A key question often posed by our esteemed clients is "How do I get that huge, warm, breathy, colorful, rich vocal sound that I hear on records by some of my favorite singer songwriters like Damien Rice, Ray Lamontagne, and Beck?" Often times, these amazing artists have access to the best vintage microphones and outboard equipment in existence, but here are some tips to get that super up-close and intimate vocal sound on a variety of budgets.
Tube Mics Are Your Friend
This style of vocal screams for a large-diaphragm tube condenser microphone such as a Neumann U47 or U67. The U47 can be especially fitting on an intimate male vocal with it's pronounced low frequency bump and smooth, darker top end. Regardless of which mic you choose, you'll want to track the vocal very close to the windscreen to take advantage of these mic's pronounced proximity effect. As close as three to six inches is not at all uncommon.
Tracking an intimate female vocal? Try a Neumann M49 or Telefunken ELA-M 251 instead. Their "airier" character and flatter mid-range can shine on higher register vocals and minimize any sort of nasal clash with the midrange bump of the U47 and U67.
Wait, what? You don't have the budget for these insanely expensive and rare vintage mics? You are not alone. Products such as the Slate Digital VMS One Virtual Microphone System have brought many of the admirable qualities of these vintage beauties to the project studio budget level. At a reasonable $999 including the microphone, microphone preamp and 8 software mic emulations, the VMS offers a huge value. Some of the VMS' vintage tube microphone emulations get surprisingly close to the vintage equivalents... especially the 251 we find. The VMS has been incredibly popular since its release and overall reviews are favorable from the hundreds of clients that have purchased them from Vintage King thus far.
Also, check out the Townsend Labs Sphere L22 microphone. This mic uses a similar digital emulation concept as the Slate VMS to create vintage tube mic tones, but takes the technology a step further and also offers a bit higher build quality, albeit without the built in mic preamp (you'll need two channels, one for each side of the diaphragm) and at a higher, but still reasonable price of $1,499. The Townsend is a perfect pairing with the Universal Audio Apollo Twin series of interfaces, which have the required two channels of microphone preamp built in at a project studio price point. Vintage King sells the two products together as a bundle for your convenience.
Have more budget to spend and want to get reeeeally close to the vintage equivalents? Check out the amazing vintage replicas from Flea Microphones. All hand built in Eastern Europe, they make U47, M49, and C12 replicas which are second to none at the price point. Telefunken Elektroakustik and Wunder Audio also make some of the best quality replicas available, and right here in the USA.
Intrigued by the concept of a tube microphone preamp built into a first class vintage style microphone? Chandler Limited has you covered there with the Chandler EMI REDD Microphone, which comes through as quite a bargain even at $4,499 given that it's both a world class microphone and world class tube mic pre in one. It's got somewhat of a Neumann M49 type sonic vibe to it and is just stunning in both build quality and sound.
Investing in Quality Outboard Mic Preamps
The internal preamps in many of today's popular all-in-one interfaces are getting better and better, but let's not kid ourselves... They could never beat a Neve 1073! A high quality, transformer coupled, discrete (meaning it does not use IC chips, but individual components in the circuit) mic preamp goes miles towards increasing the smoothness, size, and musicality of vocal recordings.
For this type of vocal sound, look for designs that are heavy with even order harmonic distortion (like the 1073), which helps accentuate the low frequencies with a confident, solid thickness and adds a nice sweetness to the top end. There's literally dozens and dozens of amazing preamp choices out there today, so the list is too long to single out just a handful, but have a look at our microphone preamps category to see some of the options we offer.
Compress, And Compress Liberally
On par with your microphone selection, the right compressor/limiter for the job is extremely important too. For extra smooth, warm, detailed tones look for a high-quality optical compressor or variable mu® compressor. Forget the often repeated myth that it's a bad idea to pair a tube mic with other tube outboard gear because it's "too much color" or "too warm." That's really seldom the case with quality equipment, especially if you are going for giant but delicate tonal nuance with your vocal tone. For this, tube compressors tend to stand out.
