Tag Archives: Vocals

Vocal Processors, And The Most Dangerous Knob On Them

If you were wondering, the most dangerous knob is the one that controls compression.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Not every noiseperson is a fan of vocal processors.

(Vocal processors, if you didn’t know, are devices that are functionally similar to guitar multi-fx units – with the exception that they expect input to come from a vocal mic, and so include a microphone preamp.)

Vocal processors can be deceivingly powerful devices, and as such, can end up painting an audio-human into a corner that they can’t get out of. The other side of that coin is that they can allow you to intuitively dial up a sound that you like, without you having to translate your intuitive choices into technical language while at a gig.

What I mean by that last bit is this: Let’s say that you like a certain kind of delay effect on your voice. There’s a specific delay time that just seems perfect, a certain number of repeat echoes that feels exactly right, an exact wet/ dry mix that gives you goosebumps, and an effect tonality that works beautifully for you. With your own vocal processor, you can go into rehearsal and fiddle with the knobs for as long as it takes to get exactly that sound. Further, you don’t have to be fully acquainted with what all the settings mean in a scientific sense. You just try a bit more or less of this or that, and eventually…you arrive. If you then save that sound, and take that vocal processor to a gig, that very exact sound that you love comes with you.

Which is great, because otherwise you have to either go without FX, or (if you’re non-technical) maybe struggle a bit with the sound person. The following are some conversations that you might have.

You: Could I have both reverb and delay on my vocal?

FOH (Front Of House) Engineer: Ummm…we only have reverb.

You: Oh.

You: Gimme a TON of delay in the monitors.

Audio Human: Oh, sorry, my FX returns can only be sent to the main mix.

You: Aw, man…

You: Could I have a touch more mid in my voice?

[Your concept of “a touch more mid” might be +6 dB at 2000 Hz, with a 2-octave-wide filter. The sound-wrangler’s concept of “a touch more mid” might be +3 dB at 750 Hz, with a one-octave-wide filter. Further, you might not be able to put a number on what frequency you want, especially if what I just said sounds like gobbledygook. Heck, the audio human might not even be able to connect a precise number with what they’re doing.]

Sound Wrangler: How’s that?

You: That’s not quite right. Um…

[This one’s directly in line with my original example.]

You: Could I get some delay on my voice?

Audio Human: Sure!

[The audio human dials up their favorite vocal-delay sound.]

You: Actually, it’s more of a slap-delay.

[Your concept of slap-delay might be 50 ms of delay time. The audio-human’s concept of slap-delay might be 75 ms.]

Audio Human: How’s that?

You: That’s…better. It’s not quite it, though. Maybe if there was one less repeat?

[The audio-human’s delay processor doesn’t work in “repeats.” It works in the dB level of the signal that’s fed back into the processor. The audio-human takes a guess, and ends up with what sounds like half a repeat less.]

Audio Human: Is that better?

You: Yeah, but it’s still not quite there. Um…

Having your own vocal processor can spare you from all this. It also spares the engineer from having to manage when the FX should be “in” or bypassed. (This often isn’t a huge issue, but it can become one if you’re really specific about what you want to happen where.) There are real advantages to being self-contained.

There are negative sides, though, as I alluded to earlier. Having lots of power at your disposal feels good, but if you’re not well-acquainted with what that power is actually doing, you can easily sabotage yourself. And your band. And the engineer who’s trying to help you.

EQ Is A Pet Dog

The reason that I say that “EQ is a pet dog” is twofold.

1) EQ is often your friend. Most of the time, it’s fun to play with, and it “likes” to help you out.

2) In certain situations, an EQ setting that was nice and sweet can suddenly turn around and “bite” you. This isn’t because EQ is “a bad dog,” it’s because certain equalization tweaks in certain situations just don’t work acoustically.

What I’ve encountered on more than one occasion are vocal-unit EQ settings that are meant to either sound good in low-volume or studio contexts. I’ve also encountered vocal-unit EQ that seems to have been meant to correct a problem with the rehearsal PA…which then CAUSES a problem in a venue PA that doesn’t need that correction.

To be more specific, I’ve been in various situations where folks had a whole busload of top-end added to their vocal sound. High-frequency boosts often sound good on “bedroom” or “headphone” vocals. Things get nice and crisp. “Breathy.” Even “airy,” if I dare to say so. In a rehearsal situation, this can still work. The rehearsal PA might not be able to get loud enough for the singer to really hear themselves when everybody’s playing, especially if feedback can’t be easily corrected. However, the singer hears that nice, crisp vocal while everybody’s NOT playing, and remembers that sound even they get swamped.

Anyway.

The problem with having overly hyped high-end in a live vocal (especially with a louder band in a small room) is really multiple problems. First, it tends to focus your feedback issues into the often finicky and unpredictable zone of high-frequency material. If there’s a place where both positionally dependent and positionally independent frequency response for mics, monitors, and FOH speakers is likely to get “weird” and “peaky,” the high-frequency zone is that place. (What I mean by “positionally dependent” is that high-frequency response is pretty easy to focus into a defined area…and what THAT means is that you can be in a physical position where you have no HF feedback problems, and then move a couple of steps and make a quarter turn and SQUEEEEAAALLL!)

