How can I set up a vocal recording studio in my house?
March 2, 2013 5:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting to get moderately serious about vocal recordings, and I need some help figuring out which gear is most suitable and how to best set everything up in my small, noisy apartment.

I'm starting to get moderately serious about vocal recordings, and I need some help figuring out how to best set everything up in my apartment.

1) First of all, there's a lot of static and noise in my current recordings. How can I best prevent this? Will I need to set up a vocal booth? It sounds realllllly bad, like, awful!
2) Which mics are best? I'm a female with a mezzo-soprano voice that has the sorrowful rich tones (not light and airy). My range is F2 to F5. I know some mics are best for certain voices and ranges, but I'm not sure which.
3) Which preamps are best?
4) Do I need a new computer? The latency on mine is a little ridiculous.
5) Audio interfaces? What is best?

I saw some questions on search, but they weren't 100% geared towards vocal studios. I'd like to hear ideas anywhere from $500 to $4000. Thank you!
posted by semaphore to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have a friend who recently renewed a longstanding interesting in doing voice-over and narration work; these are two tips I gleaned from his experience:

1. A fast laptop with a SSD is really helpful, as you can have it in the booth with you and it will be dead silent, or very close to it. Think "MacBook Air" or a Windows/Linux equivalent.

2. You can convert a coat closet into a reasonably sound proof recording booth using thick foam sheets and heavy moving blanked, and it will work pretty well. My friend's house is in the flight path of SFO, so external noise is a big consideration for him.

No answers to your juiciest questions, but hopefully a start...
posted by mosk at 5:14 PM on March 2, 2013


What style of singing?


1) static and noise in your current recordings: Is this 60 cycle hum? Static like, white noise, or clicks and pops? Can you post a sample?

2) Which mic is best for which voice is really a matter of taste. There is going to be a wide range of opinion here. Generally a large diaphragm mic is recommended for vocals. Some people prefer condensers, others dynamic.

3) Depends on what you're going for. Your two main pathways for preamp are "clean" and "colored". Clean pres are really neutral. Colored ones add a little something to the sound.

4) What computer do you currently use? What DAW are you using?

5) This depends on what DAW you use, how many things you ever plan to record at once, etc.
posted by dubold at 5:46 PM on March 2, 2013


1) The static is lots of atmospheric white noise. I will post a sample in a little bit when I can record. I have one of those little vocal caves that go over the mic stand, but it doesn't seem to help. I've used both USB and line in with two different mics and nothing really helps.

2) I have a few mics already, but all are under $350. I greatly prefer condenser mics, but I do have a SM 58 as well.

3) I have nooo idea. ;)

4) I currently record into either a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro. Both make wayyyy too much fan noise. The latency of my pro is unbelievable despite having 8 G of RAM.

5) I record into Ableton Live. I'm really competent with it and it's been working really well for my needs so far. If you have suggestions, that's fine.

Thanks soooo much.
posted by semaphore at 5:51 PM on March 2, 2013


Oh, and I'll only ever be recording one person singing at a time.
posted by semaphore at 6:00 PM on March 2, 2013


Basic set up.

1. Decent laptop. Anything new $350 and up will do a great job running your DAW. (Digital Audio Workstation.)

2. DAW. I use Audacity because it's free and works really well. I used to use Adobe Audition, which is great, but it's kind of expensive.

3. Interface. Something to plug a really great mic into and have it recognized by your computer. You'll need "phantom power" which is the ability to use powered Condenser Mics. That's actually pretty typical in interfaces like my cheap little -M Audio MobilePre. I like this model because it's USB powered.

4. Condenser Mic. Do some research and find what's best for you. They are a little bit more expensive than the stage-proper Shures, but they are right for the job.

OKAY, having read your most recent comment, just skip steps 1 and 2. Find a compatible interface and if you already have a condenser mic you'll be set.

The interface is essentially an external sound card that is designed to be just as good an input as the typical built-in sound card is at output.

