When there is an opportunity to practice singing I take it and is there a better place to sing than in the car? Probably not. Technically its the wrong position for your body to sing, but somehow singing along in the car just sounds better. It is probably the closed area and the close in mix with the sound system that makes it work. The question is then, because practicing and recording go hand in hand: can I also record in the car?
To that end I’ve tried the voice recorder of my phone and to say it bluntly: that doesn’t work. Only car sounds, no music. Fortunately I found something that does work. The Zoom H1n recorder. Now I can practice singing and at the end of the journey hear if I am on the right track and which songs need more work. Also, its a great way to experiment with new ideas along an otherwise boring trip from A to B.
The Digital Signal Processing (DSP) of modern voice recorders is not tuned to music recording. Probably anything that works as a voice recorder simply does not work for singing in a car. You need to have a broader frequency range otherwise the car sounds will just take over. On top of that you need something that can be operated while driving, so it has to be a one button start/stop operation and the recording device must really be mounted securely.
Enter the Zoom H1n. It has a camera mount, so any camera stand that can be used in the car will hold it. Then its one button to start and one button to stop. You can even feel your way through the operations so there is no need to take your eyes of the road. All the other editions of the Zoom portable recorder range will probably also do the job, but not at the price point of the H1n. Did you know you can also use it as an ASIO device? Other brands might also offer the same experience, but you should check the mounts and the capabilities for recording music.
I have been in and out of the biggest and very small studio’s, but by no means my home setup can match any of the studio’s i have had the honor to work in. Its a PC, headsets, monitors, an audio interface and a microphone essentially. Yes, there also other gear, but i could work without it. Specifically for working with vocals, there is not much more that you would need.
Hardware and software
I have invested in a better microphone. A nice condensor with tube preamp from sE. The audio interface is one of the Focusrite Scarlett models. The headsets are from Sony and Sennheiser, not too expensive. Bought for acceptable audio quality and wearing comfort. The monitor speakers are a pair of very basic Behringer types. You can’t mix on headphones alone. The PC is a bit on the weak side, but 64 bits and 16GB of memory with SSD. The whole setup as i have it should set you back around 1500 euro’s.
Then there’s software. I use Ableton and that is on its own enough to turn this hardware into a studio. I have invested in plugins for all kinds of purposes, but again they are not needed. Another 100 euro’s and you are in the music business.
Then there is no separate recording room or mixing room, when i record vocals it is all in the same small room in the attic. Call it a mess, stuffed with musical instruments and a PC. To compensate for the noise that the PC will make and the poor room acoustics I put the microphone inside a nice sE recording filter and behind a plop filter. The setup looks like this.
The actual noise from the PC is getting through, but is low enough to be taken out by a basic gate. When recording i make sure that the levels reach halfway from 0db in Ableton, which would be around -18 db. This leaves enough headroom and allows the noise floor to be gated out in my case.
As you can see, the trick to not using a separate recording room is the use of a headset. For the first recording sessions i was very nervous, so i put a lot of effort in setting up a separate routing in Ableton to allow for a real headset mix. With Cue Out to another output. In practice now i just throw the Master Out into two headsets. One for me and one for the performer. Of course the monitor speakers are switched off while recording.
Personally i work with a complete arrangement, before adding vocals. This means in Ableton i will be recording in the Arrangement view. Recording in the Session view is maybe more your thing. It depends on your workflow. Just one thing, whatever way you work, make sure you know your DAW. There is nothing more frustrating then wasting the time of your singer with finding stuff out and messing up. Recording should be swift and when you have “flow” it should not be interrupted needlessly.
This also applies to the hardware of course. Messing with cables and mixer routing is a waste of everybody’s time. Know your software. Know your hardware. Need another take? Bang, start recording. Is the recording okay, but could maybe done better? Save this track. Record another. Compare. Play back. Which is better? Go back to the first recording? Okay no problem. One line went great, the next not so great? Keep the first line and only record the next line. Punch in, punch out recording. Practice this before inviting your guest performer. It makes the difference.
Try to listen carefully while recording. Strange plops or noises? Are the words right? Did you get all parts recorded? As a rule, don’t immediately start mixing during or straight after recording. Rest your ears and have a listen again, the next day. Then start mixing or discover that you need another recording session. It happens.
And okay i admit, i also cheat a little, specifically with my own vocals. I use Melodyne from Celemony (autotune) and Nectar from Izotope (vocal processing). Two tools to get great sound with small means. It also allows for doubling voices for multiple layers of vocals and it saves a lot of studio time. Please make sure your performer agrees on you cheating.