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20 Minute Guide to Recording Vocals Over A Track

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microphone recording
This beginner tutorial will guide you through the steps of recording vocals over a beat on your computer using Audacity (free). This is great if you’ve written some ill rhymes and want to spit over a beat, but don’t know where to begin. This will cover basic recording, noise reduction, and compression. If you want to learn how to make an actual beat, check out How to Make a Hip Hop Beat in 30 min.

Approx. completion time: 20 min, excluding downloading & installation.

Difficulty: 2/10

What You’ll Need

audacity logo A freeware audio recording and editing tool that actually is pretty good for it being free. We’ll use this to record. Audacity is great for first starters. It has all the basic functionality that the expensive professional software like Adobe Audition has. Complete songs can be recorded, edited, and mastered using Audacity. Click the image to download.

Any old microphone that can plug into your 1/8 inch jack in your computer will work. Cheap $10 computer microphones will be just fine if you are just playing around with this. If you have a karaoke mic, those are usually 1/4 inch plugs. You can find 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch adapters at a store like radioshack for around $3.

The more insulated the headphones, the better. Headphones are used during recording so that you can hear the beat when you record yourself. Insulated headphones will let you hear it and not leak music into the microphone.

A Beat to Record Over
In case you don’t have one, here’s a beat I produced back in the day. Right-click the link and choose and Save As.

Let’s Get Started

Loading the beat

  1. Open Audacity
  2. Go to File > Open and select the beat you’ll be using from your computer.

Setting Up The Preferences

audacity recording preferences

  1. Go to Edit > Preferences, and select the Audio I/O tab, which is the first tab.
  2. If you have your microphone set up right, you shouldn’t have to touch anything under Recording.
  3. Make sure “Play other tracks while recording new one” and “Do not modify audio device settings” are checked.
  4. Uncheck “Hardware playthrough” and “Software playthrough” so that you don’t hear yourself as you are recording. This is just my personal preference as I feel it is somewhat distracting.

Recording Over The Beat

Audacity selection tool and input volume

  1. Use the selection tool (indicated by the red circle) to click where you want to begin recording. Once you find the spot, pull it back about 10 seconds to give yourself enough time to jump in and for the noise reduction effect I’ll explain later.
  2. Put on your headphones, and click the red record button.
  3. You should hear the music play. Make sure the volume in the headphones is not so loud that it bleeds through and into the microphone. It is very important that you make no noise in the period where you wait to jump in and sing.
  4. Look at the microphone input volume indicated by the green circle. Adjust it so that it is at a level that is not too soft and not too loud.
  5. How far you stand from the microphone depends on the type. If it is something like a karaoke mic (not a computer mic) you want to get really close, about 3 inches. Computer mics tend to be pretty sensitive and you should test different distances with yours.
  6. Record 10 seconds of silence at the beginning of your vocal track.
  7. When you are done recording, press the Stop button.

Checking The Recording

The wave that you record should not so loud that it creates clipping or distortion. The image below shows a wave with clipping. It looks like a wave that was too big to fit in the window. If yours looks like this, turn down the mic volume and record again.

sound clipping distortion

Below is a recording that was too soft. Turn up the mic volume and try again.

sound too soft

If it looks like the image below, then that’s good enough to work with. If it sounds quiet compared to the background beat, that’s okay, we will normalize it later.

good volume

Noise Removal

Remember when I told you to leave around 10 seconds of silence at the beginning of the vocal track? We will use that sample of silence as our noise profile for noise reduction.

solo and noise selection

  1. Zoom into the silent portion and select a big chunk of it.
  2. Click solo on the track you just recorded to hear only that track. Put your headphones on and turn your volume up. Listen to the silent portion. Unless your microphone and sound card are so supremely great, you should hear slight background noise. You may notice that the beginning of the noise is slightly different and then fades down into a consistent hiss. Select at least a good 3 seconds of the same hiss sound. The more of it the better.
  3. Go to Effect > Noise Removal, and click Get Noise Profile.
  4. Select the portion with the actual vocals.
  5. Go to Effect > Noise Removal.
  6. Now you can choose how much noise reduction to apply. More is not always better! Try moving the slider to the right and click preview. The hiss may be gone, but you also might sound more metallic. The setting to use varies for each person so play around with different settings until you find the right balance. This is a pretty neat tool for a free program.

Usually a vocal recording is not perfect. Some parts are louder than others and really stick out while some parts are too quiet. The compressor tool helps even it out by bringing down the volume on the too loud parts. This is the trickiest part of the tutorial because it may take a few attempts at trial and error to get it right.

  1. First we have to find the dB levels of the loudest and quietest part of the vocal recording.
  2. Float the meter toolbar so we can get a better reading of dB level. Go to View > Float Meter Toolbar.
  3. Resize the meter toolbar big enough that you can see more granular markings of volume level.
  4. Find the loudest point in your recording and select the peak. You may have to zoom in for this.
  5. Now play that part in a loop by pressing Shift + Spacebar at the same time.
  6. Look at your volume meter and write down what the maximum volume is.
  7. Now find the quietest peak, not quietest spot in your recording and write what its maximum volume is. This means the quietest desirable sound, so breathing noise doesn’t count.audacity output meter
  8. Now drag and select the entire vocal track.
  9. Go to Effect > Compressor.
  10. The most important setting is Threshold, which is the volume level at which the compressor kicks in and quiets down the too loud parts. Your threshold should be between the dB of the loudest and quietest parts of your track (which you wrote down earlier). If the difference is -7dB vs -14dB, then your threshold would be 11dB. If the difference is wide like -7dB and -25dB, lean towards a quieter threshold like -20dB.
  11. Leave Ratio at 2:1 and Attack at .2 secs which work for most vocal recordings.
  12. Check “Normalize to 0dB after compressing”. This will raise the overall volume on the track.
  13. You can use Preview to see the effect on the first few seconds of the track, but it really helps to click OK and apply the effect to see a more overall view.
  14. After you apply the effect, your track should visually look more evened out. Listen to it to make sure you are satisfied. If not, try a different threshold.

There is no exact formula for doing this, and it may take a lot of trial and error to get it down to sounding good.

That’s it for compression and now we just have to adjust the volume between the tracks. If the vocal track sounds too loud after normalizing to 0db, try using Effect > Normalize, which will set the maximum level at -3dB. If the vocals sound too quiet, try using Effect > Amplify to increase the volume, but beware of clipping/distortion.

Saving as mp3
Now you are ready to save this song. First, you need to install the LAME mp3 encoder. Instructions are here:

To save as mp3, go to File > Export as MP3 and save your first recording.

I hope this tutorial wasn’t too rough or hard to follow, and that it was very helpful especially for beginners who want to get started in music production.

I would love to hear any questions and comments. Please leave them below.

If you have any general questions as to how to get started in production, try posting your question in the Getting Started forum.

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