The second bugbear associated with cranked high-end is that, when the vocals are no longer isolated, the rest of the band can bleed into the vocal mic LIKE MAD. That HF boost that sounds so nice on vocals by themselves is now a cymbal and guitar-hash louder-ization device. If we get into a high-gain situation (which can happen even with relatively quiet bands), what we then end up doing is making the band sound even louder when compared to your voice. If the band started out a bit loud, we may just have gotten to the audience’s tipping point – especially since high-frequency information at “rock” volume can be downright painful. Further, we’re now spending electrical and acoustical headroom on what we don’t want (more of the band’s top end), instead of what we do want (your vocal’s critical range).

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t touch the EQ in your vocal processor, or that you shouldn’t use your favorite manufacturer preset. What I am saying, though, is that dramatic vocal-processor EQ can really wreck your day at the actual show. You might want to find a way to quickly get the EQ bypassed or “flattened,” if you can.

“Compression” Is The Most Dangerous Knob On That Thing

Now, why would I say that, especially after all my ranting about EQ?

Well, it’s like this.

An experienced audio tech with flexible EQ tools can probably “undo” enough of an unhelpful in-the-box equalization solution, given a bit of time. Compression, on the other hand, really can’t be fully “undone” in a practical sense in most situations. (Yes – there is a process called “companding” which involves compression and complementary expansion, but to make it work you have to have detailed knowledge of the compression parameters.) Like EQ, compression can contribute to feedback problems, but it does so in a “full bandwidth” sense that is also much more weird and hard to tame. It can also cause the “we’re making the band louder via the vocal mic” problem, but in a much more pronounced way. It can prevent the vocalist from actually getting loud enough to separate from the rest of the band – and it can even cause a vocalist to injure themselves.

Let’s pick all that apart by talking about what a compressor does.

A compressor’s purpose is to be an automatic fader that can react at least as quickly (if not a lot more quickly) as a human, and that can react just as consistently (if not a lot more consistently) as a human. When a signal exceeds a certain set-point, called the threshold, the automatic fader pulls the signal down based on the “ratio” parameter. When the signal falls back towards the threshold, the fader begins to return to its original gain setting. “Attack” is the speed that the fader reduces gain, and “release” is the speed that the fader returns to its original gain.

Now, how can an automatic fader cause problems?

If the compressor threshold is set too low, and the ratio is too high, the vocalist is effectively pulled WAY down whenever they try to deliver any real power. If I were to set a vocalist so that they were comfortably audible when the band was silent, but then pulled that same vocalist down 10 dB when the band was actually playing, the likely result with quite a few singers would be drowned vocals. This is effectively what happens with an over-aggressive compressor. The practical way for the tech to “fight back” is to add, say, 10 dB (or whatever) of gain on their end – which is fine, except that most small-venue live-sound contexts can’t really tolerate that kind of compensating gain boost. In my experience, small room sound tends to be run pretty close to the feedback point, say, 3-6 dB away from the “Zone of Weird Ringing and Other Annoyances.” When that’s the case, going up 10 dB puts you 4-7 dB INTO the “Zone.”

But the thing is, the experience of that trouble area is extra odd, because your degree of being in it varies. When the singer really goes for it, the processor’s compressor reduces the vocal mic’s gain, and your feedback problem disappears. When they back off a bit, though, the compressor releases, which means the gain goes back up, which means that the strange, phantom rings and feedback chirps come back. It’s not like an uncompressed situaton, where feedback builds at a consistent rate because the overall gain is also consistent. The feedback becomes the worst kind of problem – an intermittent one. Feedback and ringing that quickly comes and goes is the toughest kind to fight.

Beyond just that, there’s also the problem of bleed. If you have to add 10 dB of gain to a vocal-mic to battle against the compressor, then you’ve also added 10 dB of gain to whatever else the mic is hearing when the vocalist isn’t singing. Depending on the situation, this can lead to a very-markedly extra-loud band, with all kinds of unwanted FX applied, and maybe with ear-grating EQ across the whole mess. There’s also the added artistic issue of losing dynamic “swing” between vocal and instrumental passages. That is, the music is just LOUD, all the time, with no breaks. (An audience wears down very quickly under those conditions.) In the circumstance of a singer who’s not very strong when compared to the band, you can get the even more troublesome issue of the vocal’s intelligibility being wrecked by the bleed, even though the vocal is somewhat audible.

Last, there’s the rare-but-present monster of a vocalist hurting themselves. The beauty of a vocal processor is that the singer essentially hears what’s being presented to the audience. The ugliness behind the beauty is that this isn’t always a good thing. Especially in the contexts of rock and metal, vocal monitors are much less about sounding “hi-fi” and polished, and much more about “barking” at a volume and frequency range that has a fighting chance of telling the singer where they are. Even in non-rock situations, a vital part of the singer knowing where they are is knowing how much volume they’re producing when compared to the band. The most foolproof way for this to happen is for the monitors to “track” the vocalists dynamics on a 1:1 basis – if the singer sings 3 dB louder, the monitors get 3 dB louder.

When compression is put across the vocalist immediately after the vocal mic, the monitors suddenly fail to track their volume in a linear fashion. The singer sings with more power, but then the compressor kicks in and holds the monitor sound back. The vocalist, having lost the full volume advantage of their own voice plus the monitors, can feel that they’re too quiet. Thus, they try to sing louder to compensate. If this goes too far, the poor singer just might blow out their voice, and/ or be at risk for long-term health issues. An experienced vocalist with a great band can learn to hear, enjoy, and stop compensating for compression…but a green(er) singer in a pressure situation might not do so well.

(This is also why I advocate against inserting compression on a vocal when your monitor sends are post-insert.)

To be brutally honest, the best setting for a vocal-processor’s compressor is “bypass.” Exceptions can be made, but I think they have to be made on a venue-to-venue, show-to-show basis.

