(Pictured: A vintage AKG C-414EB at Gold-Diggers, Los Angeles, CA)
Hearing a remarkable vocalist sing through a tried and true vocal recording chain like a U47 mic and Neve pre-amp can lead to a wonderful sounding recording. However, leaving the U47 in the mic locker, or supplementing it with some atypical recording techniques can lead to sounds that lend a unique sonic character to your recordings.
Using Two Mics To Record Your Vocals
A simple way to dive in to unconventional vocal recording techniques is to try two mics at once. In its most basic form, this technique can simply be two different mics set side-by-side for a single vocal performance. From there, you can begin to explore more complex vocal effects by placing the second mic in a distinct location, or by adding additional processing to the second mic.
To start, try two different microphones with contrasting tones. For example, mix a hi-fi large diaphragm condenser mic with a lo-fi mic from an old Dictaphone, or a lo-fi bullet harmonica mic. With this set up, use the large diaphragm condenser as a great normal vocal tone, and then blend in some attitude and energy from the lo-fi mic. Take this technique a step further by plugging the lo-fi mic into a guitar amp for more tone shaping options. Don’t forget to try adding stomp boxes, or using an amp with built-in reverb and tremolo!
Another great use for a second vocal mic is as a room mic. This can be a fantastic way to capture some natural reverb along with your vocal take. Once again, adding special processing to the room mic can shape the tone further. Try the classic David Bowie “Heroes” vocal sound and use a gate on the room mic to turn it on during loud vocal phrases in order to add a splash of room reverb.
Finally, think ahead to mixing when considering a multiple mic approach. Sometimes riding the fader of the alternate mic up and down for different sections of a song can be a great way to help a mix evolve. Try riding up a lo-fi mic on the chorus of a rock song to give the chorus vocal some more aggression and edge. Similarly, ride the room mic up on the pre chorus of a ballad to help the song begin to bloom right before a lush chorus.
Recording Vocals with a Strange Mic in a Strange Location
When you move on to backing vocals, keep that strange lo-fi mic accessible! Sometimes recording background vocals into an odd mic can give them an instantly unique tone. Not only can this be inspiring for a singer, but it can also assist you as an engineer. Many times an abnormal sound will require that it take up a specific sonic space in the production and mix. If the distinctive tone works for the song, it will help to guide the rest of the production and mix. The tone will force you to leave room for the characteristics of the sound and work to contour existing sounds around the strange new vocal.
While you are hunting for unexpected sounds, don’t limit yourself to just microphone tones. Grab a trashcan from the studio lounge and sing into it. Run down to the basement of your house and sing into the washing machine. Don’t forget that your bathroom is also a free reverb chamber.
Microphone Options for Recording Vocal Duos or Groups
Recording multiple people singing together is another area when clever decisions about mic choices and recording techniques can be advantageous. I recently recorded a duo who sang incredible close harmony vocals. When it was time to sing the lead vocals and vocal doubles, we decided to use two distinctive approaches.
First, we recorded the main vocals with both singers singing at the same time around one AKG 414 set to a bi-directional (or, figure-8) polar pattern. Then, for the vocal double, the singers still sang simultaneously, but now they sang into two separate Shure SM7B microphones. The end result created an amazing sounding little “vocal orb” in the song. We panned the single condenser dead center, and then pushed the individual mics out a little on either side. Between the panning and the difference in timbre from the condenser mic and dynamic mic, we were able to achieve a vocal tone with a unique sense of space.
Using Dual Compression
I stumbled upon a cool compression technique while recording the double vocals with two separate SM7s. We patched the two mics into the only unused compressor we had left in the session, an API 2500 stereo compressor. This compressor just happened to have a variable stereo link knob. A variable link can let the two sides of a stereo compressor remain independent, link them completely, or set them at various points between the two! I found it sounded cool to have the knob someplace in the middle. With an in-between setting, each vocalist was subtly contributing to the other singer’s compression detector circuit. This effect turned out to be a useful way to control the blend and dynamics of multiple vocalists that were meant to function as a single, solid group.
Recording a Single Vocalist Singing a Choir’s Worth of Overdubs
When recording big harmony stacks, taking a minute to consider multiple mic options can be extremely helpful. Recently I was recording a solo artist who sang all lead vocals and harmonies themselves. When it was time to record a series of lush three and four part harmony stacks, I decided to set up three different mics for the session: a large diaphragm condenser, a ribbon and a dynamic. For each overdub we chose a mic based on the vocal range in which the artist intended to sing.
Choosing between multiple mics helped in two significant ways. First, with the same vocalist singing into the same mic over the course of multiple tracks, the mic’s sonic signature can sometimes build up. Changing the timbre of the mic can sometimes lead to more dimensionality in the harmony stack, and make the stack easier to mix. Second, since the vocalist was singing notes ranging from low baritone and bass parts to hi tenor parts sung in a falsetto, we were able to pick mics that flattered the vocalist in each specific tone of voice.
For example, for the high falsetto parts, the vocalist tended to sound a bit thinner in tone. In this case, we decided to record the falsettos with a Royer R121 ribbon mic. The 121 had a mellower high end than our condenser, and the increased proximity effect of the bi-directional polar pattern added a hint of warmth to a voice singing at the top of its range. After recording doubles and tipples of a dense vocal harmony, we had created eight to twelve tracks of a one-person choir! Having the tone of different mics in the stack ended up making the final blend a little easier to fuse together.
Getting Different Tones Out of the One Microphone
Finally, if you don’t have access to multiple mics, remember that the tone of a single mic can change if it is used at different distances or sung into from different directions. Take a moment and sing into the back and sides of your favorite mic to note how the tone changes. Try cupping the mic with your hands to see what that sounds like. Sing close to the mic, and then a few inches back. Then step back from the mic a foot at a time. Stepping back from the mic when overdubbing for a double or triple vocal can be a great way to add dimension to a track. Not only do you get a tone change, but also by physically moving away from the mic, you add a little delay relative to a vocal sung close to the mic. A worthwhile fact to keep in the back of your mind is that at 1000Hz, the difference of a foot in distance corresponds to about a 1ms delay.
I hope these ideas will spark some new recording techniques for you. Let me know if you get a chance to try any of them. Also, if you’ve figured out some really cool alternative approaches of your own, let me know, I’d love to hear about them!