Whether you’re just moving into songwriting or make your living recording bands, vocal tracks can make or break the music you record. In most cases, the vocal anchors the song and stands as its most memorable (or forgettable) element. Yet vocal recording can be a mysterious art. So who better to learn from than the best?
We intruded upon five highly sought-after engineers’ busy schedules to pick their brains on the best practices of vocal miking, both at home and in a studio. All of them had plenty of advice to give, so let’s meet them and get to it.
Joe Chiccarelli: One of the great standbys in producing, mixing, and engineering, Grammy winner Joe Chiccarelli has been carving out the sounds of the day since the ’70s. Chiccarelli continues to work with young, influential bands like Minus the Bear, Spoon, The Strokes, Manchester Orchestra, and many others.
Marc DeSisto: In 30 years as an engineer and mixer, Marc DeSisto has amassed credits working with little ol’ bands you may have heard of like Pink Floyd, U2, and Blondie.
Stewart Lerman: Grammy-winning producer and recording engineer Stewart Lerman is coming off of five seasons of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, where he recorded vocalists such as Regina Spektor, Elvis Costello, St. Vincent, and many others.
Garth Richardson: Owner of Vancouver Rockspace and The Farm Studios, Garth Richardson has helmed some iconic rock records, including producing Rage Against the Machine’s debut album. His latest project is the Von Hertzon Brothers’ New Day Rising.
Leslie Richter: A familiar face in Music City, Leslie Richter has spent long stints at Nashville hot spots Oceanway Nashville and Ben’s Studio (Ben Folds). She now bounces around town, staying very busy as a freelance recordist/engineer, as well as building cables, patch bays, and more.
The fundamental question when miking anything is: Which mic do I choose? The lesson from our pros is that you don’t have to limit yourself to one. Richardson, Richter, Chiccarelli, and DeSisto all talked about using two, three, or more mics at once and then either blending the results or eventually narrowing down the array once establishing the ideal piece for a singer.
“When working with a new singer, I put up every mic I have and let the singer sing on all of them,” Richardson says. “I do a blind test, and we use our ears, not eyes. We are ‘enginears,’ not ‘engieyes.’ If it is a softer singer, I’ll use a good condenser—Microtech Gefell mics are great. If I am doing a screamer, I use a Shure SM7 or SM58—that was the mic I used on the first Rage Against the Machine record with Zack de la Rocha. Make the singer feel like a star—like they can do anything. You’ll get their best vocal performance.”
Richter agrees that it’s all about the individual singer. “I’ve been in situations where an SM7 sounds amazing on a singer, and the [Neumann] U47 sounds pretty good, but they are just enamored with the fact that there’s a U47 in front of them and perform better to the fancier-looking mic,” she says. “So I’ll record both and have the affordable one for my mix later. Ultimately I’ll take a workable sound with a great performance over [using] the best mic in the world without getting the delivery.”
Chiccarelli often uses multiple mics because one will sound good when singers are at the top of their range, and another might sound better when they’re singing softer. “Sometimes I’ll do a very lo-fi microphone along with a much more full-bodied condenser microphone,” he says. “The condenser picks up the dynamics and the air, and the lower-fi microphone I will either compress or distort a lot, and that picks up the intimacy and the growl. So I get them to complement each other and fill in the pieces.”
He also suggests finding mics that have almost the inverse qualities of the vocalist. “If you have a singer with a very mid-range-y, edgy voice, use a mic that’s warmer on the bottom and perhaps has more air on the top to soften the peaks in their voice. If you have a singer who is very growly and dirty on the top end, you want something that’s a little more neutral. I tend to look at microphones that fill in the missing pieces in a singer’s voice.
DeSisto also usually tries two or three mics on a singer, but his go-to dynamic mic for a rock singer or anyone who sings very loud and intensely is the SM7. “Those are great mics,” he says. “The capsule just doesn’t shut down at all. But the performance is what it’s all about. No matter which mic you have, you can always come back and tweak it, especially with today’s crazy EQs that are amazing. The Brainworx [bx_digital V2] EQ plug-in is a beautiful EQ. You can really filter out the ugly frequency bands.”
