Here at Vintage King, we are often asked for advice on building the perfect vocal chain. We have lots of experience doing just that, but the specific answer for you may be different than one of your engineer peers.Have you ever heard the phrase, "There's more than one way to peel a potato?" This holds true when it comes to creating the right vocal chain for your studio. Different genres require different sounds and having a vocal chain that fits the bill is critical to nailing the sound your clients are craving.
While there isn't one exact, perfect vocal chain for any genre, we talked with Vintage King Audio Consultants Jeff Leibovich and Andy Catlin about some of their favorites. Read on to discover microphones, preamps, EQs, and compressors that will suit a number of different styles of music.
Choosing The Best Vocal Chain: Expert Tips
When it comes to choosing the best vocal chain for your music productions, it can be overwhelming to navigate through the many options available. To help you out, we've gathered some expert tips on what to look for when selecting a vocal chain.
First, consider the type of music you're producing and the characteristics of the vocal performance. Do you need a warm and smooth sound or a bright and edgy one? Are you looking for a vintage vibe or a modern one? Understanding the sonic qualities you're after will help you narrow down your options.
Next, think about the gear you already have in your studio and how it will interact with the vocal chain you're considering. For example, if you have a condenser microphone with a bright sound, you may want to pair it with a preamp that has a warmer tone to balance out the overall sound.
Lastly, don't forget about the importance of workflow and ease of use. A vocal chain that is intuitive to use and allows for quick adjustments can save you time and help you capture the best performance possible.
By taking these factors into account, you can choose a vocal chain that complements your music and helps your vocals stand out in the mix.
What Makes a Good Vocal Chain?
A good vocal chain is one that enhances the characteristics of the vocalist and the song, while also fitting seamlessly into the overall mix. It should provide the necessary processing to bring out the best in the performance without adding unnecessary coloration or artifacts.
One key component of a good vocal chain is a quality preamp that can provide clean gain—and coloration, if desired. Additionally, a compressor can help control the dynamic range of the vocal and add character, while an equalizer can shape the tonality and address any problem frequencies.
Other processing tools like de-essers, saturation plugins, and reverbs can also be useful in creating a polished and cohesive vocal sound.
Ultimately, the best vocal chain is one that works for the specific vocal and musical style, and helps convey the intended emotion and message of the song.
Vocal Chains for Different Music Genres
Now let's take a look at some specific vocal chains that work well for different music genres.
Best Vocal Chain for Classic Rock Music
Flea 47 NEXT > BAE 1073 > Retro 176
A good rock vocal is raw and in-your-face, a little rough around the edges with some saturation and rich harmonics. Rock and roll was born in the analog era, so we recommend a mic with some grit, like theFlea 47 NEXT.
The Flea 47 NEXT is a cardioid-only version of the Flea 47, modeled after the iconic Neumann U47 large diaphragm condenser microphone from 1949. Featuring an EF12 tube and F7 capsule, the Flea 47 Next delivers a sonic signature nearly identical to the original with a convenient cardioid polar pattern for improved isolation.
For authentic rock tone, there’s no greater preamp than the 1073. BAE offers modern recreations of this classic preamp, including the BAE 1073 DMP. The 1073 DMP is a straightforward preamp, while the BAE 1073 mic pre/EQ module offers even more tonal control with three bands of EQ.
And it just wouldn’t be rock and roll without the loud, bombastic sound of a super fast compressor clamping down on your vocal. The Retro Instruments 176 is based on Bill Putnam’s classic UA 176, which was used heavily for rock vocals throughout the 1960s. The 176 was the predecessor to the iconic 1176, which also sounds great on rock vocals.
Best Vocal Chain for Modern Rock Music
Shure SM7b > Soyuz Launcher Deluxe > SSL SiX CH > Universal Audio 1176
Modern rock vocals tend to have a bit less saturation and dynamics than classic rock vocals. For this reason, a dynamic mic like the Shure SM7b works great. Just be sure to use a signal booster before you hit the preamp—for a bit of added color options, we recommend the Soyuz Launcher Deluxe.
When it comes to preamps, countless rock records have been cut on SSL consoles, so we're reaching for the new SSL SiX CH 500 Series channel strip, which includes the full SuperAnalogue channel processing features from SSL’s SiX console, including the mic preamp, low and high-frequency EQ, as well as the single knob compressor.
Speaking of compression, we're rounding this chain out with a classic 1176 for some aggressive FET-style compression to keep our dynamics in check.
