How can I make my singing clear

Vocal Recording - We'll do one more, just to be on the safe side!

Microphones & Recording Psychology
by Thomas Hannes, Aljoscha Mallmann,

The vocals sell the song! That is why we are devoting ourselves to the subject of vocals in this and the next issue. In addition to the optimal preparation of the recording, we focus on the correct positioning of the singer and microphone, the subsequent editing and mixing of the vocals.

Compared to other sources, recording the human voice seems to be a rather simple undertaking: put a mic in front of it, playback on and go. However, this calculation only works so easily in the rarest of cases. When singing, the wheat is separated from the chaff, and the focus is on the singer's performance. We explain how to get the technology out of the way and concentrate on the essentials. The impetus for this article was provided by a letter from an S&R reader, and we spent a long time thinking about how to clearly illustrate the procedure for a vocal recording in pictures and text. As always, our concept is to consider practice as a starting point, so we start the session with our readers and work our way through to the finished mix.

Typical recording situations in the home studio involve singing, acoustic guitar and electric guitar. But even here you can capture different aspects of an instrument with the clever combination of microphones. This gives you the opportunity to get more sound dimensions out of a recording later in the mix.

Psychology factor

Working with a band or an artist in the studio is always applied psychology. This is especially true for singing. If a guitar doesn't intonate properly, we swap the instrument or use a screwdriver. If a singer doesn't get straight to the point, a producer has to be on the cutting edge, both technically and personally, to make the recording a success. That's why we not only want to introduce great microphones at this point, but also go into the creative work with singing artists. And it's about more than some aspiring producers imagine.

Good technical preparation for the session is just as important here as familiarization with the lyrics. They are often a very personal thing, and you should get a very clear picture of the moods and associations a text conveys from the producer's chair. This is the only way to give constructive feedback during the recording and to be seriously available to the singer as a sparring partner.

The preparation

There seems to be a law of nature, which says that singers in album productions only get a cold when singing is to be recorded. Joking aside - the first step on the journey is to create all the prerequisites for the artist to feel comfortable and fit. This also includes postponing a session if necessary and preferring to protect your voice if your throat scratches. We like to record the vocals in our studio in the large recording A, because we have plenty of space there for large tripods and look straight ahead from the control room into the recording room.

But we have learned that many singers feel much more comfortable in a small recording room. Thanks to darkened windows and dim light, a completely different atmosphere is created here, which some singers seem to like better. That might sound trite, but it's part of the equation. Before the session begins, we basically set up all the microphones that we want to test and prepare a music stand and light. So when the artist comes into the studio, we don't have to start spending valuable time wiring. Monitoring is extremely important: if a singer hears himself badly, it will usually have a negative impact on performance. Most studios have different headphone models, and it makes sense, especially for longer sessions, to present the singer with a selection.

First and foremost, the headphones should sit comfortably, and of course there are also sound preferences. While many musicians get along with the very controlled, central sound of the classic DT-100 by Beyerdynamic, others want a more hi-fi feeling. Before the session starts, you can roughly check the microphone level and check whether the volume of the monitor signal and the playback are roughly appropriate. The latter should also be prepared, especially if the vocal recordings take place after the instrument recordings. In the course of a production, we often do a little rough mix before we start recording the vocal, so it's also fun to sing along with a good sounding track. Ideally, there should also be a plan of which songs should be in the can and in which period.

In order to plan realistically here, of course, you have to know how stable the singer is, how the arrangement works and which parts should be recorded. If you work with a rather inexperienced singer, time pressure at the end of a production is guaranteed not to be a success factor and creates additional unrest. Normally, you can identify larger "construction sites" with singing during preproduction or analyze them while listening to demos. At the beginning of the session, it usually becomes apparent very quickly which structure the further process will assume. With a well-trained or simply talented singer, it is often enough to simply record the song in its entirety or individual parts a few times in a row. The differences will be limited to expression and intensity - the main thing here is to put together the most beautiful takes, and luxury decisions are made.

