Here’s the rule: every singer who wants to record their vocals should have a large diaphragm condenser mic. Should this rule never be broken? Bill Gibson shares essential know-how with VoiceCouncil readers.
The World of Recording Mics
Home studios will ideally have at least two kinds of microphone. The first is a dynamic mic, like an SM 58. This is often used for close mic applications: a guitar, a drum, a bass amp—any single thing. Remember: dynamic mics are designed to sound best when they are close to the source. (For a little mic theory click here).
The home studio will also have a condenser mic. Condenser mics, because of their physical and electrical design, are more sensitive, responding to sonic nuances in a way that the dynamic microphone cannot. This is why studios use these mics for recording acoustic guitars, percussion instruments and, of course, the human voice. A common condenser mic is the small-diaphragm type, sometimes referred to as “pencil condensers” because of their long and narrow cylindrical shape. These mics have a capsule that is typically about 0.5 inches in diameter and they are known to exhibit an extremely flat frequency response characteristic, even from distances more than a foot.
The small-diaphragm condenser mic is typically the most accurate of all the mic types, making it an excellent choice for acoustic guitar, piano, percussion, and virtually any instrument with a strong transient and tonal intricacies.
Large Diaphragm Condenser Mics
Perhaps you’ve seen these mics in the studio or on the “special features” of a recent film: they are the characteristically large mics that are mounted in front of a singer. Sometimes they have a round wind screen mounted in front. These mics are used because the larger internal diaphragm produces a fuller and cleaner sound without having to rely upon EQ.
Neumann, a German microphone manufacturer, has produced some of the most commonly used studio microphones. There is no doubt that these mics give excellent results for many singers. Examples are the U87 and U67 (either the vintage or new release). The U47 is a vintage Neumann mic that is known for its warm, smooth, balanced tone—it is one of the more frequently photographed studio mics. Neumann’s TLM 103 should also be considered not least because of its reasonable price.
There are other large diaphragm mics that vocalists will want to try out such as the Audio-Technica AT4047 (made to emulate the vintage U47 at a fraction of the price) and the AT 4060 tube mic. Shure’s KSM 32 and KSM 44 are also very nice large diaphragm mics. Many singers also have good results with Blue mics and the AKG 414 is also a popular choice.
Is there ever a reason to not use a large diaphragm mic? Yes. If the vocalist has a very dynamic and expressive voice, with an airy sound at times and lots of emotional feeling in the performance, then a large-diaphragm condenser mic is an obvious choice. Beyond that, the singer needs to find the actual condenser mic that sounds best for their voice. If the singer is one-dimensionally aggressive with little subtlety, the recordist might consider a dynamic mic for a couple of reasons: first, a constant “screamo” or “cookie monster” type sound just might work better in the recording if you don’t capture all of its intricacies. Second, a dynamic mic might be better able to handle the sheer volume and moisture produced by an extremely loud and aggressive singer.
The grounds for this choice include the assessment of your overall needs and the sound of the specific mic you choose. Sometimes, a small-diaphragm condenser mic is the best choice, especially if you record a lot of acoustic instruments in addition to vocals. If you do more vocal recording with an occasional acoustical recording, a large-diaphragm condenser might be the best choice. Certain mics are known to exhibit characteristics of both the large and small-diaphragm. The Shure KSM 32 and the AKG 414 are examples of good multi-purpose large diaphragm mics.
Cheap or Expensive?
You can spend a hundred dollars and get a mic that looks good but doesn’t sound good with your voice. Or, you can spend 500 dollars (or more) and have a mic that you can use for the rest of your life. Remember: it is always less expensive to buy the right tool first.
A top quality mic has a smooth, transparent, but very consistent sound throughout the frequency spectrum. There are some inexpensive condenser mics (small and large diaphragm) which you can purchase for only $79, $89 or $99. They may look as cool as a Neumann U47—but they don’t always sound good.
Consistency is one factor that separates less adequate mics from quality mics. Cheaper mics are often hyped in a certain range so that they may appear to sound very good; however, there are “holes” at certain frequencies. It seems that you do have to pay for consistency, but you may not have to pay thousands.
I’m willing to entertain a mic from any major manufacturer that I trust, like Sennheiser, Electrovoice, Shure, Neumann, AKG, Blue, Audio-Technica, Beyer, or others. When given the choice between an unbelievably inexpensive mic that looks good, and a well-respected microphone from a reputable manufacturer, your money will virtually always be better spent on the latter. You don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for a good large diaphragm condenser microphone—the key is to try out several before opening up your wallet…
Choosing and Testing Mics
Product hype and advertising are enticing but what really counts is what your ears tell you. You’ve got to test different recording mics.
It’s fascinating that you can set up 5 incredible recording mics for a singer to test and find only one that sounds excellent with their voice. This is exactly what we do when we record an album here in the studio; we literally line up the microphones and test them out—we want to make sure that the mic captures the unique expression and emotion of the vocalist.
