Music Production Tutorials

Learning Good Microphone TechniquesApril 11, 2012



We covered some information about recording vocals in a earlier article. I was recently contacted by a reader and asked if I could expand a little more on what good microphone techniques were and the best microphones for vocals to use in the studio. So I thought I would attempt to do that with this article. Thank you for everyone's feedback and if you would like me to write about a topic that you are interested in knowing more about, please feel free to leave it in the comment section below this article.


So your track is sounding really great and now you are ready to record some vocals. You cue the singer, push record, then the playback button and oh no! Your artist does not sound good at all. They are moving around in the booth, turning their head from side to side, dancing around and singing into their chest. Believe it or not this has happened more than once to me in the studio. So what happened? Well chances are that this person never took the time in Learning Good Microphone Techniques.

This means that you as the producer or engineer will need to do a little hand holding and guide your artist down the right path to get a decent recording from them. Or if you are an artist using this type of technique stay tuned this might be a good read for you.

This week we are going to talk about the proper ways to record a vocal through good microphone technique. Now please note that there are a ton of different opinions on what is proper microphone technique. A lot depends on the artist, the microphone used and lots of other factors. It may be easier to give a list of things not to do in front of the microphone instead of giving tips for good microphone techniques that everyone would agree on. So that being said consider this a very generic version of good microphone techniques and expand on what I have written here to meet your own individual needs.


MICROPHONES

The most commonly used mic in the studio would have to be a condenser microphone. Condenser mics have a greater frequency response, but are more sensitive to louder sounds then other microphones. Condenser microphones require a power supply in order for them to work. This is usually supplied in the way of phantom power at 48 volts. Most mixing boards, pre-amps and some interfaces with have a switch for this phantom power.

Dynamic microphones are used for vocals also but in most cases they are mainly used for live vocal situations if used on a vocalist. They are able to withstand very loud sounds so they are most used on guitars and drums. A dynamic microphone does not require its own phantom power. I have seen them used for tracking vocals before, but the condenser remains the most commonly used microphone for recording vocals in a studio setting.

Either way you should be looking for a unidirectional microphone. This simply means that it is more sensitive to sounds from one direction. So it will pick up the sound that is directly in front of it (like an artist) and less so the other sounds that are in the room. This is known as a cardioid. A Cardioid is named this because of it's root word of “cardio”. Cardio which comes from the Greek word kardia which means heart (I have also read that it comes from the latin word “cordis” which also means heart) is just like the term cardio that is used to describe the exercises you do in the gym. Anyway they are so named this because they are always in the cardioid position. This position is shape like a heart. So imagine a picture of a heart in your mind and now turn it upside down. You would see the top of the heart facing you right? Well that top of the heart should be facing you when you sing into a cardioid microphone. There are tons of different brands of condenser microphones that are cardioids on the market today, but for the most part just about all of them place a company logo on what is known as the “front of the mic” so that you can tell the difference between the front and back and place it properly for the best performance.


P's HELP ME

Once you have selected the right microphone for your vocalist then you will want to use a pop filter. A pop filter is a simple device that you most likely have seen that sits right in front of the microphone. They are circular shaped and in most cases are made with a nylon looking material. These are designed to take care of plosive sounds that you often heard when someone is pronouncing letters like P, T, B and G. These don't cost a lot and will make a big difference in what is recorded. You usually want to have this about 6 to 7 inches away from the microphone. This will depend greatly on the microphone being used.


HOW FAR AWAY SHOULD THE ARTIST BE FROM THE MIC?

This is a great question and it really depends on the mic and the artist. Every microphone will have a “sweet spot” with it that will give you the best result. In most cases this is about 3 to 4 inches (10 cm) away but it will differ so experiment with your artist. Don't just have your artist walk up to the mic and start his or her's performance. Have them sing (or rap) into the microphone and get some levels so that you have a better idea where they should be standing in relation to the microphone.


