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Need help picking out microphones for vocal recording

Discussion in 'Vocals' started by jziegler, Dec 5, 2007.

  1. jziegler

    jziegler Guest

    Hello everyone,

    I've lurked here from time to time reading some great advice on recording acoustic music. I've been thinking about getting some of my own equipment for a while, and the need is finally coming upon me.

    Some quick background. My wife is a classical trained soprano (graduate of Westminster Choir College). She is currently looking into some summer programs for this year, and some of them require an audition CD rather than in person auditions. I have some background in audio, having worked in live theater in college, and a job working with film post-production sound for a while. None of that helps me in deciding what I need to get now.

    For recording audition CDs, I think that a simple stereo pair should work fine. It will be just her, with piano accompaniment. I have a computer audio interface already (Lexicon Omega) that should have adequate pre-amps for starting out. I can handle the software for now, probably using the Cubase LE software that the Lexicon came with. The big thing that I need right now is some mics. Here are a couple that I've been looking at:

    Studio projects C4
    Rode NT5

    I don't want to spend a whole lot of money on this, but I want something that will sound good. Now, I'll make it even harder. There are three very different rooms that we can record in. We have access to two houses of worship in town, a large church, and a smaller meeting house. Both have very high ceilings. The meeting house has a balcony, which might make mic placement easier. The last option is our living room (12x25', 9' ceilings, hardwood floors, plaster walls, open on part of one side to the dining room). The best piano is at home.

    So, with a budget of around $500 - $700 for mics, cables, and stands, what would serve me best? What else am I forgetting about that I need to know for this?

    If this goes well, I'll be doing more recording of her, and at least make CDs as gifts for friends and family, possibly to sell in small quantities at performances.

  2. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    jziegler I've recorded my fair share of sopranos. I wouldn't necessarily recommend the microphones you are considering to record a soprano with. Dramatic or Mezo maybe but for a Coloratura or Lyric, I'd rather go with a ribbon every time. There are some reasonable lower-cost ribbon microphones available these days. I personally love my Beyer M160/130 dual ribbons. But those represent a sizable increase in cost in comparison to the new American imported/Chinese manufactured ribbons and other similar permutations. These types of microphones will give your wife a sweeter lusher sound. In fact, it may prevent you from getting any work done? You'll fall in love with her in a completely new way. It would be best if you could wait until your done recording her. Just make sure she doesn't breathe too hard into the microphone.

    Why couldn't I have a husband like you?
    Ms. Remy Ann David
  3. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Welcome jziegler!

    Let me ask this question first -
    Where are you located?

    There are several reasons I ask this. Not the least of which is that my biggest suggestion to you is going to be to spend your money to hire a professional and there are several parts of the world represented here by quality engineers that can do a LOT of work in the price range you are looking at spending.

    While you may be able to buy a couple mediocre mics for $600, you could get just shy of 3 full recording sessions with me (and I'm just one of the schmucks on here that do this for a living.)

    If this were for her posterity only, I would advise you to buy mic 'A' and 'B' and use it through the Lexicon interface. However, for summer festivals (I'm assuming you mean things like Aspen, etc.), she'll be up against some SERIOUS competition and having the finest quality recordings will be of GREAT benefit to her. (I know, since I've had 2 sopranos and one mezzo-soprano and one flautist approach me and I've recorded them for just this reason within the past 3 months.)

    Just think - for $600, you could have a trained engineer with years of experience and thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of gear come do the work for you, get a product which you cherish (instead of curse....afterall, if she doesn't get in and you do the recording, don't you think there will be a question looming over both of you for the rest of your lives??? "Could I have made it if it were a better recording??")

    As for the venues themselves -

    Shy away from the living room. You didn't mention what type of soprano but if there's Wagner or Verdi in there anywhere...this just won't work. If your entire disc is either Puccini or Gilbert and Sullivan, you're probably okay.

    As for the church with the balcony- this is a dead give-away that you should hire someone. Balcony (at least to me) implies that it is at the opposite end of the church from where your wife will be singing. This is not the place for mics for anything, especially a spaced or near-coincident stereo pair!

