Michigan Minstrel Music LLC

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Notes on Recording Lead Vocals With and Without Effect Processors

Should a recording engineer/musician track a lead vocal through a complete signal chain? Or not? The normal signal chain includes a microphone, preamp, compressor/limiter, equalizer (EQ), and the recorder—often a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). The third and fourth links of the chain, the compressor/limiter and EQ are optional. However, the first two and the last one—the mic, preamp, and recorder--are not. Much of the choice to use the optional links is a matter of personal taste. However, I find that by using the best microphone that I have, I do not need to equalize during the recording. Hence, this approach gives me the greatest freedom to color the sound during editing and mixing.

On occasion, I will use a compressor/limiter during a vocal take. However, compressors and limiters were originally developed to limit the dynamic range of signals for the broadcast and recording systems of the time. Today’s digital systems really do not need that kind of tweaking. Any modern recording system has the capability to capture both the loudest and softest sounds that a singer can make. Nevertheless, as I like to record “medium-hot,” I use a limiter with singers who tend to “spike” their volume into the red because the resulting digital distortion is usually not very pleasant.

In respect to equalization, I prefer not to use it when tracking. I tend to record the lead vocal as the last or near to last track. So, in order to fit the vocal to the tracks already recorded, I prefer to maintain as much flexibility as possible. By using the best quality microphone that I can afford, I find that I do not need to use the equalizer to “fix” the sound of the mic. Furthermore, choosing the right microphone for the task means minimizing the need for corrective EQ later during the mix. Therefore, along with left/right panning, I only use the equalizer to vertically adjust the vocal position in the “soundscape” and better fit the lead vocal to the other voices and instruments. On a final note, I strongly recommend putting the equalizer after the compressor/limiter in the chain. Why? It tends to sound better and you can alter the tone of the signal going to the recorder without altering the amount of gain (volume).
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