FREEZE YOUR IT

One of the best ways to capture a great recording from your artist is if he or she stays still while they are being recorded. Now we don't want them to be frozen like a statue as they are performing because we want them to get into the performance and feel the music. However you don't want them moving a lot and dancing about like I mentioned earlier because this will sound really bad as their vocals go off mic with all that movement. This seems to be harder to do for those artist that perform live a lot because they are use to performing the song on stage which normally involve some type of movement or dancing. Less movement equals a better recording result when the microphone is stationary.

For those artist that just will not stand still in the booth all is not lost. I have recorded an artist or two in the booth before with a Shure SM57 microphone which is used more for live performances. They are a dynamic microphone but depending on the situation you can still capture a good vocal recording with them.


SING INTO THE MIC PLEASE!

When using a unidirectional microphone with your artist it is very important that they sing into the mic and not across it or underneath it. This means that the microphone diaphragm should be level with the performer's mouth. Not at the top of the microphone and not signing into the base of the microphone, but directly in the front and center part of the mic.

Unidirectional mics are not your only choice for recording vocals. Omnidirectional or nondirectional mics are also pretty common as well to use with certain dynamic microphones for capture your vocals.

The key is to know the microphone choices you have available in your studio or the studio you are working in very well as well as to know the artist that you are working with very well for the best results. But even if you have never worked with that artist before a good recording can still be had by matching your artist to the correct microphone.


A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS

When recording a vocalist in the same room as another band member (let's say an acoustic guitarist), then it might be better to set it to the hyper cardioid microphone setting. These mics have more off axis rejection from the room and will therefore pick up the vocalist and not the guitarist playing.



POLAR PATTERNS FOR LEAD VOCALS

In this article we have been talking about lead vocals and the best microphone and techniques to use. So let's recap the different microphone settings that you could use:


  • Cardioid – These mics are great for lead vocals. They work for just about any lead vocal and when sung directly into the diaphragm you can easily find the sweet spot on the microphone for great results.

  • Hyper Cardioid – Same thing as above but it is just more narrow than a standard cardioid. As a matter of fact many cardioid mics have a hyper cardioid switch to change it into this mode.

  • Omnidirectional – Omni's unlike cardioids will pick up sound from all the way around the mic. These are known as some of the purest microphone because of their low about of coloration. They also do not have the proximity effect that a cardioid will have so they are less bassy sounding.

  • Figure of Eight – With your mic on this setting it works like two cardioid microphones built into one. One cardioid picking up sounds coming in the front and another picking up sounds coming in from the rear of the mic. This works great when you want to have two vocalist singing into the same microphone.


SOME HELPFUL TIPS

One of the best ways to gain better microphone technique is just to get more familiar with using a microphone. If you don't have a mic of your own, then you may wan to invest in one. A good microphone can range anywhere from hundred dollars to ten thousand dollars in price. Now this does not mean that you need to run out and get a ten thousand dollar microphone, but it does mean that you should try to find the best microphone within your budget.

Once you have the microphone that fits your needs and budget, then start practicing with it. Sing (or rapping) into it, across it, down on it, etc. and listen to the differences in sound when you do this. This will help you to find the sweet spot in your microphone and it will make some of the things that we talked about here make more sense.

I would also encourage you to check out some videos of people using proper microphone techniques. Visually is always a good way to learn something like microphone techniques because you can see perhaps some of the things that you might be doing wrong as well as some of the correct ways to use a microphone.

As a caution, if you are going to be using something like You Tube to learn proper techniques, make sure you check out the comments and the amount of dislikes before you watch. There aren't any test on music production that needs to be passed in order to post a video on You Tube. That being said there are some good videos and some bad videos out there. Before you start learning a technique that is not correct and will teach you bad habits, check out what others think about the video teaching first.


CONCLUSION

The main think is to not be afraid of the microphone. Practice until you become very comfortable in front of it. The best advice I can give is to just do and keep doing it until you get better. Learn the things that you should not do in front of the microphone and your techniques will get better. Just loosen up and make it fun.



Stay tuned for more weekly tips and tutorials every Wednesday.

Article written by Alex Butler

Alex is an audio engineer, studio producer and freelance writer based out of Seattle, WA.


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