Choose Your Weapon: Microphones
A few great studio mics and some theory on how to use them.
I got wind that a lot of folks found the vocal EQ article particularly helpful, so breaking from the EQ series momentarily, I'll expand on vocals a little by talking about specific microphones and what situations to use them in, particularly in relevence to vocals. Here's a few... first a couple standards:
U-87: Neumann's ageless large-diaghragm condenser was designed in 1967 and hasn't changed much since. As with all condenser mics, it requires +48V Phantom power. The microphone for nearly its 40 years of existence has been the comparitive point for all similar mics since, and for good reason. Aside from it harboring a warm, poignant sound for the most diverse of singers, it is quite durable. While its best to keep it several inches back from a guitar amp, it is perfectly suitable for a variety of applications including drum overheads or acoustic instruments.
TLM-103: Neumann's answer to its own pre-established standard. The TLM is another large diaphragm condenser, albeit smaller than the U87. The mic sets a new standard in versatility with it's ability to withstand more sound level (about 138 db) and offering a more "airy" frequency response. The mic is similar to the U87 up to around 5 kHz, until a wide 4 db or so lift occurs. This definitely helps with adding a brighter presence, flattering vocalists and cymbals alike. I talked about why we liked this frequency range in the EQ Series - Part 1 - Vocals article.
Considering a large diaphragm condenser for your vocals is obviously your first step. Your next thought is likely: OK, so how much is this going to put me out? Microphone technology today is so much better that there are several cost-effective mics out there that offer a lot of the features that would've cost several thousand dollars a decade ago. Manufacturers have figured out how to reduce mechanical noise, increase SPL temperment, and thus make mics that are much more versatile (hence more appealing) to the average consumer needing a single mic for multiple applications.
RODE NT1-A: Australia's RODE microphones have taken a lead in the consumer/pro-sumer industry by offering very decent microphones at appealing prices. This mic was their flagship for years, and still remains a very good mic. With very low mechanical noise, a maximum SPL of 137 db, flat (and very predictable) frequency curve, and a cost of about $250, this mic is great for many things, including vocals. While it doesn't have that mid-high frequency lift with the flat curve, it does allow you to effectively use EQ for enhancement without having to think too much about damage control.
Microphone technology today is so much better that there are several cost-effective mics out there that offer a lot of the features that would've costed several thousand dollars a decade ago.
Down the tubes
Another variety of large diaphragm microphones are tube mics. These come in all shapes, sizes, and types and are powered not by the +48V Phantom power in your mic pre, but by their own separate tube-driven power source. This often gives tube mics other colors, and thus can be nice for vocal applications. My favorite:
Audio Technica 4060: Not only is this my favorite tube mic, it is my favorite vocal mic altogether. It's not too hyped, and usually can give you a very controlled sound right through the pre. Again, low self noise and high SPL (150 db) capability make it very versatile. Frequency response wise it lifts at 7 kHz and 11 kHz, adding some very nice clarity for vocal applications. There's also a 10 dB pad.
Your microphone is obviously the most important factor in establishing what your vocals are going to sound like, but a close second is mic pre. There are as many, if not more, mic pre choices than mics out there and deciding can be a challenge. Reading reviews in unbiased publications is a good start. Sound on Sound comes to mind. Also, think about your favorite albums and the vocal sounds you hear on them. With the internet and liner notes, it's not too hard to find out who recorded it and where (and often with what), and with articles or studio equipment lists, you can often get a good idea of what" good" sounds like.
As highlighted in some of my other writings, your environment ultimately plays a key role in your sound, and that combination of a quiet, controlled environment, dependable mic-pre, and consistent and predictable microphone are going to make you look good. It's always a balance of cost vs. quality when playing consumer, so be considerate of all of those things. An SM-57 in an iso booth is no more helpful than a $5,000 condenser in a boiler room.
Next time I'll expand on this topic even more and talk about some general room acoustics to pay attention to in your home studio, and how you can help keep that balance between cost and quality while getting the most out of your vocals.
Justin Matley is an award winning engineer at Sound Lounge, New York's top commercial post production studio, and has extensive clientele in commercials, films, and music. Justin also is a composer, and his piece 'Loom Textures for Percussion Piano and Voice' has received critical acclaim.