All of this might make it sound like I advocate against the vocal processor. That’s not true. I think they’re great for people in the same way that other powerful tools are great. It’s just that power tools can really hurt you if you’re not careful.


A Vocal Group Can Be Very Helpful

Microsurgery is great, but sometimes you need a sledgehammer.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Folks tend to get set in their ways, and I’m no exception. For ages, I have resisted doing a lot of “grouping” or “busing” in a live context, leaving such things for the times when I’ve been putting together a studio mix. I think this stems from wanting maximum flexibility, disliking the idea of hacking at an EQ that affects lots of inputs, and just generally being in a small-venue context.

Stems. Ha! Funny, because that’s a term that’s used for submixes that feed a larger mix. Submixes that are derived from grouping/ busing tracks together. SEE WHAT I DID THERE?

I’m in an odd mood today.

Anyway…

See, in a small-venue context, you don’t often get to mix in the same way as you would for a recording. It’s often not much help to, say, bus the guitars and bass together into a “tonal backline” group. It’s not usually useful because getting a proper mix solution so commonly comes down to pushing individual channels – or just bits of those channels – into cohesion with the acoustic contribution that’s already in the room with you. That is, I rarely need to create a bed for the vocals to sit in that I can carefully and subtly re-blend on a moment’s notice. No…what I usually need to do is work on the filling in of individual pieces of a mix in an individual way. One guitar might have its fader down just far enough that the contribution from the PA is inaudible (but not so far down that I can’t quickly push a solo over the top), while the other guitar is very much a part of the FOH mix at all times.

The bass might be another issue entirely.

Anyway, I don’t need to bus things together for that. There’s no point. What I need to do for each channel is so individualized that a subgroup is redundant. Just push ’em all through the main mix, one at a time, and there you go. I don’t have to babysit the overall guitar/ bass backline level – I probably have plenty already, and my main problem is getting the vocals over the whole thing anyway.

The same overall reasoning works if you’ve only got one vocal mic. There’s no reason to chew up a submix bus with one vocal channel – I mean, there’s nothing there to “group.” It’s one channel. However, there are some very good reasons to bus multiple vocal inputs into one signal line, especially if you’re working in a small venue. It’s a little embarrassing that it’s taken me so long to embrace this thinking, but hey…here we are NOW, so let’s go!

The Efficient Killing Of Feedback Monsters

I’m convinced that a big part of the small venue life is the running of vocal mics at relatively high “loop gain.” That is, by virtue of being physically nearby to the FOH PA (not to mention being in an enclosed and often reflective space) your vocal mics “hear” a lot more of themselves than they might otherwise. As such, you very quickly can find yourself in a situation where the vocal sound is getting “ringy,” “weird,” “squirrely,” or even into full-on sustained feedback.

A great way to fight back is a vocal group with a flexible EQ across the group signal.

As I said, I’ve resisted this for years. Part of the resistance came from not having a console that could readily insert an EQ across a group. (I can’t figure out why the manufacturer didn’t allow for it. It seems like an incredibly bizarre limitation to put on a digital mixer.) Another bit of my resistance came from not wanting to do the whole “hack up the house graph” routine. I’ve prided myself on having a workflow where the channel with the problem gets a surgical fix, and everything else is left untouched. I think it’s actually a pretty good mentality overall, but there’s a point where a guy finally recognizes that he’s sacrificing results on the altar of ideology.

Anwyay, the point is that a vocals-only subgroup with an EQ is a pretty good (if not really good) compromise. When you’ve got a bunch of open vocal mics on deck, the ringing in the resonant acoustical circuit that I like to call “real music in a real room” is often a composite problem. If all the mics are relatively close in overall gain, then hunting around for the one vocal channel that’s the biggest problem is just busywork. All of them together are the problem, so you may as well work on a fix that’s all of them together. Ultra-granular control over individual sources is a great thing, and I applaud it, but pulling 4 kHz (or whatever) down a couple of dB on five individual channels is a waste of time.

You might as well just put all those potential problem-children into one signal pipe, pull your offending frequency out of the whole shebang, and be done with the problem in a snap. (Yup, I’m preaching to myself with this one.)

The Efficient Addition Of FX Seasoning

Now, you don’t always want every single vocal channel to have the same amount of reverb, or delay, or whatever else you might end up using. I definitely get that.

But sometimes you do.

So, instead of setting multiple aux sends to the same level, why not just bus all the vocals together, set a pleasing wet/ dry mix level on the FX processor, and be done? Yes, there are a number of situations where you should NOT do this: If you need FX in FOH and monitor world, then you definitely need a separate, 100% “wet” FX channel. (Even better is having separate FX for monitor world, but that’s a whole other topic.) Also, if you can’t easily bypass the FX chain between songs, you’ll want to go the traditional route of “aux to FX to mutable return channel.”

Even so, if the fast and easy way will work appropriately, you might as well go the fast and easy way.

Compress To Impress

Yet another reason to bus a bunch of vocals together is to deal with the whole issue of “when one guy sings, it’s in the right place, but when they all do a chorus it’s overwhelming.” You can handle the issue manually, of course, but you can also use compression on the vocal group to free your attention for other things. Just set the compressor to hold the big, loud choruses down to a comfortable level, and you’ll be most of the way (if not all the way) there.

In my own case, I have a super-variable brickwall limiter on my full-range output, a limiter that I use as an overall “keep the PA at a sane level” control. A strategy that’s worked very well for me over the last while is to set that limiter’s threshold as low as I can possibly get away with…and then HAMMER the limiter with my vocal channels. The overall level of the PA stays in the smallest box possible, while vocal intelligibility remains pretty decent.