    If you must purchase the gear to record her yourself (as in, you're looking at getting into recording anyway and this is a jumping off point), I would look into affordable ribbons as Remy mentions. The Cascade Fatheads are promising little inexpensive jewels. I could easily make a good recording of soprano and piano with 3 of these and a decent set of pres (even a Mackie 1202).

    If you're in the Washington DC area, please, swing by later today (Thursday) to 5 Thomas Circle (National City Christian Church). I'm recording a VERY good soprano (no...wonderful!) singing with a glorious pipe organ. It's a selection of holiday music and should be a blast. I plan to use 3 mics in total for the recording, but I promise - $600 wouldn't scratch the surface of even the least expensive of the mics I'm using.

    Sorry if I seem against the idea and less than supportive. I just know what's possible for what you're asking and I don't think either you or your wife will like the results.


  4. jziegler

    jziegler Guest

    Remy and Jeremy,

    Thank you for taking the time to reply. You have given me some good information to think about. I admit to not knowing much about ribbon mics and never having used one, so this is new to me. I will certainly consider that.

    Remy, are you a singer yourself?


    That you for the honest opinion, and without even knowing where I'm located to know if you can get the job. I'm located in Southern New Jersey, close to Wilmington, DE. I know that there are at least one or two pros on here that are in the general area.

    Right now, she is not looking at any of the big festivals, she's auditioning for a number of young artist programs. I know that at least of on them does include time with a pro as part of the program. She will audition for most in person (since most hold auditions in New York, with one being a bit closer in Princeton), but there is a program in France that she is interested in.

    As for what she will be singing, her voice is too light to be a dramatic soprano. She will probably mature into a coloratura, but isn't there yet. What she really enjoys singing is art song and operetta (especially Offenbach).

    For the venues, the meeting house with the balcon is NOT a typical church with a balcony. It's a quaker meeting house, so the arrangement is very different than is typical. The balcony is only about 6 rows or so back from the performance area. Benches are on all sides of the room. The balcony is a height (10-12 feet) that makes me think there is potential for a stereo pair. But I could be far off on that.

    I was looking to get into recording myself as an amateur, I have no interest in doing it full time or professionally. I'm an electrical engineer by day, and it was interest in audio that led me in that direction, although I'm no where close to designing audio gear now, other area are much easier to find jobs in. I've done a couple of posterity type recording before with borrowed equipment, including a community theater production of "The Magic Flute" last year.

    I'd love to stop by today, sound like a great session, but I'm a little too far away. It would take almost half of my work day just to get there and back.

    Thanks again
  5. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    I'm not the singer..... Except in the shower and some rock-and-roll backups when the band members can't sing it themselves. My mother was a former Metropolitan opera star of the late 1940s. My dad was a highly accomplished Eastman school of music grad. He was a concertmaster for many of the great American symphony orchestras. His last being associate concertmaster for the Cleveland Orchestra before his death in 2000. He was also in the advertising business with his father. So, he frequently scarfed me up on the weekends and take me with him to the radio, TV stations and to MOTOWN/United Sound Services. So I've grown up in the business.

    All growed up
    Ms. Remy Ann David
  6. jziegler

    jziegler Guest

    Quite a musical family you come from! My wife would probably enjoy hearing performances your mother was in, she like many of the older opera recordings better than the current ones. And I have a few Cleveland Orchestra recordings around, perhaps your father was playing in them.

    Well, the more I look at my whole situation, the more overwhelming it is looking. The ribbon mics sound like the way to go. But, the Lexicon preamps would appear to be too low in gain (only 50dB). Buying a separate preamp would put me at more money than I really want to spend right now. But, it would give me the possibility to have more mics used (4 channel interface with two preamps internal). I don't need to get anything right away, so I'll think about this for a little while. We probably need a recording by sometime around February, so there is some time still.

  7. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    I think you would only have problem with the lower gain preamp if you're trying to hang your ribbon microphones 15 feet back and as tall to record an orchestra. Utilizing the microphone in a more studio like environment means that you'll be utilizing lower gain, most probably. So I don't think it should be a factor, especially at 24-bit recording. When I record sopranos in the studio they are frequently within 3 to 4 feet from the microphone. 50 DB, plenty of gain. Same for the piano. Quiet oboe solo from 15 feet away? Maybe not.

