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Successful Techniques for Recording Vocals

February 25, 2005
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If I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me what's the best vocal mic to buy for x amount of money, I'd have one huge pile of nickels. I don't mean to imply that it's not an important question, because it is. But the only simple answer is "Whichever one sounds best," a reply most people don't find helpful.

The problem is that the only way to respond effectively is to ask more questions: What kind of voice are you recording? What style of music? What mic preamps and other gear do you have? What's the recording medium? What's the purpose of the recording (demo, fun, commerce)? What other microphones do you have?

These questions all lead up to a much larger one, the one that most people seeking opinions about vocal mics are really asking without realizing it: how do I record a great vocal track?

The choice of a microphone is just one part of the equation. It's an important part, naturally, but it's not the major determinant for recording a good vocal track. You might even say it's a red herring. Some of the greatest vocal recordings ever made were captured with microphones that many studio snobs would never consider using for the task.

My favorite vocals stand out in my mind because of the performances more than the actual sound. (Although great sound can elevate the quality of the track, it's ultimately just a vehicle.) All that a high-quality microphone guarantees you is a better shot at getting a great-sounding reproduction of what may or may not be a good performance. The old "garbage in, garbage out" cliché definitely applies.

So how do you record a great vocal track? It helps to have a great singer deliver a great performance of a great singer singing a great song through great recording gear. Of those four elements, the easiest one to compromise on is the recording gear. I will discuss gear in this article, but I also want to talk about ways to use it to produce a better vocal performance. My focus is exclusively on the recording process. Mixing is a story for another time, especially considering that you can't do much about the performance-other than some pitch correction and editing-once you're at the mix phase.

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