Recording and mixing vocals and still having fun

by Pex Tufvesson aka Mahoney

The short version

Mahoney's 10 golden rules to recording vocals:

  1. Don't sing yourself. It's not half as fun as getting somebody else to do it.

  2. Put the microphone in an unnatural position. Figure out where the microphone has it's deaf ear, it's either 120 degrees from the front or where the cable goes out. Try to point that to the worst noisemakers in the room. Often this is the echo from the roof, the computer and maybe traffic noise from a window.

  3. Open all closets and put mattresses, pillars and unneccessary furniture in the room. Empty rooms gives nasty echoes. Kill them with anything else than air!

  4. Stand up and sing. Don't sit down, it's bad for your bones and weakens the voice.

  5. Use a windshield for your microphone. Build one of women's stockings and a clothes-hanger. This will prevent the plosives (p, k, t and b) to shock the microphone, and is quite annoying.

  6. Place the singer's mouth 15-18 cm from the microphone. If the distance is longer, you'll hear the room. If it is shorter, you'll eat the wind-shield.

  7. Be home alone when recording. Maybe do-ap-doo is fun the first time, but not for the 15th.

  8. Use 6-12 dB headroom when recording. The peak-meter should normally not exceed -6dB during a test record. Always delete distorted recordings, never try to fix them manually. It can be done, but it's no fun at all.

  9. Play around with this chain of effects: Voice -> equalizer -> compressor -> auto-tune -> de-esser -> exciter -> echo -> reverb. Play around until you know what they all do!

  10. Have fun!

The longer version…


Today, the microphone I use costs 150-250 euros (One Shure Beta-58, and two Rode NT3). The price doesn't really matter, because you can't hear how much a microphone costs on a recording. My first professional recordings in 1994 were done with a 1-Euro microphone!

With a serious microphone, you'll often get a diagram showing how much of the sound (for different frequencies) that will enter the microphone from different angles. You'll notice that most of the sound enters from the front, naturally. Keep the microphone pointing to the mouth, kind of natural, eh? But, it is not always true that the deaf angle of a microphone is to the rear end of the microphone. For hyper-cardiod mics (like my Rode NT3), it is a circle 120 degrees from the front, which is handy for not recording the computer fan noise, the traffic outside and the direct echo from the roof, while still getting the full input from the singer. For a toy-microphone like the ones you'll get bundled with you computer, the deaf angle is mostly where the cable comes out, 180 degrees from the front. Keep it pointing away from your computer!

Holding the microphone
Please don't. Use whatever you can find for not holding it. When you hold it, you'll get a lot of noise in the lower frequencies (below 100Hz). This can be removed with an equalizer or a high-pass filter with a proper cutoff frequency, but you'll probably also want an equalizer that boosts the frequencies around 100-200 Hz for a male singer, and 200-300 Hz for a female to give the voice more presence.

Mono/stereo microphones
Record vocals with a mono microphone. Maybe I'm a bit too traditional, but I guess that you probably don't want to record the motion of the singer's head. If you want a panning vocal, pan it afterwards. Recording with a stereo microphone, please only use one of the channels (the left, for instance). If you use both the left and the right channel, panned in the center, you can get some nasty phase-effects from small movements of the singer.


Alcohol does not improve your skills. Maybe it releases some tension, and you'll have great fun while recording. 95% of your listeners will be sober when listening, and might not understand your kind of intoxicated genius talents.

All singers are nervous. You are too. All kinds of strange feelings regarding self-esteem and self-criticism will arise. Your role is to know how the technical part works (that you actually record something, and the notes that shall be sung), and what feeling you'd like the singer to express. You have to describe, as colourful as you can imagine, what you want. Tell jokes about the song, try to sing what you'd like to hear, in your own voice with your own limitations. Have fun.

For perfection
The perfect take doesn't exist. You'll never get one. And if you do, you'll soon find out that you forgot to press that record button. Accept that it is a human singing, and not a synthesizer. It is supposed to be human!

Use a pair of headphones for the singer. Whether it's a pair of earplugs or larger headphones doesn't matter. I use a pair of Sennheiser closed headphones, where outer sounds are damped about -10dB, and no sound leaks out to the microphone. The singer should hear some kind of piano/chords, but not the notes that he/she is singing. Instead, his/her own voice from the microphone should be heard in the headphones. You can probably set this up with your soundcard's settings. If you do it through your sequencer's settings, you'll probably get some nasty delays. Round-trip delays (=latency) above 20ms makes singing harder. Singing directly to a SID song/sound is very hard. Better use a more natural instrument for giving the singer reference chords, and then you can remove these in the final mix.


If done right: …will give the voice a natural feeling. Brilliance and natural bass. A sense of freedom.

If done wrong: …will sound like recorded at home (which it is!), stomping feet will be heard, as well as fumble-hand noise. Sharp sss sound will saw through your ears.

If done right: …will make the loudness of the singing to flatten. Small variations in the distance to the microphone will disappear. More details in the singing will be heard. The singer will be close to the listener.

If done wrong: …will give the listener confused thoughts. The singer will sound distant, caged, imprisoned. The sound is distorted and muddy.

If done right: …will make a mediocre singer sound better. Not at the attack part of the sounds, but for longer, held notes. Auto-tune will make a _very good_ singer sound worse, since it isn't always the well-tempered scale (the one's a piano is using) that is the best. A great singer knows which notes that's supposed to be sung brighter than the piano and darker than the piano by looking at the chords and this note's position in the chord.

If done wrong: …will make robots of humans. 90% of all pop/boyband/ballad music released today is auto-tuned. I hear it, and I suffer.

If done right: …will lower the volume for sounds like sss, f, k and t, which with some singers/mixes can destroy the flow of the text.

If done wrong: …will make the singer stutter and lisp.

If done right: …will add brilliance to the voice, glowing and glittering on the right wovels.

If done wrong: …will give you an instant headache by all the high-frequency litter. sss-sounds will pierce through the mix.

If done right: …will fill out the soundscape with the voice in a natural way.

If done wrong: …will sound like recorded at home (which it is!).

If done right: …will melt the singing and the instruments together, placing them in the same room.

If done wrong: …will blend all sounds together in a fluffy porridge. Don't use reverb on drums.


The main vocal should be in the center. It should have it's own space in time and frequency. Don't play the lead both on an instrument and together with the singing. Use equalizers to remove frequencies of other instruments to make way for the lead vocals.

Which tools to use

It doesn't really matter. They all do the same, more or less. If you're happy with your equipment, stay with it. If you keep trying out different plugins/sequencers/programs all the time, the chance of you actually finishing a project quickly vanishes. If you have a working version of a program on you computer, don't upgrade it. Ever. The main focus is having a working computer, a tool for your creativity. And using 100% of your time installing and upgrading software/hardware will get you nothing but a constant headache.

How to learn

Have fun, play around and try everything. It's easier to break the rules when you know them.

Well, all spelling mistakes are my own, and I'm proud of them. If there's something you'd like to add to this text above, please do! If there's something I'd like to add to this text above, I will…

If you agree on all I've said, then you're probably wrong. There isn't the way of doing things. There are millions. I've tried to explain some of mine, and I'm sure you have a better one. Now that you've read this, I wish you lots of fun in your quest of proving me wrong!

Have a noise night!

/ Pex"Mahoney" Tufvesson