"RECORDING A SINGER IN STUDIO WITH A DYNAMIC MIC: HERESY OR GENIUS?"
June 28, 2020 / By Francesco
An analysis of musicality and phisical limits
We don’t know how everybody sets his mind when planning a recording, but we always like to experiment and be creative trying to fix the problems we encountered in previous sessions. Recording live performances, or studio sessions where the artists request as little edits as possible, our number 1 problem is always signal bleeding. What we find most challenging is an opera singer accompanied by a piano. They try to stand as close to the piano as possible for obvious reasons, but technically is a great challenge to get their voice right (timbre, volume, air, etc.) without taking in a lot of the piano signal too.
As we all know piano is one of the instruments with the broadest spectrum of formant frequencies, so it’s always going to be in the way. During the last several years, we really got creative, looking for ways to fix this, but really we just put a band-aid on a bullet wound.
Then it just hit us: while planning a recording session and choosing the right microphones and positions, more or less “official” stereo techniques, we always had a fixed point: we’ve got to put our best sounding condenser microphone (or microphones) on the voice!
Why is that? Why we (and we believe many of our colleagues) just can’t think of a different solution for the main voice than to go to the most expensive LDC we’ve got in the drawer. Prior to this epiphany, we usually went for our AKG C414’s or a great choice like the Aston Spirit, or the new standard in the field, the Austrian Audio OC18, otherwise we rented some real expensive stuff just for the occasion. Sure, with the correct placement, the voice came through at its best, but we still had a ton of bleeding in the track.
Then we remembered as we still were students and got the chance to attend a mixing session in a local studio. The artist came in and the tracks were pretty much done and ready to be printed, when suddenly he felt that a certain track still lacked some backing vocals in the chorus (he’s an indie pop songwriter). Being 4am the engineer didn’t want to set up the sound booth and just plugged a Sennheiser MD 421 (dynamic, n.b.A.) in the control room, put it on a stand facing the back of the studio and didn’t even bother to give some headphones to the singer. I argued that the entire mix (played through the main monitors) would be caught up by the mic, but after the take we listened to it back and it was almost imperceptible.
We remembered this while we planned our last session before the lockdown, and having just acquired a vintage Sennheiser MD 441 (another dynamic microphone), decided to give it a try. Since we didn’t have time to experiment and change too many microphones, and having a lot of microphone channels in our setup, we set up a small stereo bar on top of a stand and connected side by side an AKG C414 EB (as the safe way that would get us our recording anyway) and the MD 441. Placed around 1.5 meters away from the singer and pointing directly at the piano lid behind the singer’s shoulders - not an ideal position, but we also had to make room for the camera shooting the video of the performance. The results were astonishing: all the little nuances of the mezzosoprano voice were there, but the piano was way dampened. Of course we didn’t choose just whatever dynamic microphone: just putting a SM57 in front of an opera singer is maybe not the best idea (although…), but we shouldn’t discard dynamic mics just because we learned that they are less sensitive or because the SM57 is for tracking electric guitars, the MD 441 belongs on the snare and toms, and the vocals are recorded with a Neumann U87.
Thinking outside of the box is sometimes rewarding and you can learn also from your own experience (and alas more often form your own mistakes).
"Thinking outside of the box is sometimes rewarding"
June 28, 2020 / By Francesco