How to set up a microphone for modern vocal recording

You’ve got a decent vocal microphone, but the vocal recordings you do in your home studio always sound a little bit “amateur”? Then there’s likely some room for improvement with your microphone placement Let’s look at the details of how different mic positioning affects the sound of vocals.

1. Starting Point

Before you experiment with different mic positions, it’s useful to set a baseline first that is known to work well in most cases. This is not only about the mic position in relation to the vocalist, but also the position in the room, etc. Here are some important points you should pay attention to when setting up:

  • Pick the right spot in the room for the vocalist. In general, this should be the driest-sounding, quietest corner, which should be covered with sound absorption material (the thicker the better).

  • Have the vocalist facing the room, so that the microphone is facing towards the corner, which should be the least reflective area of the room.

  • Point the off axis of the microphone (angle of least sensitivity) towards the middle of the room and potential noise sources. On cardioid microphones this is at 180°, directly opposite to the front. This setup will result in the maximum rejection of “room sound” and noise.

  • Keep some distance (around 1m / 3ft) to the corner to avoid excessive low-frequency buildup.

  • Start with a distance to the microphone (not the pop filter, if you’re using one) of around 15 cm / 6”. On some dynamic mics like the SM7B you can go right up against the windscreen for a very direct sound.

2. Adjustments and fine-tuning

Once you’re set, record some rough takes to see how the setup is working so far. Listen closely for the frequency balance, room echo, noise, dynamics (volume jumps/differences from movement).

If you’re already happy with the sound, you can still experiment a little with moving the mic around to see if you can get it even better sounding. Just make sure you know exactly how you had it setup in the first place.

If you want to improve certain aspects of the sound, here’s what you can do to fine-tune the sound:

  • Shorten the distance to the microphone if the vocal sounds thin and/or ambient/roomy. Be careful though, because the shorter the mic distance, the more exaggerated the sound differences caused by body movement.

  • Increase the distance to the mic if the sound seems uneven and/or muffled/boomy. Be careful about room noise or reverb when you do that.

  • Setup a pop filter in front of the mic and the vocalist if you’re getting wind noises or rumble from plosives (“p”, “b”, and maybe “t”, “d”, “k” sounds). Keep a little distance between the mic and the pop filter.

  • Alternatively you can move the mic a few inches to the side, while still pointing it at the mouth.

  • If you’re getting harsh sibilance (especially “s” and “sh” sounds), first try angling the mic a little bit (up/down/left/right), so it doesn’t point to the mouth directly.

  • You can also move the mic up/down or left right instead or combine both.

  • To make the voice sound warmer and fuller, try to pickup more of the chest resonances. You can do this by angling the mic down or moving it down (or both). Just make sure you’re not sacrificing the clarity and intelligibility.

  • If you’re getting a “nasal” or “hollow” sound, you can try aiming the mic away from the nose a bit more, as this is often where the corresponding frequencies are amplified.

3. Sound criteria a.k.a. what to listen for

Before you start recording your actual vocal takes, you’ll want to be certain you’ll be getting the most out of them sound-wise. The following are some things you should listen for when you’re dialing in the final vocal sound for the session:

  • Reverb from the room:
    • If you’re hearing even a little bit, get rid of it. Any amount of reverb / room echo will cause difficulties for the mixing engineer and possibly degrade the sound quality of your end product.
    • Place more sound absorption material on blank walls, especially near the vocalist / mic.
    • Check if you’re using the mic’s off axis correctly to reject as much “room sound” as possible.

  • Ambient noise:
    • Same as with reverb: Try to eliminate all kinds of unwanted noises.
    • Can you seal doors/windows better (if that’s where the noise comes from)?
    • Can you record in a quieter room that is better suited to record vocals?
    • Can you record at a different time (if the noise is present on a regular basis)?
    • If the noise is generated in the room itself, identify the source(s) and either remove them from the room, block the direct path to the mic, or try to set them differently (e.g. computer fans)
    • Again: Check if you’re using the mic’s off axis to the maximum benefit.

  • Frequency balance
    • Low-end of the voice (fundamental frequencies)
    • harmonics in the midrange
    • presence
    • sibilance range and
    • air
  • Dynamics
    • Relationship between loud/quiet parts or words
    • Watch out for volume fluctuations caused by vocalist’s movement
    • Sonic differences from quiet / low pitch to loud / high pitch
    • Try varying the mic distance to get a consistent tonal quality (if needed)

  • Context in the mix
    • Does the vocal sound equally full and present in every part of the arrangement?
    • Does it cut through walls of guitars (if applicable)?
    • Is the overall sound / frequency balance still intact once all instruments are added to the mix?
    • Do you hear any harshness or other unpleasant sound qualities once the vocal is loud enough to be heard through the mix (or when you play back the recording at a high volume)?

4. You’re ready to track!

You’re done with the sound check! If everything’s sounding nice and balanced already, you’re all set for the actual tracking part of the recording session. Make a little break and then nail the performances!

You’re doing the recordings yourself but don’t know how to tackle the mixing process properly on your own? Click below to learn how I can help you.

Raphael Arnold

Audio Engineer | Producer