    Ms. Remy Ann David
  8. jziegler

    jziegler Guest


    You're doing a good job encouraging me here. Maybe I can pull something like this off. So, if I get a pair of ribbon mics (thinking maybe the Cascade Fathead II set that has a stereo bar included), a decent stand, and some cables I would have the minimum equipment covered. Then I could have my wife stand in front of the piano (In the crook for a grand, behind it with an upright) and have the mics setup in either a M/S configuration or Blumlein around head level 3 to 4 feet in front of her for starters? She is used to live performances, so balance between her and the piano should be good. Would an arrangement like that have a good chance of working?

  9. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    I think you would like the MS technique best on her. Make sure it's about 3 feet in front of her. She is the center of your interest and image. Important to listen to just the middle/mono microphone for what you feel is the best level between her and the piano. This can only be accomplished through positioning. Then you had in the side/difference microphone utilizing the MS decoder within software. Generally, you'll also be able to vary the stereo width with this technique. If in the living room, sprinkle on a little stereo ambience reverb or equivalent.

    For my operatic living room demos, I frequently have a ribbon on the singer and a separate elevated ribbon for piano on another stand. A little stereo digital ambient reverb and it's a done deal. Sometimes I'll pan them slightly left and right of center letting the digitally produced ambience fill in the spaces. I have 2 Vintage RCA 77 DX ribbons always in the living room and 4 Beyer M160/130's for location work. With all of these ribbon microphones, you must be careful of breezes and people blowing into them. Keep them swathed in foam pop filters. I believe in them as you only lose about 1/2 DB at 15kHz. You're always safer if you put a condom on your microphone. Preferably unlubricated.

    I'm still as tight as my ribbons as I've never had little microphones
    Ms. Remy Ann David
  10. BRH

    BRH Active Member

    Remy, I'm not understanding that last statement.
  11. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    My last statement? I've only given birth to consoles, analog tape recorders, control rooms. Never little microphones. I only like BIG microphones anyhow. Ever handled a 77 DX?

    I have 2 big ones
    Ms. Remy Ann David
  12. BRH

    BRH Active Member

    Just the 44s
  13. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Jziegler; You're probably nearest to me, geographically. (NOT making a sales pitch, believe me; I'm swamped right now as it is.) I work primarily in the Delaware Valley area, CC Phila., the burbs, etc., and I recently moved to Greenville, DE, just outside of Wilmington NJ. (If you're in Southern NJ, I'm a short trip over the Commodore Barry Bridge or I-295. )

    I'll second and third the advice you got from Jeremy & Remy; I wouldn't do things much different either. A good spot mic on the singer, stereo pair on the piano, etc. In some cases, I would probably use 5 mics, the basic three, including a stereo pair on the whole thing, farther back, to capture the room ambience. And in post-production/mixdown, I'd certainly add some digital reverb as well. These days, You can get a great sound with as little as three good mics.

    I've become a big fan of the Fathead ribbon mics, too. I picked one up for a song at AES in NYC back in October, and have had great results on Trumpets and brass, even harp and celeste. I haven't tried yet on vocals, but will soon. For the cost, you really can't go wrong.

    I usually prefer small diaphragm condensers on female vocals, but like most Football games, any given mic can sound good on any given person, it all depends on the matchup. I have a couple of LD "Secret weapons" I like a lot too. I've had a pair of SP C4's for quite a while now, and when I have multiple systems out and need more spot mics, these do more than fine in a pinch. (I call them my poor-man's KM-84's.)

    Next time Julianne Baird is on one of the concerts I produce for WRTI, I'll try to let you know. I've recorded her many times over the years here with Philomel and other local groups, and my go-to mic for her is my tired, beat-up vinatage KMi-84. We used it for their last CD recording with her as well, running it through a Grace m802. (http://www.philomel.org)

    I have a recording of the Ocean City Pops about to air on WRTI at the end of December, and we can talk about what went into recording the soprano (Rebecca Carr) for this, too. I'd like you to hear it (I think you get WRTI in your area?) and tell me what you think. The answer might surprise you. As they say....stay tuned. :wink:

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