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Recording Vocals at Home #1: Mic Choice & Technique

The #1 secret to improving your mixes is recording better! In our new series on recording vocals at home, we begin by discussing the different mic choices and proper technique that will enhance the sound of your music.

By Craig Anderton

Recording Vocals at Home #1: Mic Choice & Technique

 

This is the first installment of the new “Recording Vocals at Home” series. Next week we will publish chapter 2 on Preamps and Audio Interfaces.

If you’re a vocalist, your microphone is your instrument.

Just as guitarists choose a guitar that “feels” right, some mics will flatter your voice more than others. And by adding effects like equalization, certain mics can flatter your voice even more.

Fortunately, today’s microphones deliver excellent value for money, so you don’t have to break your budget to get a good sound. However, it’s still important to choose the right mic for the right application and use the right mic technique to get the most out of it.

In this article, we’ll cover the fundamentals of microphone types, pickup patterns and mic technique so you can get the most out of your home-studio vocal recordings.

1. Microphone Types

The three common mic technologies are Condenser, Dynamic and Ribbon mics. You don't need to know how they work to get a good sound, but each type has sonic differences, as well as pros and cons.

For recording vocals in the studio, Condenser mics are the most popular type. They excel at capturing transients (a sound's initial sound waves), and the sound quality is bright and open. They have a wide frequency response range and translate vocal nuances well.

The size of the diaphragm—the element that senses changes in air pressure—helps determine a mic’s character. You can find both large- and small-diaphragm mics. In general, large-diaphragm mics are more sensitive than small-diaphragm mics, but the tone is somewhat less bright. Narrators often choose a large-diaphragm mic, while rock singers sometimes prefer a small-diaphragm mic. Ultimately, though, the choice depends on the voice and musical genre. Condenser mics aren’t common in live performance because they’re prone to physical damage if hit or dropped and require a power supply.

The size of the diaphragm—the element that senses changes in air pressure—helps determine a mic's character. You can find both large- and small-diaphragm mics. In general, large-diaphragm mics are more sensitive than small-diaphragm mics, but the tone is somewhat less bright. Narrators often choose a large-diaphragm mic, while rock singers sometimes prefer a small-diaphragm mic. Ultimately, though, the choice depends on the voice and musical genre. Condenser mics aren't common in live performance because they're prone to physical damage if hit or dropped and require a power supply.

Dynamic mics are the most popular choice for live applications. They're rugged, tend to be less expensive, and don't require power. However, although the high-frequency and transient response isn't necessarily on a par with Condenser mics, these characteristics are less important with voice than some other instruments. Michael Jackson, Chris Martin, Anthony Kiedis, James Hetfield and others have all recorded hits using Dynamic mics.

Shure’s classic SM58 is the go-to Dynamic mic for many recording scenarios

Shure’s classic SM58 is the go-to Dynamic mic for many recording scenarios.

Like Condenser mics, Dynamic mics offer large- and small-diaphragm versions with the same general characteristics. Most are designed to be hand-held, which may be important if you prefer to hold your mic in the studio.

Ribbon mics are more specialized and expensive, so they're not a common choice for home studio vocalists. However, Ribbon mics provide a natural, warm sound that works well with some particularly bright and sibilant voices and are superb for narration. Ribbon mics have a reputation for being extremely fragile, but they’re having a resurgence due to improved manufacturing techniques that increase ruggedness and lower cost.

In any case, equalization and channel strip plugins (fig. 2) can level the playing field somewhat with mics. For example, even though Dynamic mics aren't inherently as bright as Condenser mics, a high-frequency boost can add articulation and presence.

The CLA Vocals channel strip plugin by Chris Lord-Alge includes processors optimized for voice, including equalization, compression, reverb, delay and pitch (e.g., subtle stereo spreading)

The CLA Vocals channel strip plugin by Chris Lord-Alge includes processors optimized for voice, including equalization, compression, reverb, delay and pitch (e.g., subtle stereo spreading).

Always remember that the performance is paramount to the vocal tone. There are many ways to change the sound of recorded vocals, but there’s no way to change the original performance. Even if your budget dictates a Dynamic mic, that shouldn't keep you from recording compelling vocals. Bono, Bjork and many others have recorded hits with an SM58, which costs around $100.

2. Mic Preamps & Phantom Power

Microphones produce low-level signals that require amplification. You’ll find cork-sniffing-type debates on internet forums about the “best” mic preamp, but today’s technology has reached a level where even the mic preamps in affordable audio interfaces deliver solid performance. Note the following:

  • Condenser mics require a power source. Typically, your mixer or audio interface sends 48 volts to the mic via the mic's audio cable. This is called Phantom Power because you don't actually see a separate power supply. Your interface or preamp will have a Phantom Power switch to accommodate Condenser mics. (Some tube Condenser mics need even higher voltages and come with their own external power supply.)
  • Most Ribbon mics require higher gain than other mic types, and the preamps in basic audio interfaces may not provide enough gain. If so, you’ll need an external preamp.

