Are you going to record vocals in Ableton Live? Then you MUST read this post so you don't make these 5 mistakes that will ruin the entire session.
Alternatively, you can watch the full video tutorial above.
I made this video and article while recording the vocals for my original song "Silence hurts more".
So I figured it would be a great opportunity to show you how to set up Ableton Live for recording vocals — and how to get the best session possible.
If you don't use Ableton Live, don't worry: these settings are available in every DAW and you can still benefit from this article and capture great vocals even at home.
You'll learn the most efficient workflow, how to configure the DAW and how to avoid some recording problems.
What you need to record vocals in Ableton Live
There's more gear you could add later. But to get started you only need the basic things I mentioned.
And hopefully good room acoustics because that's actually one of the most important factors — or your mic may pick up those nasty wall reflections.
The process of recording vocals in Ableton Live
The first step is to export a simple version of the song — like a piano audio track or guitar track — just to lay down the harmony.
That will help the singer stay in tune. with a simple metronome click.
Some people prefer to record vocals while listening to the whole instrumental track with drums and effects.
The simple piano track is a personal preference — I find that listening to the entire instrumental track is overwhelming and kills my focus.
That means I record the vocals on a different Ableton Live save file.
Not the one where I produce the instrumental, which is super busy — it usually has fifty to a hundred tracks.
For recording vocals, you'll benefit from keeping the project as clean as possible so you don't have any latency issues.
Configuring Ableton Live to record vocals
Once you're in the Ableton Live session, you need to configure the inputs correctly.
The first step is to create an audio track and make sure it's receiving audio from your microphone — which in this case is the External Input One.
Then click on this circle icon — which stands for Arm Recording —, to make it red.
That means this track is ready to start recording as soon as you click the Record button on top.
Monitoring vocal levels before recording
Now you need to make sure the singer can hear their voice at a proper level while singing.
That's key to staying in tune, since their ears will be covered with headphones.
There are two ways of doing that, depending on your audio interface.
The MOTU M2 has a button that allows you to always hear the mic directly in the headphones — even without configuring monitoring in the DAW.
I suggest you use this feature if available on your interface because it's free of latency — no matter what buffer size settings your interface or DAW use.
But not every interface has this feature. The alternative to monitor microphone input levels — in Ableton live —, is to click this button and choose between "Auto" or "In".
Auto is usually the best because the singer not only can hear the mic input when recording, but they can also listen to the clips after recording them — without having to turn this button off.
It's set and forget. Just set it to auto and you're good to go.
Should you use audio effects while recording vocals?
Some people like to have a plugin chain on the recording track so they can hear their voice with all the effects while singing.
That helps because they will know what the vocal track will sound like in the context of the song — it sounds closer to the final product.
And some people perform better vocal takes in that environment.
So you can load a compressor, some reverb, equalization — whatever tools you like to use to improve your vocals.
And that won't hurt your recording at all if you want to change those settings later.
Just turn the plugins off and you'll be able to keep the raw recordings.
It's just a matter of preference — unless these effects cause latency, which can be confusing for the singer and result in pitch and timing deviations.
On the other hand, some people — myself included — like to record vocals without any effects on. Especially compressors.
I want to be able to hear my voice exactly as it's being captured.
That helps me adjust the singing and try to place my voice right, instead of having my judgement clouded by effects.
I only use a Utility effect for increasing the volume, even though it sounds super dry.
Whatever works for you or your vocalist.
Running a test recording and watching the levels
Before singing for real, run a test and watch the levels. Record something to find out if the audio is clipping — you don't want it to be too loud.
If there's a point in the song where the singer goes louder and it clips, that would introduce distortion that can't be removed in post-processing.
Always leave some headroom: -6 decibels is a good start.
But you also don't want it to be too quiet because, when you're mixing and you increase the volume, you may introduce a lot of room noise that's a pain to remove and always leaves artifacts.
Comping vocal recordings in Ableton Live
One really cool feature that Ableton Live introduced not too long ago was the possibility of comping vocals easily.
So make sure to "Show take lanes" and you'll be able to see all your takes of the same section of the song, if you're recording in loop.
Each one of these lanes is a different take that was recorded in loop.
And this is important because not all vocalists like to record the whole song at once.
Some prefer to record it section by section: Verses, then Choruses, then Bridge and so on.
If you're recording with another vocalist, let them decide what works for them. If it's the first time, try both.