Even if you don’t have the processing flexibility that my mix rig does, you can still achieve essentially the same thing by using compression on your vocal group. Just be aware that setting the threshold too low can cause you to push into feedback territory as you “fight” the compressor. You have to find the happy medium between letting too little and too much level through.

Busing your vocals into a subgroup can be a very handy thing for live-audio humans to do. It’s surprising that it’s taken me so long to truly embrace it as a technique, but hey – we’re all learning as we go, right?


The Question

Clever trickery is great, as long as the basics are already covered.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

There was once a discussion on a live-sound forum. It was all about a certain tech’s difficulties in getting a huge, thunderous kick drum tone at a particular show. Many strategies were proposed, using all kinds of complicated kick micing solutions and post-processing.

It wasn’t until a good way through that a “grizzled vet” of live-audio asked a pointed and important question:

“How did the lead vocal sound?”


In A No-Soundcheck World, The Reckless Spirit Is King

“Throw and go” is 100% possible – if you’re ready to do it well.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

I have a tendency to forget how good bands are. If I don’t work with a certain group regularly, my mental recall of their musicianship gets hazy and vague. Such is the case with Reckless Spirit, a really killer local band whose killer-ness I forgot.

Don’t get me wrong – I remembered that they were good. It’s just that I didn’t have a real grip on just how good.

Reckless Spirit was closing a two-band bill. It took a bit to get the bands changed over, and all we really had time for was a quick “line check.” Everything had a solid connection to the console, and the vocals were audible in monitor world, so –

Off we went.

And the show sounded fantastic.

With no proper soundcheck at all.

Their sound came together in about 30 seconds, and the result was one of the most enjoyable rock-band mixes I’ve heard in a while. I’m not joking. It was effortless.

Why?

Working It All Out Ahead Of Time

I’m convinced that Reckless Spirit’s “secret” is a pretty simple one: Make sure that the music actually works as music, before you ever get to the venue. When you get right down to it, the band has become expert at dealing with The Law Of Conservation of Effort, especially in terms of having their “ensemble proportionalities” dead on.

Seriously – I don’t know if rock n’ roll has its arrangements described as “exquisite” very often, but that’s the word I would use to describe the way Reckless Spirit’s show came together. At every moment, everything had a proper (and very exact) place. When it was time for a run on the keys, the timbre and volume of the keys rig was EXACTLY correct for the part to stand out without crushing everything else. The same was very much true for the guitar, and the bass-and-drum rhythm section was always audible and distinct…yet never overbearing.

Everybody had their spot in terms of volume – and not just overall level, but the levels for the specific frequency ranges that they were meant to cover. The guitar parts and keyboard bits weren’t trying to be in the same tonal range at the same time. The bass wasn’t stomping on the guitar, and the drums fit neatly into the musical “negative space” that remained. Sure, a really good PA operator (with a sufficiently powerful PA) can do a lot to create that situation, but it takes a very long time – and a busload of volume – if the band isn’t even close to doing it themselves.

The point here is that the band didn’t need the PA system to be a band. There was no requirement for me to take them completely apart, and then stick them back together again. Before even a single channel was unmuted, they were 100% prepared to be cohesive…and that meant that when the live-sound rig DID get involved, the PA was really only needed for a bit of room-specific sweetening. Sure, FOH (Front of House) was needed as a “vocal amp,” but that pretty much goes for everyone who plays amplified music. Aside from getting clarity into the lyrical portion of the show, the PA didn’t need to “fix” anything.

…and getting clarity was easy, because the band was playing at a volume that fit the vocals in neatly. We actually REDUCED the monitor volume on deck, because my “standard rock show” preset made the vocals too loud. Even with that, Brock (the guitarist and main vocalist) informed me that he was really backing off from the mic, because it seemed very, very hot.

Great ensemble prep + reduced stage wash = nice sound out front.

I’m convinced that just about anyone can be in possession of that equation up there. The key is to do your homework, Reckless Spirit style. Use as much rehearsal time as you can to figure out EXACTLY where everybody’s sound is supposed to be, and EXACTLY when those sounds are supposed to be there. Figure out how to do all that at small-venue volume, and how to get the vocals spot-on without powerful monitors, and your chances of a sonically great show will jump in a massive way. You’ll be 90% down the road to a successful partnership with any given night’s audio-human, because by doing your job you’ll enable them to do theirs more effectively.

Be Reckless (proper noun).


No Sale

A Small Venue Survivalist Saturday Suggestion

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Shopping for a personal vocal mic?

Forget about how it sounds in a pair of headphones.

Find some monitor wedges, and crank up the mic until it sounds like what you’ll need for your band. If the mic sounds bad, or you’re struggling with feedback, then it’s “no sale.”


How To Figure Out Who Sings On Stage

The minimum requirement isn’t being able to stay on pitch, nor is it having a nice voice.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

It’s amazing how you can use microphones to shoot yourself in the foot. Metaphorically, I mean.

Each open mic on a stage increases the “loop gain” in monitor world and FOH (Front Of House). More loop gain means more system instability. More mics means more backline bleed cluttering up the mix – even if only in subtle ways. More mics means more volume wars on deck, as everybody struggles to hear themselves over everybody else.

More mics means live shows that don’t sound as good as they could, and yet, bands have this tendency to want vocal mics handed out to individual members like cheap candy.