All singers are different. Some have a “light touch” and remain in the same dynamic range the entire time—this gives one a certain type of sound source at the mic for which certain recording mics are optimal. However, if the vocalist sings very dynamically, using a hard rock style, they might discover that traditional large diaphragm mics are not the only choice. These are two extremes; every individual’s voice is going to have a unique response to a mic. Most singers benefit from the clarity, fullness and nuance that a large diaphragm condenser mic is capable of producing.
A good relationship with a professional audio supplier is very valuable. It’s ideal if you can take the recording mics home, try them out and choose the one that works best for your situation. However, when this isn’t possible, the key factor is that you do try these mics out. At the very least, go into an audio outlet, pick up the mics, put on a set of headphones and see how they sound. Ask the salesperson to record your voice on a CD recorder so that you can take the results home and evaluate the sound of each mic.
There is no point in having a great mic for home recording if the space you’re recording in is not suitable.
The quality of the recording environment just can’t be neglected. One of the most common challenges when recording at home is the size and shape of the room. Any small bedroom sized room, 10’x 10’, 10’ x 12’ etc.—especially if the room is a square or nearly a square—is brutal on the recording quality. In fact, in this type of environment, even an excellent large diaphragm condenser mic might make your voice sound like garbage.
The reason for this is that the mic is picking up sound waves bouncing off nearby walls and other surfaces, combining with the direct sound at the mic, and adversely coloring the sound. This can be reduced by positioning the vocalist in one corner of the room, with a blanket hanging behind to reduce the amount of this ambient sound getting back into the mic. There are other solutions, such as singing in a larger room that has sound deadening aspects throughout.
In a studio, the recording space is acoustically well balanced—it’s “dead” enough without it being too “dead”. In this kind of space a multi-pattern mic can be set to omni-directional; the singer can get close to the mic and have an intimate sound without the result sounding smothered or clouded.
You don’t have to go to a studio in order to produce a high quality recording. In fact, I’ve found a fantastic solution for my own home studio. I have a room that is 25’x 18’ a little bigger than the normal bedroom, but it is not designed acoustically as a studio. I use an item called a Tube Trap made by a company in Oregon called Acoustic Sciences Corporation (ASC). Tube traps are acoustical columns that are placed around the vocalist—the acoustical ambiance is controlled and any detrimental influences to the vocal sound are dramatically reduced.
I have eight of these and every time I record vocals, I just set them up around the vocalist. Their height is adjustable from about five feet to seven feet, they have a hard reflective side and a soft absorbant side; you can shape the sound by rotating the columns and adjusting their height. Check out similar products from Primeacoustic and Auralex— more and more companies are addressing these issues.
Remember, you can have the best singer, mic, pre-amp—everything, but it is critical to invest in making the acoustic space suitable. Fortunately, with the tools I’ve mentioned, this does not have to be incredibly expensive.
Is that it? Not quite. There’s a lot that goes into the recording of an excellent vocal take. First, you need to work to capture an inspired performance. An inspired performance includes emotion, style, dynamic impact, and a heartfelt delivery. It’s also important that the vocals are in tune. Keep a high standard when recording, but if you have recorded a track that feels great but is a little out of tune, keep it—in the modern recording era tuning problems can be repaired easily.
Sometimes, the improper use of a compressor can result in over-exaggerated sibilance: S, T, and K sounds. These can be repaired during mixdown using a “de-esser” and they can be avoided during tracking by moving the mic relative to the singer. It all depends on the singer, but if you move the mic up, down, closer, or farther away, you should find the best sound pretty quickly.
An annoying and destructive sound that occurs during tracking is the problem plosive. P and B sounds can produce a blast of air that actually causes a physical thump in the microphone’s diaphragm. These are very difficult and sometimes impossible to repair during mixdown but they are relatively simple to avoid during tracking. A windscreen (a nylon fabric or metal mesh in a wire frame) should be used to diffuse the air as it attacks the microphone diaphragm. Positioning the windscreen about six inches in front of the mic helps to diffuse the air and, at the same time, keeps the singer in the best place for the recorded sound.
Of course, you will want your mic mounted on a solid stand with a shock-absorbing cradle so that handling noise and vibrations are kept at a minimum.
The “Right” Mic
Recording issues aren’t always black and white. One has to leave space for art, emotion, expression, and individuality. I’ve had great results using the “wrong” mic and I’ve had poor results using the “right” mic. There is the norm and then there is the brilliant deviation from the norm. There is the singer with a $15,000 signal path and no inspiration who can’t touch the power of the inspired performance of a novice with an SM58 and an M-box Mini. The important thing is to move ahead, begin testing mics and start recording. Learning from experience, peppered with a bit of education, is a solid way forward to being able to record great vocals.