In most modern styles of music the vocals are key. When the vocals don’t sound right, it's a distracts you.
As a musician you might hear the individual parts of a song. The drums laying down the beat. The bass line laying down the groove. The guitar laying down the harmony.
But most people—your fans—won’t hear anything but the vocals and the melody.
How to Make Vocals Sound Awesome...
...even before you start mixing. That's because the vocals on a track need to sound great.
So how do you get the best possible sound with the equipment that you already have?
Sure, you can use EQ, compression and other mixing techniques to make your vocals sound clear, warm and professional.
But one small variable could take your vocals from amateur and flat to rich and professional. Yet so many people overlook it!
That small variable is microphone choice.
You should spend time at the beginning of every session trying different microphones. Find the one that works best with the vocalist you are recording. This applies to recording voice overs, too. Here are 12 reasons why...
1. Get a Great Sound Before Touching EQ
When you spend time selecting the right mic, you get a great sound at the source. The same goes for spending time on microphone placement.
And when you have a great sound early on, EQ becomes a choice rather than a necessity
2. Add More Character and Mojo
Think about which element of the vocalist is most pleasing or unique, and pick a mic that emphasises or compliments that element.
Say you have a male vocalist with a deep, rumbling voice. An old dynamic microphone might emphasise that warmth and add even more depth to the voice. Or, a condenser might be needed to compliment that deepness and make it a bit less bassy.
By experimenting with different microphones you can work with the character of the vocalist and improve their voice or compensate for their flaws.
3. Record Vocals That Sit Better in the Mix
If you’re recording vocals over the final version—not scratch tracks—you can also take into consideration how the vocals work with the rest of the mix.
A dynamic mic might help a high pitched female vocalist sit further back in the mix and appear more cohesive.
4. Get Better Performances From the Vocalist
Getting a nicer sound at the first stage of recording will make the vocalist feel better about their performance. This will in turn improve their confidence and lead to even better performances.
You might also be helping the vocalist to further understand their own voice and learn which microphones work for them. When it comes to their next studio session they will already know what works and what doesn’t.
A happy vocalist means better recordings.
5. It Doesn’t Take Long to Throw Up a Few Mics
Set up several microphones when preparing for the session (two or more). Those extra few minutes of work could make a world of difference to the final tracks. You have nothing to lose.
Instead of swapping out individual microphones to test, set up several mics very close to each other and record a take.
Listen back with the vocalist and decide which microphone works best.
6. Every Vocalist is Different
Vocalists vary greatly in both pitch and character of voice. No two vocalists will ever be the same. Don’t assume that what worked for one will work for the next.
Find the microphone that works best with their character and tone.
7. Every Microphone is Different
Add to this the fact that every microphone has a distinctive response curve and you can quickly see why some pairings don’t work.
Sometimes the curve of a mic will work with a vocalist; other times it will fight it.
Find the mic that makes the singer sound better, not the one that makes them sound worse.
8. Females and Males Usually Sing in Different Registers
Males tend to sing in a much lower register than women. With the exception of some outliers and castrated 19th Century male singers (castrati… seriously).
Sometimes yo'll need a condenser to make a male sound a bit clearer and less bassy. Other times you might need a dynamic to make a female sound a bit warmer and less harsh.
Some mics work better for male vocalists and others for females.
9. Some Vocalists Are More Sibilant Than Others
Sibilance is the presence of too many sss or ts sounds in a recording.
You can remove them later on with a de-esser and some surgical EQ around 5kHz. What would be a lot easier is to try a dynamic mic.
Condenser microphones are more sensitive to high frequencies and will pick up more on those irritative fricatives.
Use a dynamic microphone instead. As long as it still complements the vocal and sits right in the mix.
10. Some Vocalists Like to Move Around
A good performance is the key to a good vocal recording ...and a good track. Sometimes you have to do whatever is necessary to get the best performance possible out of the vocalist.
In some cases that might mean monitoring on speakers rather than headphones. I’ve done this on many occasions, and most vocalists absolutely love it—be sure to use a cardioid though.
In many cases it means giving the singer a handheld microphone so they can jump around a bit without having to worry about distance from the mic.
It’s not ideal, and it generally only applies to a live recording or particularly energetic bands. But it’s still a good reason why you should match the mic to the vocalist.
If you put an eccentric heavy-punk singer in front of a tube condenser, you might not get the most consistent recording.
Cardioid microphones exaggerate bass frequencies when they are close to a sound source. This is called the proximity effect.
If you want to add more bass to the vocal, use a cardioid microphone and get close and intimate. If you don’t, use an omnidirectional as they don’t suffer from the proximity effect.
12. You Can Match the Mic to the Room
As well as picking a mic that works with the vocalist, you should also consider whether the mic is right for the room.
If you’re recording at home, use a cardioid dynamic. If you’re in a room that sounds great, use an omnidirectional condenser.
Matching the right microphone to a vocalist can make a world of difference. Spending those extra few minutes setting up a few mic’s at the beginning of a session and testing them all will get you a large chunk of the way towards the perfect vocal recording.
I'd you to find out for yourself how much of a difference it can make with these simple action steps:
- Set up two or more different microphones next to each other. Get them as close as possible to each other without touching
- Record a vocal take on all of the mic’s simultaneously. This eliminates differences in performance and distance to give you an accurate comparison
- Listen back to each microphone in turn and take notes on how each one sounds. Give it a rating out of 10 on the following qualities: Character, Room Sound, Mix Cohesiveness, Dynamic Consistency
- Tally up the scores to find the best microphone.
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