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Q: Why don't my vocals sound nice?

"I have a Behringer B-2 PRO mic and a Creative E-MU Tracker Pre audio interface, but I still don't get vocals as nice as those I hear from others. What can I do?"


Firstly, congratulations on equipping your studio for a very low price! You could easily have paid ten times as much for equipment that would perform a similar function.

But the question is, have you bought too cheaply? After all, if your equipment isn't up to the job, then you surely won't be making recordings of professional quality?

We haven't heard either of these items unfortunately. But we have certainly heard recordings made with similarly low-cost microphones, preamps and audio interfaces.

Firstly, let's consider the audio interface. Or actually let's not, since we haven't heard any audio interface that is sold into the pro audio market that isn't capable of making recordings of professional quality. That isn't to say that all interfaces are equal, and perhaps the Tracker really is a dog. But we doubt it. The interface is unlikely to be the cause of your problems.

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What about the preamp, which is integrated into the Tracker audio interface?

Well we have heard preamps that are audibly not as good as a decent preamp should be.

In days gone buy you could come across preamps that were not properly matched to the output of typical microphones. The result was excessive noise levels.

Even now you can come across preamps that are noisier than they should be. But you would be very unlucky to find a modern preamp that didn't have an adequate frequency range or had excessive distortion.

But although some modern preamps can be noisier than they should be, with a good strong signal level the noise should be completely overwhelmed. When recording a close-miked vocal, noise should not be an issue. So the preamp is unlikely to be the cause of your problems.

So what about the microphone? Well as I said earlier, we don't have experience of this mic here. But we have heard a number of microphones that are sold at a similar price point.

Now we have to say that you can't expect a $150 microphone to sound like a $1500 Neumann. So when it comes to nice-sounding vocals, then you can expect a recording made with a top-notch studio mic to be a little nicer.


If you can only afford $150 for your microphone, does this mean that you cannot make professional recordings?

We have heard recordings made with a number of low-cost microphones. With very few exceptions, the low-cost microphones we have heard are indeed capable of recording to a standard that would be acceptable professionally. By 'acceptable professionally' we mean that the recording would be approved and paid for by a real-world client, and wouldn't be held back from selling in the commercial marketplace in any way.

Remember that we are talking about microphones that are sold into the pro audio market, not mics sold in gadget stores.

So although the microphone might not sound as good as the best mics, the microphone is unlikely to be the cause of your problems.

So, as Sherlock Holmes has been known to say, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains - however improbable - must be the truth.

There are three remaining factors to consider...

What about the acoustic of the recording studio? In pro studios, vocal recordings are typically made very dry and without ambience. Reverb might be added later but the original recording is dry. So because that is the professional way of doing things, if a home studio owner can't make dry recordings, free from ambience, then their recordings won't sound professional.

We hear a lot of student work that is over-ambient, so ambience could well be the cause of your problem.

We also hear a lot of student work that is riddled with pops, breath blasts and other undesirable mouth noises. So improper recording technique could well be the cause of your problem.

But the most likely cause of lack of 'niceness' in your vocal recordings...

The singer!

Yes, the number one cause of lack of professionalism in recording is poor source material.

You can read a whole 200-page issue of Sound on Sound from front to back and see exhortations from advertisers telling you that all you need to make great recordings is equipment, preferably expensive equipment and lots of it.

But in reality, the quality of musicianship is far more important to the success of a recording than the equipment, as long as the equipment is of a basic professional standard.

One more point...

The vocals you hear in commercially-released recording are almost always processed through EQ and compression and may have reverb added. So one last possibility remains that the person who asked the question is actually making good recordings, but has not yet learned how to turn them into a 'produced' vocal sound.

By David Mellor Friday December 17, 2010