It’s always nice to have a few mics to choose from when micing vocals but generally three kinds are used: small diaphragm dynamic, large diaphragm dynamic or large diaphragm condenser. Each are great for a different need. But most times I’m using a large diaphragm condenser and then selecting which one of this kind I use. But I fortunately have choices while your mic cabinet may be more limited. If you have a large diaphragm condenser, start with it. I highly recommend a pop screen – even if you have to build one (panty hose stretched over a sewing loop works great, and you can say that you do, in fact, rock the mic with the panty hose – homage to the Beastie Boys). Place the pop screen about an inch to 3 in front of the mic capsule. I like to have the mic pointed slightly down towards the floor (about 20 degrees) rather than straight on. I also make sure the mic height is aligned to how the vocalist sings – some have their heads down, some up, and others straight on to the mic. Depending on the mic and how well it does with proximity (some get thin even a few inches away from them) I like to have the vocalist at least 3 to 6 inches from the pop screen.
And now a word on mic technique. If a singer doesn’t know how to work a mic or it’s their first time on a studio mic, take some time to give them some hints. They need to think of the mic as an ear. You wouldn’t scream full throttle into a friends ear – well, not a friend for long if you did, so no doing that on a mic. If the singer gets loud they need to pull back from the mic or at least turn a little to the side. Same goes for explosives, not that kind, P’s or anything thing that can “pop” a mic – just singing off axis to a mic, turning the head slightly to left or right can make a huge difference in the final product. So let them know how to work a mic.
As we set up I always let the vocalist know how it’s going to work. It helps to chill the nerves and starts to get them use to the idea that it’s not about capturing one performance; it’s almost always about a process. I lay out the process ahead and that we don’t record until they feel good about what they hear in the headset, that we will take our time on this and then they can bring the magic, or sometimes parlor trick. Start with a light send of the mix to their phones and only a little of them in that mix. You should have a ballpark setting for level on your mic pre for recording vocals and same for a headphone send. Let the vocalist warm up on the track and get your gain and compression settings and then give them the amount of themselves they need in their headset and the proper over all level they need. Too little or too much send and it will affect pitch – too little and they’ll scream and after two takes they’re fried, too much and their pitch will probably leave the building. You are a partner in all recording, do your best to make it happen! You can often tell when a singer just isn’t getting it that it could very well be their headset mix – sometimes over their objection you’ll need to change things to get the job done.
Just like a drummer, a vocalist is a sprint runner you’re trying to stretch into a marathoner. You are the coach, know how to pace them. Make sure they know you think this is going to be not just good but important. In effect it will be, even if it’s only to them, and by that it will be to you. That you are looking forward to the process and doing this with them. Give the vocalist breaks, not too long but enough to clear the head and let the vocal chords de-steam. Make sure they have water. If a vocalist is doing it right, they are in a very vulnerable place. No matter how you feel about the music or the vocalist, respect the art and the process – even if they don’t. You will be coach, psychiatrist, fan, mommy, or even enemy. Do what it takes to get them there and be right about the approach you use to do it – use your intuition.
So you’ve cut some vocals. If I’m making a record I almost always will “comp” for the final track. I’ll take 5 or 6 passes and keep the best 3 or 4 takes, then punch in on any lines that I think needed extra focus or varied approach, and then go thought each and select the best lines. Then I’ll splice those together into one track. If it’s a limited budget I’ll punch in lines on a take I think was pretty good on the whole. This saves a bunch of time but generally doesn’t give the precision and vibe of a comp’d vocal. Trick: Usually a vocalist will be closer to a double by not singing to their comp’d vocal. Almost all the time I can get a double out of the parts I didn’t use in making the comp’d track. Just play what was left over against the comp’d track and find the lines that most closely double the lead vocal – you might need to edit it to be right on but in the end I’ve found this to be the most efficient and also most precise way to get a double.
When mixing a vocal I like compression, I like a lot of it. Others, not as much. Let’s just get that out right now. My vocal chain is a compressor slammed, followed with EQ, then another compressor, and finally a de-esser. Oh yes, take that. That’s right, you heard me. I like vocals to feel immediate and urgent – even on a ballade. But that’s me. The first compressor is there to get control of the vocal but also to give it oomph. The EQ I’ll generally roll off bellow 75 Hz, add some between 200 and 300 Hz, maybe cut with a tight Q at 1 or 3K , or add between 3 and 6K with a nice boost at 11K or above. EQ depends so much on the mic that was used and its characteristics, good and bad, the individual vocalists sound, and the sound you want to achieve in the mix. The next compressor should only go into compression on really big hits and when it does, only dip into compression no more than 3db. The de-esser is to make the mastering guy not want to come and hunt you down.
Effects, reverb, delay, etc are really a matter of taste and the needs of that tune. But even if you like ‘em high and dry put a delay on it – about 100 ms with very little regeneration and mixed down so that you can barely hear it. This will thicken your vocal in all the right ways and the vocals will still sound dry in the mix. Now feel free to slather on the verb, if you must.