocals. They will help to protect against plosive sounds (“p’s”, b’s”) that hit the mic with air. It also helps to set the correct distance from the microphone. If you place the pop filter 4–6 inches in front of the mic, it makes it easier for the singer to keep the same measured distance. Too much moving back and forth will cause a dip in the vocal sound. Too far back will sound too “thin” and sound like you are in another room. Too close and you will distort the vocal track.
3. Use a Good Preamp.
Preamps are really important, but only the right one. They help boost the signal of your microphone and ultimately the right one will give a warm, rich sound to your vocal. I recommend that you do your research however, as there are many cheaper preamps that really don’t do much. If you are only doing demos at your home studio then you don’t need to invest in a really good one, but I would recommend getting the Apollo Twin (Universal Audio) for the best bang for your buck. Follow tutorials on YouTube to learn how to use it. It’s the most popular unit home studios use.
My vocal chain setup is a 1993 AKG vintage 414 mic with an Avalon 737 preamp. It’s a killer sound. When I was recording my Circle of Fire vocal, the mixing producer/engineer advised getting the Avalon (we already had the 414). He said if we give him that vocal chain he could make a top quality vocal record. We ended up winning an award for the sound :). Since then I’ve heard that the Apollo Twin (Universal Audio) has an equivalent to the Avalon in digital plug-in form at a third the cost of the Avalon.
4. Make Sure the Recording Space Is Not Too Live.
The reason studios have a vocal booth is to create a dry room so the sound doesn’t echo and bounce all over the place creating a tinny or thin sound. While you can add reverb or roominess to a vocal track, it is impossible to take a boomy room ambiance out of a recording. Reflexion filters can help tame the reflections of a live room. If you don’t have a quiet room to record in, then a home vocal booth is a great solution for recording in an extremely live (large) or reverberant space.
5. Half-inch Tape Vibe.
This tip is more known among producers, I learned about it when I recorded vocals for my Circle of Fire record. When you are ready to mix your record, consider running the digital mix through an actual half-inch tape machine. The old-fashioned kind. It takes the thinner digital sound and turns it more analog. Half-inch tape makes instruments and the vocal sound rich and velvety. You know how sometimes a singer’s voice gets strident or thin on the top? This smooths it out – knocks the vocal sound out of the park quite frankly. My pal Anthony “Rocky” Gallo uses one at his Brooklyn Studio Virtue and Vice.
For non-purists, I’ve also heard there are virtual plug-ins that come close if not match the sound.
6. Use Good Posture.
Stand when recording your vocal. You’ll need your full body engaged to produce a good vocal. It will also help with breath support, which makes it easier to sing well. Keep your chest elevated and practice good posture for your best vocal.
Remember that when recording your vocal, it will seem like you are singing with a lot of gusto, and then when you listen back it sounds so much smaller. The amplification makes it seem like you are singing more than you are. Be sure to get the right volume ratio between your vocal and the track (this is critical).
7. Hydrate for 3 Days Prior and Have Water and Tea Close by During Your Session.
3 days prior to recording up your water intake by drinking 8 – 10 glasses of water a day. It helps to hydrate ahead of time. During your session, drink water, but at room temperature. The drier your voice, the harder it is to sing high notes and the bumpier your break will be. The drier your mouth is, little noises like smacks, clicks, pops will be a nuisance. Throat coat tea is helpful for more moisture, and nothing beats steam! (bring a portable steamer to the studio with you).
8. Pre-monologue the Lyrics.
It’s not uncommon even if you have written the song yourself, that the emotional delivery needs workshopping. It’s one thing to write a song, it’s another to deliver an electrifying performance. One technique in particular that always gets the singer more connected to the lyric and emotional expression is to monologue the lyrics.
Speak the lyrics out loud as a poem in front of a mirror-like an actor would deliver a monologue. Speak slowly and deliberately feeling the emotion of each phrase right before you deliver it. Try to feel each line in your gut, in your emotions. If you wrote the song a while ago and are no longer in the same emotional place, don’t worry. Use your current emotion or memory of what that felt like to connect. If it’s hard to connect, then use the emotion of frustration that you can’t connect and wha la! You are connected to your emotion. What’s important is to go with what you currently feel to make a connection. Once you monologue the lyric fully — then go sing the song. You will notice a difference in your emotional connection to it and in your delivery.
