One of the most exciting aspects about being an artist in today’s music world is being able to record and produce industry standard songs right from our bedroom. Thanks to the great technology at our disposal, we can set up home studios and make great sounding tracks with a fraction of the cost compared to two decades ago. In this blog post, I would like to explain the fundamental strategies to get you started producing vocals and making great sounding vocal tracks using Ableton Live.
Before we get into the process of production, we first need to make sure we have our equipment ready to go. Here is the basic equipment we will need:
I suggest obtaining a computer with high processing power to avoid crashes and hence avoid losing unsaved work, lots of potential tears and heartbreaking moments!
In order to produce your vocals, you should obtain digital audio workstation (DAW), such as Ableton Live
Condenser microphones are excellent for recording professional-quality vocals, but I would highly encourage you to do research and find a microphone that gives you the sound you like. There are lots of great options for different budgets, so definitely get something that you are comfortable using.
The audio interface converts audio signals to digital, which means that a condenser microphone produces an analogue signal, whereas our computers need digital signals to process. So, the interface helps to convert analog signal to digital, and so it acts as a middle man between your microphone to your computer.
A great pair of headphones will allow you to listen back to your recordings and to hear even the tiniest details. Hearing the lows, mids, and highs clearly makes all the difference in the world when you’re trying to produce great quality vocal tracks.
Preparing for Recording
1. To get started, we will open Ableton and will create a new blank session. Ableton Live comes with two views: “Performance View” and “Arrangement View”, and defaults on Performance View, which looks like this:
However, it is better to record on Arrangement View because it lets us see the tracks horizontally (just like Logic Pro X or Pro Tools). To switch from Performance to Arrangement View, just hit ‘tab’.
Ableton’s default session will feature two audio and two MIDI tracks. As some quick background information, digital instruments (such as beats, synths or MIDI piano) are recorded in MIDI tracks and analogue signals (such as vocal, guitar, acoustic piano) are recorded into audio tracks. Consequently, we will be using audio tracks to record our vocals.
2. Next, let’s set up the tempo of our song. In a new session, the default tempo will be set to 120 bpm (beats per minute). Notice the series of buttons and boxes in the top left corner of your session:
You can click and drag it down to slow it down, or click and drag it up to make it faster. If you have a specific beat in your head but don’t know how many BPM it is, you can simply click on the ‘Tap’ button as long as you like, and Ableton will determine the tempo for you.
Once you set up the tempo, you can run the click track to make sure it’s the tempo that you want. Simply click on the two rounded symbols that looks like this:
To continuously run the click track, hit the space bar. You can hit the space bar again to stop it.
3. The next step would be to connect our condenser microphone to Ableton. Connect your XLR cable to your interface and connect your interface to your computer. Then turn on the ‘Phantom Power’ (48V) on your interface to power up your condenser microphone.
4. Then, we will set up the input by going to File > Preferences on Ableton
Once you go to your Preferences, go to Audio and select ‘Audio Input Device’. Your interface should show up here, so select it. If it is not there, simply restart your Ableton. Also make sure to select your appropriate ‘Audio Output Device’ based on where did you connect your headphones. If you connected them directly to your computer, you can just select “Built-In Output”.
Creating a Backing Track
1. Usually, you want to have a beat, or an instrument track before recording vocals. Personally, I love starting with a guitar track (piano tracks are also great). I will usually start out by recording a few chords.
2. I will plug my electric guitar to my interface and pick out an audio track. Then, to start recording, I will hit the ‘record enable’ button, which looks like a rectangle with a round black button in it. When you record enable this track, the button will turn red, which will arm this track. This means you are ready to go.
3. All you need to do from this point on is to turn your click track on, and hit record. The record button is located in the top of your session. When you hit it, it will turn red and should look like this:
4. Once you record your instrumental track, hit space bar to stop.
5. Let’s say you like your track, but the only problem is it’s too short and you want to loop it. You can double-click on your track, click on ‘Loop’, and drag your track to right, it’s gonna loop that 4 bar guitar phrase into a longer part.
If you are recording over a beat, you can import the beat into an audio track, and then loop just like how we did it above.
- To start recording some vocals, simply create a new audio track and make sure you select the input that your mic is connected to.
- Record enable your track and you will be ready to go to record.
Working with Another Vocalist
If you are producing another vocalist, keep in mind that it is very important that you give feedback to the vocalist after every take. Singing is quite a challenging task and especially the recording psychology makes everything a little sensitive. Giving your vocalist constructive feedback can also make them feel more comfortable, and helps them improve their performance.
Recording a Full Take vs Individual Sections
It’s rare to get a flawless performance in one take. Many choose to record vocals section by section. This process is known as ‘comping’ which is short for compilation. In terms of strategies of recording the whole song or the individual sections, I like to have a mix of both.
The mix strategy tends to be a very efficient technique because by initially recording the song as a whole, the vocalist gets comfortable with the direction and dynamics of the song. After they get comfortable, then we get into the individual parts of the song and focus on getting the best possible results out of each section.
By the end of your recording session, you will probably have lots of different takes, waiting to be edited. Keeping them in large chunks will probably make your job harder. So you can chop down different parts of a recording with ‘Command + E’ and consolidate different parts using ‘Command + J’.
The trick is to pick the different takes at the end of recording and combining them together to make it look like it was all recorded in one take. So, my suggestion before starting to comp a track is to work with a clear and rested mind. Nothing will make your song worse than trying to listen to dozens of vocal takes and randomly picking one. If you are not feeling like it, then do not start editing. I start editing vocal tracks usually a while after recording them, especially if it was a long recording session.
These are some of the strategies that we incorporate when we are producing vocals on Ableton Live. As you start producing music, you will discover that there are many different methods to get to the same results, but hopefully, these strategies will give you a foundation. Keep in mind that it takes time and effort to make great songs, so the more songs you produce, the better you’ll get in the end. So get started with producing some vocals and most importantly, have fun making your music!