November 16th, 2009 | by Greg Barker

Technology 101 for Vocalists


We’re featuring Bill Gibson’s answer to this crucial question for all vocalists:

Dear Bill:

I’m going to admit it. I’m afraid to read your technology articles!

I’m a gigging singer who is also a technophobe who can’t really see
past his mic. My band-mates discuss technical stuff and I just
pretend to know what they are talking about.

So, here’s my question: I know I have a good mic for my voice—
what’s the next thing I should know about in order to be more in
control of my sound? I’ve got to take this one step at a time.


-Jack.

This is a huge area, of course, but over the next two weeks I plan to summarize some very important areas of technological knowledge for vocalists.

As a vocalist, you are, hopefully, a purist who cares about getting the very best possible sound at every point in the signal path.

Thus, you need to consider each point at which your vocal sound is typically controlled or affected. I recommend seriously assessing the five variables:

*Your Voice
*Your Mic
*The Preamp
*The Dynamics Processor
*Vocal Effects Devices

I’ll cover the first three today (focusing on the preamp) and the last two next week.

Your Voice

Are you controlling your voice and physically producing the best possible sound?

This all comes down to basic ability, innate talent, musical passion, performance skill level, confidence, and the ability to convey the meaning of a lyric so that it will emotionally impact the listener.

Without having these fundamentals covered, even a million dollar signal path won’t cut it.

As a technology specialist, I’m not going to elaborate too much on this first aspect of the signal path.

The key is for you to continually improve your vocal technique and expression by relying on help from vocal coaches and teachers, combined with your own innate desire and drive to produce a passionate and inspired vocal performance—that’s why it’s excellent that you are tuned into VoiceCouncil and it’s wealth of information on these areas.

Your Microphone

If you’re satisfied with the one you’re using then you’re set but always be on the lookout for something better.

Constantly reassessing your performance and the tools that you use to communicate with your audience is an essential constant in your vocal journey.

We can keep this discussion brief as VoiceCouncil has two very practical articles on Mics—one on live performance and one on recording. Check these out and then take the next practical steps along this journey of mic experimentation.

The Preamp

The preamplifier is the device that raises the level of the signal from mic level to line level.

Mic level (the signal strength at the output of the microphone) is typically 30 to 60 dB below line level.

Line level is the strength of the signal that the internal mixer circuitry needs to see.

Live and recording mixers all have preamplifiers built in—this is typically the XLR input where the mic cable plugs in; however, the built-in preamp isn’t always the best-sounding.

In a serious recording or live environment, engineers are always looking for a good match between singer, microphone, and preamp.

I could go on and on about this, but you should be aware that the preamp changes the sound and personality of your voice in the sound system or recording.

This is one of the ways you can customize your sound. Although this addition of an outboard device to the signal path is sometimes subtle, it can’t be denied that it is fundamental and foundational.

High-quality tube preamps (UK: ‘valve preamps’) are highly lauded for their smooth and warm sound while high quality solid-state preamps are respected for their headroom, accuracy, and transparency.

The output of an outboard preamp plugs into the mixer line input.

In order to make an intelligent choice about the preamp that is best for you, you must listen, listen, listen. This is where a good relationship with a pro audio dealer is, yet again, essential.

Preamps, like microphones, are tools that can’t really be purchased solely because of street cred or advertising hype.

You should listen and you should ask a trusted musical and technical confidante to help you to listen.

Record a performance using a few different preamps and then compare them to the preamp that is resident in your mixer; when you find the right one that supports, enhances, and enables your vocal personality, you’ll know it.

Next week I will be introducing you to dynamics processors and vocal effects gear.

Technology 101 part II

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Bill Gibson is the author of 30+ books about recorded and live sound, including his most recent six-book series, The Hal Leonard Recording Method by Bill Gibson

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  • leewashejr

    Im so totally confused on pre-amps and mixers; what does a person do on a limited budget! I would dearly love to have a nice pre amp and mixer but without having availability in using various types which one is the right one?!?! I understand this is almost impossible to answer but someone knows?!?!? By the way this website is totally awesome. I just purchased a TC Helicon Voice Tone Harmony G..unbelievable, I am blown away!!!! Thanks and God Bless

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