3. Microphone Pickup Patterns

Some mics capture sound that arrives only from the mic's front while rejecting or attenuating sounds from the sides or rear. Utilizing this kind of directional pickup pattern (or polar pattern) is essential for live use or in the studio when several musicians are playing because you don't want the singer's mic to pick up sounds from other instruments

The Cardioid mic pattern (so-called because it resembles a heart shape) is the most common pickup pattern. Variations, like the Hyper-cardioid pattern, modify the directionality in different ways. Other mics are Omnidirectional, meaning they pick up sound coming from any direction (fig. 3).

Pickup patterns for (left to right) Cardioid, Omnidirectional and Figure-8 mics

Pickup patterns for (left to right) Cardioid, Omnidirectional and Figure-8 mics.

The mic's pickup pattern influences the sound. Directional mics have a proximity effect, where the bass response increases as you sing closer to the mic. Some singers prefer this because it warms up the sound when they move in closer. Vocalists who don't want any bass boost, possibly because they have soft voices and sing close to the mic, might prefer an Omnidirectional mic. Regardless, boosting or attenuating low frequencies with equalization can emphasize, or reduce, the proximity effect.

Note that with Cardioid mics, if the sound bounces off a surface and hits the side of the mic, it won’t be attenuated completely. This reflected sound will be somewhat colored (audio example 1). It’s a subtle difference, but Omnidirectional mics don’t color sounds coming from particular directions.

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The Figure-8 response picks up sounds from the front and back, but not the sides. Solo vocalists rarely use this pickup pattern unless they sing with a ribbon mic, which has an inherent figure-8 pattern. However, engineers sometimes use a Figure-8 response with background singers. Note that if you don't like to wear headphones while singing but would instead prefer to listen over a monitor speaker, point the side of a figure-8 pattern toward the speaker. When you sing into the mic, the amount of rejection might be satisfactory (audio example 2).

In example 2b, note the significant rejection for sounds coming from the sides.

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4. Mic Technique

Mic technique is the most important (but sometimes overlooked) aspect of recording vocals. Good singers strive to avoid excessive level variations by backing away from the mic when singing loudly and moving closer for more intimate parts. Live on stage, you’ll see some singers moving the mic almost like a slide trombone. In the studio, if the mic is on a stand, you can still move your head closer in or further away. Even a few inches can make a difference.

A good starting distance from the mic is around 7-8 inches (the distance between the tip of your little finger and thumb, with your hand stretched out). Then, you can move in closer if you need more level or want to take advantage of the proximity effect with directional mics to warm up the vocal. Move further back for loud parts or high notes.

It also helps to move closer at the end of phrases if you start running out of breath, although it’s possible to compensate for this while mixing by using level automation or with a plugin like Waves Vocal Rider. Still, aim for the best possible recording so you don’t have to do too much fixing in the mix. Also, get into the habit of turning your head to the side between phrases so the mic doesn’t pick up inhales.

Waves Vocal Rider monitors vocal levels and changes the gain as needed to even out the level.

With Condenser mics, singing directly into the mic can add fullness and articulation. However, singers often aim slightly toward the top of the mic or sing at a bit of an angle to reduce breath noises, mouth clicks and “popping” with strong consonants like “b” and “p.” Hand-held mics are commonly at chin level and point up because, in live performance, you don’t want to cover up your mouth visually. However, this can also get a good tone out of Dynamic mics.

Some singers “eat the mic,” meaning that it’s always close up to their mouth. With directional mics, this increases the proximity effect and can add intimacy. But it doesn’t give you much opportunity to use the mic as an important element for dynamics control.

Finally, remember that singing is a physical activity. Warm-up your voice properly, get exercise, breathe from your diaphragm more than your lungs, and record when you’re feeling good physically. You’ll hear the difference in your recordings.

This is the first installment of the new “Recording Vocals at Home” series. Next week we will publish chapter 2 on Preamps and Audio Interfaces.

Musician/author Craig Anderton is an internationally recognized authority on music and technology. He has played on, produced, or mastered over 20 major label recordings and hundreds of tracks, authored 45 books, toured extensively during the 60s, played Carnegie Hall, worked as a studio musician in the 70s, written over a thousand articles, lectured on technology and the arts (in 10 countries, 38 U.S. states, and three languages), and done sound design and consulting work for numerous music industry companies. He is the current President of the MIDI Association. www.craiganderton.org.

Want more on vocals? Check out the 12 essential steps for mixing lead vocals here!

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