TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 7 Miking Voices & Instruments

Over the last few weeks I’ve discussed microphone types (condenser, dynamic and ribbon), their different polarity patterns (omnidirectional, cardioid and figure-8) and the effect of general mic placement (close, distant and ambient).

This week and next, I’ll be discussing vocals and specific instruments with regards to mic choice and placement. Please note that at the time of publishing all microphone prices mentioned are a guide only.

Out of all the instruments, perhaps the most common and sometimes the most difficult one to record is the human voice.

For a start there are so many different types of voices. Male, female, high, mid and low range, pure and clean, raspy and gritty. If we take a small cross-section of singers…..

Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Katherine Jenkins, Joe Cocker, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles, Mariah Carey, Freddie Mercury 

… can see that the voice qualities of each singer vary greatly from the next.

The following microphone recommendations are really just suggestions…..some microphones have proved to be good for certain situations, but don’t be afraid to experiment with make, type or placement position. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, microphone technique is not an exact science.

The Neumann U87, a studio standard (for around £2000+) or one of the AKG C414 range (around £800) are both excellent large-diaphragm condenser mics for vocals and other solo acoustic instruments. They both allow multiple polarity patterns (see earlier blog) and clearly reproduce the entire audible frequency range. At the lower price range there is the popular Audio Technica AT2035 (for less than £200).

Generally, the closer the mic is to the vocalist, the warmer and richer the tone. However, the closer you place a microphone to a source the more prone it is to pick up ‘pops’ (P’s and B’s are the worst offenders) and sibilance from S’s. To reduce these problems try placing the mic slightly above or below the vocalist and angled away from the direct line of fire from the pops. Or place the mic off to the side and point its diaphragm towards the singer.

Pop Shield

You can also buy a pop shield which is placed between the mic and the vocalist. This shield or filter is very effective in reducing pops to a minimum. But can also slightly reduce the higher frequencies.

Small-diaphragm condenser mics capture a brighter, almost ethereal sound. They’re not as sensitive to the low-mid range (200-500 Hz) so are quite good for recording a soprano voice. Check out the SE Electronics SE 1A for a little more than £100, which is great for drums, piano and acoustic stringed instruments. Or the Audio Technica Pro 37 for around £100, excellent for acoustic guitar, overheads, piano and vocals.

Dynamic mics will give you a sound with more mid-range (not so accurate with the higher frequencies). Couple this with the effect that close miking increases low frequencies, you get an accentuated bass sound when a vocalist sings…..often described as dirty or gritty.  Shure SM57s and 58s are classic dynamic mics that never seem to go out of fashion and can be used for strong rock and blues vocals, drums and instrument amps. You should be able to pick one of these up for under £100.


If your genre is more Nat King Cole than Cheryl Cole (U.S. readers may be saying ”Who?”) you might want to check out ribbon mics. They have a reputation for being quite fragile but can produce smooth, soft silky highs, without the low-mid range effect but a full bottom end response.

The MXL R144 does not require phantom power unlike the condensers. It has a figure 8 polarity pattern and delivers excellent results on vocals, toms, nylon string (classical) and acoustic guitars. Like on condenser microphones, a pop shield is useful to protect the ribbon from harsh P’s and B’s. And by using the guidelines for condenser mic placement mentioned above, you should be able to achieve great recordings…..and all for around £60!

As you can see there are several different options, when it comes to recording a voice. There are a few more points to consider when recording multiple or backup vocals. You could record each separate voice individually onto a separate track…..or record them simultaneously into a single mic or matched pair. If you choose the latter your options are an omnidirectional, figure-8 mic or a stereo pair of mics.

If you decide to use an omnidirectional mic, arrange your singers in a circle around the mic. You may need to place a singer slightly closer or further away than others if he/she is quieter or louder than the rest.

With two singers, you could use a figure-8 mic with each singer on opposite sides of the mic. This setup allows them to see each other, which helps in synchronizing their vocal performance.

Using a matched pair of small or large condenser mics set up in a coincident X-Y pattern gives you a great stereo result. Have the singers equally spaced around the mics about a metre distant. But remember to check for phasing issues, by monitoring in mono.


Too Cold, Too Hot, Just Right

Before any recording, make sure you get some level from the performer(s) – a test run where the vocalist or instrumentalist gives you a sample of their performance, so you can set up your input level to the recorder. And remember digital is less forgiving than analogue when it comes to sound levels.

As a rule, you will benefit from adding signal processing at the mix stage. There are exceptions of course… may be applying a specific treatment to your recording because it helps you to play the instrument a particular way eg. a delay. In which case, record the effect onto a separate track from your clean instrument or voice, so that you have control over it in the mix.

If you’re using a DAW there will usually be a selection of FX plug-ins that are available…..everything from compressors, limiters, delays and reverbs to EQ, pitch change, chorus and flange.

A Selection of Pro Tools Plug-Ins

So when recording in your Home Music Studio, do so in a room with no reverberation. The reason being that reverberation can always be added later in the mix stage, but cannot be removed if it’s recorded in the track with the instrument. Deadening a room’s acoustics (reducing sound reflections) can be done by draping curtains, laying down rugs and using acoustic panels on the walls.

Some musicians like to add compression to a voice or instrument when recording. Others prefer to record clean then add compression at the mix stage. If you do choose to use compression at the record stage, don’t over do it.

The same goes for EQ…any signal processing you record with the instrument will affect and somewhat limit your options at the mix stage. One of the major advantages of multitracking and using digital recorders is that you are keeping your options open for as long as possible.

The subject of signal processing will be discussed in detail in a later blog. Over the next several weeks I’ll continue the subject of microphones by discussing types and placement for specific instruments eg, piano, string instruments, brass, woodwind and drums.

All of us at TCM Mastering love music. We’ve all spent most of our lives in this business. So, if you have any questions regarding the blog, mastering or recording in general please drop us a line or contact us here.

Explore posts in the same categories: Music, Recording Artists, Recording Studios, Sound Recording

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  1. […] week in the Home Music Studio blog we covered the miking of the voice. Over the next few weeks we will discuss miking various instruments…..pianos, guitars, […]

  2. […] As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, the use of EQ (or any other signal processing) whilst recording should be employed carefully. First, try to get the best sound you can by using the best microphone for the job in the best position. That really is important. Check out earlier blogs on Mic Techniques and miking various instruments. […]

  3. […] Miking Vocals & Instruments, Recording Piano, Recording Electric & Bass Guitar, Recording Acoustic Stringed Instruments, Recording Horns, Recording Woodwind, Recording Drums. […]

  4. […] Miking Vocals & Instruments, Recording Piano, Recording Electric & Bass Guitar, Recording Acoustic Stringed Instruments, Recording Horns, Recording Woodwind, Recording Drums. […]

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