Mostly, I blame this on recording. Not that recording is inherently bad – it just has unintended consequences, like everything else.

It’s A Different World In There

See, it’s easier than ever to record. You can turn any half-decent computer into a highly functional console and tape machine for about the cost of a basic combo-amp. As a result, folks are able to make acceptable (or even excellent) quality, multichannel, overdubbed recordings much earlier in the band’s life cycle than ever before.

This means that “studio magic,” even when it isn’t recognized as such, can be experienced before a musical ensemble has really gotten their live presentation to gel.

The problem here is that the studio has a much larger amount of “usable positive gain” available, especially when parts are overdubbed. So what happens is that Joe, the bassist/ guitarist/ drummer/ xylophonist/ euphonium player/ whatever, is tapped to sing a vocal harmony – because, you know, “we were listening back to the tracks one day, and he started singing a little, and it was just SICK dude…”

And it probably was pretty cool, because Joe has a pleasant voice, and a good sense of pitch. So, Joe gets handed a pair of headphones, and put in front of a mic. He sings just a bit louder than he can talk, which is fine, because that’s loud enough to mostly drown the quiet background noise in the recording area. He’s 10 – 20 dB less powerful than the lead singer, but hey, all you have to do is twist the gain up on the mic pre, and you’re golden.

No problem.

In the studio.

When overdubbing in the studio, feedback isn’t much of an issue. When overdubbing in the studio, the only thing that can bleed into that vocal track is the whir of a computer fan, or leakage from the headphones.

So, Joe lays down that vocal track, and it makes the song sound huge. Or haunting. Or just cooler than it was an hour ago.

And now, of course, the band TOTALLY has to have Joe sing that part for the live show they booked for Saturday night. Oh boy…

We’re Gonna Need One More Mic. And A Miracle.

The band is now unwittingly charging towards a problem with that live gig. The world of live audio has a lot of similarities to the world of studio audio, particularly in the area of terminology. However, live sound has a TON of inherent compromises that aren’t present when you’re overdubbing a “throw it in” vocal track.

On stage, Joe’s mic is part of a partially-closed loop that involves both the monitor speakers and the FOH speakers. (This is what I mean when I talk about “loop gain.”) As more total gain is applied, the likelihood of feedback goes up. For Joe, this is especially problematic, because he’s 10 – 20 dB quieter than the lead singer. Fixing a 10 dB difference in a live environment can be anywhere from challenging to impractical. Fixing a 20 dB imbalance can be anything from “just doable if everything cooperates” to “im-freaking-possible.”

…and total loop-gain goes way up when everybody wants to hear Joe in the monitors, loudly, “because that harmony just makes it sound so FULL, dude.”

Then, there are the feedback issues to contend with in FOH, plus the whole problem that a massive amount of the backline is coming through Joe’s high-gain vocal channel. All the backline bleed makes the show unnecessarily loud, and washes out the lead vocal, so the total gain on the lead vocal goes up, which makes the show even louder.

Folks, when a vocal mic picks up the snare drum and the output HAMMERS the PA’s limiter, you’ve got a problem.

Joe should not be singing live. Trying to make that vocal harmony happen is making a mess of the show as a whole.

So, how do you figure out who gets a vocal mic?

+20 dB, RMS

That heading, right there, is pretty much the answer. As a rule of thumb, you should consider the minimal qualification for someone to have a vocal mic to be this: Compared to all other sources in the room, the vocalist should be able to produce an average of 20 dB more sound pressure at the mic capsule.

Yes, this can be a tall order. Yes, there are situations where the rule doesn’t fully apply.

But, generally speaking, if you want a trouble-free live vocal, the singer has to be able to create lots of separation between them and everything else. Some of this is raw power, and some of it is being good at using the tools. For instance, if someone just can’t abide the concept of being in contact with the grill of a vocal mic, then they either need to sing with the force of a tornado or be denied a microphone. (Proximity buys you more relative sound pressure at the capsule – for “free.” You’d be amazed at how many people refuse to take the deal, though.)

So, how do you figure out if someone is in the ballpark?

  1. Set aside some time at your next full-band rehearsal.
  2. Find yourself an audio device of some kind – hardware, software, whatever – that has clear and unambiguous metering between two points that are 20 dB away from each other. For example, a cheap little mixer may be pretty clear about where -20 dB is, and where 0 dB is, but be unclear about how far above 0 dB the clipping point lies. In that case, you’ll want to use -20 dB and 0 dB as your reference points.
  3. This audio device doesn’t necessarily have to be disconnected from any stage monitors or other vocal amplification that you use, but you should be able to control the volume of those loudspeakers without having an effect on the meters. If this is not the case, disconnect the loudspeakers.
  4. Have the band play like they mean it. If you back things down in the rehearsal space, but then “get on the gas” for the show, this isn’t going to work. (There’s probably a whole other article right there, actually.)
  5. While the band is playing, set the gain on the vocal mic so that the average level is at your -20 dB point. You may have to “eyeball” this a bit if the meter ballistics (response time) are set to read peaks and not average levels.
  6. Now, have the prospective vocalist do their thing. If possible, have them do some different songs with varying feels.
  7. If the vocalist is consistently able to drive the meter to an average level that’s 20 dB higher than the “bleed,” then they’re probably a good candidate for singing at an actual show. Again, note that I’m talking about an average level. A momentary peak at +20 dB isn’t going to do the job when there’s an audience in the room and “things get real.”
  8. If the singer can’t “bring it to the table,” then you have to consider your options. If their vocal parts aren’t really core to the songs, then you should probably just go without their contribution during shows. If the parts are crucial, then the band needs to find a way to lose enough volume to make the 20 dB difference happen.

