Tech Tip:Miking The Voice
By Dennis Kambury
The human voice is a wonderful and complex instrument, with an incredible dynamic range and bandwidth that puts ordinary musical instruments to shame. To make things even more interesting, no two voices are alike. From the breathy, high eeps of the pop chanteuse to a thunderous operatic basso profundo, each person's voice is unique. Your job as a recording engineer is to make the right choices to capture the essence of this instrument with as much accuracy and art as your tools allow. This week, we'll take a quick look at this very involved topic.
The first choice you make will naturally be the microphone. No one mic is perfect for all voices and situations, but there are general guidelines that will make your job easier. A large diaphragm condenser is generally a safe bet, and with the current boom in affordable mics, you have a number of excellent choices such as the Shure KSM27 and the Rode NT1-A. Don't discount such tried-and-true workhorses as the Shure SM57 or Sennheiser MD421, either - for a gutsy blues singer, these can be the perfect solution. In practice, when I have new talent in the studio, I'll pull out three separate mics, and have the vocalist sing the same phrase through each of the mics. We'll both listen to the tracks, and pick the favorite.
This is where the art lies (forgetting, for a moment, the somewhat critical role of the vocalist). A good beginning point is to position the mic so that the diaphragm is slightly above and facing the singer's mouth. This not only helps keep the singer's throat open, it also lessens sibilance and plosives. Start with a distance of about 6-12 inches between singer and mic, and adjust to taste. If you've got a quiet or breathy singer, having the mic too far away will rob the sound of presence, with the added risk of too much room tone. Bring the mic in close for a present, intimate sound. Conversely, the singer who really belts it out can make close miking a real challenge - plosives, excess sibilance, and overload could ruin an otherwise-excellent take. Move the talent back or pad the mic for a better overall sound.
Location, Location, Location:
Where you record has as much impact on the sound as how you set up the mic and singer. If you're in a small, live room, reflected sound can mix with the direct sound, causing phase effects that can degrade the overall quality of the recording. Deaden the room as much as possible with Auralex, curtains, blankets, or anything else that will absorb sound. If the singer is using a music stand, cover it with terry cloth, carpet, or some other absorbent material, and angle it so that sound isn't reflected back into the mic.
Chain Of Tools:
Once you've got the basic signal from the mic, there are a number of ways to treat it on the way to the recorder. One of the benefits of the home recording phenomenon is the availability of affordable, high-quality channel strips such as the ART Pro Channel and Focusrite ISA 220. These provide the full compliment of pre-amp, compressor, EQ, and more, all in one handy rackmount unit. Generally, a touch of compression at this stage is useful to tame those wild dynamic swings, and a little EQ may be called for to achieve a more natural sound. But use these treatments sparingly - anything you do to the sound at this stage will be permanent! Save any radical treatments for the mix stage.
Miking vocals is more art than science. Learn the rules and then break them! Experiment with placement, mic types, unusual setups, effects, and anything else that helps you, the artist, and the producer realize the sounds in your imagination.