Assuming we have a good vocalist and a good performance, how do we take care of the recording, processing and mixing to get professional vocal results? Studio quality mics and audio interfaces are available for affordable prices, which makes equipment accessible for most of us. What are the factors involved and how do we use them to our best advantage? Let us start with mics…

Vocal mics

Shure SM58 Cardioid pattern Dynamic Vocal Microphones without Cable This basic vocal mic is affordable and value for money. The best choice of vocal mic if you are starting out recording vocals, or if you don't want to buy condenser mics.

These are the main types of mics used for vocal recording:

  1. Large-diaphragm, cardioid-pattern capacitor microphones are preferred for much of serious studio vocal work. It has become like a traditionally established norm. Large diaphragm condenser mics add a specific tone to the recorded voice. Recording with a suitable large diaphragm condenser can add warmth, sizzle, air etc to the vocal, making a good recording.
  2. Shure SM58s, probably the most popular stage vocal mics, are dynamic mics which are not as responsive to frequencies as the condenser mics. Still these mics are used by some singers for final professional productions because the mic records the tone of their voice well. It also depends on the music genre.
  3. Small diaphragm condensers lack off axis coloration and are more accurate than large-diaphragm condensers. They won't offer as much tonal options as the large diaphragm mics. They can be used successfully for vocal recordings. If possible try a few small diaphragm condenser mics to record vocals and decide for yourself.
  4. An omni directional microphone in the right acoustic space can give good vocal recordings with natural spacial and tonal effects added from the room.
  5. If you need to record a vocalist while he is playing an acoustic guitar, the nulls of a figure of eight mic (bi-directional ribbon mics)can be angled to give very good separation between the vocal and guitar.

Choosing a mic is about the need and result; the final sound we want. Feel free to experiment. Settle with a mic that gives you the needed recording.

Tonal character of the mic

Audio Technica AT2020:  exceptionally value for money large diaphragm studio microphone. (USD 69) USB version: Audio Technica AT2020USB Studio Condenser Microphone

Dynamic mic Shure SM58 is a dynamic mic that is value for money. When you are starting out, if you don't want to spend on a condenser mic, this is the option. Even if you have other mics, you can have one of these because it is easy to handle and sturdy.

If you are planning to get a studio microphone, a large diaphragm condenser mic, remember that each model or manufacturer adds a distinct tone when vocals is recorded through it. The tonal character of the mic needs to match with a particular vocalist. If you have listened to vocals recorded through different condenser mics, it is easier to know how a change of mic can change the recording.

Female vocals make it very evident if you choose the wrong mic. The unattractive throaty artifacts which are otherwise not obvious, maybe picked up by the 'wrong' mic in close micing.

Choosing The Right Mic: suitability vs good/bad

AT2035 has a few more additional features.
Rode NTK Tube Condenser Microphone: a serious tube mic in the budget range.

Most mics these days are technically well made. Noise is more of an issue than tonality, even if there is a technical downside to a mic. So, it is not a question of a good or bad mic. Sort the mics based on relevance and suitability.

For example, a mic with a more defined upper midrange can exaggerate unwanted artifacts from a female voice while the same mic can be used to bring clarity to a voice that needs more definition.

Budget microphones and preamps available now are enough to make high quality recordings. If the performance of the vocalist is alright, choosing the right mic and recording the signal properly is what professional results will depend on.

Large diaphragm

If you plan to buy just one large diaphragm mic, if possible test a few of the mics you are considering to buy. Maybe you can rent a studio with the mics you have in mind, and do a few recordings.

Audio Technica AT2020 at USD69, is one of the best value studio large diaphragm condenser mics available. AT2035 is the next model (USD161) with a few useful extras.

Tube microphones

Tube microphones are a category you could consider. A good tube mic sounds crisp and clear without being harsh or sibilant, and they also add weight and density to the lower vocal frequencies.  Look for tube mics that do not add overdrive on the tube to try to make it sound warm – just what the tube naturally does is enough.

The Rode NTK Tube Condenser Microphone is a serious large diaphragm tube condenser microphone with a price in the affordable range. (I use one of these.)

Three mics

If you can spend on three different mics, the choice of mics can come in handy. You could get three mics with three different characteristics, like:

  1. one with neutral charactertics, which does not add anything obvious to the tone
  2. one with a warm tone, maybe with a bit of thickening addition to the sound
  3. one that adds sizzle and air to the tone with its characteristic high frequency additions.

Polar Patterns

How do microphones record the sound sources around them? What decides which sounds get recorded with prominence while others are neglected?

Microphones have a capsule inside them which is responsible for recording. Sounds coming at different angles to the capsule will be recorded with different levels of loudness. The pattern by which a mic records sound sources around it is called the polar pattern of the mic.

The three main polar patterns

Cardioid Omni Figure of eight

images courtesy wikipedia

Cardioid pattern

Cardioid pattern (heart shaped) microphones have a very clear directional property. They record what is in front of the capsule, on the axis more than whatever lies away from the axis. What is behind the capsule is rejected completely. This is good when you don't want to record what is around, like the room sound or noise and sound from other sources.

Vocals is almost always recorded using cardioid pattern mics because of their directional nature. When the singer is on axis, the vocals is recorded with high priority, keeping the surrounding sounds recorded to a minimum.

Shure SM58 and most popular condenser mics are cardioid. Audio Technica AT2020 and AT2035 are cardioid too, while AT2050 is Multi Pattern(you get to choose the pattern).

The omnidirectional pattern

Omni directional mics pick up equally well from all directions. Record with this if you have an acoustically dead room or if you want to capture the room sound and what is happening around as well.

Recording vocals with an omni directional mic can give you a more natural sound; an open sound, because the mic captures the sound from all the directions. Even if the singer changes positions slightly, there will not be any noticeable tonal variation because the capsule is not directional – the angle does not matter.

Record vocals with omni mic when you want the room ambience recorded along with the vocal. Choir vocals is an example. Omni directional mics are useful for sounds where the acoustics of the environment matters.

Omni directional mics don't have the 'proximity effect' which has to be considered when using cardioid mics. (Proximity effect is basically the bass boost in the recorded signal when the sound source is brought closer to the mic.)

The figure of eight

The figure-of-eight polar pattern picks up sound in front and behind while rejecting sound from the sides. Ribbon microphones are famous for figure-of-eight patterns.These are not usually used for vocal recording, though you can try them for their tonality which is different from either dynamic mics or condenser mics.

The most useful situation for a figure-of-eight mic is probably when recording a singer who plays an acoustic guitar at the same time. Use a figure-of-eight mic for the vocals. Arrange the dead zone of the vocal mic towards the guitar, so that least spill from the guitar is picked up in the vocal signal. Similarly you can use a figure-of-eight for the guitar also, pointing the dead zone of the guitar mic towards the vocal to gain best separation.

Now you have a good idea about the choices: dynamic or condenser, the different polar patterns and its uses. In the next article we will continue, exploring other factors including the room and mixing.

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