I don’t think there is a recording engineer or producer out there who would say that they can pick the right mic for a new vocalist first time, every time. Every voice is different, every mic is different and every recording scenario is different. There are times when we just try a new mic or preamp and it just works by happy accident, but you can take the guesswork out of gear choices and use your knowledge and the information available to you to make informed decisions and make your existing, new and loan gear really work for you.
That said, we hear you when you say that in these days of time sensitive, low budget tracking sessions there is little time to experiment, try new gear or just “have a play”. However, we believe it is important to carve out time to experiment or how can we develop our creativity? In that spirit of experimentation, in this article we show what can happen when you do have a play and try something new? James recently worked with a duo to try some new gear and really make it work for both him and most importantly for them.
I was lucky enough to recently record an acoustic duo (vocals and acoustic guitar) at my studio in London where we made sure we had enough time to try out some new goodies as well as take the opportunity to try some different recording techniques and I hope you will agree the results speak for themselves.
I originally invited Annique, who are Lucy Randell and Koby Israelite into the studio to help me test the new Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 Generation 3 interface. This first track went so well that we decided to record a couple more of their songs and make a day of it. But why stick with the same mics for both the guitar and voice? As I had recently had a couple of new mics delivered to try out, we decided to give these a whirl and as the 3 songs we recorded are all quite stylistically different and the final song (Lady Wonder) even uses steel string guitar and some percussion rather than just nylon string guitar and voice, I think you can hear that all three vocal mics work differently with Lucy’s voice and the three different guitar recording techniques used really work well when you want to get an interesting stereo image from a single acoustic instrument.
I did choose to have one constant throughout the session. All three tracks were recorded using the new Focusrite Scarlett Generation 3 interface. Although this is far from being the most expensive interface around, I didn’t want to add to the complexity by changing interfaces as we had arrived at a good working recording and monitoring mix. Some things are just not worth messing with, that would disrupt the flow of the session. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Track 1 - Find That In Between
Before any artist turns up for a session with me for the first time I like to do a bit of digging to find out what their musical style is and how other producers and engineers have made them sound. Annique have a pretty good website with loads of audio and video examples so I was able to get a good idea of the style of music we were going to be recording and the style and tone of Lucy’s voice. For the first track Falling In Between I chose a JZ Microphones Vintage V67. I’m pretty sure if I had a real U67 I would choose that but as I don’t and I really like the smooth tone of the JZ V67, I put that up as a good starting point. Turns out that this worked pretty well, as you will find out later it did not take a great deal of work in the mix to get this vocal to sound really nice and sit comfortably over the acoustic guitar part.
For the nylon string acoustic guitar I wanted to work on capturing a good stereo image. I really like the mid side technique for this type of recording so I set up a pair of JZ Microphones BH series mics. I had the BH 1 set to figure 8 as the side mic and a BH 2 as the mid or centre mic as this is a fixed cardioid large diaphragm condenser. My theory was that even small movements made by the musician as they play convert into very slight changes in the stereo picture of the guitar and for duos and small groups of instruments I have found this can really work to give the final track some width.
Below you can check out the video for Falling In Between.
Track 2 - Whisper
For the second track was in a much lower key, but there are sections that really kick in and the vocal becomes very dynamic so I wanted a mic that would give me the best of both worlds. Something that would give me the detail for the softer sections but also be able to handle some serious vocal power.
I went for a new mic by a company that was new to me called Simple Way and the mic was called MicOne. Catchy name I know. The MicOne is a fixed cardioid large diaphragm condenser but this mic uses a dedicated power supply. It’s not a valve or tube mix but Simple Way say to get the very best out of their MicOne it should be used with it’s own PSU. You can run it with the phantom power from a console, interface or channel strip In later testing I did try the MicOne on standard phantom power from my Audient ASP8024 console and it sounded great. For this session I chose to stick with the manufacturer’s advice and I think the result speak for themselves. This is a really great sounding, well built mic than I will be using on future sessions so keep an eye and an ear out for it. I think (although I have not tested this theory) that thanks to its own phantom power supply, the MicOne could be a great mic to put alongside cheaper all in one recording interfaces, where the quality of the phantom power can be, at best, questionable. Taking poor quality or low power phantom power out of the equation can only improve the signal getting to your recording platform in these situations.
As I said earlier, I love stereo micing acoustic instruments especially when there is only a very small number of instruments or voices in the session. For this track I decided upon a pair of Audio Technica AT4047 SV. These mics have a transformer inside them so you get some of that lovely rich transformer tone in your recordings.
I have set both the mics to cardioid, set them at 90 degrees to each other at 45 degrees to the performer as an X/Y pair. This should give me a nice stereo picture of the performance so as the guitarist moves with the flow of the music the stereo image should move a little.
