Last week we looked at how microphones work and covered everything you need to know to decipher how a microphone works from its name. This week, we’re looking at vocal microphone technique: how you might select a microphone for various vocal situations, and how to work with the microphone to get the best results.
Choosing Your Microphone
Good vocal microphone technique is all about getting the best vocal sound using the tools available to you: your voice and your microphone. It’s important to think about your microphone choice, rather than just going for the mic that is supposed to be the standard for the job.
The three factors that are most important are:
- Polar pattern
- Frequency response
- Transducer type
Polar pattern: The quality of the microphone and how well it works with your voice are rather subjective things, but to narrow the options down these factors really help. In most cases, you’re going to want some sort of unidirectional polar pattern such as a cardioid or super-cardioid microphone. Vocals tend to be recorded close-up and personal and these days, most of the time, any reverb is added in the rack or the box — unless you have an excellent sounding room.
However, you may want to use an omnidirectional microphone. On some tracks, you might be after a spacious, roomy feel, and the best reverbs come from a good room — I don’t care how expensive your reverb unit is! In this case, the omnidirectional microphone will pick up the voice and the room in the right proportions. For solo vocals, this is probably the only reason you’d use an omni, but at some point we’ll go into group and choral vocal recording which require omnidirectional and bidirectional microphones most of the time.
In a live situation, you really should stick to your unidirectional range so you’re not picking up as much crowd noise and guitar as you are picking up vocals.
Frequency response: Selecting the mic with the right frequency response is a matter of asking what sort of tonal characteristics your voice has and which mic has a response pattern that matches it, and asking which frequencies you may want to emphasize. If you have a tinny nasal voice, perhaps you want something that picks up some more bass and thus would select the SM57 at close range over the SM58.
The human voice tends to have a spike at around 3.5kHz. You generally speaking want some emphasis here to ensure your voice is clear, plus any boosts or cuts in other areas of the frequency spectrum you may be hoping for to enhance the unique tonal characteristics of your voice.
Transducer type: Condenser and dynamic microphones play a role in both studio and live performance situations, but it’s important to remember that you should only introduce a condenser to your live set-up when you know it’s designed for the job. Most condensers are only useful in the studio because they cause wild feedback live. Some condensers have been designed for live usage, and Rode make a few of my favorite live condensers.
The Standard Live Vocal Microphone is the Shure SM58, or less commonly, the Shure SM57. You should still check out your options, but those are the safe bets in a pinch. Don’t make any assumptions if you can avoid it — while the SM58 is often said to work for everyone, I find I much prefer the SM57 and would not use the SM58 on myself.
Preparing to Sing
Before you sing live or record vocals in the studio, there are a few things you need to do to prepare.
In the studio:
- Get the stand set up so that it’s comfortable for you to stand near without tripping over the legs.
- Get the pop filter set up. Always, every time. Don’t skip it.
- Set up the signal chain and ensure everything is plugged in before turning on the 48V phantom power.
- Ensure your voice has been warmed up adequately. Another one that frequently gets skipped and shouldn’t be. In the studio, it takes time and multiple takes. If you don’t warm up, your voice will not last long enough. You are not Supervocalist and don’t fool yourself into thinking you are.
- Spend time getting your headphone mix right.
- Configure the stand. Ensure the pole in the middle of the stand is not be touching the ground. Vibrations from the ground can travel up the pole to the microphone and caused unwanted additions to the signal.
- If the microphone is a wired mic, spend time ensuring that the cable is routed around the stage in a sensible way. In a live situation it is entirely possible to trip over the cable if you haven’t been careful about its placement.
- Spend time on the monitoring both before and during the practice. If you have poor monitoring you’ll throw good vocal and mic technique out the window, ruining the sound at front of house and destroying your voice before the end of the first song.
When performing live, the microphone should sit at about chin level and be tilted up towards your mouth and noise. It should not be at a 90 degree angle with the stand coming straight at your mouth. When you sing, and more so on stage, you sing at a slightly downward diagonal angle — a microphone coming straight for you will not only be somewhat uncomfortable, but it’ll miss plenty of signal.
In the studio, dynamic microphones are generally positioned the same way as they are live. Almost everyone is in the habit of singing into dynamic mics the same way, so you may as well make the singer comfortable!
Condenser microphones are almost always placed straight in front of the singer’s microphone. This is the best way to get a clear, pleasing sound coming down the wire. Unlike a dynamic microphone, they generally pick up signal from one of the sides, rather than the top.
In the studio, stand about a foot away (give or take for louder or quieter singers). It’s often a good idea to angle the singer a few degrees off-axis so the mic doesn’t bear the total brunt of the air coming from the singer’s mouth.
From here on out, the majority (but not all) of advice is going to apply to live performance. That’s because in the studio, you stand in front of the mic, keep still and sing. You don’t move unless you’re going to get ridiculously loud and haven’t configured your gain structure to handle it from one standing position.
First and most important tip, because if you ignore this it doesn’t matter what else you do: if you’re live and despite your best intentions you can’t hear yourself, don’t try to! You will sing louder, you’ll throw away good vocal technique that protects your voice from damage (and from sounding terrible), and you’ll ignore good microphone technique. In other words, even though you can’t hear yourself, everyone in the audience can — and you sound like a dying cat.
Forget about hearing yourself. Practice often enough that you know how to sing by muscle memory and just trust yourself to do it right.
Know the microphone. Every microphone responds differently to different treatment, despite the generally helpful standard advice on microphone technique. In the worst case scenario you’ll have to figure this out during sound check and practice; make sure you do better than that and spend time with it weeks, months, even years before the gig.
When you are told to eat the microphone, you might be surprised to learn that this does not mean you should literally eat it. Keep your hunger in check with a burger and keep the microphone about one or two inches from your mouth. In the world of microphones, this really is “eating it” and is how you will sing live, generally speaking. Don’t let the mic touch your lips.
This is your default resting position. You then need to move the mic further or closer depending on what you’re doing:
- When you get louder, for a chorus for instance, move the microphone away from the mouth and a couple of degrees to the sound. The distance you pull the mic back depends on the individual microphone. The variance in distance will be proportionate with the increase in volume — that is, the louder you sing, the more you pull back — but how far is something you’ll need to determine by getting to know the mic.
- When you sing quietly, you can move closer in, but remember not to let your lips touch the actual windscreen. If you need more volume, ensure that the microphone is right on-axis, straight at your mouth. Remember to take it off-axis again when you’re singing normally.
- Whether the mic moves or your head moves depends on whether you’re holding the microphone or if it’s on a stand.
These tactics are not used to increase and decrease volume. You want the changes in volume to be heard as naturally as possible; the engineer and compressor will keep that manageable. Your creating and reducing distance to avoid clipping the microphone with too much volume and air, and to prevent lower frequencies from disappearing when you get quiet by introducing the proximity effect. As simple as it all sounds, it’s tricky to pull off well. The best thing you can do is practice a dynamically challenging song with the microphone you plan to use most frequently.