How to Record Vocals Like a Pro – Part Two: Microphones

In part one of a multi-part series on recording vocals, we looked at what gear or equipment needed to record vocals like a pro. In this article, we will look at what microphones you can use and review some of the microphones used by the pros.

There are a lot of mic choices and we can’t cover them all in this article. However, we will look at some of the very popular models pros use, as well as, some microphones that are excellent choices that will fit the home studio budget.

Condenser microphones tend to be more expensive and run the gamut in price range from affordable to very expensive. But don’t think that paying more for certain condenser mics means more clarity. Mic choice is largely a choice of tone, or flavor so to speak. The tonality of a particular mic is what makes it unique, and why certain mics are used so frequently by the pros.

Match the Mic to the Singer
Don’t be fooled into thinking the more expensive the mic, the better the singer will sound. Not necessarily so, because each singer has his or her unique tonality, and microphones do as well. The key is matching the perfect mic to fit the particular vocalist. You have to do some test recording to find the mic that sounds the best. I’ve had singers end up sounding best with the least expensive mics I’ve tried, and the sound wasn’t nearly as good with the most expensive ones. That said, it helps to own a few mics for vocals, if you have the budget. If you are the vocalist, then the one that fits you best will do.

Condenser Microphones
Because of their clarity, increased sensitivity and superior definition and reproduction of high frequencies or brightness; condenser microphones are the most popular choice for recording vocals. A condenser mic has more sensitivity and output than dynamic mics and thus require less pre-amp gain to produce the desired signal level. Condenser microphones use a capacitor, and therefor require to be powered to operate, using what is referred to as “phantom power.” The mic will either be powered by a battery or will receive its power by way of the mic input on the pre-amp or mixing board or other interface.

Popular models:
On the high end, there is the Neumann U87. This is one of most popular mics of all time. Another very popular mic is the AKG C12 VR. Excellent for female vocals. Other popular high end choices are: Neumann U47 (legendary & out of production) and now replaced by the Neumann M149 tube. Neumann TLM49. Neumann U67 (now out of production), its replacement is the Neumann TLM 67. Other high end mics on par (some feel better) than the Neumann mics are the Microtech Gefell M92.1S. Telefunken 251 (most expensive of the bunch), and Telefunken U47, a take on the original U47 mic.

In the midrange of prices, we have the Neumann TLM 103. Also excellent is the Audio-Technica AT4060. This is a tube mic. Works well with both male and female vocals. Another popular mic for more than 60 years is the AKG C414 (XLS, XLII or B [out of production]). A newer mic rising in popularity is the Miktek CV4.

Less expensive condenser mics: Rode NT1A. This is the most affordable mic of the bunch and good for many uses. A characteristic of this mic to be aware of is that it can be a little sibilant, so a bit of de-essing may be required depending on the vocalist. Additional worthy mics are: Shure KSM44 or KSM27. Blue Bluberry or Baby bottle. Sennheiser MK4. Rode K2.

Dynamic Microphones
Do not need external power to operate. Dynamic mics are a good fit for certain types of music, especially those with hard-edged vocal styles such as rock, metal, punk and even some types of rap.

Popular models:
Shure SM7B. This is one of most popular dynamic mics for vocals. Many producers of edgy and heavy music go to this first over condenser mics for vocals. Another choice is the ElectroVoice RE20.

For the limited budget, go with a Shure Beta 58 or a Shure SM57. The differences between the two may be a matter of taste. The SM57 has been an Industry standard for decades for instrument mics or live vocals. It can often work quite well for studio vocal recording depending on the vocalist. It is very affordable, plus reliable and durable. Anyone doing any kind of recording should own at least one SM57.

Reality Check
While there are many models of this equipment at all price levels, it’s worth noting that with the more high-end the gear (like the pros use), the results will be a bit better. That is not to say that you can’t achieve great vocals with lower-priced gear, you absolutely can.

Another fairly obvious point but needs to be said: All the great equipment in the world will not make a vocalist shine that can’t stay on key, in time, or uses poor mic technique. Having every part of the chain strong, will yield the strongest result.

In part three, we’ll look at, review and discuss mic pre-amps. We’ll look at some specific brands and models that are very popular. We’ll look at what certain pre-amp models offer and why they are used to fit a certain sound or style the engineer or producer may be trying to achieve.

In the additional articles in this series:

-Part four will review and discuss digital audio interfaces.
-Part five will discuss mic placement and setup.
-Part six will discuss recording vocals.
-Part seven will discuss editing vocals.
-Part eight will discuss mixing vocals.

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