Mic Check: How to Pick the Best Microphone for Vocals
Of all the dark arts surrounding the studio, none may be more important to master than microphone selection for vocals.
“It really matters to get that mic right,” says Kiara Mudd, Studio Manager/House Engineer for BB4. “The vocal is the primary element that people are listening to—it can make or break a song.”
Mudd points out that locating the optimum microphone for a vocal track has a dual benefit. Not only will it help the artist’s creative expression to come shining all the way through, it should also streamline the recording signal path setup, as well as the mix phase. “When you take the time to match a singer’s vocal characteristics with the best microphone,” she points out, “it means there’s less work to do later on with your analog gear or ITB (in the box).”
Setting a Reference
While no two singers are the same, Mudd has developed a dependable roadmap for vocal mic selection when setting up for a session at BB4 Studios. Whether it’s recording hip-hop vocals, recording rock vocals, recording R&B vocals, or any other style, her approach ensues with the ears.
“I start by listening to the character of their voice and taking into consideration what I want to emphasize,” Mudd says. “From there, I take into account what music genre is being recorded— how to record hip-hop vocals and how to record pop vocals often call for different audio engineering mindsets and microphone decisions.”
Once the singer is set, Mudd will officially begin the mic shootout. She’ll start playing the track back in Pro Tools, and ask a singer to start performing into a pre-selected baseline mic— typically this will be BB4’s Manley Reference Cardioid Tube microphone. Known for its extreme openness and responsiveness on the high end, the Manley Reference is an ideal place to start.
Mudd will track a test recording with the initial reference microphone, and then sweep the frequencies during playback to identify what that should be accentuated. “To do a sweep, take an EQ band, bring it up about 10 dB, and move from low frequencies to the highest frequencies. Listen for where their vocal really starts to shine— this part isn’t very scientific, you just have to listen for what sounds the most pleasing.
“The longer you worked with the microphones in your mic locker, the more intuitively you’ll know which mic could be the best fit. But it also helps to look at the frequency response charts of each microphone that you have— most manufacturers have that information on their Website. You can compare and contrast a vocalist’s best characteristics with which microphone excels in that frequency.”
Moving to the Mics
Now that Mudd has zeroed in closer on top candidates, the audition process goes to the second level. In the interest of time efficiency and conserving the singer’s energy, she’ll set up as many as three mics at once in front of the vocalist and have them record the track again. “You can have multiple mics really close together— even if they’re not on center, you’ll still get a reliable enough reference track for making a decision, either to keep that mic in the running or eliminate it.”
While Mudd may have had more input in deciding which mics to audition after the reference track, from there selecting the best vocal microphone is a team effort— and it doesn’t just come down to the sound.
“The look of the microphone can have an effect on people,” she acknowledges. “When people are in a professional studio like BB4, singing into a great-looking microphone can inspire their performance. They also may already have a strong opinion on what they like best, depending on their experience level: A seasoned vocalist might know right off the bat that a Neumann U 87 is what they want, while someone who’s relatively new to a pro studio setting might ask for more input from the engineer.”
Fave Raves and Wildcards
In her years of experience recording vocals, Mudd has seen some distinct patterns emerge in mic selection.
“If the vocalist is a rapper I might pick the Manley Reference,” she says. “That has a warmth and heavy midrange to it that can boost the frequencies you’ll often find in rap or hip hop vocals. If it’s an R&B track with a female signer, I might use the Neumann U 87—that’s a great overall mic for a lot of vocals, and it especially does well with a lot of the higher frequencies that you’ll hear from vocalists singing in falsetto.”
In addition to those microphones, other popular selections for BB4 sessions include the AKG C414 and Audio-Technica ATM450. “Those are both great in the midrange and mid-high frequencies,” notes Mudd.
There are also outliers that wind up running the gauntlet and getting selected. “The Funkberater was used a lot for the ‘Beyond the Beyond’ album that was recorded here at BB4 by Ian Lloyd,” she says. “It reminded Ian and producer David Lloyd of a 1970’s vintage feel. It has a lot of roll-off on it with a distinctive focus on the mid-range and high frequencies. The Funkberater really complemented the raspiness of Ian’s vocals, especially when paired with our Vintech Audio 473 mic pre and TubeTech CL 2A compressor.
“The Shure SM7B is another microphone that’s great for bassy voices. That gets used for a lot of podcasts and radio. When you want to have a forceful presence, the SM7 can work very well.”
Signal Path Traction
As noted just now with the Funkberaters, the vocal track doesn’t make it just because of the microphone— the whole signal path must have impact.
“Preamps change the characteristics as well,” adds Mudd. “If the singer has a little extra bass in their voice, I tend to stay away from our Avalon VT-737sp. In my experience that unit makes low frequencies build up a lot more, but for people who aren’t big on the bass side the Avalon does well with all our top vocal mics.
“In selecting preamps, I usually take into consideration the genre and feel for the song that’s being recorded. The API 512c’s we have here are specifically the sound of the ‘80s, while the Vintechs represent their own era as well (KIARA, WHICH ERA IS THIS?).”
While Mudd obviously has established go-to microphone selections on her list, she urges artists and engineers to break the rules anytime it suits the song.
“Don’t be afraid to use microphones there aren’t typically used for the elements that you’re trying to record,” she suggests. “You might find something that’s unique in the recording process. We’ve used a Funkberater on the bass amp, for example, which gave that song’s bass the punch that it needed, instead of relying on traditional bass amp microphones like the AKG D112 or Electro Voice RE27.”
Most importantly for microphone selection is knowing when to say when and commence creating. “Vocalists will usually give a reaction,” Mudd says. “As soon as I see that a mic has gotten them excited, I’ll halt the audition process and try to record quickly from there.”