by Pablo Bellinghausen –
Vocal recording, whether of singing or spoken word, is nowadays easily achievable outside a studio; all you need is some basic gear and a quiet room. There are however several things to consider if you want to achieve truly professional results. Choosing a quality microphone is of course critical; however, high-end large-diaphragm condensers, which are the staple of pro studios, will tend to sound worse than a good dynamic microphone in untreated rooms because of their sensitivity to the reflections in the room.
Acoustic problems are one of the dead giveaways of amateur sound, and are pretty much impossible to remove or hide once a recording has been made. In fact, most studio trickery like compression and valve equipment will only accentuate the problem! If the main vocal sticks out of your mix like a sore thumb and you can’t seem to get it to gel with the rest of the song, you’re likely to be struggling with the acoustics of your recording room.
Anyone who has ever made an online call (through Skype for example) will be familiar with the unclear, distant, phasey sound of a built-in laptop mic in an average bedroom, and even though the quality of the mic is partly to blame, most of that sound is really just what the room really sounds like. Built-in mics in portable equipment are usually omnidirectional because they are cheap to make and because they pick up everything equally which is useful in conference calls, but this exaggerates reverberation, especially if placed at more than a few inches away from the mouth. It is a telling test to make some recordings with a laptop or mobile device’s built-in mic inside a space to get to know its true sound; unfortunately, most small rooms sound pretty terrible.
Microphones for Untreated Rooms
The easiest and most convenient way to reduce reflections is to use directional microphones. The most common broadcast models (and a fantastic choice for spoken word in most rooms) are large-diaphragm dynamics, which will tend to pick up a bit less detail than condensers but also less low-level reverberation. Models like the Shure SM7b, the Electro-Voice RE20 and the Neumann BCM 705 are a common sight in radio booths for their flattering, smooth sound and their directionality, and can comfortably be used for any professional spoken-word recording in all but the most reverberant rooms.
In fact, most live dynamic mics do a great job at minimising room acoustics, since they are designed to be placed close to the mouth and to be as directional as possible to prevent “bleed” from onstage instruments. Models like the Sennheiser e845, the Telefunken M80 and the Audix OM7 are small, rugged, and can produce perfectly acceptable recordings in most bedrooms and home studios. The sound will not be as accurate and might lack the “shimmery” top-end one would expect in contemporary R&B and jazz vocals, but for spoken word, rock, metal, and even pop and rap, the smoother sound can be quite flattering and the rejection of the room’s acoustics will more than compensate for the lack of detail.
The Telefunken M80: a relative newcomer but already a favourite of many pros
An intermediate choice between dynamic and studio mics is the growing array of stage condensers in the market, which will achieve more sparkle at the expense of a little extra room sound. With a little care, mics like the Electro-Voice RE410, the RØDE S1 or the Sennheiser e965 can give you professional results in many bedroom studios.
The Electro-Voice RE410: A chunky exterior and low price belie its refined sound
Although few engineers would scoff at a well-recorded take made with any of the aforementioned microphones, large-diaphragm condensers are still the standard, and with good reason; there is just something flattering about their sound, a perfect mixture of warmth and detail that can give your recording that extra “edge”. If you do want to go down that route it is however imperative to minimise reverberation somehow. The ideal option, if you have the time and money (and the landlord’s permission!) is of course acoustic treatment. Treating a room for vocal recording is easier than for mixing and mastering since vocals don’t have many bass frequencies, which are the hardest to fix, but it’s still easy to get wrong. A lot of people will completely cover the walls with thin foam which only dampens high frequencies and will give you a dull and boxy sound. Partial coverage with thick, dense foam and bass traps will dampen (but not completely remove) all frequencies equally, creating a more balanced sound; once the main offending room modes and resonances have been corrected, a dash of ambience is often actually rather flattering.
For a bit more information on how to build a vocal booth we recommend this very helpful introduction by Primacoustic:
A few Vicoustic tiles and bass traps can make most rooms sound and look fantastic
On the other hand, the sound can be greatly improved through more portable means. The first option a lot of people will consider is a portable booth, like the sE Electronics Reflexion Filter and the Studiospares RED50; they are good options, although their effectiveness is sometimes overstated, since they usually attenuate reflections by only about 3–5 decibels. Using them in conjunction with other absorbers is your best option.
A portable booth like the RED50 can absorb a few extra dB of reverberation from a recording
Most vocal microphones are cardioid, meaning they pick up far more sound from the front than the back, which means panels behind the singer or speaker are particularly effective; a portable booth used in conjunction with a few portable panels like the Clearsonic Sorber S5-2 or the Vicoustic Flexi Wall is a great combination and will work with most microphones and in most rooms.
A few Vicoustic Flexi Wall panels are enough to make a great removable booth
Next time we will take a look at how to keep your vocal recordings clean, consistent, and noise-free. Until then, happy recording!