How to record soft vocals

Soft vocals are one of the most interesting aspects of singing. Because of the wide range of expressions and palette of emotions that can be transmitted through this technique, it is worth to explore how they work on the studio and how that process is perceived in our favorite albums. This time we are going to explain how to approach soft vocal recording in a practical way that will give you the tools you need to start!


Soft Vocals: How do they work?

The first thing we should get clear is: what are soft vocals? Soft vocals, as the words say it, consist of a minimization on certain singing resources, like volume, voice projection and diction, which will help to achieve a proper sound to sing emotional and intimate musical works, thus getting it “softer”. This mellow and endearing sound is commonly used for soft pop, ballads, love songs and other warm-hearted music; it is appropriate because of its intimate quality, very similar to the whispered voice, resembling closeness to the listener, as if the singer is directly speaking to him/her.

The way in which this type of vocals is sung live is by getting close to the microphone, being really conscious of one’s voice projection, volume and breathing. It demands a greater physical control from the singer in order to achieve the same vocal quality without losing anything to the microphone and amplification equipment required to project it to the audience.


Soft Vocals on the Record

When it comes to the recording process of soft vocals there are some factors that are worth to keep in mind, either if you are a singer or a sound engineer who’s about to record them for the first time. When it comes to soft vocal recording, it will be easier to stay away from the common problems of studio singing instead of getting complicated on edition processes, but what are these key areas to tackle?

  • The Popping Effect
  • The Sibilance
  • The Proximity
  • The Popping Effect: The spoken and singing voice has this curious quality that, when it comes to pronounce P or B sounds, a blast of air will come out due to the strength the air produces when hitting your lips. It is actually hard to notice in your daily speech, but things get different when it comes to soft singing. This air blast will hit straight into the microphone’s diaphragm, creating a low frequency sound we call “popping”. This is easily avoided by singing and a slight off-axis angle into the microphone, so the air doesn’t strike directly into the diaphragm. But, being honest, not many singers will be doing this, so that’s why we use pop filters: they will act as a net to catch explosive P and B sounds while allowing the free pass of other sounds.
  • The Sibilance: S and F sounds will produce a high frequency air blast into the diaphragm, producing an annoying hiss in the recording. To avoid this we can use software tools like mult-band compressors or de-essers. But what if we avoid recording them instead? Just singing off-axis will solve the problem, allowing the singer to clearly pronounce everything. Also, when it comes to falsetto singing, which is a very popular resource to achieve emotional momentum in the music in soft vocal singing, you must be aware that when trying to handle the right amount of volume for it. Falsetto technique requires a greater amount of air to be properly executed, which is way you should keep an eye on it for any sibilance side effects produced by this extra air. In order to get your falsetto singing across the mix with the greater noise reduction, you can accomplish this by handling the right distance from the microphone, changing the microphone’s pre-amp gain by the audio engineer or a combination of both.
  • The Proximity: The close or far your voice is from the live vocal microphone will affect the quality of soft vocal recording. To avoid the low-end boost of close sounds, use a pop filter, be conscious of your volume and try yourself to stay one inch or two away from the microphone to find the correct distance in which you’ll get a proper sound without any proximity side effects. Regarding the distance, it is advisable to test as many positions as you find comfortable within your workspace: this way you and your audio engineer will be able to fix the right spot to get our voice’s full potential into the final mix.

However, the proximity to the mic will be adjusted to your vocal range capabilities. Even when you are singing soft vocals you must be aware of how your volume will react to the register in which you are singing. Generally, when you’re reaching for notes near the top of your vocal range the volume tends to go up, and when you’re going at the bottom of your range it will be progressively transformed into a whisper. You can play with the proximity keeping this in mind, and the best tool you can use to tackle this issue is to know yourself as a recording musician, and that will come with every experience you live inside the studio.


Recording Soft Vocals

Now that we solved the majority of edition problems by avoiding them during the singing moment, let’s summarize the recording process of soft vocals:

  • Close Singing: Prepare your microphone with the proper pop filters; get close to it when it comes to sing after you feel comfortable with the mic distance, unless you want to achieve a certain effect by means of proximity. Singing across rather than into the microphone will help to avoid most of the popping and sibilance effects. The closer you are to the microphone in the wrong angle, the greater the risk of losing lyrics’ pronunciation: to avoid this be sure to aim your voice to the mic’s capsule. This will ensure that you build an appropriate “mic presence”, which is the mental image the listener will have of you singing “right in front of him”, guaranteeing a solid track cut during the final mix for the best results.
  • Volume Control: Be conscious of your voice projection and adjust it according to the mood, this way complicated compression processes will be avoided. If you are a live performer which is used to back off the mic for greater and louder moments (especially at the top of your vocal range during your soft vocals) you can make use of this in the studio. Finding a good position for doing this will help, and also will maintain the musicality required for the passage you are singing. Be sure to get the maximum out of the proximity effect when you are getting closer to the mic: the increment of low frequencies and bass response will give your voice that “whispering” or “pillow talk” effect which is required for soft vocals, giving your tone the intimacy required for better musical impact on the audience.
  • Air Control: Soft vocals will cause additional noise since the air will travel across the microphone. Even when pop filters will help to reduce it, try to minimize it using the right vocal technique: the required air for the required notes only. The right amount of air will depend mostly of your singer’s experience and self knowledge of their physical capabilities and vocal technique.
  • Background Noise: All will be heard because of the proximity, and even having in mind all the above recommendations, doing some background noise reduction after the recording is still recommended to get the cleanest possible sound. The use of a proper noise gate will surely take away most of your unwanted ambient and background noises from the vocal track, but it may result in a tone quality loss. To avoid this, it is recommended to do the necessary tweaking into the attack and release, hold time and gain reduction settings, getting a more natural sound out of your vocal track.

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