more voice recordingWhat do your vocal recording sessions look like?

You get the Pro Tools session ready (create the vocal track and extra playlists for takes, create a reverb track and route the vocal to it), set up the mic stand, pop filter, music stand. Maybe dim the lights, have a bottle of water handy…perhaps you even light a candle to “set the mood”?

Okay, I can’t remember the last time I lit a candle to record vocals. 🙂

What’s the next thing that happens? Where do you put the vocalist once she shows up? Do you plan to put her REALLY close to the mic, like an inch or two away?

Hang on there, cowboy.

The Pictures Lie

We’ve all seen ’em. You’re flipping through your favorite recording magazine, and there’s a microphone ad. It shows a fairly well-known singer, belting away into a shiny microphone, lips almost touching the mic.

It looks awesome. It probably doesn’t sound awesome.

But that’s what we’ve conditioned ourselves to do, right? We place the singer as close as humanly possible to the microphone, hoping to capture a crisp, warm, clean, detailed performance. Right?

But then a few weeks later, when it comes time to mix the song, what do you do? You end up EQ-ing the vocal like crazy, trying to walk the fine balance between being too boomy and being too thin.

Why?

Proximity Effect

Yep. You forgot about it, didn’t you?

Proximity effect is the tendency of a cardioid (directional) microphone to boost the low frequencies of a signal as the signal gets closer to the source. While this might be great for a voiceover track you’re doing for a movie trailer, it’s not that helpful for singers.

Whenever I mix vocals, I remove low end. I usually knock out everything below 150 Hz or so. Why? Because it’s unnecessary. Most normal, human vocalists can’t sing that low. 🙂

This lets me get rid of any low end rumble that would muddy up my mix. The proximity effect only adds to that rumble, so why not do something about it BEFORE you record the vocal?

Back the vocalist up. Just try it. Try recording the vocalist 12 inches away from the mic, maybe even 18.

You may think that you’ll only be recording more room noise, but I’ve found that’s normally not the case. As long as your room is fairly well-treated, it’s worth trying.

Intimate Doesn’t Mean “Close”

A lot of times you want a very intimate, or at least “up front,” vocal. You may think the only way to get that is to record the vocalist very close to the mic and deal with the excess low end later.

I thought the same thing for a long time. Then I tried backing up. As it turns out, especially when I’m using a condenser microphone, there is MORE than enough detail and presence in the vocal, even when I sing from 18″ away.

Condenser mics capture a lot of detail, even when the vocalist is farther away.

The Inverse Square Law

One final point. I’m not going to get too technical, but there’s this concept called the Inverse Square Law. It essentially states that every time you double the distance from the source, you cut the volume by half (or something like that).

This is another huge reason not to mic the vocalist too closely. Think about it. If the singer is two inches from the microphone, and he sways back to 4 or 6 inches while he’s singing, that’s going to cut the volume of his voice by 2-3 times. I’m a singer myself, and I move when I sing. If you’re wanting a more consistent leve out of your singer, something you won’t have to wrestle with later with heavy compression and automation just to get it to sound consistent, try having the singer back up.

If he moves from 10 inches to 14 inches, that’s not nearly as drastic of a change in volume. Suddenly things start to become more consistent, which is a very good thing.

As with everything I teach you, there are no rules. Do what sounds best for the song. If close-miking is the best-sounding option, DO THAT. However, if you’ve never even TRIED moving the singer farther away, you should. Let your ears take it from there.

If you want to dive deeper into vocal recording and mixing with me, join my latest live class. It starts tomorrow, October 6th, 2011. Get your questions answered and let me help you get better vocal recordings. It’s all here:

www.understandingrecording.com/vocals

  • DeNAiDi

    I’m usually drunk when tracking vocals and I’m moving a lot. With a little bit compression it works pretty good 😉

    • HA! Whatever gets the best performance. 🙂

  • Great tips! I will definitely try it out next time during my vocal recording!

  • Pingback: Looking Back: 10/1 – 10/7 | Inside Home Recording()

  • Dynamic mics still have proximity effect…sometimes it’s even MORE pronounced. Again, do what sounds best, but give a larger distance a shot.

  • But Joe, I’m rocking with the Bluebird Condenser mic and the E-mu 0404 usb interface and I find that when I back up 12 inches or so the mic barely picks up my voice at all.. and to get it to pick it up I have to turn the mic gain up way high and it still records a tiny thin  waveform, that’s why I get closer to my mic because that’s the only way it picks up a thick full waveform… is there something I’m doing wrong with that? 

  • But Joe, I’m rocking with the Bluebird Condenser mic and the E-mu 0404 usb interface and I find that when I back up 12 inches or so the mic barely picks up my voice at all.. and to get it to pick it up I have to turn the mic gain up way high and it still records a tiny thin  waveform, that’s why I get closer to my mic because that’s the only way it picks up a thick full waveform… is there something I’m doing wrong with that? 

    • If it sounds good for the equipment you have, then there’s nothing wrong with it at all.

      However, I want to mention that as long as you’re not peaking then there’s no real harm in recording digitally at what may seem like a tiny weak level, and in fact is probably more useful.

      Check your levels again, unless your voice ends up quieter than… let’s say -25dbFS… I wouldn’t worry. 

      Joe’s suggestions is just a good rule of thumb to avoid excessive detrimental low-end when trying to record “intimate” vocals. Just try what suits your equipment and don’t worry about your level being too low. You’re not trying to hit tape anymore.

    • Does a dynamic mic have that much of a proximity effect anyways though? I mean I use them live and Im basically kissing the mic and never had a problem, but when I sing that way in the studio. BAM. all bass.