If you've got a storming vocal on tape you're halfway towards a great production. PAUL WHITE offers some tips on perfecting this most important of recording skills.Even if all the music you make is created via MIDI, the chances are that at some time or other you'll have to record vocals using the traditional tools of a singer and a microphone. The vocal line is invariably the focal point of a song, so it has to be good, and because the human voice is the natural sound with which we are most familiar, any flaws in a vocal recording are immediately evident. Fortunately, providing you have a vocalist who can sing in tune, getting a good vocal sound isn't rocket science -- you just need to follow a few basic guidelines, and perhaps take advantage of a few tricks of the trade to help you get a professionally produced vocal sound.

1. Make sure the singer is well rehearsed, physically comfortable, and under no psychological pressure. Most singers perform best standing up in a room that has a comfortable but not over-warm temperature. If they are distracted by other members of the band or by hangers-on, send everyone but the engineer (and producer, if you have one) out of the studio.

2. Take time to get the vocalist's headphone mix right, and give them a little reverb to help them sing more confidently. If you can rig up a system which allows vocalists to adjust their own monitor level, it will make life a lot easier. A good headphone mix really helps to encourage a good performance.

3. Always use a pop shield between the singer and the microphone. Failure to do so will almost certainly result in unnatural 'pops' on plosive 'b' and 'p' sounds that can't be fixed afterwards. The pop shield may be a commercial model or a DIY job comprising stocking material over a wire coathanger frame (one such design was explained in the Cheap Tricks article in SOS February '95), or even a fine metal or plastic sieve or chip-pan splash guard. Any of these will do the job without affecting the tone of the mic. Foam wind shields are virtually useless in combating pops.

4. Use a good microphone: it doesn't have to be anything too special, but you should avoid low-cost 'bargain' models or those designed for use with home stereos or portable cassette recorders. Professional studios generally use capacitor microphones, but in the project studio a good back-electret mic or even a good dynamic vocal mic can produce excellent results. For more on these different types of mic, see April's SOS.

5. Pick a mic to suit the singer. Singers with thin or excessively bright voices may actually sound better with a dynamic mic, such as the ubiquitous Shure SM58, while those needing more of an open sound would benefit from a capacitor or back-electret mic. If you have several mic models to choose from, try a test recording with each and see which is most flattering to the vocalist.

6. Use the right mic pickup pattern: most project studio vocal recordings are made using a cardioid or unidirectional mic, as these pick up less sound from the sides and rear. However, an omni mic of a similar quality generally imparts a more natural, open sound and that can be useful if you're working with a singer who tends to sound nasal or boxy. If you work a couple of inches closer to an omni mic, you'll get close to the same 'direct sound to room sound' ratio you'd achieve with a cardioid.

7. Put the mic at the right distance, because if you get too close to it you'll increase the risk of popping and the level will change noticeably every time the singer moves slightly. Cardioid mics also exhibit a bass-boost 'proximity effect' that varies as the singer's mic distance varies. On the other hand, if the singer is too far away from the mic the room reflections will colour the sound, making irecorded in a dry acoustic environment need reverb to give them a sense of space and reality, but don't use more than the song really needs. As a general rule, busy songs need less reverb and slower ballads with lots of space in the arrangement can afford to use more. Listen to some commercial records in a similar style to your own and see what reverb techniques the producer has used.

17. If the vocals are very brightly recorded, they may cause any added reverb to sound sibilant. Instead of de-essing the vocals (which often sounds unnatural), try instead de-essing just the feed to the reverb unit. You can also experiment with the reverb type and tonality to minimise sibilance and spitting.

18. If you do have to de-ess the vocals, try to use a split-band de-esser rather than the simpler compressor with an equaliser in the side-chain, as the split-band approach produces fewer undesirable side effects. It's always best to try to avoid sibilance by moving the mic slightly or by using a different mic, rather than trying to fix it afterwards. Pointing the mic slightly above or below the singer's mouth sometimes helps.

19. When you're using prominent echo or delay effects on a vocal, try to get them in time with the song, either by calculating the delay needed to match the tempo or by using the tap-tempo facility if one is provided. For a less obviously rhythmic echo, try a multi-tap delay with irregular tap spacings.

20. To ensure that the vocal is mixed at the right level in the song, listen to the mix from outside the room and see if the song has the same balance as something you might hear on the radio. The vocals are the most important part of the song and so must be well forward, but not so far forward that they sound 'stuck on' to the backing.