As for ribbon mics, Richter will use them when a singer is particularly “pitchy and tinny sounding” or when recording group vocals. “I specifically like the AEA R84 ribbon mic,” she says, “because when you have three, four, five singers, it’s bidirectional and sounds pretty same-y on both sides, and everybody can look at each other.”
Leslie RichterBoth Lerman and Richardson stressed how important microphone placement is to getting a great vocal take. Richardson often takes the unorthodox tack of letting the singer hold the mic when recording, as he or she would on stage. “When you go to a show,” he asks, “does the singer stand in one place all night? No! You must make the singer feel comfortable. I’ve let singers hold a tube U47, and the studio manager was not happy about it. I don’t care. I care about the singer.”
Lerman noted that he has the singer shift his or her distance to the mic depending on the dynamics of the performance. “Proximity effect occurs when vocalists move closer to the mic, usually resulting in bottom-end buildup,” he says.
DeSisto also recommends sometimes positioning the mic capsule down, as opposed to facing up in the air. “I learned that by watching older engineers who wanted to capture a little more chest,” he says. “The angle singers sing at is really important. Some people look up. A lot of times people sing looking down, but if the mic is high, you’re missing a lot of the quality.”
Garth RichardsonAll five of our experts tend to send their mics into a great preamp followed by an appropriate amount of compression, but never overcompressing it.
“I use Class A/discrete mic pre’s followed by a compressor just to keep dynamics within reason,” Lerman says. “This is also subject to how well the vocalists ‘work’ the mic to their advantage.”
Richter says she puts compression after the mic pre more than 80 percent of the time, “but that depends on the singer, because some singers hear it, and it freaks them out,” she says. “They’re like, ‘I’m really projecting, and it’s not getting louder!’”
While she uses compression more like limiting when recording vocals, she’ll often put two or three compressors in a row. “That took some years to sort out,” she says. “You can have a really slow compressor to do one thing and then a really fast compressor to catch all the things the slow compressor misses. Or maybe you want the bite-y thing that an 1176 can do, but you want the warm thing that an LA2A or [dbx] 160 can do, so often I’ll put them all in a row and not do any extreme compression with any of them. In addition to compression, especially if you’re in the room with a band, I’ll totally throw a filter in there, sometimes as high as 100 Hz—at least at 40 Hz—because there’s nothing really happening down there in the vocal, and it keeps the kick drums and other leakage out of the vocal mic. And at home there’s air conditioning and the refrigerator kicking on and off.”
DeSisto will also apply some filtering to the vocal chain. “If I’m in a home studio, I’ll probably filter more than if I’m at a big studio where it’s a quieter situation,” he says. “In the home there are outside noises, and once you turn up a condenser mic, it just starts picking up everything.”
Chiccarelli is also a fan of using two compressors at once, and will even take that a step further. “I go with some personality in the preamp, and then from there I EQ to taste,” he says. “I’m not afraid to process stuff when I record. I find the peaks—the unattractive spots in a singer’s voice—and dip those, and then perhaps from there add some fullness to the voice. If you’re first starting out, you want to be cautious with the compressor and favor things with a slower attack and faster release before you take too much of the dynamics away. But sometimes I have two compressors going; one supplies the tone and the body, and the other compressor catches the peaks that the first compressor missed. It‘s tricky; every singer is different and requires a different treatment.
Richardson‘s favorite vocal chain goes into an API 512c mic pre and then two LA-3As—the first at 3 dB of limiting and the second at 3 dB of compression. Next, he has an API EQ that he rolls off at 50 Hz and adds at 8 kHz. He adjusts everything according to the singer’s voice, but goes by one cardinal rule: “If you are unsure, don’t do it,” he says. “Once you go too far, you can’t come back, so go easy on the processing.”
