ALLEN SIDES is a five-time Grammy-winning
engineer/producer who has
worked on more than 1,000 albums. His
credits include some of the most iconic
voices of all time: Ray Charles, Mary
J Blige, Aretha Franklin, Vince Gill,
Alanis Morrisette, Duke Ellington, and
Ella Fitzgerald. Here he offers us his
expert advice on setting up a vocal booth,
choosing a vocal mic, and more.
ONE OF the toughest things to record is a vocal.
You don't have to have a multimillion-dollar
microphone collection or be at the best studio
in the world to get a great vocal sound, but there
are certain things you can do to obtain maximum
recording results at home.
One size clearly does not fit all when choosing
a recording method, as singers vary dramatically
in regard to microphone technique, ability to stay
in tune, tonality, and clarity of full-out voice vs.
delicate delivery. Some of the typical challenges
you can face when trying to get a good vocal sound
Every room or space you record in can sound
totally different. Every microphone has its own
unique color and sound.
The distance and axis alignment of the source
in relationship to the microphone can drastically
alter the sound.
It can be difficult to determine how much—if
any—compression should be used.
It can also be confusing to detrmine which mic
preamp to use and how to optimize the gain to
maximize resolution when recording into digital
Here are some of the techniques I use to get
the most out of recording a vocal at home.
Isolating the Singer The first thing I look
at is the space in which I am going to record the
vocal. Most spaces at home,
whether a bedroom, living
room, etc. are usually much
too live and have lots of
first- and second-order
reflections echoing back
and being picked up by the
microphone. The singer
may sound fine to you in the
room, but when you listen
back to him or her through
the mic in the control room,
you may hear unwanted
ambience that you were
unaware of while you were
in the room.
Part of the reason for
this is that since you hear
in stereo, when you listen to the singer live in the
room, your brain allows you to focus in on just the
singer and ignore much of the room ambience.
But when you hear the singer through the mic, in
the control room, you can no longer separate the
voice from the room sound.
Luckily this problem can easily be solved by
hanging packing (moving) blankets on three mic
stands that are placed to the left, behind, and to
the right of the microphone. This forms a sort
of insulating “U” shape around the microphone, and will virtually eliminate all unwanted room
ambience so the mic picks up a cleaner and
more direct sound from the singer. Problem
solved! I’ve set up suitable recording spaces
in houses for major bands and producers all
over the world and it still amazes me what you
can do with a couple of well-placed moving
Choosing a Mic When choosing a
microphone, I will usually put up three that
I know from experience will work well for a
particular singer. Some of the mics I might
typically select from would be a Telefunken
251E, a Neumann U47, a Sony C-800G, a
Neumann U67, or an Ocean Way 6050.
Before placing an EQ or compressor in the
signal chain, I usually position my three test
mics so that their capsules are right next to
each other; then I’ll set their gains to match
and perhaps record a bit of a quiet verse or big
chorus and then listen back with the artist to
decide which mic works best. Recording and
listening back can also help save the singer’s
voice while I’m choosing a mic.
I recorded one singer that actually sounded
much better on a Shure SM58 than on any of
the other, fancier mics. You could even put up
a mic that might not normally be considered
a good vocal mic, such as an AKG 451 or a
Neumann KM84, but by placing it at a distance
of approximately 8 inches from the source and
with the appropriate windscreen, those mics
can actually sound quite good.
Once you’ve picked your mic, position your
windscreen at the exact distance you want
the singer to be when he is closest to the mic
(typically 4 to 8 inches), to keep him from
moving in any closer. This distance is very
important, because if the singer moves too
close to the mic the sound can become dark
and muddy, due to excessive proximity effect.
When I’m mixing, it’s not unusual to receive
poorly recorded vocal tracks that have this
problem (as well as excessive pops), which
usually requires major EQing and finessing to
fix these anomalies before I can mix. But if the
singer keeps the right distance from the mic,
the recording can be clear as a bell.
Another technique I use to retain the
presence and highs of the tone is to place
a small red dot in the dead center of the
windscreen, on-axis to the center of the
microphone capsule. I’ll then direct the singer
to sing into the dot. These simple steps can
make a huge difference later on when mixing.
The Signal Chain
|"I often find compression can eat some singers alive and take all the life out of their vocal.”
