Finding Your Voice

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After years of “hey, here''s a mic, that''s good enough,” companies are starting to pay more attention to vocalist-specific devices. No, we don''t just mean pop filters (although that new one from JZ Mics is pretty cool), but hardware effects and plug-ins tailored to voice, USB mics capable of excellent sound quality, accessories that do everything from mating mics with iPads to decoupling mic stands from floor vibrations, and a lot more.

This roundup takes a look at manufacturer offerings on tap for vocalists of all persuasions . . . and it''s a pretty interesting lineup. So, warm up by singing some scales and having a drink of warm water with honey and lemon—then start reading (and singing!).

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iZotope Nectar
Vocal processing to the max

Nectar seems more like a mastering program for vocals than just a “channel strip,” and includes several novel twists that make it far more than just a vocal-oriented derivative of iZotope''s Ozone or Alloy.

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Nectar has two operational levels. In the basic mode (Figure 1), you can specify a musical genre and style, with Nectar providing appropriate default settings. You also choose mixing or tracking modes, with the latter offering a lighter CPU load by reducing look-ahead, and abbreviating some features. Crucial controls are brought out for quick adjustments; the control complement varies somewhat depending on the chosen genre/style.

Going Deeper
Click on Advanced View (Figure 2), and you can edit all parameters of all 11 processors:

  • Pitch correction. This provides automatic correction and in some hosts, manual correction with graphic, per-note editing of pitch and correction amount. Among the 64-bit Windows programs I tested, the manual option was available in Pro Tools, Studio One Pro, and Ableton Live, but not Wavelab, Sonar, or Vegas; this is a limitation of the host, not Nectar.
  • Breath control. Identifies breath noise, then reduces it using compression. This has much latency due to significant look-ahead—consider bouncing or freezing a track once it''s set as desired.
  • Noise gate. Standard, but also includes RMS detection option, and can serve as an expander.
  • EQ. 5-bands, with seven response curves for each band.
  • Saturation. Tube, tape, retro, analog, retro, and warm, with variable-slope high-frequency rolloff.
  • Doubler. Actually, it''s a quadrupler, with a sophisticated design featuring adjustable pitch offset, delay, panning, gain, and octave up or down options for each “voice.” Two bands of shelving EQ can interact with each other for unusual responses.
  • Compressors. The two different compressors, optionally routable for parallel compression, model four different compressor types; one includes post-filtering.
  • De-esser. Minimizes “ess” sounds effectively.
  • Limiter. Complements the compressors by placing a ceiling on the peak dynamic range.
  • Reverb. If you''re familiar with the mastering reverb in Ozone . . . this isn''t it! It''s flexible and sounds good, thanks to seven reverb algorithms, with seven variable parameters.
  • Delay. This offers digital, tape, and analog algorithms with modulation, tempo sync, and separate high-cut/low-cut parameters.

Despite the depth, if you know your way around signal processing, it''s not hard to figure out what''s going on. If you use Ozone or Alloy, you''ll feel right at home due to the GUI commonality.

Nectar is extremely deep—probably too deep for some, who will be thankful for the genre and style presets. Although experts might not feel the need for these “training wheels,” they''re a time-saving point of departure—get close to what you want, and you won''t have to spend as much time tweaking. Although you probably have similar plug-ins for your DAW, the optimization for vocals makes Nectar a convenient, one-stop-shop for whipping your vocals not just into shape, but pretty much into any shape you want.

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Blue Microphones Spark
A versatile mic at a righteous price

Blue makes fine mics—whether you''re talking specs or industrial design. Although the company built its reputation on high-end mics, Spark takes its condenser know-how into a lower-priced world.

Spark seems designed so that if someone could only afford one condenser mic, they''d choose Spark. It''s a medium-diaphragm cardioid design with subtle response tweaking—a small lift around 11kHz (which brings out the clean, responsive high end) and 1kHz, a bit of a dip in the “mud” frequencies around 400Hz, and another slight dip around the 2kHz “honk” frequency. All of this is ideal for vocals. A boost around 90Hz can emphasize the proximity effect, or be tuned out with Spark''s unique “Focus” switch, which reduces bass and tightens the lower mids.

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Spark comes with a pop filter, shock mount, groovalicious wooden case, and helpful documentation.