Many home recordists don’t have a vocal booth, and many don’t even have a professionally treated room, but our panel would have them not worry. As Lerman advises, “Unless you’re looking for a specific room ambiance, it’s best to keep the ‘environment’ out of the equation. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of room tone later, but very easy to add after the fact.” However, there are some temporary, low-cost, and fairly simple ways to get rid of that room tone if that’s what you want.
“If we’re in a large space, we often build what I call Foam Henge,” Richter says, “big, 4'x8' pieces of foam we use to build a V- or U-shaped thing in a semicircle behind the singer to prevent reflections. It’s the same in a house: If you want to invest money in all the fancy sound absorption tiles and acoustic treatments, that’s fine, but really, some blankets hung on the wall or some mic stands will do to diffuse reflections behind the singer. It seems more important to put it behind the singer that in front, which seems counter-intuitive.”
In fact, most of our engineers recommended emphasizing the baffling and room-deadening material behind the singer. “I definitely think having some baffling behind the singer works to help keep the sound focused,” Chiccarelli says, “but you don’t want to deaden the area so much that it takes the top end away from the voice.”
In DeSisto’s home studio, he records vocals in his son’s room and folds up a futon mattress, which he stands up against one corner of the room, and puts a rug down on the hardwood floor. “If you have a loud singer in a small room, that vocal builds up in the room and really brings in the acoustics of the room,” he says. “But the futon dampens it pretty well.”
Richardson has a couple of clever suggestions for improvised room acoustics: First, get some packing blankets like you would find at a U-Haul store to hang up in the room and then sing into the corner. “If the room is still bad, have [the singer] put the packing blanket over his head and sing,” he says. “It may get hot, but the room will not show up on your sound.” Richardson doesn’t think you need a vocal booth at all, but if you do want to treat a room cheaply, find a coffee roaster in your town and get a bunch of their big, empty coffee bean bags; fill those with insulation and hang them on your walls. “It looks cool, and it works,” he says.
PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MIC PRE IS
Stewart LermanWhile the pros we talked to love their vintage U87s, U47s, and other high-end tube condensers, the prevailing sentiment was that if you’re on a budget, put your money into a good mic preamp, rather than one blockbuster mic. Instead, build up a stash of several diverse, affordable mics that you can use in different situations.
“You can get great-sounding mics for less money than you can get great-sounding mic pre’s,” Richter says. “Even really cheap mics have a use. You could get a $20 something at an antique mall and find a cool use for it. I recommend building your empire with interesting mics; you’ll spend a fortune on good mic pre’s. If you need a good mic pre, rent one.”
For these engineers, the number-one choice, hands down, for an inexpensive dynamic mic is the Shure SM7B ($349), which all five of our panelists recommended and use regularly on their projects, especially for high-SPL scenarios. For condenser mics that won’t cost you your first-born child, the Neumann TLM Series rates well. DeSisto thinks the TLM 103 ($1,099) is well-rounded with a lot of uses, and Chicarrelli says the TLM 49 ($1,699) is “interesting sounding and much darker sounding.”
Marc DeSistoIf you want to try to shoot for the moon and grab one of the vintage 1176, LA2A, Neve, or API preamps that the pros love, you’d better save a whole lot of money on your car insurance, or better yet, sell your car. But on the bright side, the engineers have some suggestions for good preamps that won’t force you to hitchhike to your studio.
Lerman really likes the Eventide Mixing Link preamp and FX loop pedal ($299). “It does many things,” he says, “but also has a great-sounding mic pre!”
Chiccarelli recently used the Universal Audio 710 Twin-Finity ($799). “I think that sounds great,” he says, “and having the ability to switch between tube and transistor modes is fantastic. Right there, you have different colors, and sometimes you want to saturate the tube a little more; sometimes you want to keep it a little more neutral.”
Some of the 500 Series preamps, which tend to sell for $800-$1,000, also got props from Chiccarelli, who likes the API, Shadow Hills, and Sunset Sound preamps, and from DeSisto. “I haven’t used a lot of the 500 Series,” DeSisto says, “but I know the API 512c—you can always count on those.”