Some of my choices for
microphone preamps might include an original discrete API mic pre, a custom Ocean Way
mic pre, an SSL J mic pre (insert out), or a
Neve 88-R mic pre (insert out). But there are
lots of mic pre’s out there that sound perfectly
When setting the gain on a microphone, I
usually start with no compressor in line and
then set the peak level at about 4 dB from
clipping or hitting the red on the Pro Tools
channel meter. Once a singer gets rolling,
she almost always sing louder than she does
on the first run-through. Give yourself some
headroom so you don’t clip a great vocal. I also
find that Pro Tools tends to sound better and
more natural, particularly on vocals, when
you’re not right on the edge of clipping.
Next, if needed, I insert a compressor on
the channel and set it for unity gain with
typically a 6-to-1 ratio. Depending on the
singer, I might set the threshold for about 2
to 3 dB of compression, although there are
certainly some circumstances where it may
require significantly more.
With many singers, I prefer to record
with no compression at all and balance any
gain changes later in Pro Tools. But if I find
I need a small amount of compression, my
compressors of choice are the Teletronics
LA2A or Summit Audio TLA 100A. If I need
a lot of compression, I prefer the original dbx
Sometimes, for monitoring purposes only,
I will insert a compressor plug-in across
the vocal track within Pro Tools. This helps
things sound more even during the recording
process, and by not recording compression to
the track, the integrity of the dynamic range of
the performance is retained.
I often find compression can eat some
singers alive and take all the life out of their
vocal, but by recording with no compression
and adjusting the levels with clip gain, I can
balance the track later while retaining the
personality and life of the performance. I
find this technique to be particularly useful
when recording artists such as Josh Groban
or Andrea Bocelli, who are both absolutely
incredible singers, but compression is not
On the other hand, I was recently
recording a vocal with Katharine McPhee,
who has a very bright, clear voice that
really kicks ass, dynamically. I found myself
needing as much as 14 dB of compression to
balance her track, but the compressor didn’t
compromise her vocal at all; she still sounded
Another amazing singer I recorded
recently was Eric Benét. I added just three dB
of compression to his track, and it sounded
perfect. And last week I was recording
Johnny Mathis for a Dave Koz Christmas
album. He walked up to the mic, never got
closer than 10 inches to it, and without any
compression, he sounded flawless. I found the
same to be true while recording Frank Sinatra
many years ago.
The point here is that every singer is
completely different in regard to his or her
vocal performance, so you need to adjust
accordingly for each.
Session Tricks Here is a trick I use for
maximizing resolution when recording
singers with a wide dynamic range and for
whom compression is not a friend: I record
each vocal pass onto two channels within Pro
Tools. I record one of these channels so the
loudest stuff is at least 3 dB below clipping
and the other channel eight to 10 dB hotter.
(I usually adjust the Pro Tools analog input
gain to create the difference.) Even though
the high-gain channel will be totally clipping
when the singer is singing full out, the
quieter sections on that channel, that are not
clipping, will have much more effective high
bit resolution because they were recorded so
much hotter. This way, when I comp the vocal
track, I can use the hotter track for the softly
performed sections and the softer track for
the louder performed sections.
After I have created my vocal comp,
I typically spend an hour or so precisely
tweaking the levels for every single syllable
so the vocal perfectly lays into the track I’m
mixing. As I’m doing this, I will also take
out harshness and clarify dark moments by
automating digital EQ plug-ins. And since I’m
not fond of any de-esser, plug in or otherwise,
I prefer to manually set the level of every “s”
and “t” to taste.
In regard to EQ, I try to find the best mic
to match the timbre of each singer’s voice. I
rarely add EQ on the whole vocal. I use EQ to
fix specific words that may be a little harsh,
or are not as clear as I would like. However, if
you only have one mic and the vocal sounds
a bit dark in the track, don’t be afraid to add
whatever EQ may be necessary to make the
track sound right. For this purpose, I generally
find high-frequency shelves to be much more
natural sounding than any sort of peaking EQ.
Another vital tool in getting a great vocal
performance is having a killer headphone
mix that sounds as close as possible to the
intended finished mix. Reverb, effects, etc.
that will be on the finished track should be
there for the singer. This can make a huge
difference in the way the singer delivers a
With all this in mind, your final homerecorded
vocal track can have optimum
resolution, rich dynamic range, and an even
flow without any distracting sibilance.
I’m a firm believer that there’s not just one
way to do something, but I hope you will find
some of these concepts as useful to you as
they have been for me. Best wishes and happy
recording to all.
