More tips on recording vocals.
Last time we looked at two major characteristics of most vocal microphones:
- Tailored frequency response: presence lift and bass roll-off for increased intelligibility and crisp sound of the voice.
- Strong proximity effect: over-emphasized bass frequencies when the microphone is used close up, for deliberate addition of warmth and fullness by moving the microphone closer to the mouth.
However, a presence peak and strong proximity effect may not suit everybody's taste and there are microphones with a slightly different, more neutral acoustical performance (eg. Beyer M88). Anyway, if you are looking for a vocal microphone to take on the road the most important criteria are:
Ruggedness. Even if you are a more balanced character than Chris Farlowe of Colosseum (he used to punch the mic's front grille), the front grille is susceptible to damage when mic stands are thrown over etc., and the capsule sitting right behind the grille, may be destroyed. Top class vocal microphones feature an extra reinforcement structure for the front grille.
Suppression of structure-borne noise. Microphones pick up mechanical vibrations; hitting the mic or its stand, even jumping on a stage floor may produce an annoying racket. To avoid this, a good vocal mic's capsule should be shock-mounted.
The problem of structure-borne noise may also occur in your home studio, eg. with condenser mics, where the use of an external elastic suspension in this case (usually available as an accessory), can eliminate the problem.
Windshield. 'P's, 'F's and 'S's may be drastically over-emphasized (and will deteriorate any performance or recording), when spoken or sung directly into the microphone at a close distance. Built-in pop screens will help reduce their effects. Sometimes it's necessary to employ an additional (external) wind screen, but a simple way of overcoming the problem is to sing slightly over the microphone head as shown in Figure 1.
Suppression of magnetic interference from amps, mains cables etc. These may be a problem with dynamic moving coil microphones; quality types employ a second 'humbucker' coil. All these features make the innards of a top vocal microphone more complicated than one would expect. Figure 2 shows the AKG D330 broken into its component parts, to emphasise this point.
Probably the most important feature of a vocal mic, however, is a good directional characteristic to reduce feedback. It's worth a whole chapter alone, so next time, together with the closely related matter of polar patterns, we'll discuss how to avoid feedback.
But back to recording. Many onstage microphone problems won't show up: fragile mics can be handled more carefully and stray magnetic fields eliminated. There is no feedback risk and (as vocals are practically always overdubbed) no leakage from other instruments. Working distances from the microphone are therefore longer, about 1 foot or more. Microphones with a strong proximity effect should only be used if the vocalist keeps his/her microphone distance constant, otherwise the sound could change quite unpleasantly.
Requirements being different, various mics have been preferred for vocals in studios: Neumann U47 and AKG C414 condensers are often used. Some engineers prefer the specific valve or tube sound, and use either vintage models or the new AKG 'Tube', for example. In the US, the Shure SM7 (dynamic) is sometimes used, as an alternative.
If you can't afford to invest in a top quality studio condenser mic, there are some quality stage microphones which will meet home studio requirements. They have little proximity effect, a wide frequency response, and on stage, they are often used by artists going for a more sophisticated sound. Try the AKG C535, Shure SM81 (condensers) or Sennheiser MD441 (dynamic) mics if available.
If you've got a separate recording room at your disposal, you might like to use an omnidirectional mic. 'Popping' and sound alterations through varied microphone distances won't occur and the vocalists are completely free to move around more. You also have the added attraction of a possible strong ambient feel. To make best use of the room, use a stereo mic or (cheaper!) 2 mics to get a good left-right discrimination for a better stereo feel. Experimenting with different mics for different parts of a song, can also prove interesting, as can recording ad lib shouts and that kind of stuff with a distant (ambience) mic for a live feel. Very cheap mics with restricted frequency responses are a quick and easy way of obtaining unique sounds too.
An effective tip when recording vocals, is to double your refrain using a second tape machine or good cassette recorder. Just bounce the vocal track to the other machine and play it back a fraction of a second out of sync. Strange? Too difficult? They did it on the Toto IV album. No sync, just punched in, to create a double tracking effect that thickens the voice, and helps it to dominate in the final mix.
Finally, a quick tip to remember: few people seem to be aware of how much playback sound from the headphones may spill into your microphone when overdubbing vocals, as shown in Figure 3. To avoid this use a closed headphone system to reduce sound leakage into the vocal microphone (Figure 4). More hints and tips next time on how to use microphones.
Feature by Wolfgang Staribacher
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