Focus isn''t a standard low-cut filter; it alters the capsule''s voltage loading rather than processing the mic''s output, thus affecting both dynamics and frequency response. The effect is both subtle in that it retains the mic''s desirable characteristics, and striking in that it can make quite a difference with some sound sources. For example, switching Focus out with vocals gave a full, deep sound, but I had to be careful about plosives and air, even when using the included pop filter. With Focus in, the vocal cut more, minimized plosives, and had a “direct” quality. With acoustic guitar, switching Focus in helps control “boom” if you like miking close to the sound hole, while switching it out sounded best when I backed the mic off for more room sound. It''s almost like having two separate mics, increasing the overall value considerably.

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The solid-state electronics are Class-A, which eliminates crossover distortion because there is no crossover, and handle SPL levels up to 128dB. But, the mic package as a whole is a class act. There''s an industrial-strength shock mount (improved over earlier versions) and semi-effective pop filter, included with the mic in a sweet wooden case (Figure 1). Also, the manual goes beyond just documenting the mic, and provides helpful miking tips.

If you prefer hand-held rather than shock-mount, at 1.25 lbs., the body feels substantial, yet fits comfortably in any size hand. It seems no more prone or immune to handling noise than any comparable mic.

At a below-$200 price, you''d expect compromises, yet the transient response and clarity excel, without the high-end “brittleness” sometimes experienced with low-cost condensers. It''s a sensitive mic—you have to be careful about “swallowing” it, and there''s a reason why it includes a pop filter (although you''ll probably want a heavier-duty one on call)—so it''s important to experiment to find the right mic positioning. That sensitivity is an asset, though, if you like to move the mic back a little bit to give more “breathing room” and pick up a shade more room ambience.

If someone said they could afford only one condenser mic, I''d recommend Spark not just for the versatility, but the quality. If Blue''s goal was to produce the VW of mics, I''d say they succeeded—except that it''s the Turbo Diesel model.

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TC-Helicon VoiceTone Singles and MP-75 Mic
Stompbox system love for vocalists

TC-Helicon staked a claim years ago as “the vocal processing company,” and never looked back. During that time, it''s produced vocal processors for stage, studio, and both, but the VoiceTone Singles (coupled with the MP-75 mic) represent a new—and clever—way of dealing with vocal processing.

There are four Singles-series stompboxes: T1 Adaptive Tone and Dynamics, C1 HardTune and Correction, D1 Doubling and Detune, and R1 Vocal Tuned Reverb. Each has an XLR input with non-defeatable phantom power, XLR out, footswitch, and various controls; the mic gain control is on the side and recessed, so it''s hard to hit accidentally. The packaging is sturdy—a rubber, non-stick base and die-cast metal top. You can daisy-chain the audio to create an effects chain, but each stompbox requires its own included AC adapter.

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The VoiceSupport site isn''t just about downloading new firmware for TC-Helicon gear, but includes a lot of useful information.

The always-on phantom power isn''t much of an issue. Condenser mics need it, and dynamics aren''t harmed by it. Although rarely used for vocals, older ribbon mics can be damaged by phantom power; newer ribbons can cope better, but overall, I''d recommend staying away from ribbons—and not using any of the pedals as “hardware inserts” for DAWs that accommodate external hardware.

Each unit also has two unusual features: A USB port on the back that communicates with TC-Helicon''s VoiceSupport software (Figure 1), and a Mic Control on/off button. The latter works in conjunction with TC-Helicon''s MP-75 mic, which lets you control effects from the mic itself—let''s look at that next.

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The MP-75 is a dynamic supercardioid mic designed specifically for singers. It''s comfortable to hold, and has an internal shock mount for the capsule; breath and pop rejection is very good, even without a pop filter, and handling noise is also kept under control. Compared to an SM58, the output is hotter, with a crisper high-frequency response. Although I didn''t have any gigs scheduled during the time of writing this review, the company claims good resistance to feedback.

Okay, so it''s a really good vocal mic with a reasonable price, but there''s also a recessed pushbutton switch for controlling your effects. Control is limited to toggling enable/bypass, but if several Singles are daisy-chained, the switch works with multiple effects. As it''s a toggle, if one effect is enabled and another bypassed, hitting the switch bypasses the enabled effect and enables the bypassed one.

I was kind of hoping that something like holding the button or double-clicking would perform some other function, but the concept is young, and it''s easy to update the firmware for TC-Helicon gear, so who knows what tomorrow may bring. . . .

