Blog #4— How did the producers and engineers of the past select a vocal microphone for an artist?

It is an easy question to answer. And, as an assistant engineer who had to set this process up for the producer, the artist and the engineering team— it was also, a lot of fun to do. We would have what was called a mic shoot-out. This is how a mic shoot-out would work. The artist would be brought into the facility and I would set-up an array of great vocal microphones for them to sing a pass of a song on, we would record each pass and after listening to them— the producer, artist and engineering team would agree on the microphone that was the best fit for the artist. In reality, the artist and the producer made the decision— but, the engineer would offer their input, if they were asked for it (assistants like myself would just listen and take notes— more on that at a later time).

So, what were the microphones that I would set-up for a shoot-out? Since, I was the one who took notes for each of our sessions, this is also a straightforward question to answer. It would, of course, depend on the type of vocalist and also, upon what we would have available in our mic locker for them. But, the following is a list of the microphones that I would set-up for a shootout for a vocalist: (I will provide links for each of these microphones, so that you can see what they look like and find out more information about each one of them. You will be visiting the website for the amazing folks at Neumann quite a bit.)

Neumann U67 (this microphone has recently been re-issued by Neumann)

Neumann U47 (no longer made by Neumann, but Telefunken Elektroakustik does make a version of it, and clone models are available, too)

Neumann U87

Neumann M49 (no longer made by Neumann, but, clone models of it are available)

AKG C12 (no longer made by AKG, but Telefunken Elektroakustik does make a version of it, and clone models are available, too)

Telefunken ELAM 251E (made by Telefunken Elektroakustik)

Manley Gold Reference Tube

and sometimes— an AKG 414, a Sanken CU-41, or an Audio-Technica 4050 or 4033.

The next question which almost always follows this list is— which one would win most of the time? It depended on the vocalist and which microphone was the best fit, and no one mic would win out more than any of the others. However, we used the Neumann U67 on every single background vocal, and until we acquired the Telefunken ELAM 251, the following microphones were used on our vocalists or won our shootouts at one point or another— the AKG C12, Manley Gold Reference Tube, the Neumann U47 and the Neumann U67. It may surprise some of you that the Sanken CU-41 and the Audio-Technica 4033, also had won earlier shootouts prior to me joining the team. Also, I loved using the Neumann M49 as a vocal microphone and we rented one of our pair of Neumann M49s to other producers who used it on their vocalists who were prominent artists at one point or another while I was working at Curb Studio.

For someone who loves music, but has never seen one of these amazing microphones before, here is a frame of reference for you. It may be humorous, but I think about each of the classic vocal microphones in this manner, as it was described to me by the legendary Nashville-based recording engineer, Gene Eichelberger— a mic sounds like it looks, so, for example, a Neumann M49 is a large microphone that can take a small voice and make it sound much bigger and smoother— think, Dolly Parton, for example. It is a beautiful microphone for female vocals. A Neumann U47 has a long, but, very large body, as well, and it is a very rich and smooth sounding microphone— think, Aretha Franklin. A Telefunken ELAM 251 is a long bodied and broad microphone that has a smooth and creamy sound to it. It is an incredible microphone to use on grand female voices that have tremendous dynamic range— think, Whitney Houston, for example. The AKG C12 is a great microphone with a very long body and it is great for male vocalists that have a tremendous dynamic range— think, John Berry. The Neumann U67 is a tremendous vocal microphone that sounds great on almost any vocalist, but it really shines on character voices— vocalists who do not have a tremendous dynamic range, but whose vocals require a smooth response— think, Glen Campbell. I will make a playlist, so you can hear each of these amazing vocal microphones in action, and of course, I have set-up each of them many, many times.

I am often asked, “Can one of the legendary microphones that we would use in a recording studio make a friend of mine who sings in the church choir sound like a professional?” The answer is almost always a disappointing, “No.” First, the amazing tube microphones of the past were not designed to make you sound better, instead they were designed to capture what is already great about you. Think of it like this— while recording the classic hit song, "Hey, Jude," in 1968, a Neumann U67 did not make Paul McCartney a better singer, he was already phenomenal, it just revealed what was already great about his amazing voice. Plus, we must also consider that when it came to a vocal performance, the microphone was not the only element that you are able to hear on a recording. For us, for example, the vocal chain would include an amazing sounding preamp and compressor, as well, so this must be factored into our thinking about what you are hearing. So a vocal chain— the elements in the pathway for a vocalist to have their voice recorded might look something like this for most of the legendary engineers of the past: a tube microphone (or a ribbon microphone, as well— more on those in a later post), a preamp and a compressor— then the signal would be recorded onto a tape machine (analog or later, digital— now it is recorded into a digital audio workstation where it will be converted from an analog signal into a digital one prior to being recorded).

It is my hope that those of you who are not in the engineering community will find these blog posts insightful, as they will tell you about how we were able to record the great songs and the legendary artists of the past who performed them. For those of you who are in the engineering community, maybe it will shed some light on how we used to work with the great artists of the past and what microphones we would select to use on their famous vocal tracks that have become legendary. It is my hope that this post will find each of you having a great day and the beginning of a wonderful weekend for both you and your families, as well—

Many thanks— JL


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