You may find yourself wanting to bend this rule, and I’ll certainly admit that you can. Bending the rule by 3 dB probably isn’t a huge deal. Being 6 dB off is almost certainly manageable by an experienced tech, although some extra compromises might be involved. Nine decibels or more of “fudge factor” is probably more than you want to try to work around, however.

It’s not that pitch and tone don’t matter, because they do. However, just being able to sing the right note in a cool way isn’t enough to earn an open vocal channel. A vocal that sounds beautiful, but isn’t loud enough, doesn’t create a beautiful experience as a whole. Really great bands are about making the whole experience as amazing as possible, so make sure a vocalist’s volume is there before adding a bunch of mics to your live show.


The EV N/D 767a

A highly competent mic for a reasonable price.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

This is what a 767a looks like with the “nose cone” removed.

Doug Wood (from the band Hostage and Woodshar Recording) tried to kill one of my 767a mics the other night.

Well, okay, he wasn’t doing it purposefully.

The mic stand had its boom almost fully extended, and the boom-angle was almost parallel to the floor. When you combine that situation with having the arm extended between two of the tripod legs (instead of along one of them), you’ve got a recipe for an unstable stand.

I think the whole shootin’ match went over about three times, with each occurrence sending a loud, dull “thop!” through the PA.

Hey, that’s what limiters are for. And reasonable powering.

I digress.

As he took action to very definitely secure the stand, Doug commented, “I haven’t dented your mic yet, but I’m working on it.”

So, yes, the N/D 767a can handle the inevitable accidents that occur on stage. That’s a point in its favor, but what else does the mic offer?

Sounds Good, Resists Feedback – If Used Properly

One of the first things I noticed about the N/D 767a is that it’s one of the few mics that sounds like the manufacturer got the “high end” right.

In my time, I’ve come across plenty of mics that sound dull, and I’ve come across plenty of mics that sound “overhyped.” The dull mics end up giving you that annoying, midrangey bark that just screams “old, worn out PA system from 1982.” The overhyped mics sound great when you’re standing alone on stage, sighting-in the monitor rig, but all that studio-quality top end stops being really useful when there’s an actual rock band in play. (There’s nothing inherently wrong with “air” in a vocal, but at high volume the air does little more than draw attention to itself.)

In contrast, the high-frequency component of an N/D 767a seems nicely smooth and natural, without any “FD&C Yellow #5,” as it were. This is important, because it allows the mic to have a clear and pleasing tonality without added feedback problems or “ess” sounds that cause windburn as they go by.

As a matter of course, I build an EQ preset for all my mics which is meant to “sound right in the solo bus.” Comparing presets is a sloppy metric – no argument there – but I can say that the N/D 767a is one of the least EQ’ed mics in my arsenal. To me, that says a lot about the mic being built well and voiced correctly.

These mics are designed to have a supercardioid pattern overall, and the overall implementation seems to resist feedback as well as other tight patterned mics I’ve encountered. Mounted on a stand with the correct orientation, or handheld by a competent vocalist, the 767 seems to be as trouble free as any other mic I’ve used. As with anything, you’ll need to do a requisite amount of “homework” when setting up. If you’re going to need to run at high gain, you’re also going to need to ring your monitor rig – no matter what mic you choose.

In a sense, one of the best compliments I can give these mics is that they just do what they’re supposed to do without a lot of fuss. With that being the case, there isn’t a whole lot of writing to do when it comes to the major positives of the 767a. You plug ’em in, you point ’em at something, they sound like that something, and off you go. In sound reinforcement, that’s what a mic is supposed to do.

Your Mileage May Vary

Currently, I’m convinced that there’s no such thing as the perfect mic for all situations. The N/D 767a works well across a range of applications, but there are some aspects of the unit that aren’t always ideal. It’s ironic that what amount to nitpicky concerns with the mic are what I have the most to talk about, but here we go anyway:

On the sound side, the mic’s pop-and-blast filtering seems to be just a little too “light” for a mic that people are going to be very – shall we say – personal with. The plosives and breath noise aren’t horrific by any means, but they still surprised me a bit at first. (To be fair, an appropriate-for-your-situation high-pass appears to help with this issue quite a bit, and now that I have some presets built for the mic, I don’t notice the problem much anymore.)

Tight patterned mics (supercardioid and “above”) are more finicky than their cardioid counterparts. As I said above, the feedback resistance on these units is what I would consider fit for varsity-level work. At the same time, though, that feedback resistance requires that the mic be in the correct orientation, and held the correct way. It’s my experience that tight pattern mics aren’t the right choice for people who want to combine high-gain monitoring with:

Turning every which way in a chaotic and unpredictable fashion.

And/ or working the mic at an inconsistent distance.

And/ or cupping the mic every now and then.

…and, of course, extreme practitioners of the above can’t be helped by any mic, so there’s that.

This restriction on application is by no means a failing of the 767a or any other similar mic, but it’s something to be aware of.

The physical construction of the units is nicely engineered, with everything fitting tightly. The XLR connector is what I would call “slightly recessed,” which necessitates a notch in the mic body so that the cable end can latch. This is hardly an issue in itself, but it becomes one when the internal assembly is rotated away from the notch. The XLRF on your cable will still mate with the mic’s pins, but the cable won’t latch. A good pull on the cable can result in the corresponding channel going silent – and in this case, the highly engineered construction becomes a hindrance. It would be a simple matter to rotate the internal assembly to match the notch if I could figure out how to do so without breaking the mic, but there’s only so much teardown that I’m confident in doing. N/D 767a mics just aren’t as user-serviceable as other stage transducers, and so they’re a little intimidating when you expose what internals you can.