And the mention of firmware brings us to the cross-platform VoiceSupport software (Figure 1). This provides a way to do firmware updates, and is a gateway to online access of manuals, tips and tricks, etc. When I first opened it, the program immediately downloaded new firmware for TC-Helicon devices (including the VoiceTone Singles) as well as a variety of content. For TC-Helicon gear that supports presets (the Singles don''t, of course), VoiceSupport also lets you maintain a preset database, and download new presets.

I updated the firmware, subscribed to a couple of their newsletters, and checked our their forums. There''s a lot of content, and the whole concept is extremely cool. TC-Helicon gets major props for figuring out a new and different take on the concept of customer support.

Now to the effects. The Adaptive Tone part of the T1 analyzes your voice and does magic mojo stuff to enhance it, apparently by reducing lower mids and giving a high-frequency lift. The Shape control varies between a bassier and brighter timbre, and the analysis thing isn''t hype; it takes a few seconds after adjusting the control and singing into the effect before the EQ kicks in. The effect doesn''t hit you over the head—it''s fairly subtle, but if the result is too bright, a Warmth button brings in some low end without getting muddy.

The remaining control provides compression and de-essing, and again, it''s subtle—don''t expect to hear compression pumping. Overall, T1 gives some pleasant shaping and lifting to your voice. It''s sort of the vocal equivalent of a push-up bra; it accents what''s there rather than adding an artificial quality.

I''m generally not a fan of added reverb for live performance; there''s usually enough from the hall ambience, although for smaller spaces, reverb can wrap your vocal in a warmer, friendlier sound. And for those applications, the R1 does indeed “tune” the reverb in an intelligent way. Looked at through an analyzer, most of the eight reverb algorithms concentrate their energy in the 100 to 650Hz range, above which the response starts rolling off but has another peak around 1.3kHz (vocal range—I''m sure that''s no coincidence).

There are some variations on this theme. For example, the plate has a bit of a lift around 4kHz, as do the Ambience and Room options because they represent smaller spaces with less damping. In addition to the reverb algorithm selection rotary switch, there''s also a Dry/Wet balance control. If you''re going to use reverb on your voice, the R1 is a honey.

This is extremely cool. There are eight algorithms, which range from tight and loose doubling, to a multi-voice chorus effect, to simple detuning and thickening. These are, like the VoiceTone Singles in general, relatively subtle and designed to support your voice, not overwhelm it (although you can dial in full-wet if you want to take it further). However, the remaining three algorithms are pretty wild: Octave Up and Octave Down do what you expect, but what you might not expect is how well they work and how natural they sound. Another option, Shout, adds an octave-higher voice in addition to enlarging the sound.

This is a “don''t leave home without it” effect if you want to make your voice sound like more than it is, and the implementation is superb.

You want that sound? You got it, and a few others as well. This box has three controls. One handles gender, from low and Darth Vader-y, through standard, all the way up to a chipmunk effect. Another determines the correction''s “hardness.” The final control selects your key of choice (or 12-step chromatic), but there''s also an instrument input for guitar to guide the harmonization, as well as a “thru” jack for the guitar as the instrument input needs to be fed by a dry guitar signal.

There''s not much more to say except that this does an excellent job of performing the pitch-correction tricks that you hear on so many recordings (whether you want to or not!).

Those who plan to use all four Singles might be a little put off that each needs its own AC adapter; if you want to use a pedalboard-type power supply to circumvent this, note that the pedals require 12V/negative tip, which isn''t all that common. However, TC offers the Singles Connect Kit with a single adapter, as well as cables for daisy-chaining both XLR and power cables—very considerate.

I wasn''t quite sure what to expect with these effects, although I''ve always been favorably impressed with TC-Helicon''s vocal processors. Probably what''s most striking is that the Singles are quality pedals; they have the “TC sound,” which tends toward a clean, defined character, and the effects are extremely well-implemented. They''re sturdy, fill a really useful need for vocalists, and the price is right. What''s not to like?

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Samson Meteor
USB large-diaphragm cardioid condenser mic

It''s just a toy, right? Right?!? Actually, no—but Meteor takes an unusual approach to a USB mic that fills a niche superbly. When I''m on the road, I often need to record samples and do voiceovers for videos, and have had absolutely stellar results with an Audio-Technica AT2020 USB. However it''s relatively large, and somewhat impractical when all I need is a mic for capturing musical ideas (or using Skype, for that matter). Its cylindrical shape and weight also fascinates the TSA, and more than once, I''ve been put through a manual search because of it. If only I could have a USB mic that sounded really good, but was small enough to throw into a computer bag, and suitable for less-critical applications too . . . and for the sake of the TSA, looked like the popular conception of a mic.

