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Home Recording on a Budget

Make Me Scream: Recording Vocals

Choosing a Microphone

After a long hiatus, we return, ready and raring to lay down some vocal tracks. Obviously, the first thing you'll need is a microphone. What kind? Well, since we're dealing with a budget here, let's start with the cheap stuff and work our way up. If you're not too discriminating -- and willing to play with the EQ more than a little bit -- your standard computer mic will do the trick. Plus, it'll plug into your computer's microphone input without any problems. The disadvantage here, of course, is that, compared to even cheap consumer-grade microphones, it will sound like crap. But honestly, for the price -- damn near free, as these things come with many computers, or sound cards, or boxes of Cracker Jacks -- they do a reasonably good job.

Moving on up the ladder, we've got your basic consumer microphones -- you can pick these up for under $50 at Radio Shack or any music store. They're basic dynamic microphones, usually cardioid. Some of them sound alright, and you might want to consider one of these guys, if only because they can handle somewhat higher sound pressure. Many of these can be plugged right into your sound card as well, with an additional 1/4"-to-1/8" adapter -- going higher on the microphone food chain will require at least a transformer, and possibly a microphone amp or mixer. These mics will sound different from your computer mic -- not necessarily objectively better, but they'll have different characteristics. For one, the slightly larger diaphragm will allow for more bass response; for most vocalists, this will be better. However, at this price point, you're not likely to get consistent frequency response across the entire spectrum: you'll wind up with somewhat muted high frequencies. Sibilance will be less pronounced. As I mentioned before, though, the main advantage is the higher sound pressure they can handle. When you scream into a computer microphone -- I mean really scream -- you're going to overdrive it. Most of them just aren't made to handle that kind of volume. The mics you buy at Radio Shack, though, are better-equipped to handle your screaming. So if you can't afford something nicer, and you like to scream, you might want to consider one of these guys.

Next up are the middle-of-the-road dynamic mics. The most popular of these is probably the Shure SM58. It has a great tone for live vocals; it's a standby in many clubs. While it's not ideally-suited for recording vocals, it will certainly do the job. And for the price -- around $100 -- it's a good value. It will generally be more transparent and realistic-sounding than cheaper mics, but still not as good as the more expensive condensers. To plug one of these into your soundcard, you'll need a transformer to match the impedence to what your sound card expects. Don't try it without this. It's just a Bad Idea™. A better idea, though, would be to get a small microphone mixer (you guessed it, Radio Shack); you'll probably get better amplification with less noise.

Finally, we've got the real big boys, condensers. You can buy some really shoddy condenser mics, but by and large, they sound pretty good: transparent and real and precise. The problem is, most of them require phantom power. If your sound card has phantom power on the mic input, you don't need these tutorials. Seriously. So, in order to use one of these guys, you'll need a mixer that provides phantom power, or a phantom power box, or some other way of powering them. Plus, they're expensive. Wicked expensive. So let's just move on, because again, if you can afford a good condenser, you don't need my help.

HEY! Update, 10 Jan 03: I just bought a cheap condenser -- Marshall Electronics MXL 990 -- which ran me only USD 70. Combined with a cheap mixer -- the $80 Behringer MX802a -- it makes a damn fine recording microphone. Sweet, smooth high end, deep bass, no funny honking, boxiness, harshness, or scooping. Marshall makes a whole lot of cheap condensers these days and the buzz is that they're all pretty good. You might want to check them out. Funny how a few months change everything.

Technique

Now that we've got our mic, how do we use it? The first thing you want to do is mount the microphone in some secure place. Whether this means on a microphone stand or duct taped to your computer monitor is up to you, but the last thing you want is for the thing to fall on the floor in the middle of a take. Bad mojo. Next thing to think about is a pop filter. Your Ps and Ts and Ks are going to sound pretty nasty if you just start singing right into the mic. Some mics have a built-in windscreen / pop filter which will do a reasonable job of preventing pops. Still, you may want to either buy a pop filter, or construct one yourself. Nylon stockings stretched across a coat hanger work surprisingly well. Just don't let anyone see you singing into it; their laughter will ruin your take.

Next thing to think about is distance from the mic. Dynamic microphones exhibit a proximity effect; when you're close to them, bass frequencies are greatly emphasized. If you'd like more bass in your vocal track, you can use this to your advantage. One of the most important things about recording vocals cheaply is that you should try to remain a reasonably constant distance from the microphone. The most important reason for this is volume: without compressors and limiters on the track, movement toward and away from the mic will cause the volume to go up and down, producing an inconsistent track. Of course, if you've got software to do this, it's less important; but with dynamic mics, you'll still want to be conscious of the proxmity effect. You probably don't want the verses of your song to have a rich bass tone and the choruses to be screamed from halfway across the room.

You'll also want to keep your headphone volume as low as is practical. In most cases, it's not practical to have monitors in the room positioned so they won't be picked up by the mic. And since you're wearing headphones -- and singing -- you want to make sure that the sound doesn't leak too much. Closed-ear headphones help in this respect, but unless you've spent a lot of money on them, there's going to be some leakage. Keep the volume low or you'll be sorry.

Other Stuff

As I mentioned earlier, it might help to have a compressor on your vocal track. No matter how careful you are and how consistent you tried to be, there are going to be unwanted volume variations in your track. Of course, there are situations where you want this variation, and heavy compression would just ruin the overall feel of the track. It's up to you; I find that very heavy compression (100:1 or more) on vocal tracks in rock music is usually a good thing: they should just be loud, and that's that. Other styles might need more subtle vocals; you might still want to compress and limit to even things out, but lower the ratio somewhat. Go with your gut reaction. You don't want to ruin a good take by killing the dynamic range, but you do want it to cut through the mix.

Which brings us to EQ. Vocals are, in most cases, the meat of the mix. They need to sound full and natural, and yet not get all muddy. In most cases, this can be accomplished by brightening up the top a little bit -- with a spectral enhancer if possible (think BBE) -- and rolling off the lows just a little bit. Personally, I like my vocal tracks a little on the thin side, but arguments can be made for more robust, bass-heavy tracks too. We'll get to all of this in the production section.

Wrap-Up

Much of the magic in recording vocals is a trial-and-error thing. Every singer has a unique style, and you'll have to accomodate that style when recording him. Since the vocals are usally the most prominent part of your song, you're going to want to make them sound good. Don't skimp on them. There are lots of techniques for making a mediocre singer sound better, which we will discuss in the section on mixing and production. You might want to drench him in reverb and delay -- good for tracks with sparse instrumentation -- or you might want to double or triple the track -- better for tracks with dense instrumentation. We'll talk more about this later, though. For now, just concentrate on getting a good take. You can't fake that.

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