Advantages of recording on a loop
Looping a single section to record vocals offers many advantages. The singer can really zoom into one section of the song at a time.
Also, you instantly get more takes to use as natural doubles — a very common technique in pop music production.
To set that up: highlight the verse, loop that section — maybe start one or two bars before the singing part so the vocalist has some time to get ready —, and hit record.
You can let it record in loop mode for as long as you want and sing that section until you think you've captured a great performance.
What makes great vocal recordings
It's not so much about the tuning and timing because that can always be fixed with Melodyne or autotune.
But there are some performance issues that even autotune can't fix. A vocal take can still suck even after pitch correction.
That has more to do with vocal technique than anything we can do in post production.
You can't use plugins to create the emotion, character, expressiveness or vibe of a performance.
That, you can only hope to capture in the raw vocal take.
Later you can enhance it in post production, but it has to be there in the first place.
Choosing the best performance
Aafter recording, move on to the vocal comp and pick the best performance for each line.
You can hear each take recorded by clicking this icon on the right side.
Select the takes you like for each line and press Enter. That will bring that take to the main track.
Then make sure to draw crossfades to avoid clicks and pops.
Naturally doubling vocals for stereo width
If you want to double your vocals for some natural stereo width — instead of having only a single mono vocal track sitting in the center, here's how:
- Record the same section more than once;
- Drag clips from your take lanes into another track — the doubling track;
- Pan one take to the Right speaker, another take to the Left speaker;
- Blend to taste with the main vocal in the Center.
If you follow these simple steps, you'll get this very wide stereo image and your vocals sound larger than life.
It also helps hide some singing flaws that would be a lot more noticeable if you only had one mono vocal track.
But it can also kill the focus and make the words sound confusing if they're not properly synced.
This technique only works if you use different takes.
Duplicating a single take won't create a double. It will just sum the frequencies and sound louder — not wider or thicker.
This effect is used all the time in pop music, especially in choruses and high energy sections of songs.
Saving this session as a template
Now that you know how to record vocals in Ableton Live, make sure to save this Session as Template so you can quickly load it in the future to record more songs.
5 Mistakes that will ruin your recording session
Before you start capturing great performances, it's important we talk about five mistakes that will ruin your recording session.
And they definitely have ruined a few of my recordings in the past, so take note of them.
#1. Your recording is full of ambient noise
Some microphones will capture anything.
So beware of things like the A/C noise. If possible, turn it off for recording.
Move laptops and other noisy devices out of the room. Computer fans can get pretty noisy.
If you need to have the computer in the room to record, at least keep it clean so the fans don't have to run faster and make even more noise.
#2. Buffer size is too low or too high
If you set up your audio interface with a buffer size that's too low, that will introduce crackling to your audio recordings that's impossible to remove afterwards.
On the other hand, if you set up a buffer size that's too high, that will cause more latency.
Then, your vocalist will hear their voice with a certain delay that can make it really hard to stay in key and in sync with the instrumental.
You have to find the sweet spot. It really depends on your computer, your gear, and how many plugins you have in your session.
Since I record my vocals in a session with almost no plugins, I can go really low and still not get crackling.
But I'd say 128 samples is acceptable — it causes some latency but not enough to ruin the recording experience.
Anything above that and things start getting a little complicated.
#3. Audio recording is clipping
Setting up your interface too hot and recording too loud will cause clipping distortion.
Make sure to test singing the loudest parts of your songs — just in case — so you're not hitting that threshold.
Don't make the same mistake as I once did:
I spent about an hour recording a song just to realize later it was all ruined by distortion. Then I had to rest my voice and record again the next day.
#4. Headphones "leaking" sound
If your headphones are not isolated enough, your microphone will pick up the instrumental noise in the same track as your singing (bleeding).
That will make vocal editing almost impossible.
I like my Beyerdynamic headphones. They're super comfortable and don't let the sound get out.
#5. Connecting the wrong mic
Yes, that happened to me once.
I have a bunch of microphones. So when I recorded the track, I was singing into a mic that wasn't even connected.
And the one that was actually recording was not even close to me, so it only picked up the reflections, and it was a disaster.
So, again, don't forget to perform a levels test before you sing for real.
Now it's your turn to record vocals in Ableton Live
Now you have the tools to capture a great performance. Have fun!
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.
And if you're into pop music, don't sleep on these music production resources.