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Working a Multi-pattern Mic for Vocals

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This post is part of a series called Producing Vocals: From Mic Placement to Mixing.
Picking the Right Microphone - Vocals
Creative Subtlety When Working With Doubled Vocals

You work with vocalists of all kinds, whether they are deep resonant baritones or breathy sopranos, but you often find yourself EQing the living daylight out of the vocal track. You read that this mic works better for this voice, while that mic works better for those voices, but man, are all those mics pricey! While it is true that some mics work better for different voices, what if you could have one mic that was at very least acceptable on all sources, if not stellar on a few? For a true Swiss army knife of vocal mics, you need a multi-pattern condenser.

Multi-pattern mics sometimes get a bad rap in the microphone world. Oftentimes they're an upgraded brother to a strictly cardioid mic, but often accused of sounding inferior to their cardioid-only sibling because of the circuitry changes.

The truth of the matter is that any multi-pattern condenser that was at least moderately well designed will be just as good as the cardioid-only model, and offer more features. Often young engineers will buy these mics because the idea of switching the pickup pattern sounds cool, but they never end up using the multi-pattern feature, and end up buying more mics!

In this tutorial we will go over just how and when to use the different pickup patterns, what they sound like, and how these mics can benefit us both in the mix and in our wallets.


Proximity Effect

Proximity Effect

Proximity Effect

The biggest change you will hear when switching between different pickup patterns is the proximity effect. For those unaware, the proximity effect dictates that when using a directional pickup pattern (cardioid, hyper cardioid, and figure-8) you will get a larger boost in the bass frequencies as the microphone gets closer to the source (our singer).

Knowing how to work the proximity effect is key to achieving a well balanced vocal track before any processing takes place.  But before we get to its uses we first need to learn how it sounds!

Here are some examples of different pickup patterns on the same microphone. Each snippet is part of one continuous track in which the pickup pattern was switched after each example was spoken...

Cardioid Proximity

Omni Proximity

Figure-8 Proximity

Notice how the omni seems to drop off, while the figure-8 gets even more woomph? This is because the omni has no proximity effect, and the figure-8 produces the most proximity effect, since it is the most directional.

So how can we use this to our advantage? If you find yourself mixing a resonant male vocal that constantly takes up too much room in the low end, but needs to sound up-close, switch to omni so you can maintain the up-close sound but reduce the woomph. The reverse happens for a breathy female vocal that constantly needs to be thickened. Switch to a figure-8 or hyper cardioid!


Perception of Space

Public Domain: Taken by NASA

Public Domain: Taken by NASA

Besides proximity effects, multi-pattern mics also play into a vocal tracks sense of space. Aside from drums, vocals are the most important part of any mix to really get the sense of space perfect.

If the vocals need an open sound then you will need to make sure that the microphone captures more space, but if the mix and arrangement are dense and tight then the vocals will probably need to avoid extra space at all costs. The way we control this sense of space is by the rooms we record in, and by the pickup patterns setting.

In these next examples you will hear the front, side, and back of the microphone in each pickup pattern. Pay particular attention to the volume and tonal shifts in the cardioid and figure-8, while omni stays almost perfectly the same...

Cardioid Space

Front:

Side:

Back:

Omni Space

Front:

Side:

Back:

Figure-8 Space

Front:

Side:

Back:

Notice how the more directional pickup patterns produced less sense of space? The advantage we have with this feature is that we can help negate extraneous noises such as windows, computer fans, etc. that might be present in a home studio environment, simply aim away from the noise. The cool feature about hyper cardioid and figure-8 is that they reject the sides extremely well unlike normal carioids back rejection. So if you ever need  mitigate extra noise coming from one particular source then consider these useful patterns. However for more ambient noise, stick to the normal cardioid.

However if we really need that sense of space then switching our mic to omni will produce the desired effect. This approach almost always produces a more natural sound than short reverbs and is highly encouraged for use even for sources that are not vocals.

Keep in mind, however, that your choice of room becomes much more important with the omni pattern; if you use omni in a dead room it will still sound dead like a cardioid.

Engineers often get worried that this or that noise will leak into an omni mic and reek havoc on our mix. But the truth is, unless you hear a dog barking or a ambulance drive by, most noises will get buried in the mix; just use common sense.

Would you rather have a little fan noise and get the right vocal sound or have to butcher the vocal track with processing to get it half right? I know my choice!


Production Tricks

Public Domain: Figure 8 Render by Galak76

Public Domain: Figure 8 Render by Galak76

So what are some ways that we can creatively use these patterns to our advantage? One common approach is when recording two singers that have to sing together, is to have each sing into one side of a figure-8 microphone.

This approach works because their will be minimal bleed to the opposing side of the microphone, resulting in two clear vocals in one track. It works best when you are recording a complete live band in a small space, where bleed is going to be an issue. It minimizes the need for additional microphones and can reject the rest of the band if pointed perpendicular to the rest of the ensemble.

However, this method does have its drawbacks. If the singers do not balance or sing well, then you cannot go back and redo just part of the vocals, you need to do both again. Furthermore, the different sides of a figure-8 pattern tend to have slightly different tonal characteristics, which means you need to be careful when choosing who place on what side. I would only recommend this trick for experienced ensembles who perform well, and thrive off of a live style recording.

The other trick that you can use with more experienced vocalists is to have them adjust their distance from the mic as they sing. Typically the verses of a track are not as busy as the choruses, leaving more room for the vocals in the mix. By having the singer stand closer during the verses and leaning back during the choruses, the singer can musically EQ themselves as they sing.

However, keep in mind that this can be very tricky for inexperienced singers, and should not be done on sessions that have strict time constraints; it can take a while to get used to! If you do decide to attempt this trick, ensure that the vocalist can clearly hear themselves in their headphones, since this will be their reference for when to step closer or further from the mic.


Conclusion

As you can see, the pickup pattern can make a huge difference in a vocal tracks sound. By having a working these patterns we can achieve a variety of tonal characteristics without ever touching the EQ.

A quality multi-pattern mic will give you all of these benefits at the fraction of the cost of buying a cardioid mic, a omni mic, and a figure-8 mic individually. And with a tight economy we all want to save a few bucks without sacrificing quality. Thanks for reading!

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