Having good “Mic Technique” means two things: 1.) Understanding that a microphone’s diaphragm reacts with varying sensitivity to your vocal performance. 2.) Knowing how to adjust your body according to the dynamics of the delivery. If you’re going to deliver a quiet, intimate vocal from start to finish, you can afford to position your mouth just a few inches (or even less) from the microphone. If the vocal is to be sung full volume throughout the song, you may stand a couple feet away. Quite often, though, a song is dynamic enough to require different amounts of air to be pushed at different times. Singers with good mic technique will move their body closer to or further away from the mic as the song unfolds. Ideally, your mouth is as close to the mic as possible before overloading it with level (which will cause it to distort or, with super-sensitive mic’s, to temporarily shut down -this will always be blamed on the engineer, even if it’s the singer’s fault.) Tip: don’t be afraid to move your head back a couple inches for just a phrase or even a syllable – you can also aim your mouth slightly above or to the side of the diaphragm for particularly loud moments.
Room mics are used to give a recording a more ambient and live sound. Room mics can be used in stereo or mono, but one must always be aware that they do have an effect on the phase relationships of all the other instruments being recorded simultaneously in the same room. Engineers often use stereo room mics placed about six feet high, and about ten feet from the drum kit to enhance the drum sound. Other engineers will use a single mic in omni placed near the floor, and pointed at the kick drum. There are endless combinations of placements, and ultimately, each has to be the decision of the engineer and producer. There is no pat prescription for placing room mics.
Dynamic and Condenser Microphones
In the simplest of terms, a dynamic microphone is basically an iron core surrounded by a coil of copper wire much like an electromagnet. When sound waves hit the core and move it, it causes the core to move within the coil, which generates electrical impulses that become translated into sound when they go through a mic preamp. A condenser mic (or electret condenser) is essentially two extremely thin, metal (typically gold) partialcoated Mylar membranes, which are separated by a very thin insulating layer of air. One side is positively charged, the other is negatively charged. When sound waves, or sound pressure hits the “diaphragm,” it creates electrical impulses that become translated into sound when they go through a mic preamp. Generally speaking, dynamic mics are less expensive, are less delicate, handle extreme sound pressure levels better than condenser mics, but don’t sound as good as condenser mics. There are many situations in which a dynamic mic is the better choice though. Many engineers use them on drums of all types. They are very well suited for applications where high sound pressure levels are anticipated. Condenser mics are generally thought to be richer sounding, with more “detail.” But while they may sound better, they are also more sensitive to high sound pressure levels, and somewhat prone to distortion if exposed to too much level. Condenser mics often have variable pattern switches on them, allowing engineers to choose a cardioid pattern, hyper-cardioid, figure eight, or omni.
Getting Rid of Mouth Pops and Lip Noise
Obviously, most engineers use pop filters to eliminate pops, but there are more than one kind of pop filter. Many stage mics already have them built in, hence the large ball-shaped screen over the mic’s capsule. But most studio mics use a foam pop filter or windscreen that slides over the end of the mic. Those work well, but some people think they eliminate some of the microphone’s ability to capture high-end sounds. It’s an arguable point. A more popular type of windscreen that has emerged in the last decade is the nylon stocking variety. In its simplest, home-brewed version, it is just a piece of nylon stocking stretched over an “o” shaped piece of sturdy wire like a section of coat hanger. The filter is placed between the singer’s mouth and the microphone to eliminate any blasts of breath that would cause a pop. There are several companies that now manufacture the nylon stocking type of pop filter. Maybe the most effective way of all to eliminate pops is to just place the microphone so that the singer’s mouth doesn’t blow directly in to it. Placing the mic slightly off to one side, but angled at the singer’s mouth will almost always cure a popping problem. Just make sure that you haven’t placed the mic so far off-axis that you affect the sound of the mic by going outside the mic’s pick-up pattern. The best prescription in the world for getting rid of mouth noise is to simply have the singer drink water, and lots of it.
Unique Vocal Techniques & Reverb
The opportunities to make a vocal sound unique are endless, bound only by your imagination. Sometimes the more obvious effects – ‘telephone’-like filters, heavy-pumping compression, ethereal reverb – are exactly what works for the song. But you can also have the vocal sung into a megaphone, or come off tape into a guitar pedal, an amplifier, even the Leslie speaker that was built for Hammond organs (if you’re lucky enough to own one.) A lot of digital effects boxes will simulate these sounds, but they don’t always come out as good as the real thing. Wah-wah and distortion pedals are extremely useful in giving your vocal a different sound. And you can get great kinds of distortion by deliberately overloading a circuit. Try patching your vocal, from tape, into a mic-pre with its gain turned all the way up. Every model of mic-pre out there produces its own type of distortion when overloaded, so if you don’t like the sound of one, try again with another. This trick also works with compressors – just turn the input all the way up. (Note: if you try this idea, start with the fader down on the channel where the signal is returning.) And remember that too much effect can come off as gimmicky. Blending just a little bit into the main (dry) signal allows you to create a sound that’s fresh without drawing attention to it. (Of course, sometimes that’s the point.) Tip: Are you looking for a unique vocal reverb? Before you send the vocal to the reverb unit, patch it into a flanger first. If you dial in just the right amount, the listener may not even pick up on your little trick. But the overall vocal sound will be unique and more interesting. Most of the time people think of reverb in terms of extremes: either they like a lot of reverb or none at all. But there’s a middle ground that’s very useful when you want a natural sounding vocal that’s neither too wet nor too dry. Like when you want to process it so it sounds unprocessed.
Final Thought on Vocal Tips & The Use of Reverb
Listen to your vocal (with reverb) in solo and dial-in a cool, vibe reverb that has a relatively short decay and 0-2 reflections (feedback). In solo, the reverb should be plenty audible. Then take those faders out of solo and while listening to the whole mix, adjust the amount of vocal reverb to the point just below where you can detect it. By setting it to where you can’t hear it but it’s definitely there, you’re using the reverb more as glue between the singer and the band than as an obvious effect. This is great for when you want the whole band to sound like they’re in the same room without settling for a totally dry, unexciting ambience. Most of the time people think of reverb in terms of extremes: either they like a lot of reverb or none at all. But there’s a middle ground that’s very useful when you want a natural sounding vocal that’s neither too wet nor too dry. Like when you want to process it so it sounds unprocessed.
Final Tip: Listen to your vocal (with reverb) in solo and dial-in a cool, vibe reverb that has a relatively short decay and 0-2 reflections (feedback). In solo, the reverb should be plenty audible. Then take those faders out of solo and while listening to the whole mix, adjust the amount of vocal reverb to the point just below where you can detect it. By setting it to where you can’t hear it but it’s definitely there, you’re using the reverb more as glue between the singer and the band than as an obvious effect. This is great for when you want the whole band to sound like they’re in the same room without settling for a totally dry, unexciting ambience.
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