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Well, that pretty much describes the Meteor. It''s a cardioid condenser mic with a surprisingly large diaphragm (about 1 inch), housed in a sturdy, die-cast body with fold-up legs. With the legs folded up, it''s about the size of a thick salt shaker, and has a nifty, future-retro look.

Drivers aren''t required for Mac or Windows, but class-compliant operation also results in latency. Fortunately, around back there''s an 1/8" headphone jack with volume control (Figure 1); the headphone amp is definitely better than the amp in most computers, and doesn''t pick up internal hash—another point in its favor—and it monitors the mic with zero latency.

The mic element itself is protected by a fine-mesh wire screen that handles lightweight wind noise issues, but for heavier-duty pop protection, well, finally there''s a use for that sock that''s missing its match. There''s also a mute button, and a tri-color LED that indicates power, mute, and clipping.

Meteor handles 44.1/48kHz sample rates, and a max SPL of 120dB (which I hope will never be attained in any hotel room where I''m staying). Resolution is 16 bits. As to frequency response, there''s a slight lift around 10kHz; low frequency response starts rolling off gently around 150Hz, and hits about –5dB at 20Hz.

The Meteor mic addresses an interesting market: It pretends it''s a laptop mic, but gives much higher quality. When I tested it doing video voiceovers prior to leaving for the Frankfurt Musikmesse show, it did a great job with my laptop: The quality was a zillion times better than the built-in mic. The AT2020 has a slightly smoother sound with a little more presence, but the Meteor''s small size, and the convenience of a built-in headphone amp, earned it a place in my laptop bag. The legs do tend to transmit vibrations, so I brought along a piece of foam to add some acoustical isolation; and as with the AT, I needed a pop filter (translation: a sock). But overall, the quality, size, and convenience make the Meteor a tremendously useful mic, not just on the road, but at home as well. Oh, and if anyone from the TSA is reading this . . . it''s a microphone, okay?

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Primacoustic TriPad
Isolate your mic stand from floor resonances and vibrations

If the floor or stage vibrates, those vibrations could work their way up a mic stand and into your mic. Actually, they will; the only question is, how much.

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With TriPad, the answer is, “a lot less.” TriPad consists of three pads made of high density, open-cell acoustic foam. They wrap over the leg tips of any tripod mic stand that''s angled the same as the industry-standard K&M 201 stand (the non-K&M tripod stands in my studio matched the angle properly). The foam is quite firm, so the mic stand remains stable; because they wrap around the leg tip, you can pick up the mic stand and move it around.

We thought you''d ask, but we didn''t just want to say “Yeah, it sorta seems to work, I guess” but instead, actually come up with a way to test it.

Part of my studio floor floats, so I set up a tripod mic stand, mounted a Shure SM58, fed the mic out into Wavelab, and turned the gain up full. To make the floor vibrate without creating noise, I did silent squat thrusts that moved the floor up and down slightly, with those vibrations transmitted to the mic stand.

I first stood about a foot away from the mic stand. The difference with and without TriPads was dramatic—but then I thought that was too easy. After all, sound levels fall off with distance, and few singers would have the mic stand set up a foot away from, say, a kick drum.

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The top recording didn''t use TriPads; the lower one did. It''s pretty obvious which has less noise.

So I tried the same test about five feet away, and the results were still dramatic (Figure 1; note that the waveform levels were raised within Wavelab by an equal amount of gain to make the waveforms easier to see). The top recording is without TriPad, and you can see the floor motion peaks hit mostly between –2 and –6dB. With TriPad, the peaks fall between about –6 and –15dB. But, also look at the non-peak vibrations: The non-TriPad waveform has a lot more low-frequency content.

So does it work? Well, ask the waveforms.

One of my favorite trade show moments was when Peter Janis, Primacoustic''s head honcho, was demoing the Recoil Stabilizer for the first time. When he tried to describe it, he was at a loss for words; as he held it and tried to figure out what to say, he blurted out, “Well, it''s kind of a dumbass idea, but it really works.” TriPad is yet another idea that''s so obvious, no one ever thought of it before, but apparently, Primacoustic''s specialty is dumbass ideas that really work. The price is certainly right for keeping crud out of your mic. After all—are you the singer, or the floor?