Yeah, yeah, I should just Google for a teardown guide. I know.

Anyway.

My last nitpick is with the foam insert for the 767a’s grill. I can understand that there’s probably a good reason for it, but I also think that EV overcomplicated the whole thing. The actual insert is a small piece of foam that’s held in place by a tabbed, fabric ring. It doesn’t take very much to cause the ring to separate from the foam, and its easy to get the tabs bunched up. Getting the whole assembly back to factory stock is not a trivial thing. I’ve tried, and I can’t quite pull it off. This might not be a big issue for folks who rarely open their mic, but if you need to wash out your mic grills regularly, it’s a bit of a concern. The upside is that a “sorta fit” seems to work as well as an exact fit, but I just don’t see why over-engineering the pop-filter insert was so necessary.

Nitpicks Aside

The reason to go into detail about my little “dings” on these mics isn’t to discourage you from considering them. Rather, the point is to help you make an informed decision. I really like these mics, but I don’t want to give anybody the idea that they work miracles. No mic can do that, but you wouldn’t know it to read some of the reviews out there.

So…

I highly recommend the EV N/D 767a. They’ve earned a first-choice spot in my mic collection, and – in my opinion – they’re quite worth the small price premium over the industry standard. (You know, the thing with the model number of 58. I’m “Shure” you know what I mean.) To borrow the words of Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation, they aren’t perfect, but what is?

If you’re shopping for mics, put these on your short-list of contenders.


Mixing A Live Album: Vocals

Polishing your recorded vocals involves a number of different processing steps.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.


Buying A Vocal Mic

Sound quality is important, but it’s not at the top of the priorities list.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

As a live-audio tech, I’m often the guy who supplies all the mics. As such, I end up picking microphones that work for me in a variety of situations. My “favorite pets” are usually the transducers that work without a fuss on 90%+ of whatever they get pointed at. It really isn’t about what’s stunningly stellar for any particular vocalist or instrument rig, because there isn’t time to figure that out directly.

What you might think, then, is that buying a mic for yourself as an individual vocalist would be an exercise in different priorities. At an intuitive level, it makes sense that you would put most of your effort into finding a transducer that sounds amazing when coupled with your voice.

…and of course, you don’t want to pick a mic that makes you sound bad, or is downright painful to listen to.

But…

What’s not intuitive is that you will probably be best-served by satisfying a different list of priorities. That priorities list is basically the same one that a pro-audio human uses – it’s just that you meet it in ways that are specific to you, instead of ways that are generally applicable.

Priority 1: Gain Before Feedback

The most beautiful sounding mic for your voice is completely worthless if you can’t be heard. The most durable mic on Earth isn’t worth a dime if you’re completely and unintentionally buried in the mix. The mic that you could afford “right now” that squeals like a pissed-off toddler and howls like a talkative husky? It just effectively made the spendier mic even more expensive.

The most important thing to look for in a mic for stage-vocals is that it, when coupled with your performance style, can have sufficient gain applied for you to be heard clearly – both onstage and out front.

A complete discussion of everything that effects GBF is beyond the scope of this article. However, there are some rules of thumb that can help you narrow things down a bit:

  • You don’t need to worry about the microphone’s sensitivity or overall output. You can think of mic sensitivity as a sort of fixed, pre-preamp gain. It doesn’t necessarily buy you greater feedback rejection. It dictates how much preamp gain is required to get the mic output up to a voltage that’s good for other devices…and that’s it.
  • You do need to think about the mic’s polar pattern. Mics with tighter patterns, like supercardioid and hypercardioid models, can be more resistant to feedback when used correctly. The tradeoff with a tighter pattern is that it’s easier to cause feedback by “cupping” the mic, and you have to be much more careful not to move “off axis” during your performance.
  • You also need to think about where the mic’s capsule is placed. Certain mics achieve better GBF by putting the capsule very close to the grill – it’s just basic physics. The tradeoff is that you only get the benefit of this placement if you are willing to park your face right on the mic. If you’re not willing to do this, then any benefit of “right up on the grill” capsule placement is lost.
  • You don’t necessarily need a mic with “laser flat” frequency response, but you should try to find a mic where the response is “smooth.” Feedback problems are exaggerated by mics with narrow peaks in their response, because the peaks are disproportionately disposed to ringing compared to the frequencies around them. If a mic has a “response peak” or “presence boost” that’s been designed into the capsule, it’s best if the peak or boost covers a wide area – say, two octaves or more.
  • Even though a flat response isn’t imperative, you should be wary of mics that are overly “hyped” in one frequency range or another. If a monitor or FOH rig also has proportionately higher gain in the same frequency range, you may experience problems. VERY exaggerated response can cause feedback even if the live-sound rig doesn’t have higher gain in the same range.

Priority 2: Reliability

I chose “reliability” over “durability” because I think there’s more to this factor than just being able to handle wear and tear. A reliable mic stands up to being transported and accidentally dropped, but it also “just works” without being finicky.

The second most important thing to look for in a stage-mic is that it should be resistant to accidents, and require as little external or specialized equipment as possible.

So – what does this mean?

