Recording Vocals at Home: Tips on Microphone Setup

Generally, a good microphone setup is more about avoiding problems and less about doing elaborate tricks. These problems are commonly the following:

  1. Sibilance
  2. Popping
  3. Proximity Effect
  4. Foot Noise
  5. Recording Room Acoustics
  6. Maximizing the Mic Signal

tips on microphone setup

Sibilance

When making “F” and “S” sounds, our mouth produces a blast of air with a high frequency. This is what is commonly referred to as sibilance.

In conversations, you’ll hardly notice it. But when you record your voice, with your mouth close to the microphone, it’s obvious and unpleasant.

More so if you’re using a condenser microphone, which is relatively more likely to have sibilance. For example, you’ll hear an unpleasant hiss if you record this tongue twister: “Francis fed the fattest fish with the freshest food.”

To remedy the problem, you can mask the sibilance by using software like multi-band compressors or de-essers. But of course, a much better approach is to not record it at all. Singing at an angle that is off-axis will generally do the trick.

Or, you could also try the pencil trick (not to be confused with the pencil kill in the John Wick 2 movie). Using a rubber band, attach a pencil on the mic’s diaphragm to divide the sibilance in half and to divert them toward the sides.

Popping

If you make “B” and “P” sounds, a forceful pocket of air comes out of your mouth. When recording, this air hits the microphone’s diaphragm and creates what is called popping, a low frequency punchy sound.

In everyday conversations, you will likely not notice it. So to better understand it, say the following tongue twister while your hands are covering your mouth: “Buy butter plates before buying pans of pizza at the bakeshop.” Popping is the air striking your palms.

As with sibilance, popping can be avoided by being at an off-axis angle while singing on the mic. Unfortunately, most singers don’t do so, so an alternative is to use what is called a pop filter. Below are its advantages:

  1. A pop filter is kind of like a reminder for singers to keep their distance from the mic. Going too near only makes popping much worse.
  2. The pop filter works like a barrier that catches popping and disperses it before it hits the mic. So if still hits the mic, it’s not as forceful and focused.

Proximity Effect

When the location of a sound source is close to the diaphragm, a mic’s frequency response will have significant low end boost. The nearer the source, the more noticeable the effect is. This is because of the way cardioid mics are designed, which is the typical polar pattern of our voice.

This proximity effect is actually used to give warmth to some musical instruments like the acoustic guitar. However, it can be annoying on vocals if the singer is inexperienced and is only accidentally using it. And so, if the singer is having trouble with it, below are two good solutions:

  1. As mentioned above, pop filters remind singers to not go too near to the mic.
  2. Use an omnidirectional microphone instead of cardioid ones. Due to how they are designed, they are not prone to the proximity effect.

Foot Noise

With some floors, footsteps in another room may still be heard in your recording studio. Their vibrations can radiate up a mic stand and be included in your recording. Also, some singers just can’t help but tap a foot to the music.

A popularly known solution to foot noise (besides better flooring) is to use what is called a shockmount. It works by acoustically isolating the microphone from its stand. To know if you really need it or not, follow the steps below:

  1. Setup the microphone as you usually do, then record a track with the gain set high.
  2. Wear a pair of headphones, and then listen as you take a few steps around the microphone stand.

If you can hear your feet’s noise on your headphones, then you will likely benefit from using a shockmount.

Most microphones can be had with a shockmount included. If what you have doesn’t include one, you’ll have to look for the exact match. If there isn’t one, you will have to use a different mic because shockmounts are specific to each microphone.

Recording Room Acoustics

If you already did all of the above perfectly, but your vocal recordings are still not good, then your room’s acoustics is probably the culprit.

Without adequate acoustic treatment, all your recordings (not just vocals) will not sound as good as they should be. Actually, acoustic treatment is supposed to be a top priority, so do it if you haven’t. To know the things that you’ll need for it, check out this post about music production equipment.

That said, a traditional acoustic treatment can get pricey. If you can’t afford yet, or if your space can’t accommodate it anyway, a reflection filter is a good alternative. It’s not as good as the traditional, but it’s much better than no acoustic treatment at all.

Maximizing the Mic Signal

The quality of your recording will only be as good as your weakest tool. If the other equipment in your home recording studio are not good, perfectly setting up your mic won’t matter so much. Ideally, all the tools in your arsenal should be at par with each other.

The audio interface is usually the first equipment to receive and process a mic’s signal. And so, you might want to get the best USB audio interface that will likely make the most out of that mic signal.

Bonus Tips: Microphone Technique

It takes two to tango. You can only setup a mic so much, but half of the equation is the singer. That’s where microphone techniques come into play. Below are a few microphone techniques that singers can use for a better recording:

Using the Proximity Effect to Your Advantage

During the delicate or soft parts of a song, singers may move closer to the microphone. Doing so will give their tone a touch of intimacy or emotion.

Besides moving nearer to the microphone during soft parts, singers can also go farther during loud passages. Doing so will level the fluctuations of their volume, and this will substantially decrease the compression you’ll need later on.

Being in Control of Breath Sounds

To prevent unwanted sounds from being recorded in the first place, singers may turn their head with each breath. On the flip side, they may purposely breathe on the mic as an effect for some songs.

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