All the crap noise you're hearing is just a result of your sound card not being designed for serious input. The interface will eliminate 99% of that.
posted by snsranch at 6:11 PM on March 2, 2013


The latency probably isn't due to any issue with your computer, but rather because you're using the standard audio drivers, which aren't designed with low-latency in mind. If you pick up an external digital-to-analog converter ("DAC"), it'll use different drivers that will minimize latency. I use an M-Audio Fast Track Pro, which works great but has probably been superseded as it's a few years old.
posted by sinfony at 9:53 PM on March 2, 2013


Its not clear how you are plugging the Microphones into the Computer? What are you using as a Pre-Amp at the moment? (you can't physically plug an SM-58 or Condenser Mic directly into a Mac-book so i'm curious what you have bridging that gap at the moment.)

I would stick with the current microphones you have for the time being. and sort out an Audio Interface with Pre-Amp that has Direct Monitoring. This will also resolve the Latency Issue. If you have your monitoring setup correctly then there is no reason why Latency should be a an issue when recording vocals.

with Ableton - can it do Direct Monitoring?

The noise / sound of the recordings is most likely ambient room noise or from the computer itself.

how to reduce the impact of room and ambient noise: I would try these in order until I reached a level I found acceptable.

a) use a long XLR cable and get away from the computer - and a long cable for your headphones for monitoring. you can get extension cables for headphones.

b) setup your microphone stand (you are using a stand right? - handling the mic causes loads of noise) . Set it up in a Corner of the room so that it points into the corner. then you stand facing out of the corner towards the microphone. between the mic and the corner. this reduces the background noise - cause there is now nothing much behind you to make noise.

c) the corner setup can be improved by adding some kind of sound absorbent material - even just a blanket covering the wall behind you. I once just used some picture hooks to run some string and hang a few blankets behind me. It really makes a difference.

d) Do the corner trick in another room. without any electric applicances running

e) 3 or 4 sided booth with blankets and a roof. A friend once found some really cheap second hand office dividers and setup a 3.5 walled temporary vocal booth with a blanket ceiling. He said that the Ceiling made a huge difference in eliminating room noise.

f) buy a microphone and pre-amp worth $1,000 + each

g) go to a recording studio for your vocals.
posted by mary8nne at 4:44 AM on March 3, 2013


Is the static noise in the room when you aren't recording? You shouldn't be hearing anything on your recordings that you don't hear in the room, and if you hear it in the room, than the first thing you need to do is to eliminate the noise. If you can't eliminate the noise, the only way you're going to get really clean recordings is to create some sort of recording booth to isolate yourself from the noise. This can go from simple to extremely difficult depending on how noisy it is and how handy you are.

As for mic pre's and whatnot, Unless you are really ready to drop a lot of money on recording a bunch of stuff, you'll be best to start out by buying the best interface that you can, which will have at least one built in mic preamp. It doesn't make sense to buy a $1000 mic preamp to plug into a cheap interface, much better to buy a good interface which has a decently clean preamp built into it.

As for latency, hopefully the new interface will cure that. I was recording full albums with tons of effects on dozens of tracks 10 years ago on a computer with 512 megs of ram, so as long as your computer is from the last decade, there's no reason why you should have to deal with a lot of latency. The only exception to this may be if you are recording onto a laptop internal drive, which could cause issues. It is always a best practice when recording to use a separate drive for just the audio files.

If you are really serious about this, and willing to invest a good amount of money, than you may want to book a couple of hours at a local studio, and tell them you're trying to figure out the best mic for your voice. Then you take a backing track with you, and start singing into all of their mics which fit your budget. Listen back to all of them and pick the one which best suits your voice. Keep in mind, though, that the best mic for your voice may be different depending on the song you are recording. This isn't so much an issue if you're just singing for one band with very similar arrangements on all of the songs, but if you're trying to sing on a variety of different things, you may not be able to find one mic which sounds great every time. A little EQ can help fix this in the mix, though, so as long as you have something halfway decent you should be OK. A good neutral mic is the 4050, a standard mic for pop vocals that isn't terribly expensive is the TLM103. The SM7 is often overlooked because it is dynamic, but it is sometimes a good choice. Pretty much anything in the $500 range is going to work OK as long as you don't get a mic that has a very distinct sound. The only way you'll know what works best for your voice it to try some.