If you want to commit to the 500 Series, Richardson thinks it›s a great idea to invest in a preloaded “vocal box.” Something like the Daking 500 RS Recording System ($3,844) fits that bill. It’s an API Lunchbox slotted with six total 500 Series Daking preamps, compressors, and EQs, giving you two channels of a complete signal chain.
Yet even those who live in big-console rooms still do home recording on the side, and Richter advised not to obsess over high-end gear. “Ultimately, I believe in guerilla recording,” she says. “You can make anything sound good. Something will always sound cleaner, better, fatter, warmer, or have less noise, but be able to work with what you have. People make records on all sorts of cheap stuff all the time. It’s really about songs.”
Miked Up: Dwight Yoakam
Marc DeSisto’s most recent projects involved Dwight Yoakam’s April 2015 release, Second Hand Heart, at Capitol Recording Studios in Hollywood.
“He’s discovered over the years that he’s a [Neumann] U47 tube guy,”DeSisto says, “and that’s one of my favorite vocal mics. I like it on acoustic guitars; I like it on room sounds. It’s a great mic, hands down. But with his vocals, it sounds great.”
DeSisto also used Yoakam’s own vintage Telefunken V78 preamp or the Mercury M72 tube preamp, which he says sounds close to the Telefunken. From the preamps, the chain went to a line input on an SSL board, then to a direct output into a Fairchild compressor and then from the compressor output to a Pro Tools input.
“That’s my chain,” DeSisto says, “and I’m riding the fader here or there on certain lines I know I want to ride. And if I want to hit the compressor a little harder, I hit it a little harder. If not, it’s just taking out little peaks. You don’t want to really hear the compression; you just want to make it so Dwight’s loving it.” As a final touch, DeSisto would add a little touch of chamber reverb, just for monitoring in the headphones.
Miked Up: Jim Lauderdale
Among Leslie Richter’s many 2014 credits, her favorite project was engineering and mixing for Jim Lauderdale’s album I’m a Song.
“Depending on the song, I either used a Shure SM5 or a [Neumann] U47 on the vocal,” Richter says. “We kind of stumbled on the SM5 for him initially because we were tracking in this really big room. I put it up because he was on the floor with the band, and some of those tracking vocals ended up being keeper vocals—his voice sounded great on it. But on some of the ballads we used the U47, because it was nicer and some of the songs are throwback country.”
Richter fed the mics into a Neve 1073 mic preamp, and either a Teletronix/Universal Audio LA2A or a Summit Audio TLA-100A compressor. “That’s what was in the overdub studio, and it sounded great,” he says. “I didn’t do anything really severe with those vocals. It was kind of minimalist and simple, really.”
Miked Up: Joe C’s Quick Hits
Chiccarelli proved to have a great memory for vocal signal chains he’s used, rattling off several examples from the last few years.
“On the recent Morrissey record I did, he was miked with a vintage Telefunken U47 microphone,” Chiccarelli says. “It went through a Neve preamp, and into a Tube Tech CL 1B compressor.”
He produced Alanis Morissette’s 2012 album, Havoc and Bright Lights. “She has always recorded on a [AKG] C12 microphone,” he says, “and that went through a custom Sunset Sound microphone preamp into a Retro Instruments 176 compressor.”
For Keaton Henson, a British artist on Anti Records with a very intimate, quiet singing voice, Chiccarelli miked him with both a Neumann U67 and an old Electro-Voice RE15. The U67 went through an LA2A with not much compression, and the RE15 went through an Empirical Labs Distressor with a lot of compression. “Those we combined to complement each other,” he says.
Finally, Chiccarelli shared that Jack White records a lot of his vocals with an old RCA 77-DX poly-directional ribbon microphone. “Because he’s got a rather strong, mid-range-y voice,” he says, “the warmth of the ribbon really filled it out.”
Markkus Rovito is a contributor to DJTechTools.com, as well as a drummer, electronic musician, and DJ.