Once in a blue moon, a vocalist may wander in your studio who doesn’t adhere to the typical rock/pop scream-o school of singing, but instead has the softer vocal styling of old-school crooners. I’m not talking about vocalists who seize up in fear— that’s a whole ’nother set of instructions, Bubba. I’m talking about vocalists who can really sing, but, for whatever reason, just do it quietly. If you’re looking to get those close-up vocals, where you can hear the singer’s lips brush your ear as he or she whispers some tear-jerking lyrics into your soul, check out these tips.
Four Marvelous Mic Setups
Conventional wisdom might suggest you pick the most sensitive largediaphragm condenser in your arsenal, and jam it as close to that whispering mouth as you can to take advantage of the proximity effect and make the vocal sound “bigger.” However, an unfortunate effect of this technique is that sibilance and plosives created by the air coming from the vocalist’s pie hole smack the mic’s diaphragm like Hurricane Katrina—not to mention picking up every whistle emanating from their nostrils. Of course, if you try to combat these unpleasant effects by moving the mic off axis and a good six to 12 inches away from the singer’s mouth, you lose the intimate vibe.
If you want to start simple, I’d recommend a large-diaphragm dynamic mic such as my favorite—the Sennheiser MD421 (a fantastic vocal mic that can take a lot of air pressure and still retain clarity). Set up the mic four to six inches from the vocalist, and with a pop screen about one inch from the capsule. If you are getting too much bass due to the proximity effect, use the mic’s low-end roll off switch—or an EQ tweak—to nip that in the bud.
If a dynamic doesn’t give you enough vocal presence, then go ahead and add a large-diaphragm condenser. I typically position an Audio-Technica AT4033—on its own stand and with its own pop filter—directly above the MD421. Assign the condenser to its own track for the option of bringing in a more airy sound during the mixdown. You should also experiment with switching which mic is on top and which is on the bottom to see which combination produces the best intimate tone.
If the situation demands more timbral complexity—or you just have the hates for dynamic microphones— place a large-diaphragm condenser and a pop shield four or five inches from the vocalist. Then, place a smalldiaphragm condenser 90 degrees off-axis from the singer’s mouth, and eight or nine inches away. Again, give each mic its own track so they can be blended to taste during the mixdown. Don’t be afraid to play with the positioning a bit to capture a compelling mix of up-front warmth and airy—but not hurtful—sibilance.
The all-time most bitchin’ soft-vocal mic setup I ever witnessed employed a Fostex M-88RP figure-8 pattern ribbon mic. Place the back of the mic about six feet from a highly reflective surface such as glass or tile, and position the vocalist four to five inches from the front of the mic. This configuration creates a very present, yet simultaneously airy sound, because the back of the mic picks up the voice a few microseconds behind the side facing the singer, as well as reflections from the hard surface behind the mic. If you don’t have a ribbon, any condenser with a figure-8 pattern will produce similar results.
Compression & EQ
Avoid heavy compression while tracking so that you don’t get pumping and breathing, or any other cheesy compression artifacts. Some engineers save processing for the mix, but I like to manage dynamics a bit during recording by setting a 4:1 ratio with a fast release (around 40ms) and a –8dB threshold. A light touch is also recommended with EQ. Remember, the vocalist is singing softly and very close to the mic(s), so any drastic EQ tweaks may accentuate stuff you don’t want to hear— such as lip smacks, enraged snakelike “ssssss” sounds, brittle nasal tones, and so on.
Now, Where Is That Vocal . . .
If all this care to record a soft voice still gives you a vocal track that’s overpowered by the backing tracks, try doubling the vocal by copying and pasting the main vocal performance to an additional track. Offsetting the doubled track a few milliseconds can make the cut-and-paste job sound more authentic, as will mixing the double lower than the original lead vocal track. And, of course, you can always lower the volume of the music tracks—unless you like totally burying that intimate vocal you struggled so hard to document.