Allen Sides designed and built the Ocean
Way Studio group, which includes Ocean
Way Hollywood, Record One Sherman
Oaks, Ocean Way Nashville, and Ocean
Way Saint Barths. Sides is CEO of Ocean
Way Audio, which comprises Ocean Way
Monitor Systems, Ocean Way Drum
Sample libraries, Ocean Way Microphones,
OWR Studio Designs, and The Allen Sides
Microphone Cabinet App. His most recent
product is a collaboration with Universal
Audio, The Ocean Way Room plug-in.
Freedom of Choice: Allen Sides Shares Tips for Selecting the Perfect Mic for Your Session
BY SARAH JONES
Allen, when looking for microphones, is there
anything we should know about modern
design, as far as the characteristics that
various elements impart?
I’m not sure there’s anything really particularly new that’s transpired in the last 30
years. My original AKG-C-12s from the late ’50s had nine patterns, remote-controllably
switchable at the power supply. Generally speaking, patterns determine how much
information the mic will receive from different directions, but different patterns
also affect the overall frequency response. One of the more important issues is the
microphone’s off-axis response, which from an engineer’s perspective can determine
how well any one mic will work on a drum kit, a horn section, or string section with multiple
other mics. Even though you’re putting a mic on a specific instrument, that mic is also
going to pick up other instruments around it, and if its off-axis response is unpleasant, it
will tend to make the sound of the whole section sound unpleasant.
Are there any other design characteristics that might not be so obvious?
Once again, I’m not sure there are that many significant differences between ribbon and
condenser microphones of 40 years ago and today. The same problems and solutions
still apply. Quality control and consistency is still a major issue. In regard to condenser
microphones, I do tend to prefer some of the older tube-type microphones, but it’s
certainly fair to say there are some excellent new microphones available. It’s also fair to
say that there are a lot of really bad-sounding mics out there, and price and appearance
do not necessarily determine how great they will sound. I do however feel that some of
the newer ribbon mics available today are more consistent and generally flatter than
their older counterparts.
If you can only have, say, three or four mics in your locker, what should you be
For a setup at home, I think what would be most important to me would be finding a
microphone that works well as a great vocal mic, but also, if I had a second one, would work
well as a stereo pair to record stereo piano, guitar, or percussion, etc. Usually at home, you
are only recording one instrument at a time, so all you need is one great stereo pair.
How do you determine which preamp is right?
My choice for mic pre is strictly sonics, what ever sounds the biggest, widest and most
open. That is assuming that I am looking for an accurate reproduction. There are instances
where I am looking for a particular color or extra smoothness for a particular singer
or instrument in which case I am looking for character not necessarly true high fidelity.
Have you seen any mics debut in the past five to ten years that are destined to
The Sony C-800-G, which George Massenburg and I consulted on, is in my view a true
classic, comparable with the best of the past, but unique in its own right.
I remember back in the day when the Ocean Way Mic Locker was on CD-ROM. Can you talk about how
that project has evolved into a mobile app?
The original OWR Mic Locker was our first attempt at trying to allow people to hear the
difference between various great mics on the same instrument and to be able to A/B
instantly at matched levels. At the time we did it [in the 1990s], we were right at the edge
of what was possible with CD-ROMs—now commonly referred to as Dead Sea Scrolls.
We were able to get fabulous studio musicians with great instruments, but it took forever
to do. It was very successful and became very popular with music and recording schools
all over the country. As technology moved ahead and CD-ROMs faded away, so did our
Then one day a good friend of mine, [guitarist/producer] Steve Vai called me and told
how much he had liked our microphone cabinet and had even used it for drum samples.
He told me he still thought it was an invaluable tool and would like to see it turned it into
an app. I said it would be nice to see it out again after all that work, and Steve made it
happen. Clearly, if I was doing it today, I would have a lot more mics and every sample
would be in stereo, but it still sounds great and is very informative. [The Ocean Way
Microphone Locker app is available on iTunes for iPhone and iPad, for $9.99.—Eds.]
How does someone at home become familiar enough with the vast number of mics
out there to choose the right model for his or her situation?
I try to stay as current as possible and listen to as many new mics as I can. I usually
listen first on my electrostatic headphones, using just my voice as a reference. I have
been doing this for so long that I really know what to listen for, and will usually compare
directly to some of my best tube mics. If I find something that is interesting, I will take
it down to one of my tracking dates and double up with a mic that I might normally use
on a particular instrument, and A/B live. There are some very decent mics out there, but
I haven’t been knocked out with anything recently. I try to keep an open mind, but my
standards are high and I love the classics.