admin: First posted on 2007 01 22
Recording vocals is difficult. It takes a lot of experimentation and the end result depends a lot on the vocal that you want to record. Every person’s vocal is different and different setups and mikes work for different people.
During our first recording sessions we went for the best solution that we could get. The best microphone that we owned was a Rode NT, which was a condenser microphone with a cardioid pattern. Its placement is not very important, but we would normally put it about a foot or two away from the singer. The farther away the mike was, the louder the input volume, the more room reverberations we picked up, while there was no noticeable difference in the quality of the recording. This microphone had a very good frequency response and the recorded vocal was practically true to the original. The only problem with this mike was that it was too good for a home studio. It picked up everything, including the fridge, the cars outside, and the elevators next to my apartment. For this reason, we now rarely use this microphone.
Most of our vocal recordings now are done with an SM57. This microphone is not ideal for vocal recordings. It colors voice which is sometimes nice and sometimes not. We have so far agreed that this microphone does not pick up well the lower range of my voice, making my vocal more trebly than I would like it to be. Placement of this microphone is very important. We would normally place the vocalist about half-a-foot to a foot away from the mike, but there is a big difference between what is recorded at half-a-foot vs. a foot. You can get bass heavier vocals if you get close enough to the microphone and very trebly vocals as you get further away. So it is always a good idea to mark the exact placement of the microphone and the vocalist for other takes and overdubbing. As we are close to the microphone a pop screen is also important. One good news is that the SM57 rarely picks up room reverberations and minor noise. This microphone has saved us from having to build a vocal booth. All of our current recordings are made in a room as the room is, without special treatment either to the room or to the microphone.
This means that our vocal recordings are dry. This sometimes creates problems as dry acoustic recordings are very prone to standing out in a song. We would normally add some form of a digital reverb to the already recorded vocals to alleviate this problem, but we have also experimented with trying to capture some of the natural room reverb. For example, we have experimented by putting the microphone on or close to a flat surface to imitate a plate reverb or some form of irregular reverb. This does not work well with the directional SM57 and in general I do not think that plate reverb sounds natural. Even digital models of plate reverbs sound strange to me and so I have used them only once for a snare drum recording. So far I have never been satisfied with the results of our imitation plate reverb.
The electronics of our vocal recording setup are simple. The microphone goes into a preamp which is then taken into the soundcard. For the most part we rely heavily on the TubePre by Presonus, which combined with the SM57 produces an interesting effect. Both provide a similar coloration to the vocal, making it closed-up and gloomy. That is especially true if we close-mike the vocals and so we would sometimes equalize the recorded vocals by about 2-4 dB above 3 KHz. With my vocals we sometimes equalize also the bottom (under 250 Hz) by similar amounts. All such processing is done during mixing and not while recording. We prefer to record natural and dry and process later – equalization, compression, reverberation, and so on. Contemporary digital processing (especially with cheap tools) tends to mangle the sound data too much and the effects are irreversible. We prefer to mangle our sound as little as possible. Luckily, so far we have equalized vocals only rarely we have managed to control our vocals and our microphone placement well enough to avoid compression. Reverberation is another story. Оnce we record with the SM57 the need for a good reverb becomes obvious. This can be positive, since applying artificial reverb after recording means that we can control the length of the artificial reverb and we can make sure that the reverb qualities are similar to those of the reverb applied to other instruments. This helps the song to come together – a very important thing when our songs usually contain acoustic instruments (vocals, drums) and electric instruments (guitars and bass).
While this is our basic setup for vocal recording there are a lot of other things that can be said about vocals, but I only want to mention one: harmonies. You may find it strange that I mention it here, but it is amazing how the characteristics of a vocal can be changed by adding the proper harmony. Whether harmonies should be used or not depends first of all on your liking, then on the style of your music and last but not least on the specifics of your vocals. Until recently I did not really pay much attention to how many vocal recordings out there rely on a good harmony. We have had some success using harmonies because, on top of changing the complexity of our compositions, we have also managed to control the characteristics of our vocals. As with everything else the key here is experimentation. Vocals have an incredible potential that must be explored.