In most modern recordings the lead vocals are likely to be very the centre of attention, as they carry the melody and the lyrics. For this reason, if you are using a guide track, make sure it includes a decent vocal take for the rest of the musicians to follow and perform alongside. I prefer to leave the final vocal overdub to very near the end of a session, because then the singer has a more complete and balanced mix to listen to, and will usually give you a better performance for it. Having said that, don’t ever throw the guide vocal track away – you never know, it might be the best take you get!
Although you usually see artists performing with handheld dynamic microphones like an sm58 or beta58, in the studio you don’t need something as robust, so you have the option to go for something a little more flattering and sophisticated. The TLM 102 is an excellent mic for vocals, as it has a very natural sound and a gentle presence lift which gives clarity to the vocals even in a complex mix. The NT1-A is a popular choice, especially in home studios and is significantly cheaper, but if you want to try something new then the X1 from sE works really nicely on vocals, it costs less than both the other two and to my ears sounds better than the NT1-A.
Pop Shields and Shock Mounts
Bumps and thumps are notoriously difficult to get rid of on vocal recordings, and they usually come from one of two sources. The most obvious is from the microphone capsule being hit by a blast of air from a consonant sung by the singer, usually ‘p’s, ‘b’s and ‘t’s. This can be overcome either by the singer being aware of it and having a good enough microphone technique to be able to sing these ‘plosive’ sounds away from the mic capsule, or by using a pop-shield. Pop shields come in all shapes and sizes, and are designed to break up the low-frequency bursts of air that cause the mic to pop. You can make your own using a wire coat-hanger and some nylon tights, or you can buy a fabric or metal mesh one. Some material pop-shields can dampen high frequencies a very small amount, but you shouldn’t get this problem with metal mesh. Thumps may also come from the mic stand being kicked or knocked, or even the singer moving their feet. Shock-mounts suspend the mic away from the mic stand and will help to absorb a lot of these vibrations but they can be very expensive.
You will find that there is always a balance to be made when positioning a vocal mic. As the mic gets closer to the singer, it will tend to pick up more bottom end which can give a very close and intimate sound but too much will become boomy and heavy. Moving the microphone further away from the vocalist will mean that it picks up more of the ambient room noise. If you are recording at home, the chances are that you will want to minimise any spill from the room so keep the mic close. Positioning the mic at around 7 or 8 inches from the vocalist’s mouth is a fairly neutral zone, it won’t pick up too much from the room and you won’t get much proximity effect either. I suggest you start at this kind of distance, try a sample recording and then move the mic as needed. Don’t be tempted to just leave the mic where you first rig it as moving an inch or two in either direction can make all the difference. Even if you think it’s right straight away, move it around to have another listen and then put it back if it really was perfect.
The Room Acoustic
The choice of room for recording is very important for vocals, and not only that but the position of the microphone within that room. Choosing a room with too many hard surfaces will sound echo-y, and one too small will sound box-y. There is no exact science when it comes to positioning the singer and the microphone within a room, because every room and every singer is different. Try and stay away from the very centre of the room though, as you are likely to get a lot of standing waves building up in the reverb tail which will sound odd. Similarly, don’t get close to any hard walls, particularly if the mic is pointing directly towards one.
In short, you want to have a reasonable amount of space around the singer in all directions, roughly a third of the way across the room. If you can’t get away from the acoustic of a room no matter where you move the singer, then bring the mic in closer to get more proximity effect, and less of the sound of the room.
Here is some more info on choosing a room to record in.
[image via Jacob Joaquin]