With less well trained singers, a lot of tact is required. If you're lucky, the singer falls into the category of “soldier of fortune” - an interesting voice meets a not always intact intonation. Here we motivate the singers to sing a whole series of takes, from which we then “build” the perfect take. Small carvers can of course also be bent into shape. Of course, there are also more problematic cases, and here you should work with the singer and band to establish a performance target that does not set the bar too high, but produces satisfactory results. As producers, we see ourselves as service providers in any case and try to get the most out of every artist, even if that means working very intensively on the fundamentals.

The right microphone

The microphone is the first instance in our recording chain. Here we determine the direction and can compensate for weaknesses in the voice right at the beginning and of course also emphasize its positive characteristics. Let's take a look at the different designs and consider their strengths and weaknesses. "Dynamic microphones are intended for the stage, condenser microphones for the studio". Both statements are blanket nonsense - we use what sounds good. Just because something is expensive doesn't necessarily mean it's best for all purposes. Dynamic microphones aren't as full in the lows and not as silky in the highs. They are not dull or thin, just a little "narrower" compared to condenser microphones.

The range from around 200 Hz - 3.5 kHz usually seems to be “tighter” and “closer” to the listener's ear. Dynamic microphones aren't that dynamic either. Because the membrane is thicker and heavier, they are a little more sluggish and thus follow the signals a little more slowly. The advantage of this type of construction is its assertiveness. The fact that dynamic microphones do not transmit every small nuance of the voice seems to be a disadvantage at first, but it is not. We don't always want to hear everything that comes out of a person's mouth (only the sound aspect is meant here). In positive terms, the dynamic microphone does not present every weakness of a voice.

With the high band of an EQ, we can still give them a little freshness or "expensive". The sound of dynamic microphones has character and charm. Great representatives of their kind for singing in the studio: Electro Voice RE20 and especially the Shure SM7B. Condenser microphones are much more sensitive and detailed. They represent transients more precisely. Their sound is full, open and brilliant. As a result, they are, so to speak, acoustic magnifying glasses that allow us to look into the sound. Every little detail appears vividly in front of the listener's ear. If you want exactly that sound, they are the right choice. Due to their design, tube microphones show some saturation and enrich the signal with overtones. This gives the sound something present and grippy along the way. Sometimes this can be just that little bit more or just the wrong thing.

In a nutshell: The quality of a condenser or tube microphone is demonstrated by the fact that the highs are clear but pleasant, the lows are not spongy and the mids are not nasal. Here are a few good representatives of this genre: The Mojave MA-201 FET and MA-100 (tube) are very good microphones for many occasions - real workhorses, even for the smaller budget. The Brauner Phantom Classic (FET) delivers incredibly precise, not too intrusive highs and is especially a weapon for R’n’B or pop vocals. The Neumann U 87, U 67 and U 47 are also classics. Unfortunately, the last two are only available for a lot of money or as high-priced replicas. The same applies to luminaries such as the AKG / Telefunken C12.

Ribbon microphones are a little more special. They deliver a slightly darker sound and usually have a figure-of-eight directional characteristic, which means that they also pick up the sound from behind. In terms of sound, they lie roughly between dynamic and large-diaphragm condenser microphones. To a certain extent, they sound “expensive” and rich in detail, but never pointy. An EQ is usually helpful here, as it brings a little more highs into the signal while recording and slightly reduces the bass. Ribbon microphones offer character, but also need a little attention and are classics that have become increasingly popular in recent years. Many have probably seen the RCA44 in particular in films or old documentaries.

The companies AEA, Coles and Royer are the "well-known" contemporary names here. We use the AEA R84 in particular every day - whether for vocals, electric guitars or as overhead for drums. If you only have one microphone, the selection is easy. If several microphones are available, it makes sense to try them out systematically one after the other. If possible, you should use a neutral and transparent preamp so as not to color the microphone signal too much - the first step is the first link in the recording chain. For example, we have the singer sing verse and chorus and record it briefly. And then compare it. It's not just about the voice sounding good. The vocal sound has to assert itself and fit the song.

