The lead vocal is the most important part of a pop song, so it’s critical to record it right. To prevent ceiling reflections, put a 3-foot square of acoustic foam or pressed-fiberglass panel (covered in muslin) on the ceiling over the singer and microphone.

Mic Technique

A standard method for recording a studio vocal is to use a large-diaphragm condenser mic, usually with a flat frequency response or slightly rising in the high frequencies. As always, you can use any mic that sounds good to you.

On the mic stand, mount a hoop-type pop filter about 4 inches from the microphone to prevent breath pops. The singer is about 4 inches from the pop filter (8 inches from the mic).


Typical studio mic technique for a lead vocal.

Singers should maintain their distance to the mic. I ask singers to touch their pinky to the pop filter and their index finger to their mouth.

Another way to get rid of pop is to put the mic at forehead height, aiming at the mouth. This way the puffs of air shoot under the mic and miss it. Make sure the vocalist sings straight ahead, not up at the mic, or the mic will pop.

Some vocalists feel more comfortable singing into a handheld mic. You can give them a handheld mic but also mike them several inches away with a good condenser microphone. Record both mics on separate tracks and choose whatever sounds the best.

If you must record the singer and the band at the same time—as in a concert—try a handheld cardioid or supercardioid mic. The singer should keep lips on the mic’s foam pop filter to avoid picking up the instruments with the vocal mic. The sound will be bassy because of proximity effect, so roll off the excess lows at your mixer. For starters, try -6dB at 100Hz to 200Hz. Aim the mic partly toward the singer’s nose to prevent a nasal sound.

Controlling Wide Dynamic Range

During a song, vocalists often sing too loud or too soft. They blast the listener or get buried in the mix. During mixdown, use automation or volume envelopes to soften loud notes.

Another solution is to pass the vocal signal through a compressor, which acts like an automatic volume control. Plug the compressor into the vocal channel’s insert jacks or insert a compressor plug-in in the vocal track during mixdown. A typical compressor setting for vocals is a 3:1 ratio and about 6dB of gain reduction. Use whatever settings are needed.

Controlling Sibilance

Sibilance is the emphasis of “s” or “sh” sounds. If the sibilance sounds piercing or strident, use a mic with a flat response—rather than one with a presence peak—or cut the highs a little around 8kHz on your mixer. Better yet, use a de-esser signal processor or plug-in, which cuts the highs only when the singer makes sibilant sounds. Or set a multiband compressor to compress only above 4 kHz.

Bruce Bartlett is a recording engineer, the author of Practical Recording Techniques 6th Edition, and a microphone engineer (www.bartlettaudio.com).

Originally posted 2010-08-03 17:35:39.