Crit Harmon

Producer etc

Record Better Vocals

Vocals are often the most important element of the song, and one of the most difficult instruments you'll be faced with recording. Everybodys' voice sounds different, and every microphone responds differently to that voice depending on a variety of factors including:

  • the range of the singer
  • the tone of the voice
  • the volume of the vocal
  • even the words of the song since an abundance of s's and p's can contribute undesirable artifacts like sibilance and 'plosives to the final recording.

PLAYING DEFENSE Vocals are often going to be one of the loudest tracks in the final mix and will often be compressed and brightened in mixing and mastering which tends to bring out some of the undesirable artifacts of the human voice. So, in addition to looking for the 'best sounding" mic for any particular vocalist, it's wise to play a bit of defense when making your choice. Especially considering how scrutinized the vocal is going to be by the singer, and how difficult it can be to get those little noises out of "the magic take" after the recording. These undesirable vocal artifacts may include:

  • Sibilance-the bright "S' sound which can sound unnatural once he vocal has been compressed and eq'd. Dessers can be employed in mixing to lessen the effect, but they bring their own artifacts so keeping an ear out for them while recording is wise.
  • 'Plosives or P pops, the low end "pop" caused by the sudden burst of air used to create the "p" sound.
  • Mouth noises, lip smacks, dry mouth "ticks"(not the bug, the noise)
  • Distortion

Overall, these artifacts can be minimized by increasing the singers distance from the microphone. The tradeoffs of moving away include:

  • less low end (due to the proximity effect of most microphones)
  • a roomier recorded track which may be desirable or undesirable depending on the room.

SIBILANCE A big part of controlling sibilance is mic choice. Different singers are sibilant at different frequencies and different microphones enhance different frequencies, so consider sibilance when choosing the mic. The singer can help by being conscious of the problem and backing off on the ess sound when they can. Certainly when stacking backing vocals where many ess's are landing at the same time, it's a good idea to ask the vocalists to back off of the ess's, or leave them out at the end of words all together. (usually one or 2 tracks with the Ess sound will be enough). P-POPS Always use a pop screen or wind screen when recording vocals. It won't eliminate the problem completely, but it sure will help. Backing away from the microphone when singing p's will help as well. By the way, it's easy to miss these sounds if you're speakers aren't producing much low end or you are sitting close them. Listen in headphones and/or take a couple steps toward the back of the room when auditioning vocal takes in order to pick up these sounds. MOUTH TICKS-LIP SMACKS Dry mouths and extremely close mic'ing are the main culprits in producing these unwanted artifacts. You may be very surprised how loud and annoying these sounds can get with compression and EQ. Keep some water nearby for the singer, and listen for these sounds. I strongly suggest that you occasionally solo vocal tracks and add the amount of compression and high end you think the tracks will be getting in mixing and mastering to see if you're going to have any problems. They can take hours of editing later down the line to remove. DISTORTION Distortion is most often caused by overloading one or more of the levels in your signal chain. (it's rarely the mic itself). Let me suggest that you do your best to set safe levels on a "warm up/level check" pass with the singer. Ask the singer to casually sing through the song, giving you a chance to adjust their headphone levels, cue mix details, and your mic levels. Make sure you ask them to sing the loudest section of the song at the actual volume they they will be singing at. Set your levels in this order, going from the source(the mic)to your DAW.

  1. Mic pre input. Usually the main culprit of distortion, set this at a very safe level according to the meters or lights on the unit. Even a bit lower than you think may be necessary. The singer will probably get louder when they start getting into it.
  2. Next Input Level-adjust the output of the mic pre so as to not overload the next stage, possibly an outboard compressor or your audio interface. And so on down the line.

Then visually check the waveforms being recorded on your DAW and listen to playback of the track to make sure you have no distortion. If you do, start back at the beginning of your signal chain and adjust the levels in the same order once again. You will probably need to reset levels for each new song. Also, be aware that inexperienced studio singers will often lean into the mic when they sing louder. Ask them not to do that!

COMPRESSORS AND LIMITERS Compressors and limiters in the record chain can give you a safety net for those times when the singer gets louder than you anticipated. If you opt to use these devices, remember that any audible results coming from these units are being recoded and are pretty much irreversable. And, these units will not help you prevent distortion caused by the mic pre input setting. Set them for gentle effect, and watch out for the effect they introduce when hit too hard. (Unless you're sure you want that sound)

CHOOSING A MICROPHONE Large Condenser Mics-many would consider the large condenser to be the first choice and best overall vocal mic for recording vocals. These mics generally have a wide frequency range, which means you get nice airy top end and a warm lower register. Dynamic Mics-Also, a good overall choice for vocals, dynamic mics have a smaller frequency range than condenser mics or ribbon mics, but they capture all the essential midrange frequencies, and cut down on unwanted noises from the environment. Dynamic mics work well in rock mixes particularly where the singer may sing loud, and there's a lot of tracks competing for frequency ranges that would have to be cut out from the vocal track anyway. Ribbon Mics-Ribbon mics can sound really great on vocals, dark and rich in detail, you will find a lot of professional engineer that favor them. It's a matter of personal taste. Ribbon mics really respond well to EQ'ing in the mix, but are not as bright sounding during recording which is hard for some singers to get used to. In modern recording where theres a lot of bright elements such as cymbals and electric guitars to compete with, the darker sound of the ribbon mic might make it the wrong choice. That being said, ribbon mics used to be the only choice for vocals and all the vocals on old jazz recordings from the 50s and before were probably recorded with ribbon mics.

SUMMARY Choosing microphones for recording vocals is often a matter of playing defense against unwanted artifacts and making tradeoffs in sound; bright verses dark, near to the mic verses far, rich detail or cut through brightness.

  1. Listen carefully and try several mics before starting a project that involves hours of tracking vocals.
  2. Solo up an early vocal take and add some brightness and compression to simulate what it might sound like in the final master to see if you hear any unpleasant artifacts.
  3. Always use a pop filter, a wind screen, or both.
  4. Carefully set your record levels on a run through take and account for the fact the singer will probably get louder as they get into it.

FINALLY A WORD OF CAUTION-Nothing can cause a singer to lose their vibe and totally cripple their ability to sing a great vocal than an engineer fixated on choosing mics and heading off unwanted noises. Try getting this stuff out of the way BEFORE you start looking for magic. If worse comes to worse and the singer walks in the room in- the-zone and ready to sing, keep quiet, put it in the red, and hope for the best. Who cares about the engineering if the track isn't sung well?

Copyright 2014