Best Vocal Chain for Country Music
Upton 251 > API 512C > Empirical Labs Distressor EL8X
When it comes to country, you need a rich, powerful vocal to be the focal point of your song. We recommend theUpton 251 large diaphragm condenser microphone. Based on the classicTelefunken ELA M 251 from the 1960s, this versatile mic offers a warm, balanced frequency response that suits any vocalist. Equipped with Upton’s version of the legendary CK12 capsule and T14 transformer, the 251 delivers a pronounced low-mid range with brilliant highs.
For a preamp, we recommend something clean and musical, like the world-famousAPI 512C. The pronounced midrange and open top-end help vocals cut through the mix without dirtying them up with distortion.
Whether you’re going for a hyper-clean modern pop-country sound or the classic Nashville sound of the 1950s, the Empirical Labs Distressor EL8X compressor has what you need to dial in the perfect tone. From soft, subtle, slow compression to big, biting, aggressive limiting, the Distressor is the Swiss Army knife of compressors.
Best Vocal Chain for Pop & Electronic
Manley Reference Cardioid Microphone > Manley VoxBox
Pop vocals are all about detail, clarity, and brilliance. In order to achieve such precision, you need a modern, high-fidelity microphone like the Manley Reference series. TheManley Reference Cardioid Microphone works particularly well thanks to its built-in off-axis rejection.
While the Manley Reference Cardioid Microphone is technically based on the beloved Neumann U47, they offer a crisp, balanced sound more akin to a brand-new U47 than a vintage one. With a pleasant boost in the 5-10 kHz range and a subtle lift above 12 kHz, the Manley Reference Cardioid Microphone delivers a clean, intimate sound that’s perfect for pop records.
There’s no better tool for bringing your Manley mic to life than aManley Voxbox. This all-tube channel strip offers everything you need to get your vocal sounding radio-ready, including a world-class mic preamp, a passive Pultec-style EQ, a versatile compressor, and built-in de-esser for taming harsh vocal takes.
Best Vocal Chain for Hip Hop & Rap
Sony C800G > Neve 1073 > Tube-Tech CL1B
In the world of hip-hop, the vocals are king. Most hip-hop vocals feature a thick low-end and brilliant highs, making theSony C800G PAC large diaphragm tube condenser an ideal choice. Originally released in 1992, the Sony C800G is a favorite among world-class rappers like J. Cole, Dr. Dre, and Eminem.
While the price tag might be out of reach for some up-and-coming rappers, Sony recently created a new alternative. TheSony C-100 Hi-Res condenser microphone is capable of capturing crystal-clear vocals that sound great on hip-hop and rap records. We recommend pairing these Sony mics with a more colorful preamp, like theNeve 1073 CH, which captures the classic sound of the Neve 1073 preamp and offers three bands of EQ to tweak your tone to perfection.
Hip-hop vocals are all about the flow. You can emphasize the percussive, rhythmic element of a vocal using a fast, punchy compressor like the Tube-Tech CL1B. This versatile optical compressor is packed with useful features not found on traditional optical compressors, like variable attack and release times, making it the go-to vocal compressor for countless hit rap records.
Best Vocal Chain for R&B Music
Soyuz Bomblet > Shadow Hills Mono Gama
R&B is all about soul and vibe, which calls for a particularly colorful microphone. For that, we’d recommend the Soyuz SU-023 Bomblet, modeled after the vintage Russian 19A19 LOMO microphone. Its unique character comes from the triple backplate system, which delivers a thick and silky tone that’s perfect for soul music.
For even more character, we recommend pairing the Bomblet with aShadow Hills Mono GAMA preamp for hugeness, fidelity, punchiness, and depth. Equipped with an original Jensen input transformer, this powerful preamp delivers a warmth that instantly recalls the golden era of Motown.
Gefel MT 71S > Rupert Neve Shelford Channel
If you’re looking for a good all-around vocal chain that will work on any genre, we recommend starting with the Gefell MT 71S. This large diaphragm, transformerless cardioid microphone is equipped with an original M7 capsule for a smooth, balanced tone that sounds great on any vocalist. Paired with the Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel, there’s nothing you can’t do.
The Shelford Channel captures Rupert’s classic tone and brings together designs from some of his other best-selling designs, like the 1073, 1064, 1081, and 2254 modules. Equipped with a high-quality preamp, five-band semi-parametric EQ, sophisticated compressor, and more, the Shelford has everything you need to bring your vocals to life, no matter what style they’re sung in.