Recording vocals – look for the right distance & angle

If you are an upcoming musician who also does his own recording/producing there’s a whole new aspect to your creative work.

Actually having to set up your recording space, be it a real Studio or your bedroom, can be especially daunting and discouraging, but it is satisfying if you get it just right and hear that in your mix.

Anyhow… it all starts with you in front of a microphone so let’s take a look at some basic tips for microphone positioning when recording vocals, guitar & drums.

It is essential to understand that acoustics matter – even in the digital era of non-stop technological advancement. If you are recording your performance with a microphone you have to take into account that its position (angle, distance from the sound source) will determine the outcome.

If you are serious about doing music you have to be serious about applying the microphone. Be sure to discipline yourself even if you’re recording in your bedroom – that way you’ll enter your first studio with the right mindset and knowledge.

Vocals

Basically when placing a microphone you have to choose the distance between its capsule and the sound source (the singer).

Then there’s the angle – is the microphone positioned in a way that the capsule is parallel to the mouth of the singer or is it a bit off? That will be heard in the take.

As with almost anything, placing the microphone allows some experimenting.

Don’t shy away from using your own ears and judgment but remember these certain rules that come into play when getting own a vocal performance through a studio microphone:

When working with cardioids microphones, proximity effect is something to be aware of.

It means that if a vocalist comes very close to the microphone bass frequencies will be audibly boosted. Standing away from the microphone, on the other hand, will result in head and chest resonance being more pronounced in the recorded signal. When keeping distance, lip noises will not be as audible as well.

For some reason though people tend to think that the right way to record vocals (and other sources as well) is to get as close to the capsule as possible – maybe that is just fear of bad room sound manifesting itself or maybe it is just the way we see people singing in music videos or any studio-related visual materials.

Let’s return to the close distance bass-boost discussed previously.

People who do voiceover as well as radio show hosts or DJ’s are known for speaking in the microphone in this way to make their voice more pronounced and boomier. This certainly does work for radio but a vocal track that has been recorded in this manner can ruin the mix by taking up way too much headroom especially if the singer’s voice is powerful and huge as it is.

Stepping away from the microphone cuts the low end very audibly and if the singer is skilled enough to go into studio, the recordings of his/her performance will not lack any “power”. 

The angle of the microphone will also determine the outcome frequency-wise. If the microphone is placed below the mouth upper frequencies that bounce off the roof of the mouth will be captured thus resulting in a recording that is rich in high frequencies.

Singing off-axis will guarantee reduction of high frequencies. This can be used when recording backing vocals and looking for that “background sound”, but the same can be achieved when recording on-axis and reducing the highs later.

Recording on-axis is widely considered to be less risky but it is worth noting that plosive sounds (“S” and “P”) are more pronounced when the singer is standing right on axis of the microphone. That, of course, is why we use the pop-filter.

Moving while singing

An important thing to remember when setting up the microphone for vocal recording is the singer is a human being and voice itself is a very dynamic sound source.

Some singers can be prone to articulation, movement and other such habits when singing. This can mean that they are giving 100% of their soul to the task at hand but to the engineer it can also mean varying distance from the microphone.

The goal here, after all, is to get an even, stable recording, therefore as an engineer you should not look the other way or turn a blind eye if the singer is stomping his feet, jumping around or shaking their head – even if it means they are pouring their heart into the microphone.

The movement can cause change in the vocal tone and ambient levels, all of which can be difficult to fix later on.

Although a little rhythmic movement is probably acceptable, recording vocals and giving a live performance is not the same thing. Just keep in mind that you need to find a way to address the issue as delicately as possible – do not go lecturing the excited performer about the nature of sound in the physical universe in the middle of his magic moment.

It is hard to give a good example or advice here, but it is very true that people skills are important, especially when working with artists.

A good start would be a simple “X” shape on the floor, made with gaffa tape before the singer has entered the booth. That way a simple heads up before you begin should be enough.