The Holy Grail of Vocal Recording Gear

The Holy Grail of Vocal Recording Gear
If you have the ‘itch’ to upgrade your recording gear , you’ll find it scratched by some great equipment –says Darrell Smith

For some people, the search for the Holy Grail combination of recording gear becomes a lifelong quest for the perfect sound.

You don’t have to go down this path. Many great performances were captured on average quality gear.

Whether you have just started recording yourself at home, or have been producing your own recordings for years, remember that the artist makes the magic of a great performance — not the gear.

At best, the gear captures and colors that performance in a way that is pleasing to the ear.

Great gear is not a substitute for talent, experience or the thousands of hours of practice and vocal development that goes into making a great performance.

Still Have the Itch for the Perfect Gear?

Mic and Speaker setupNevertheless, I am guessing you still have the itch for a better vocal signal chain, don’t you?

A great vocal signal chain can be simple or sophisticated. It could be as simple as a mic into an audio interface or we could take a much more sophisticated approach with high-end analog outboard rack gear and high-end electronic components on behalf of achieving a distinctive and detailed sound.

If you decide to spend big money on your vocal signal chain, know this: it will only return its value to you if it’s dialed in right for your voice.

Dial it in Right

Any gear you use in recording your voice will have various parameters and settings that must be “dialed in” or set.

So get an engineer you trust, someone who’s made your vocal sound like a million bucks to come over and help you dial in your new gear.

Great gear, dialed in right, creates the conditions to capture a great performance.

On the other hand, gear can act like a dirty window that distorts, clutters or otherwise interferes with the sound of your voice.

Bono Breaks the Rules

Bono tracks many of his vocals though a $100 Shure SM58.

Bono tracks many of his vocals though a $100 Shure SM58.

In general, it is understood that the technical quality of your recording will be worse than the poorest performing piece of gear in the signal chain.

However, you don’t have to spend a million dollars to get a million dollar sound.

Bono tracks many of his vocals though a $100 Shure SM58.

They then connect that into a million dollar studio — but still, a $100 mic. The point is you can find high quality recording products at a range of prices and achieve great results on your budget.

Let’s look at four important components for your vocal signal chain – and some great gear for each of these.

Microphones

Microphones

Whatever approach you choose, it starts with the mic.

Great vocal performances are often captured on large diaphragm condenser microphones.

Given the nature of sound and harmonics, we (listeners and vocalists) are attracted to the sound of the original studio mics that captured the greats like Ella and Frank.

Most often, they are old large diaphragm condenser microphones made by Neumann and Telefunken with models like U47, U67, U87 or 251.

Note: if you’ve got the budget you can roll up to Capitol records in Los Angeles, and use the same mic Frank Sinatra recorded with.

Lucky for us, today there are a ton of great large diaphragm vocal mic choices at a range of prices from these brands and others.

However many producers have had a lot of success with a large diaphragm dynamic mic. It’s an affordable mic and where I recommend you start your journey.

While a large diaphragm condenser mic will sound great, and often will emphasize the breathy shimmer on the top of your voice, consider starting with the Shure SM7 for $300. The SM7 sounds great – it can handle the loudest and most intimate performances.

Use that until you do a serious recording session where the producer tries out a few different microphones on your voice.

Take notes on how each sounds different and what you feel helped you stand out in the track naturally.

Or perhaps, if you trust the producer, and like the sound, find out what he or she picked and invest in one of those.

Modern studio large diaphragm microphones range in price from $1000 ~$12,000. Choose wisely.

Large diaphragm dynamic mic – Shure SM7

Large diaphragm dynamic mic – Shure SM7

Preamps

Preamps

After the mic, the next thing you need is a great microphone pre-amplifier (preamp or pre).

The preamp brings the low output level of the microphone up to a sensible level for recording.

This amplifier has a substantial impact on the tone of your vocal recording.

Some mic pre’s are known for coloring the sound: APIs and Neve pre-amps are in favor for rock, others are known for their transparency: GML, Avalon and others.

Ultimately, you might want a couple mic preamps in your studio, so you can choose the right approach for the track you’re working on.

A 500 series “Lunch Box” will allow you to affordably experiment with the sound of different mic pre-amps on your voice.

Preamp

Preamp

Preamps can cost between $300 and $4000 per channel.

This choice is going to be a big part of your signature sound. So you’ve got to decide: do you want a little rock edge on your vocal or do you want to keep it clean and pristine?

Compressors

Compressors

Follow up your preamp with a great compressor. The Universal Audio LA2A and 1176 reign supreme over the vocal space.

Compressor

Compressor

You can’t go wrong with one of these compressors once they’re setup for your tracking situation.

Whatever you decide to do, you’re going to want to dial in the compressor for 3-6 dB of compression — just enough to control the moments when you’re really pushing into it.

These devices all have tons of great components like tubes and transformers that will color your sound and contribute to achieving a remarkable outcome.

Analogue to Digital Converter

Analogue to Digital Converter

The final piece of the puzzle is the analog to digital (A to D) converter.

This critical component is built into most audio interfaces. The A to D convertor converts the analog, (audio represented as electricity) to digital (audio represented as bits and bytes).

A to D converter

A to D converter

This conversion process impacts the quality of the recording.

The A to D convertor is comparable to the glass lens on the front of your camera.

The better the quality of your lens, the better the photo. Universal Audio, Apogee, Avid HDX, and list of other boutique brands offer excellent convertors.

Before you began your quest for the perfect signal chain, you were likely using an audio interface that combines an A/D converter and a mic preamp in one package.

You may have been using a plug-in for your compression.

When you are ready to invest in these as stand-alone products as described above, your current audio interface will become an I/O device (in/out device).

Trade secrets: Why not all A to D converters are created equal.

Go Forth and Make Your Choice

Now that you understand the components of a great vocal signal chain, it is up to you to decide exactly how to invest in yours, when the time is right. No matter what kind of vocal signal chain you have, remember that the magic of a great performance comes from you, the singer. The gear’s job is to capture and color that magic so it can be experienced by your listeners.

—Darrell Smith


Darrell SmithDarrell Smith is passionate about technical design that unlocks creative freedom for artists and artistic organizations. Darrell has a unique professional background shaped by over 25 years of studio production, touring, product design for pro audio manufacturers and technical design for churches and venues in the US and Canada. www.kungpowpro.com


  • CH

    Just wondering why you’re advising the use of the SM57 when it’s the SM58 most commonly used as a vocals mic and the 57 as an instrument mic/amp mic…?

  • CH

    oops…misread it…sorry…you’re advising the SM7 not the SM57…. apologies… (I use a Rode NT2A anyway)