There’s a common misconception that recording vocals is simple. All you need to do is hook your microphone up to your computer or laptop, hit record, and that should do it, right?
In reality, as any experienced recording engineer or artist will tell you, recording vocals is an art form that requires planning and knowledge. One of the key things you need to consider is the optimal dB that your vocals should be recorded at.
In this guide, you’ll find all of the information you need on the dB that vocals should be recorded at, along with some tips to help ensure that your recorded vocals sound as good as possible.
What dB Should Vocals be Recorded at?
Vocals should ideally be recorded between -10dB and -20dB, with an average of around -12dB. If you’re using the standard 24-bit resolution, this will prevent the vocals from being too quiet when they are recorded into your DAW, or being too loud and distorting.
Decibels and Recording Vocals
Any experienced recording or mixing engineer knows the importance of recording sounds at an adequate level. A common mistake people make is to rely too heavily on mixing, rather than focusing on getting the best possible raw sound.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to rush out and purchase the most expensive microphones, audio interface, and preamps available. It’s possible to get a great sound regardless of whether your equipment is high-end or affordable gear.
The key is to absorb as much knowledge on recording techniques as possible so that you understand the implications of the decisions you make.
One of the most integral aspects to consider is the optimal level at that you should be recording vocals, instruments, and other sounds.
Why Vocal Levels Matter
Every vocalist sings with their unique style and traits. Some may sing quietly, predominantly using their falsetto range, while others may belt out loud vocals with a gravelly tone.
Regardless of the style of vocals, you’re recording, the dB that you record them at is equally as vital when it comes to the end product.
The most important thing to pay attention to is the average dB level of the vocals when they are being recorded.
Decibels in this case indicate the sound pressure level, rather than the actual loudness of the vocal recordings. If the average dB of the vocal recordings is too high, it will likely result in digital distortion or clipping.
Contrarily, if the average dB of the vocal recording is too low, you will need to boost it during the mixing process, which often leads to a reduction of clarity and the highlighting of unwanted sounds within the recording.
Clipping and Digital Distortion
Clipping is a term that makes most mixing engineers and music producers shudder with fear. It occurs when the signal coming into an audio interface or mixer is too loud, causing the level meter to turn red.
If no prior planning is done before recording vocals, you may think you’ve captured the perfect take, then when checking it over in your DAW you could find that the waveform has exceeded the maximum dB and this has completely ruined the recording.
That’s why it’s so important to establish an optimal dB when recording vocals. While distortion can be added later as an effect, it cannot be removed from a recording if it occurs on the way into the mixer or interface.
The process of digital distortion is similar to that of a tube amplifier. When the amp is pushed into overdrive, the tubes create saturation as they have exceeded their maximum level of gain. However, while tube distortion can be desirable, clipping when recording is rarely a good thing.
What is Headroom, and Why is it Important?
Headroom is a vital aspect of any recording. It simply indicates the room that the audio signal has before it starts to clip. If the dB of the recording is too high going in, you will have less headroom to work with before distortion occurs.
The less headroom that is available, the more limited you will be when mixing and mastering your vocal recordings. That’s why it’s important to record the vocals at an average of around -12dB, as this will provide you with plenty of headroom for mixing.
In a DAW, any audio that exceeds 0dB will start to distort. This is known as the clipping point. If you record the vocals at -1dB, they won’t clip but this will leave you with minimal headroom to mix them, which can then negatively impact the way they blend with other sounds.
You can easily see the amount of headroom you have available by monitoring the dB meter in your DAW’s mixer. If the meter is constantly coming close to 0dB, this indicates that you have too little headroom available.
Ideally, the dB meter should peak at under -10dB so that you can increase the volume during the mixing process if required.
It is also not ideal to have too much headroom when recording vocals, as this will mean you have to crank up the level, which could lead to unwanted background noises being noticeable in the output.
Bit Depth and Resolution
Another important aspect of vocal recordings is the bit depth that you use. Bit depth is relevant in digital recordings, as it represents the different sessions of information that are included in the audio samples.
For example, if you listen to a CD, the audio has been recorded at 16-bit resolution. This means that within each audio sample, there are 16 sections of information.
Alternatively, if you choose to record your vocals at 24-bit resolution, there will be 24 bits of information per audio sample.
The higher the bit depth, the higher the definition of the recording will be.
Recording Vocals at 24-Bit Resolution
If you want the best quality vocal recordings, it is advised that you record them at 24-bit resolution. This is considered the best resolution for digital audio recording, as it produces a high-quality, detailed sound.
When recording at 24-bit resolution with an average dB of around -12dB, you will be able to increase the volume during the mixing process without adding too much noise to the signal.
If you record vocals at a lower bitrate, the audio will be more likely to clip. This will also limit the options you have when mixing the vocal recordings, as the headroom will be minimized.
Noise issues are also more likely to occur if you record at a lower bit resolution, due to the inferior sound quality of the recorded audio.
How to Improve Your Vocal Recordings
Along with ensuring that you record vocals at an average of -12dB, there are several other measures you can take to ensure that you get the best possible results.
Even if you’ve set the levels so that your vocal recordings don’t come close to 0dB, unexpected plosives can still cause the recordings to clip.
Plosives are created when a vocalist uses a consonant sound and pushes air out of their mouth. The air then comes into contact with the microphone capsule and causes a sudden “pop” or “hiss” sound to be recorded.
Pop filters are effective at limiting the sound of plosives in a vocal recording. They are usually made from mesh material with tiny spaces in them, and this material blocks the air from coming into contact with the microphone capsule.
Another important thing to consider when recording vocals in which polar pattern you should use. Most commonly, a cardioid polar pattern is used to record a single vocalist, as this predominantly picks up sound from the front of the capsule.
If you are recording several vocalists singing together, it might be more effective to use an omnidirectional microphone, which will pick up the voices from the back and sides as well as the front of the capsule.
The polar pattern that is used will also impact the amount of background noise that is picked up in the vocal recording, so it is essential to choose the right one for the style of recording that you’re aiming for.
Balancing Vocals with Other Instruments
When determining the optimal dB that your vocals should be recorded at, it’s important to consider the way they will sit with the rest of the audio tracks in your song.
If all of the instruments you’ve recorded are very quiet, it may be beneficial to record the vocals at a lower dB, to keep your levels consistent. You can then raise the level of the whole project during the mastering process.
To summarize, if you aim to record your vocals at around -12dB on average, you should have no problems with clipping or distortion. This will also ensure that the recordings are loud enough to be clearly heard in the mix.