If fan noise is an issue, than you just need to move the computer further away. Don't spend a bunch of money to get a new computer just to make it quieter. Better to buy a wireless keyboard so that you can hit the record button from across the room.

So, to sum up and condense a little bit, a decent interface for your software will likely solve a few of your problems (latency, mic preamp), and paired with a good microphone you'll be most of the way there. Make sure your room sounds good, and if not, find a way to isolate yourself from whatever noise might be there. Until your ear is trained enough to really hear the subtle differences in things, don't invest in much expensive equipment without the help of someone who has a really good ear (and if you're going to invest anyways, maybe buy used to that you won't lose as much money if you sell it soon after).
posted by markblasco at 9:16 AM on March 3, 2013



1) The static is lots of atmospheric white noise.


This could be a couple different things; could be a gain staging issue, first off. What are you using between the microphone and the macbook? Anything? or is it just an XLR going into an adapter into the mac

Could be that your input preferences are set incorrectly and you're also recording from the laptop's built in mic. That can give you atmospheric noise and weirdness because the mic is right next to the computer. If you're using an XLR cable and getting >5 ft from the computer it shouldn't be so terribly noisy.

2) I have a few mics already, but all are under $350. I greatly prefer condenser mics, but I do have a SM 58 as well.


I've made fine-sounding recordings with sub-350 mics. If you want to shell out for one amazing condenser, that's fine, but I would sort out things like room treatment, mic stand, preamp/interface first, in that order.

3) I have nooo idea. ;)

Then go for clean. Easier to add color than remove it. Since you're using a mac, look at the Apogee Duet.


4) I currently record into either a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro. Both make wayyyy too much fan noise. The latency of my pro is unbelievable despite having 8 G of RAM.


Lower your buffer size to reduce latency. " CMD+, " to open preferences, select the second tab down, "Audio", and adjust "Buffer Size". Mine is currently set to 109 samples, which gives me 7ms of latency.

While you're on that page, check your input and output settings. Make sure you're selecting the right Audio Input.

5) I record into Ableton Live. I'm really competent with it and it's been working really well for my needs so far. If you have suggestions, that's fine.

Ableton is really great. I use it as well; if you want to upload a session for me to look at, I could offer specific advice.
posted by dubold at 11:31 AM on March 3, 2013


So I just recently got my studio setup to record clean vocals. 3 things that made a awesome difference in how clean a vocal I can record:

1) Got a Reflexion Filter that houses my AT4040 condenser mic.

2) Built my own acoustic panels using some 1x3's, plywood, Owens Corning 703 and some muslin.

3) Busted a whole in my wall and have relocated my computer to my master bedrooms walk-in closet. If I didn't have that option, I would have built / bought an isolation box to reduce the fan noise from my computer. I ran 15ft firewire / vga / usb cables which is about the max distance recommended.

My office / studio is very quiet now and everyone who comes over comments on how quiet the room is. I can now get a good recording.

Regarding a computer, buy as much power as you can get. There is nothing worse that a computer that starts clipping after you turn on your first VST. Get lots of CPU and RAM. If you really want to do it right, get a SSD and a very quiet power supply / fans.

On a recommendation, I went and splurged and bought the FocusRite Liquid Saffire 56 interface which serves as a firewire interface as well as my pre-amp. It can emulate 8-10 different preamps and has phantom power for condenser mics. If you can really wail, yo could get by with a dynamic mic. I have the Shure SM7B. I believe Michael Jackson recorded Thriller on it, so that is good enough for me.

