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How can you get excellent vocal quality from a normal mic?

An RP reader wishes to improve the sound he gets from his microphone. Is this possible, or does he need a better mic?

Question from an Audio Masterclass reader...

Sir, How can I improve the quality of vocals obtained from a normal mic? I have used reverb, multiband compressors, parametric equalizers & filters. Reverb gives a little less than OK quality, but I am just not able to produce any pro kind of vocal quality from it. I don't think it's impossible to obtain excellent vocal quality from a normal mic.

Suggestions are more than just welcome. I desperately need your help.

Yours vocally, Shashank

Although Shashank's question is very interesting, unfortunately he doesn't say what model his 'normal' microphone is.

The fact is that there are very many absolutely dreadful microphones around that are total unsuitable for pro audio. That is why you should buy your mics from pro audio dealers!

Low-cost microphones have improved tremendously in the last couple of decades and, as long as you shop at a pro audio specialist, it's almost impossible to buy a mic that won't do a decent professional job.

Here at RP, we have long regarded the Shure SM57 as the baseline pro mic. It's cheap and it does a very good job on most sound sources. It isn't quite bright enough to capture metallic percussion accurately, and its low output means that if a sound source is quiet or distant, then the results can be a little noisy. Despite this however, the basic sound is pro.

So let's suppose that you do have a basic pro mic. What can then be done to improve its sound quality?

Well the answer to this is all in the positioning of the mic. In fact, mic positioning makes far more difference to sound quality than which mic you use, as long as it's a pro mic of course.

The acoustic you are recording in matters greatly too. The worst kind of acoustic is the 'small room sound' of a typical domestic room. Untreated domestic rooms are generally small, with hard reflecting surfaces. That's bad.

Acoustic treatment is always a good idea in such circumstances, but the very least you could do would be to find the best-sounding room in the house. That costs nothing.

Larger rooms can often have a very useable acoustic. A larger, slightly reverberant room can suit acoustic instruments and classical voices very well.

For popular music vocals however it is always best to capture a very dry sound, with as little ambience and reverberation as possible. Once you have captured a good clean sound, you can process it any way you want.

So if you add a lot of sound absorption to your recording area and capture a clean, dry sound using a pro mic, you have the raw material of a pro sound.

One thing is absolutely certain - unless you capture a good sound at the output of the microphone, there is no preamp, process or effect that can help. It is impossible to turn a poor or mediocre sound into a pro sound. The best you could hope for is to make it a little less mediocre.

So in summary, if you want to get a pro sound from your microphone, firstly it needs to be a mic of at least a basic pro standard. Then you need an appropriate acoustic. Once you have that, experiment with microphone position to get the perfect pro sound that you require.

Oh by the way, the photograph is of an AKG D190E. which is as good an example of a mediocre microphone as you will find. It isn't a bad mic, but it doesn't reach the baseline pro standard. You may find some sound sources that it can handle well enough, but for vocals and important instruments, it just doesn't make the grade.

By David Mellor Saturday April 25, 2009