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Picking the Right Microphone - Vocals

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Every art has its own "palette of colors" to work from when creating something new. While the visual arts quite literally have a palette of colors, music has various instruments, brands, amps, bows, etc. But what about audio and recording? Anyone who has done even a little bit of recording knows how often audio can take on an artistic perspective instead of a straight sciences approach. By choosing the right equipment, settings, placement, etc. we can drastically change the outcome of a production.

The most important of these decisions comes from choosing the right microphone. While mic placement is also paramount, if you start with the wrong microphone for a particular sound no fiddling with mic placement will get you to your goal. By either limiting our mic selection or greatly expanding it, we can create an array of audible color palettes to suit the mood of just about any type of music.

In this tutorial we will look at one of the most difficult sound sources to choose a mic for, the vocals. So if you were ever unsure of what mic to use, read on!


Vocal Styles

Probably one of the trickiest sound sources to record is a vocal. With such a wide variety of singing styles and voices, no one mic will fit every situation. However, certain situations or characteristics of a voice will help you better choose the right mic from the start. Here are a few situations you will commonly run into.

Pop and RnB

Christina Aguilera by  Raffaele Fiorillo

Christina Aguilera by Raffaele Fiorillo

Vocals in this style are usually the most important aspect of a song. While some RnB songs might leave plenty of breathing room for the vocals to sit and stick out, many pop songs have dense mixes which requires the vocals to cut through.

In these situations a large diaphragm condenser microphone will be your safest bet. Why? These microphones have very low self noise and have an extended top end that allows the diction in the voice to be heard. More particularly, the type of capsule design inside the microphone can have a huge impact on the resulting sound of the microphone and voice.

The two most common capsule designs are based of older Neumann designs called the K47 and K67. The K47 had a very natural open sound that did not hype up the high end but still had a detailed and clear sound. The K67 on the other hand has hyped of top end that was originally meant to be part of a pre-emphasis de-emphasis system to give a similar result. However, most k67 capsule types now and days do not have the de-emphasis portion in the design resulting in bright cutting microphones; this boost usually occurs between 6-10 kHz.

Here are some rules of thumb for Pop and RnB Style vocals:

  • Always use a LDC style microphone since clarity is paramount to the genre.
  • For more open tracks a K47 capsule microphone will give you detail without being over hyped.
  • Dense tracks should use a K67 without the de-emphasis circuit in order to cut through the resulting mix better. You can also use a generally brighter LDC even if it is not K67 style.

Rock

Eric Singer by Alberto Cabello

Eric Singer by Alberto Cabello

Whereas pop and RnB almost always use an LDC, rock runs the gambit of microphones; the particular genre of rock has a huge impact on the vocal mic of choice.

In the case of pop rock and alt rock, the same general rules as above apply since the vocals take on a very prominent role. However in the case of classic rock style vocals, a large diaphragm dynamic could actually serve better. That level of smoothness that comes out of these older recordings is due to the dynamic microphones which were inherently less bright. These mics create a sound that, while less clear, meshes well with everything else in the mix. Common choices for this role include the SM7B and the RE20 in one of its many forms; sometimes simple 421s or SM58s can work surprisingly well!

Another option available in the rock domain is the use of ribbon microphones. On more open sounding rock tracks that do not need crisp articulate vocals, a ribbon can work quiet well at keeping the top end tamed. If recording female rock vocals that do not need supreme clarity, a ribbon may actually be a better choice than a dynamic. However do keep in mind the fragile nature of these mics; you do not want some screaming plosive to blow out the ribbon!

Here are some rules of thumb for rock vocals:

  • Pop and alt rock should more than likely use a LDC in the same way as RnB and pop.
  • Classic rock-esque vocals that need to blend more than stick out benifit better with a large diaphragm dynamic.
  • A ribbon microphone will shine primarily on vocals and female leads in a song that does not need supreme clarity.

Classical

While not traditionally the topic of discussion for vocal microphones, the approach for classical vocals can be vastly different. In the case of pop-classical productions such as Christmas CDs and the like, the above options work quiet well. However traditional classical vocals take on a different persona.

Since classical vocals are often mixed from the audiences perspective, the microphones are traditionally placed further away resulting in a sound different from the up close and personal techniques of mainstream music. In these situations a small diaphragm condenser actually works better than a LDC. A SDC tends to have an extended frequency response and typically a high end boost that allows it to accurately pick up sources at greater distances. The only rule of thumb here is that the further away from the source you get, the greater high end boost you will need to accommodate for the distance.


Other Considerations

While the above genre considerations will get you in the ballpark for what kind of mic to use, each vocalist is different as are the recording situations. Some singers have a really deep resonant voice while others are airy and thin. What about if the singer is on stage or in the studio? All of these things play just as important of a role as the style of music they are singing.

To Saturate or Not to Saturate?

Tubes by Chris Roddy

Tubes by Chris Roddy

The quality or timbre of a voice can have a huge impact on what type of microphone use choose within a given category, especially the LDC. For singers with very resonant voices that may muddy the mix up, a transformerless microphone would play the least into the singers resonant qualities.

Transformerless microphones are largely considered the most accurate and even sounding of mics since they do not rely on tubes or transformers to operate. However, for singers with thin airy voices that need to be thickened up, the tube or transformer style microphones can add the much need boost and saturation these vocals lack.

When combined the appropriate K47 or K67 style capsule, plenty of very useful combinations can occur:

  • For a natural open sound use a transformerless K47 style mic.
  • For a even but hyped up sound a transformerless K67 should be used.
  • If a fatter smoother mic is needed, then use a transformer or tube K47 style mic.
  • When a larger-than-life sound is called for, then a tube or transformer based K67 will give all the necessary oomph.

Patterns

Hyper-Cardioid by Galak76

Hyper-Cardioid by Galak76

Despite having an array of microphone pick-up patterns, many people simply grab for the nearest cardioid microphone. However, choosing the right pattern for the right vocals and situation can arguably have more impact than whether the mic is transformerless or tube.

The big key for tonal purposes is the proximity effect. As a microphone gets more directional (cardioid through figure-8), it develops a natural boost in the bass region when the singer is closer to the mic. Inversely, if the singer stands too far away then the bass can begin to rapidly drop in these mics.

The other issue with pickup patterns is the room and situation the vocals are being tracked in. If a singer is being recorded in a large open well tuned room, then just about any pickup pattern will work and it becomes a matter of proximity effect. However, in less tuned rooms, or worse yet live situation, what the microphone picks up and does not can play a massive role.

Here are some rules of thumb for pickup patterns:

  • If you need an up-close sound without boom then an omni pattern will work best.
  • To beef up thin or higher vocals just a touch, then use cardioid.
  • If drastic boosts in the lower range are needed, then hyper-cardioid and figure-8 should be used.
  • If you need to ignore only part of a room, then use a cardioid.
  • For live situations, always try to use a hyper-cardioid, since it rejects well in the back and the sides.

Final Thoughts

Picking the right microphone for a vocalist can be a time consuming task if you want to get it just right. However, knowing the music, tone of the singer, and the recording situation can greatly help you narrow down what microphone choices you should be looking at.

But remember, no hard and fast rules apply to any art. Sometimes you may want that really thin airy voice because it is pleasingly unique to the music. Remember, pick your colors wisely! Thanks for reading.

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