Picking the right microphone for a vocalist and for a particular production need not be a mystery. Not to be confused with Kurt Vonnegut’s asterisk from Breakfast of Champions, I have taken to using what I call an asterisk array to quickly choose one from among many possible vocal microphones.
Vive la différence
Thankfully, the human voice is diversity itself. This makes life more interesting and allows us to instantly recognize a unique individual from amongst the hordes of humanity. But even an individual’s voice is so diverse that few can repeat themselves exactly over and over again. This makes comparing mics, one after another, less reliable than singing once and recording to multiple mics at once.
Tearing down mics and setting up alternates between doing takes can introduce too many variables, in vocal expression, volume, distance from the mic, and so on. To eliminate those variables I began using the asterisk array.
Making the case
When I work in a studio where I haven’t worked before, or when I produce or engineer a project with a vocalist with whom I haven’t previously worked, I’ll often set up several vocal mics in tight proximity to one another. This enables me to record a single performance in multiple mics simultaneously.
Purists might be critical of such an array because the setup may prevent a perfect physical relationship between the vocalist and any one mic. My answer is that there’s time for perfecting that relationship once the best mic candidate has been chosen.
Purists might also be critical of the interaction between mics when close together. Physical crowding would by definition alter the polar response and create reflections that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Every time I’ve assembled such an array and included a Coles STC 4038 ribbon mic, I’ve had to deal with its powerful magnet attracting nearby mics into a collision; I can only guess that such a strong magnetic field might influence nearby mics in a variety of ways.
But I don’t worry about these detractions. The process is relatively quick. I never use these test recordings for anything other than choosing one microphone that will be used conventionally after the test is done.
Setting up The Asterisk
My friends at Studio 880 in Oakland, CA (www.studio880.com) graciously allowed me to shoot the picture you see in their Studio A. For mic placement, there is really no rule other than to cram as many mics as you can into the tightest space possible. The idea is to focus all of them on the vocalist, in such a way that one performance can be adequately and simultaneously captured for comparative review, revealing the essential differences of each mic’s interpretation of one event.
It is important to use the same make and model of preamp on every microphone, to adhere to the most scientific method possible. This removes variations in the sound of the preamps from the equation. Trim each channel to obtain the most consistent level possible at the input of your multitrack recorder, so you don’t hear “louder” as “better.”
Artist and Asterisk
Ask the vocalist to perform an excerpt from the material for which this test is being done. Make sure that the singer’s performance dynamics are as close as possible to what they will be during tracking. If the vocalist is to be involved in the assessment of which mic is best suited for their voice (in a given track), I’ll burn a CD of the test for their perusal.
To remove any preconceived notions from the test, I think it makes the most sense to create a blindfold test. The engineer creates a CD, documents the order in which the various microphones are represented, seals this information in an envelope and sends the vocalist on their way. Let their ears inform them first, followed by unsealing the envelope and allowing their ingrained perceptions of advertising, hype and legend to catch up with their ears. I often find that a mic the singer “swears by” is not the one he or she ends up choosing when only the ears have it.
I recommend the asterisk-array procedure to folks who may have a limited mic locker but who have access to a nearby fully equipped professional studio where this mic selection is possible. It shouldn’t take long, maybe an hour, nor should it cost very much. The artist will gain confidence in the success of the upcoming sessions, and you can always rent the chosen microphone if neither you nor the artist happen to own it.
Bruce Kaphan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a recording engineer, producer, and pedal steel guitarist in northern California. He’s worked with a wide variety of artists from The Black Crowes to R.E.M.