9. Mark Up the Lyrics.
Print out your lyric sheet and mark it up. Mark where you take your breath (or should take your breath). Circle the breaths where you need a bigger breath. Write out any phonetics that will help with smooth out pronunciation. Write out any melisma’s or riffs, or mark where you hold a note longer. Then look at your sheet when you practice. It will help your brain remember the technical parts so they can be more on autopilot during recording. Bring your sheet to the studio with you for easy reference.
For more info on marking up your lyrics and mastering your vocal performance, check out Cari’s Vocal Resource Library where she breaks this down further.
10. Warm Up Your Voice.
Warm up your voice with the right vocal techniques designed to open up your voice for recording and performance. It’s not enough to just warm up singing the song itself. These exercises will warm you up, open up your range, tone and help prepare you for a great vocal performance.
11. Don’t Be Afraid to Work With a Coach Beforehand.
We have several vocal coaches to work with. Cari of course is the master, but her protege, Jess Best is also now teaching for us and is an incredible singer and a kind, knowledgeable teacher who can help dissect your voice and improve your phrasing and emotional delivery. Working with an experienced singer and vocal coach will only help to improve your recording. Try it! You’ll be surprised how much of a difference it makes.
Here’s an example of one of our artists, Robyn Cage, talking about how the vocal arrangement of her song “Burning Now” that Cari arranged ahead of time, that helped Robyn deliver a stunning vocal.
“Recording vocals is always super personal. There’s always that feeling of vulnerability and nervous excitement. Really wanting to tap into that memory and pull up those emotions so they are present in the music. One of the vocal coaches I work with is Cari Cole in New York City. She’s also a vocal arranger. A vocal arranger goes through every single word, vowel, syllable, phrase and accent until it’s as good as it can possibly be. But the amazing thing about this experience, is that it helped bring out the emotion. I thought I would be overthinking it, and it wouldn’t be organic anymore, but it was actually the exact opposite. It actually freed up the emotion in the song.”
~ Robyn Cage, vocalist, songwriter, recording + performing artist
12. When Recording a Record (vs. A Demo), Consider Hiring a Vocal Arranger for Your Recording Session.
Most big records hire vocal arrangers to be at the final vocal recording session to help the singer deliver the best possible vocal. Your vocal track is the highlight of the recording – it delivers the song and the emotion. It’s one of the most important pieces of a great recording and having someone to be there to help will help the impact of your recording out in the world. It’s hard to be objective of your own performance and a seasoned vocal arranger, with years of experience will not only make it easier for you to deliver your best vocal, but will make the studio experience more enjoyable and less stressful. Inquire about hiring one of our vocal arrangers for your next project. While it can be expensive to have an arranger for your entire record, start with your top 1-2 singles. You’ll learn so much you can apply the techniques to the rest of your project. I once did a 3 hour vocal arranging session with an artist in New York. We had her producer attend the session. Following the 3 hour session, they decided to re-sing the entire album using the techniques I outlined in the session. The result was incredible! The artists’ name is Kate Mills and the record was “Little Bird”.
A few years ago I gave a workshop at the DIY Musician’s Conference in Austin, TX put on by CDBaby. At that workshop I arranged vocals “live” for 2 singers. Sometimes it’s the simplest tweaks that make all the difference
“Cari’s presentation, “How to Sing and Not Suck”, was my favorite because she created a warm, engaging atmosphere and provided specific, concrete examples of things everybody in the room could do to improve their vocal skills. Her step-by-step process and the description of it was something I welcomed. When she brought up two musicians to provide on-the-spot coaching, she provided nuanced recommendations for each musician and explained to the audience why she was making each recommendation. The musicians improved on the spot and the audience could see why.” – Parker Shaeffel
If you’re interested in one of my year-round pop-up Vocal Workshops – you can join me and 2 Pro Vocal Coaches “Live” on Zoom June 24th, 2021 for an exclusive Vocal Workshop Event! We’ll be sharing the pro guidance, tools & techniques you need to instantly transform your vocal recordings. Learn grammy-winning recording techniques used on big records! Plus, 3 Spotlight Artists will get “live” vocal arranging coaching from our experts! (limited seats available) Click here to learn more.