A guitar-heavy song needs a different vocal sound than an R’n’B song. The guitar occupies the frequency range of the voice much more than the playback of the R’n’B song, which is more dominated by rhythm and pads. Also, a silky, high-quality vocal sound does not fit so much into the overall picture. There's nothing wrong with using a different microphone for another song within the same production, if that suits you better. It depends a bit on the approach - if every song has its own sound universe, that makes perfect sense. You can also record doubles and choirs with a different microphone to make these elements sound different from the start.

The version 3.0 is to work with two microphones. A combination of a large diaphragm microphone and a dynamic microphone would be typical here. As always, it is important to ensure that the membranes of both microphones have the same distance from the mouth as possible so that the phases do not cancel each other out. So you can simply mix something together from both worlds or even process the signals separately. But more on that later.

Position and distance

How you set up a microphone depends largely on the microphone. Every specimen has its sweet spots, which is why it is important to try it out and some experience also helps. The closer you get to a microphone, the more fullness and volume you create. At the same time, however, background noises also get louder - especially smacking, air noises, etc. The effect of the “increasing abundance” is called the “close-up effect” or “proximity effect”. Dynamic microphones should be used more closely; a distance of 3 - 12 cm is a very good start here. The condenser / tube and ribbon microphones can also be exposed to sound from further away. As a start, 15-20 cm is a good starting point for us. However, we may also use distances of 50 cm and more.

The air acts as a natural compressor and EQ. The voice is recorded as a "whole" so to speak. If we increase the distance, we also minimize hissing and pop sounds anyway, but the signal sounds less direct and may sound too indirect for some styles of music. If we compare “singing close by” with singing 50 cm away, we must of course compensate for this with the preamp. Otherwise the former is louder and immediately seems better to us. Furthermore, the influence of the recording room increases the further the singer moves away from the microphone. The assessment of the proportion of space should not be based on the motto “I hear it, so it's bad”. We judge the proportion in the music.

 

What seems too much solo can be an interesting sound in context that fits into the music vividly and provides liveliness. The excuse to do it artificially afterwards with a short reverb is, provocatively speaking, an argument for the fearful and boring. You can hardly get something like that artificially. An exception is of course if the recording room does not sound nice in itself. Small rooms tend to resonance and droning much faster, so you should be careful here. Experienced singers increase the distance to the microphone a little when they sing louder and use the physics for themselves. Singing is basically nothing more than the blowing out of a stream of air. If this hits the membrane head-on, explosive sounds in the bass range may occur.

This can be avoided by “aiming” something at the mouth with the membrane of the microphone from above, below or from the side. So we hang the microphone a little lower, higher or to the side and turn the microphone towards the mouth. You simply take the membrane a little bit out of the air flow. How much depends on the microphone, here each copy behaves differently. From above, being close to the nose, the sound becomes a bit more sonorous, from below, a bit of fullness is added through the rib cage, and from the side it remains more neutral. We use this knowledge as a natural EQ before we even start screwing anywhere.

We also use a pop screen. For a long time this was a standard 08/15 K&M pop screen, until a colleague brought along a Stedmann Proscreen XL, which sounded significantly more open, more stable and easier to clean. We also use the pop filter as a spacer to the microphone, so that a minimum distance is maintained.

outlook

In the next issue we will focus on editing, tuning and mixing the vocals. As always, we put the traces of our test session online and expressly encourage you to experiment and get involved. Until then!

Tips for vocal miking

One should always see microphones as tools that shape sound. In order to find the most suitable microphone for a singer, it is therefore important to proceed with patience and mindfulness - vocalists are not machines. In addition to the right atmosphere in the recording room, the positioning of the microphone is also important for performance and sound.

In this tutorial, we will also show you how to use the microphones correctly in the studio.

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