To get a great performance, you need to be confident of your tools. Before the artist walks into the studio, you should have a handle on what mic you’re going to use for the recording. If there’s enough of a budget, I prefer to use a Ditrik DeGeer mic. These are incredible copper or brass mics running about $18,000 each and last I heard, only 27 have been made. Most of the time, I place them about 18 inches or more from the vocalist. Aside from sounding amazingly true, the field it captures allows the vocalist to twist and turn their heads with less issue in off-axis sound.
If you’re not familiar with what off-axis sounds like, take a cardioid mic and have a friend count to 1,000 while moving in a circular pattern around the mic. As the sound hits the capsule of the mic with less directness, you start to hear the bass frequency disappear. It’s valuable to understand what this sounds like ’cause taping the toes of the artist to the floor can be fun, but usually problematic.
Artists will often move off axis, especially during the great take. You might be able to compensate later in the mix, but sometimes you can hear the problem coming and avoid the situation entirely. Mention to the artist to check their position . . . before each take if you need (’cause you’ve taped the floor, not their toes, for them to remember where to stand).
I’m of the mind that one should be able to achieve at least a tolerable vocal sound with proper mic placement. If popping Ps and sharp Ss are a problem, you might find an omni mic that can often reduce those effects. The omni position can sometimes be as close as a click away on some mics (the pattern looks like a circle on the mic or box the mic is plugged into). The omni position also tends to reduce the bass frequencies coming through the mic. In most cases, that won’t be a problem. Adjustments can be made by bringing the artist closer to or farther from the mic. Generally, the farther away the artist is from the mic, the less bass response.
My other choices for vocal mics are AKG C-12s, Neumann U-47s, U-67s, U-87s, and sometimes SM-7s. For years, I used B&K 4011s or 12s, and sometimes still do. They are unconventional for vocals but can stand a lot of air pressure without creating distortion and the sonic qualities are quite stunning. In just about any mic shoot out they would win, hands down. One day, I needed a change in my palette and moved on to other adventures for recording vocals. I have used SM-7s, RE-20s, AKGs, Telefunkens, SM-57 and 58s, ribbon mics and “Mr. Microphone,” which cost $4 back in the day. . . .
There are so many choices out there, it’s best you find something you like, learn its character and know you can fall back to using it on 90 percent of your sessions. If you’re recording at home, rent a few mics first, decide what you like and buy it. One can’t go wrong with a U-87 most of the time. If you’re on a budget, the most versatile mic for about $100 is an SM-57, in my opinion.
Next to consider is the preamp. For ease of use and great sound, I can always rely on the Millennia solid-state preamps. The Millennia preamps are quite stunning in their huge frequency response. Lately, I’ve taken a liking to the Manley VOXBOX, which is quite incredible. It has a very human character and natural compression with its tubes. I’m also a fan of Neve pres. These are all quite pricey items to purchase. More than mics, I have found that spending the money on the preamps can save me a lot of headaches later. Cheaper preamps will be noisy and not have nearly enough head room. Without headroom, you’re going to distort your recording. If you’re on a budget, see if you can borrow or rent the gear for a day to test out with your vocals. If you’re a powerful singer, save up your money and buy the best you can.
The cable from the mic to the pre can also have a huge effect on your sound. I’ve been using a silver cable from Jean-Marie Reynaud (a French manufacturer who built the cable for the French aerospace industry). It is quite expensive, but the full frequency response is there. Mogami and Canare are also good cables, though one exceptional cable in your collection can be used on almost every overdub, so it might be worth the expense for one. If you are building your own cables, make sure your cables are in phase.
I’ve adopted many of the techniques I’ve used with analog tape and Dolby SR to the digital mediums for recording. I don’t compress to the recording medium, I avoid EQ and try to cut as clear a path from the preamp to the recording medium as possible. This means bypassing the board whenever possible. In my control room, we’ve got it set up to record direct to the medium and we monitor the outputs only. At the output stage, we’ll add reverb, compression, and whatever else we need knowing that the sound to tape is clean and can be manipulated in the mix.
Many engineers also prefer to record with effects to the recording medium. I’ve opted for flexibility in the mix stage and avoid any possibility of over compression in the recording. Because I like to give the vocalist and other band members a compressed vocal in the headphone, that sound can be quite different than what I would use in the mix. (If possible, monitor as close to the final mix when you are cutting the vocal track. This will save you many hours.)
But when mixing a vocal, I’ll generally run the output directly to a Millennia Origin channel and return to the board. If I need EQ, I’ll use it there and often use the compression, which is quite clean, as a first stage of limiting. From the direct out of the board channel, I’ll run it into a compressor, like the Universal Audio LA2A, LA4A, or 1176. I have used other compressors, but have settled on these for vocals . . . unless there’s a Fairchild lying around, which often there isn’t. I don’t run the compressors in the inserts. Instead, I run it as a wet and dry effect so I can adjust the amount of compression relative to the original sound.
Compression can often remove some of the high and low frequencies. Making a delicate adjustment between the wet and dry signal can give you a more realistic sound while keeping the vocal in check in the mix.
For reverb and delays, you can check the article in the June issue [“In Search of . . . the Perfect Speaker,” page 36]. My tendency is to use a more realistic sound that comes with a good performance and great recording gear. I will combine reverbs and delays for effects and tend to use two or three varying qualities of effects to give a natural feel.