Any modern DAW will do what you need once you get a signal in, e.g. ProTools, Sonar, Reason/Record, Logic, Cubase, Reaper, FruityLoops.
posted by jasondigitized at 2:37 PM on March 3, 2013


I'll second Jasondigitized regarding the Reflexion Filter. A genius piece of gear. It improved the vocal results in our project studio immediately.
posted by omnidrew at 6:16 AM on March 4, 2013


If you're getting really noisy recordings, it's definitely not because of the mic. Some people love or only merely like the M58, but no matter how you cut it, that mic isn't making your recordings noisy. The M58 has relatively low impedance, so it's probably not your cords. It also has a pretty stable frequency response curve and only really skirts off after about 10,000 hz - which is way above your mezzo range. The point is, the mic isn' the problem. Most of the "spend more money, get better recording quality" stuff is, after a point, total bullshit. If you really look at the specs, there's honestly not much you can do with a $500 mic that you can't do with a $100 M58 if you're just recording voice.

Your DAW is probably not contributing to the noise either. What's your pre-amp? My guess is that's your issue (unless you're, say, holding the mic instead of using a stand, or if you are in a room with running water or something). Get yourself something like the Fast-Track and you should be totally fine.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:31 PM on March 4, 2013


I built my own reflection filter for vocals out of a mic stand, a wire coat hanger bent into a crescent shape, two pieces of Auralex acoustic foam, and a decent amount of black gaff tape. Works great!
posted by stenseng at 3:04 PM on March 5, 2013


The point is, the mic isn' the problem. Most of the "spend more money, get better recording quality" stuff is, after a point, total bullshit. If you really look at the specs, there's honestly not much you can do with a $500 mic that you can't do with a $100 M58 if you're just recording voice.

Yeah, this really isn't true. And frankly, judging a mic by specs, frequency response curve, what have you, is a bit like judging a meal based on how the menu tastes... The only way to judge a mic is with your ears. That said, as a rule of thumb, more expensive mics have tonal character, definition, and detail, that you don't get from a cheap mic, and every mic sounds different.

Many mics, cheap or expensive, may not work with your particular voice. Your best bet is to go to a music store and test out mics until you find one that feels like a good fit to your voice. I particularly like the tone and versatility of tube condensers - I've got a GrooveTubes GT66, (now the Sterling Audio ST66) that works well with many different voices, and is about as affordable as tube condensers get, but your mileage will vary, and your ears and pocketbook should be your only guide.
posted by stenseng at 3:11 PM on March 5, 2013


Yeah, this really isn't true. And frankly, judging a mic by specs, frequency response curve, what have you, is a bit like judging a meal based on how the menu tastes...

Uh, except for science...
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:20 PM on March 5, 2013


Science doesn't really matter in this instance. A mic selection that is pleasing to the ear and sounds "musical," isn't always the mic that is the most accurate in real world terms. Production, mixing, EQ, these are about shaping sound to elicit an emotional response. Science can be a handy shortcut to determining in which frequencies certain sounds live, such as:

20 Hz and below - impossible to detect, remove as it only adds unnecessary energy to the total sound, thereby most probably holding down the overall volume of the track
60 Hz and below - sub bass (feel only)
80(-100) Hz - feel AND hear bass
100-120 Hz - the "club sound system punch" resides here
200 Hz and below - bottom
250 Hz - notch filter here can add thump to a kick drum
150-400 Hz - boxiness
200 Hz-1.5 KHz - punch, fatness, impact
800 Hz-4 KHz - edge, clarity, harshness, defines timbre
4500 Hz - extremely tiring to the ears, add a slight notch here
5-7 KHz - de-essing is done here
4-9 KHz - brightness, presence, definition, sibilance, high frequency distortion
6-15 KHz - air and presence
9-15 KHz - adding will give sparkle, shimmer, bring out details - cutting will smooth out harshness and darken the mix

However, when selecting a mic for musical purposes, I guarantee that using your ears will give you a better selection than paying attention to spec sheets will.
posted by stenseng at 10:10 AM on March 6, 2013


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