Some of our favorites on intimate vocals are the Fairchild 670, Retro Instruments 176, Universal Audio LA-2A, Manley Variable Mu and the UnderTone Audio UnFairchild MK II. Any of these units can do a bang-up job on this sort of track. If your budget is such that outboard gear of this nature is still out of reach, then check out the amazing plug-in emulations from Universal Audio.
Regardless if you are using hardware or a plug-in, the trick is to set-up the compressor so that you are pulling a decently high amount of gain reduction on the peaks, but without noticeable pumping artifacts. Depending on the unit, this usually translates to using a lower compression ratio (if adjustable) and a slower attack and release. The great thing about this style of compressor like the ones mentioned above is that the compression ratio is dynamic in such a way that it gradually increases as you exceed the threshold more and more. This type of compression allows for a lot of gain reduction before you start to hear strange artifacts, and that helps to bring the vocal very upfront in the mix and brings out the "breathiness" without sounding stressed or over-compressed.
Optical compressors can achieve this as well, but you have to be a bit more careful not to hit them too hard or pumping effects will be an issue. The LA-2A is classic on this type of vocal and is many times paired with a Neve or Universal Audio/Urei 1176 style compressor after it. Speaking of the famous 1176, want a bit more texture and grit? Try an 1176, especially the earlier Class A Bluestripes, or Rev D's. Set to 4:1 compression ratio, they can make a vocal huge, warm, texturally interesting, and add a bit of nice air at the same time. Again, Universal Audio's 1176 plug-in collection is an excellent "in the box" option and sounds dang close to the real deal. Alternatively, we have good success with the Waves CLA-76 plug-in for those not yet on the Universal Audio plug-in platform.
The 500 Series world is a nice happy medium between using a plug-in and some of the more expensive 19" rack mount units discussed above. It allows you to inject some real world analog goodness onto a vocal while keeping the budget reeled in a bit. For this type of vocal compressor in the 500 series format, some of our favorites are the Acme Audio Opticom XLA-500 and the Inward Connections Brute. Both are top notch optical compressors that come in under $1,000 and they all fit this sort of application swimmingly. The Acme Audio Opticom XLA-500 very much sounds like a finely tuned and serviced vintage Urei LA-3A, with loads of warmth, grab, and character.
The Inward Connections Brute is Vintage King's all-time best selling 500 series compressor with well over 1000 units sold. The reason? Because it rocks on a variety of vocals! Based on the famous tube based Inward Connections Vac Rac series of optical compressors, the Brute brings to the table buttery smooth performance at one of the best price points in the industry.
Don't Overdo The Reverb
When you listen to these sorts of well-recorded singer/ songwriter vocal tracks, you'll notice that the vocal is often pretty dry. That certainly helps to keep the vocal sounding very large and upfront in the mix since applying reverb heavily tends to set the vocal back.
That does not, however, mean that you should not experiment with adding ambiance to the vocal. Just a touch of plate reverb with a long decay and short pre-delay, such a little amount that you can't exactly pick it out from the other elements of the mix, but if you take it away the vocal all of the sudden does not sit as well, is often just what the doctor ordered.
Some of our favorite outboard reverbs are the classics such as the EMT 140, EMT 240, EMT 250, Lexicon 480L, Quantec, or AMS RMX16...or the modern classic Bricasti Model 7. If you don't have access to the real thing then Universal Audio has some convincing emulations within their plug-in offerings. Some other great plug-in options are available from Altiverb and Waves too.
Don't Forget A Good Pop Filter!
Since a key technique to capturing this sort of huge, intimate vocal, is to mic the singer extremely close, often three to six inches away from the microphone's windscreen, it's imperative that you also have a quality microphone pop filter. Without one, your "take of a lifetime" is likely to be ruined by p-p-p-plosives.
One of our absolute favorites is made in Sweden, the Hakan P110-1" Pop Killer, and has a very high-tech acoustically transparent material for the screen which is also one of the most effective at stopping pops. Other solid choices are the Stedman Proscreen XL and at the higher end, the Pauly PR120-T30, which is precision made in Germany and the most sonically transparent pop filter that we have come across, period. Want something simple under $40? The Shure PS-6 gets the job done, albeit if you have a very heavy handed P-popper, it can let some through here and there and the thicker fabric screen can tend to roll off the very highest high frequencies a bit.