Well, for one thing, it means that condenser mics are less reliable than dynamic mics. It’s not that a condenser mic can’t be made to be quite durable. The drop in reliability comes from the condenser needing phantom power to work. It’s possible to be in a situation where you don’t have phantom available for the mic. It’s also possible to have phantom, and forget to engage it. The mic may be rock-solid, but it becomes effectively less reliable.

(This isn’t to bag on condenser mics, by the way. A condenser may, in fact, be the right mic for you. You just need to be aware of the downsides.)

There are, of course, all kinds of other considerations. If a mic needs a special, odd-sized clip to fit on a stand, it’s effectively less reliable. If its XLR connector has trouble mating with certain mic cables, the microphone is effectively less reliable. If the mic has a switch that’s a little too easy to disengage, the unit is effectively less reliable. If the mic has extremely high or low sensitivity, it’s effectively less reliable.

You might say that another way to express “reliability” is “resistance to unexpected events.” If you can cover the unexpected events by carrying more equipment (a mic pre with phantom power, your own cables, spare mic clips, etc), then you can increase a finicky mic’s reliability.

For the record, the most reliable stage-vocal mics are dynamic units with thick, metal cases, and capsules with sensitivities of roughly -55 dBV/Pa (about 1.7 – 1.8 mV). They require no phantom power, stand up to abuse, and work with the gain ranges available from most preamps.

Priority 3: Great Sound

This might seem like an obvious factor, but it still bears some discussion. You have to think about which mics will sound great on your voice, and in the performance situations that you find yourself in the most. A mic that sounds fantastic when you listen to it in headphones is great – if everybody’s going to be listening to it in headphones. A mic that sounds divine at the venue you only get to play at once a year isn’t a good choice if it’s unflattering through the PA and monitor rigs you play through every other weekend.

Further, a mic has to work well with your performance style. This is similar to the considerations involved with GBF. If the unit is breathtakingly beautiful only when you’re right on it, and you almost never get right on the mic, then you should probably pick something else. On the flipside, if you always have your face planted on the grill, and the mic sounds terribly muddy when you do, then you might want to pick something else.

I should definitely point out that you can be VERY surprised by what works well and what doesn’t. Some folks think that the only way to get a great vocal is with a super-spendy mic, but I once heard Katie Ainge sing at a coffee shop with an inexpensive mic connected to a keyboard amp.

It was one of the most beautiful and perfect vocal sounds that I’ve ever heard.

So…How Do You Test For These Priorities?

The actual nuts and bolts of figuring out which mic is right for you look like this:

  • Do some research, either empirically or online. If you play at a bunch of different places with different mics, make note of when you could hear yourself, were feedback free, and you liked the overall sound.
  • Most mics can’t be returned once purchased, so either borrow or rent the units you’re interested in.
  • At rehearsal, try the different mics you’ve gathered up. Feed the signal through a monitor wedge to find out which ones are feedback resistant while sounding as nice as possible.

Recommendations

To help narrow down the bewildering array of choices to be had in the vocal mic arena, here are a few transducers that I’ve had decent experiences with:

Shure SM-58 – I’m really not a fan of the 58, but that doesn’t make it an invalid choice. Most 58s that I’ve run across have ended up sounding muddy, with a rolled-off top end, but there are some voices that they’re just perfect for. The SM-58 has a cardioid pattern, workable GBF, and is capable of surviving a LOT of punishment. SM-58s seem to be slightly more forgiving of shaky mic technique than some other products.

Shure Beta 87a – These are mics that Stonefed carries with them for road shows. I would characterize them as “pretty okay.” In certain situations, we had some issues with feedback at very high frequencies (in the range of 15kHz). Their clarity can border on “whininess” in some situations, and they have more mud than I think a condenser ought to have. I’d probably cut these mics more slack if they weren’t $250 a pop – to me, that’s a lot of money for something that isn’t my favorite. The “a” units are supercardioid, so you need to stay on axis and avoid cupping the grill.

Sennheiser e835 – Bought singly, an 835 costs about as much as an SM-58…but I’ll take an 835 over an 85 any day of the week. These mics seem to have far less of the “Shure-standard mud,” coupled with a crisp top end. That same crispiness may be a bit much, depending on your tastes. GBF on these mics has rarely been a problem for me, but every so often I’ve had some trouble with ringing at low frequencies. An 835 is a cardioid device.

Sennheiser e822s – A major advantage of the e822 is that you can still find it in packages for about $50 a unit. These mics are surprisingly good for the price. I personally own a handful of them, and they have been just as reliable as more expensive units. I personally prefer the sound of these mics over that of an SM-58, but they do still have a bit of mud and garble to manage. The GBF on an 822 seems to be comparable to other mics I’ve used – sometimes even a bit better. Sennheiser e822 units are cardioid.

Audix OM5 – These mics are VERY crisp. So crisp, in fact, that you can really tear people’s heads off if things get loud. On the other hand, I’ve heard these mics deliver live vocals that sounded like a world-class studio recording. Their GBF is definitely “pro-grade,” although their marketing might make you expect miracles that they can’t deliver. OM5s are hypercardioid, so they’re best for people who aren’t shy about sticking their face to the mic.

Electrovoice N/D767a – The 767a is one of the few mics I’ve heard that seems to get the top end exactly right. They have nice clarity without being overhyped. The bottom end of the frequency response is okay, but these mics do seem to suffer from breath noise and plosives more than some others. They don’t display as much muddiness as other mics, but some situations will still require a good bit of EQ. The GBF on these supercardioid mics seems to be on par with other, professional level units.


Some Handy Mics

A video where I discuss the pros and cons of some of my most-used microphones.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.