You can hear and watch the full track Whisper by Annique in the video below.
Track 3 - Lady Wonder
For the final track I wanted to switch it up again. Lucy and Koby played me the song and instantly I knew it needed more of a vintage vibe from the vocal.
Valve or Tube mics are a great way to get a really nice dark warm tone into your recordings and as I had recently received the rather beautiful Mojave MA-1000 continuously variable polar
pattern (from omni to figure 8) valve (tube) condenser microphone I decided to try this on Lucy’s voice. The MA-1000 really does bring the best of both worlds to the party. It has all the richness of a vintage valve mic but yet it has a lovely bright airy top end which really brings out the clarity of a vocal. I initially set it up without the -15dB pad but after a bit of sound checking the mic was just being pushed to hard in the louder sections of the song and while the output still sounded great, it was a little too much so I switched the pad in and we kept all the valve tone without the the over saturation.
The MA-1000 package is also a thing of beauty. The solid case is actually big enough to hold all its accessories like the robust shock-mount, the cables and PSU. It’s all beautifully made and gives me the producer or engineer a feeling of confidence when I use it. Nice work Mojave.
For the acoustic guitar I changed the AT4047 mics to a figure of 8 polar pattern and kept the mics at 90 degrees to each other and 45 degrees to the player. This is called the Blumlein technique after the English electronics engineer Alan Blumlein. Where the Mid/Side technique gives a super wide image the Blumlein technique gives a much tighter stereo picture. In my opinion Blumlein does not fold down to mono as well as the M/S technique, so you pays your money, you takes your choice. For this track I like that way the Blumlein technique sounded on the guitars.
After the first take Koby asked me if I had a Cajon in the studio? Sadly, this is one percussion instrument I do not own (note to self, buy a Cajon) as he wanted to add a kind of heart beat to the track. We tried a couple of things and decided to mic Koby stomping or thumping the floor with his foot as he played guitar. Reaching for the first mic to hand, which was in this case an Audio Technica AT4080 ribbon mic I laid it on the floor near his foot and set the gain. More often than not, the best mic for the job is the one you have to hand. At times like this you just want to keep the vibe up and keep “tape rolling” so pretty much any mic will do.
We also decided to add a foot played tambourine to his left foot (very one-man band) so I put a second AT4080 ( I love ribbon mics for recording tambourine and other really transient percussion) on a stand just above the tambourine, which we laid on a towel to stop any unwanted slap sound between the tambourine and the hard floor. This towel also acted to slightly muffle the lower jingles slightly, which was an added bonus.
You can hear and watch the final version of Lady Wonder in the video below.
The acronym KISS or Keep It Simple Stupid I find very applicable to mixing small groups as there is nothing worse than an overcooked mix in my opinion. I used Universal Audio UAD-2 versions of the plug-ins below to make the best of what we had recorded. Enhance the good and remove or at least reduce the bad, this is a phrase I say to myself quite a lot during a mix.
Vocal - For the vocal I was using the Maag EQ4 before the LA-2A. Yes I know I know I hear the shouting, “compression then EQ” but in this case I tried it the other way around first and I didn’t like it as much. I don’t follow any hard and fast rules for plug-in order. If it works and sounds good then stick with it.
Acoustic Guitar - I routed both acoustic guitar mics to a stereo bus so as to have a single channel for adding reverb and processing. The Millennia NSEQ-2 sounds amazing on acoustic instruments and the guitar part is then being controlled by the Neve 33609, which just adds a lovely Neve flavour. I’m not over pushing or cooking it just adding what I like and pulling back what I don’t.
Percussion - At first I tried all sorts of dynamics and processing on the percussion parts to try to get something that just was not there. In the end I stripped out all the dynamics and transient shaping and just went with a very simple Cambridge EQ. The top image is the EQ for the tambourine with a heavy dip around 750Hz. The choice of the ribbon mic helps smooth out and soften the top end so no need to work too hard there.
A lot of the thump or stomp is actually coming through the guitar mics so all I used the floor mic for was to get the really low end weight. Filtering from 100Hz to 500Hz made sure all we hear is the heartbeat of the track.
You can listen to the final processed mixes for all three songs from this session below.
In the modern recording studio we are forever being presented with choices. Which mic? Which preamp? Which EQ? The list goes on and on but by using the combination of our own experience alongside the information that is presented to us by the manufacturers (and yes I do mean the instruction manual) together with sites such as Production Expert (there are others out there too so I’m told) you can use the gear you have to its very best and match the right mic to the right voice for example very quickly. Yes happy accidents do happen but I don’t mind helping them along a little bit from time to time, by taking some time out to experiment.