A few weeks back, we posted a blog talking about "how to get a big vocal sound" like Damien Rice, Ray Lamontagne and Beck. We received a lot of comments on social media and we want you to know that we heard you loud and clear:
"How do I get that huge, warm, breathy, colorful, rich vocal sound… without wiping out my savings account?”
Not everyone can afford vintage tube gear at this point in their careers. That’s OK! While there is nothing like the magic of a vintage U47, you can fake it ’til you make it with these tips for getting a big vocal sound.
Tube Mics Are Your Friend
Vintage tube mics are great, but, obviously, can be very expensive. There are many new tube mics though that offer modern improvements on classic designs. While you may not be able to get your hands on a vintage Neumann U47, here are some budget-conscious tube mics that follow the same basic designs as the classics.
Vanguard Audio V13
Each V13 uses a hand-selected, cryogenically treated European vacuum tube, and features nine selectable polar patterns. The V13 was designed by a team of experts with more than 65 years of experience and offers a classic, warm, vintage tone.
These mics use hand-selected Russian-made 6072A Tubes, and feature nine different pickup patterns. Their rugged microphone body and capsule assembly are precision machined of brass.
Lauten Audio Series Black LA-320
The LA-320 uses a dual-triode vacuum tube inspired by those used in classic German microphones. These mics were designed for budding engineers and feature
independent high and low cut filters to make solving common problems in home, basement or bedroom recording environments easy.
AKG P820 TUBE
Although the P820 is one of the most modern designs on the list, it uses tried-and-true ECC83 dual-triode circuitry. Designed by the same engineers who pioneered the C414, this multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser mic delivers real tube sound and raises the bar in its class of affordable tube microphones.
Mojave Audio MA-200
The MA-200 uses hand-selected, high-quality Jensen audio transformers and military-grade JAN 5840 vacuum tubes. It sounds great on vocals, acoustic instruments (like guitar and piano) and drums (especially overheads and room mics).
If you can stretch the budget a bit, it’s worth checking out the Telefunken Elektroakustik AK-47 MKII, which is a cross between the historic Neumann M49 and U47/48 mics. It uses NOS EF-732 / 5840W tubes, which is very similar to the legendary AC-701 tube that provides the velvety character we’ve come to know and love. It’s also coupled with a historically accurate recreation of the BV8 transformer.
Invest In Quality Outboard Mic Preamps
The Neve 1073 is seen as the holy grail of preamps to a lot of engineers, but if you're working on a budget, it might not necessarily be your first pick. If you’re equipped to handle 500 series models, check out some of these modern classics that will help get you that big, warm vocal sound.
Rupert Neve Designs Portico 511
The 511 preamps combine some of the best features of leading Rupert Neve Design channels. It also includes modern features such as the texture control, which allows the preamp to be pushed even further, adding about 10 times the desirable THD of the original signal.
Kush Audio Omega 500
The Omega 500 is a clean 500 series preamp designed to work with Omega “Trafo” plugins to recreate the sound of legendary Neve or API mic preamps — thanks to Kush's Transient Harmonic Coupling (THC) technology.
Perhaps the closest thing to an actual Neve 1073 on the list. This class A, all discrete, transformer balanced preamp is based on the 1073 circuit. It contains no ICs and no surface mount components and contains three all discrete class A amplifiers as in the original 1073.
If you’re looking for a quality stand-alone preamp that doesn’t need to be mounted in a 500 series rack, check out the following.
The Presonus TubePre is the highest quality vacuum tube preamp in its class. It affordably delivers low noise tube warmth, and noticeably outperforms preamps in low cost mixers and recording interfaces making it an easy choice for anyone desiring to enhance their recordings with the magic of tubes.
Black Lion Audio Autuer MKII
Black Lion has a reputation for making crystal clear, transparent sounding gear, and the rack-mountable Auteur MKII is no different. Throw it on vocals for a silky, smooth polish.
Focusrite ISA One
The ISA One is a desktop unit that features the classic vintage microphone pre-amplifier topology from the original ISA110 module, including the Lundahl L1538 transformer and bespoke zobel network. The ISA microphone preamplifier was first introduced back in 1985, and was featured on Focusrite's critically acclaimed Forte console.
Compress, And Compress Liberally
Countless hit records have used an 1176/LA-2A combo to compress the vocals. But what about those of us who don’t have $5000 to spend on two pieces of outboard gear? Don’t worry! There are plenty of excellent budget-conscious compressors using similar designs.
Retro Instruments Doublewide
The Doublewide 500 Series compressor and its huge, punchy tube sound hangs with gear double, even triple the price. These units are vibey, full of mojo and perfect for your grab-and-go 500 Series rack.
Inward Connections The Brute
This optical 500 series compressor has no frills — just results. Send a vocal through The Brute and it'll sound like you've been working for days or using gear many times more expensive.
A great alternative to a proper 1176, featuring a number of modern updates such as a Modern / Vintage switch used to decide the circuit of the desymmetrization of the input signal. Modern Mode is an electronic circuit, exactly the same as the previous version of the compressor and the Vintage mode – it’s a Carnhill input transformer. The result is a universal device with two different sound possibilities.
Purple Audio MC77
The MC77 recreates the audio circuitry of the 1176 Rev E and uses modern components matched to the original. It also includes newer features such as a sidechain key input with front panel switch.
UK Sound 1173
The 1173 is a great solution for huge vocals on a tiny budget. These units combine the designs of a Neve 1073 preamp and a Universal Audio 1176 compressor in a single rack mount unit.
Don't Overdo The Reverb
You’re looking for a touch of plate reverb with a long decay and short pre-delay, and your best options that won't break the budget are plug-ins. Waves, Softube, Lexicon and Universal Audio all offer extremely low-cost plug-ins that do an outstanding job of recreating the classic reverbs used on your favorite big sounding vocals.
Don't Forget A Good Pop Filter!
The key to a big vocal sound is to keep things dry. If you can’t record in a vocal booth, use the money you saved on mics, preamps and compressors to purchase some extra soundproofing for your bedroom closet, and a reflection filter like the SE Electronics Reflexion Filter Pro or pop filters from Hakan, SE Electronics and K&M.
While not much can compare to a vocal chain worth more than a Cadillac, these options should be able to provide that huge, warm, breathy, colorful, rich vocal sound you’re looking for, without breaking the bank.