The Art Of Working The Microphone (Or How To Record Vocals Without Compression)

2015 Apr 20, 2015

Ask any of the all time great recording engineers what their favorite vocal chain is in the studio and you’ll likely get a list of three things: a microphone, a preamp, and a compressor.

Recording vocals through compression is a wonderful thing that I highly recommend if you have it available to you. It gives you a smoother, more even recording that is mix ready.

But what if all you have is simple audio interface in your setup and no compressor (like our humble $300 studio we’re using right now) – what is a vocalist to do??


Via Ernest Duffoo Flickr

Rediscover The Lost Art

Did you know that for years, professional records were made without a single compressor?

In fact, vocalists were quite aware that they could easily overload the microphone (and the tape machine) so they developed a skill, an art form really, that we like to call “working the mic.”

Let’s talk about that.

It sounds obvious but the human voice is very dynamic. Meaning it can go from super quiet to super loud in an instant.

That’s not very unique to vocals – but what makes them more challenging and sneaky than say a drum kit or guitar part is that even if a vocalist is singing at one overall consistent level, he or she is actually is giving a very inconsistent performance due to two things: vowels and lyrical emotion.

Vowels And Emotion Are So Sneaky

If you or I sing a closed vowel like the “oooo” sound or the “eeee” sound, we don’t push a lot of air. But the moment we sing an “aaaaah” or “aaaay” sound, our mouths naturally open up and more volume comes out.

So even if we are singing at one dynamic in our minds, in reality we will put out a wide variety of dynamics if for no other reason than the variety of vowels we sing.

Secondly – since we are not just playing music with an instrument (which can definitely express and be affected by emotion) but we are singing words that contain meaning, we are naturally going to ebb and flow with our volume (i.e. dynamic) related to what words we are singing at the moment.

If the words are somber and introspective, we might sing softly. If the words are angry or passionate, we might sing loudly. And it can vary wildly throughout a 3 minute song.

Those two reason, vowels and lyrical emotion, alone cause a super wide dynamic range on any given vocalist – thereby giving the microphone and preamp/converter problems.

Learn To Play The Microphone

To combat this problem of system overload back in the day, some super smart people invented an automated volume knob. They called it a compressor.

It would automatically listen to the vocalist and if she sang quietly it would turn her up, and if she sang loudly it would turn her down. Thereby giving you a smooth and more even performance.

So these days if you have a compressor you can just sing and let it do the rest. Brilliant.

But what did people do BEFORE they had compressors?

They worked the microphone. They actually did a virtual dance with it.

When singing quietly they would sneak up a bit closer to the mic (giving you that intimate vocal) and when they would sing loud and proud they would back up from the mic and wail.

It involved a little planning and situational awareness, yes, but that was part of the skill set of a vocalist back then.

Knowing how to not only sing, but how to “play” the microphone as an instrument as well.

Don’t Just Stand There – Do Something!

And sadly, that art form seems to have dissipated these days. Compressors have made us lazy! Myself included!

But let’s talk about the home studio – a place where most of us don’t have an external compressor and preamp to record through.

And consequently many of you are discovering that your final vocal recording is all over the map level wise when you get to mix day. Some compression then will help, certainly.

But can you help yourself out a bit by capturing a more even vocal performance from Day 1 – even without a compressor?

Yes! Just work the microphone! (Or have your vocalist work it if you are just engineering).

Don’t just stand there and sing, actually perform with the microphone and do some old school “compression” with your body.

In the end, you’ll get two things:

  • On the technical side you’ll have a more even signal doing to your DAW.
  • But secondly, and almost even cooler, you’ll have a more engaged and intentional performance.

Although subtle, this can be a huge factor in capturing that “magic” vocal track in the home studio – one that virtually mixes itself.

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