How hard can it be to dial in two knobs, one might think. Well, in all actuality it isn’t as simple as it seems, especially when it comes to mic preamps.
If you’d approach this task without proper expertise and consideration, you risk ruining your recording session since those kinds of mistakes are very hard to fix in post-production.
So to avoid this unfortunate situation, in this article, we will try to figure out what are the best mic preamp settings for vocals.
Mic preamp settings for vocals
Although setting a mic preamp is a fairly simple matter, it still requires some preparations and a little bit of understanding. How you dial in the controls depends whether you’ll get a warm and crisp, strong signal or clipping and unfixable mess. Of course, it should be mentioned that recording is a fairly complex process that consists of a few various steps that need to be taken. So before you even begin to think about dialing in your mic preamp, there’re quite a few important preparations to be made.
The quality of the recording, amongst other things, relies heavily on the environment in which it’s made. If you’re a happy owner of a properly treated recording studio, there’s nothing much else to be done and we’re good to go. But for the rest of us, home recording enthusiasts, it’s a very hot topic since even the best recording gear in the world couldn’t save a boomy room.
So your first job as a beginner home recording sound engineer is to make sure that there aren’t any unwanted reflections in the room that you’re working in. To eliminate the problem, you can purchase some prefabricated room acoustic treatment or do it yourself since the technology behind it is fairly simple. But even if you’re on a tight budget or simply couldn’t be bothered, something like a couple of carpets could change things drastically.
What mic to choose
When you’re happy with how your room sounds, it’s time to choose some microphones. Unfortunately, we couldn’t recommend you anything specific since we have no idea what your artistic aspirations are, however, there’re some tips we can share with you. If you’re on a pretty tight budget and prefer versatility, you may purchase a couple of very robust workhorses with a different character. If, on the other hand, you want to invest only in one well-rounded mic with a pedigree, there’re quite a few decent options to choose from. And, of course, nothing prevents you from having something best of both worlds.
What preamp to choose
It should be mentioned that a mic preamp isn’t amongst the necessary tools in your studio. Your audio interface already has a pretty decent built-in mic preamp. So practically, you don’t need to purchase an additional one, but although audio interface mic preamps are very efficient, they also tend to be very clean and transparent and it isn’t always a good thing. So it’s safe to say that professional audio engineers tend to use mic preamps not so much for practical reasons but more because of their distinguishable coloration. The more you push a preamp, the more it will distort the sound.
Tube vs transistor
If you decided that an external mic preamp is something that you need, there’s one last choice to be made. You have to decide if a tube preamp is more suitable for your needs or a solid-state one is what you desire.
Generally speaking, tube preamps will give you a more noticeable coloration if you push them hard. Solid-state equipment is a lot harder to distort. So transistor preamps obviously would give you much more clean gain, but tubes would provide you with a very distinguishable warmth. However it may be, it’s only up to you to decide what’s best for your particular needs.
Analog vs digital
If you’re on a tight budget or simply don’t feel like acquiring more hardware gear, there’s an alternative for you. Nowadays, digital emulations are extremely capable and can with ease recreate the non-linear behavior of analog gear. So theoretically, you shouldn’t be at any loss if you’d choose a digital plugin over some rather expensive analog preamp. Moreover, you’d have a very huge advantage of being able to tweak things even after the recording is done, which couldn’t be said about analog gear. Not to mention there’re plenty of very competitive options to choose from.
What preamp does
Now that you’ve chosen your perfect preamp, it’s time to understand what it does. Basically, a preamp is needed to bring the microphone signal up to the line level. In simpler terms, it just makes it louder. But in our digital age, it’s not a particularly useful function, so there’s another reason why mic preamps are so valued amongst audio production professionals.
Apart from adding a lot of volume to the signal, they also provide you with a lot of tonal flavor, which is very hard to achieve otherwise. So if you’re looking for some vintage coloration to add to your vocal, a proper mic preamp is a way to do it.
Depending on what exact model of preamp you got your hands on, it would have a certain number of various knobs on its faceplate, but we are only interested in two, with one of them being a gain knob. This knob controls the level of signal that goes to the output circuitry, which in turn sets the level of harmonic distortion. In other words, the gain knob lets you dial in the amount of coloration that the preamp would output. The higher you set the gain, the more distortion you would have, but it will also increase the output level to the point of clipping.
Since digital clipping is rather disappointing, to say the least, we need to somehow compensate the output level of the preamp. That’s where the volume knob comes in since it actually controls the level of the signal that comes out of a preamp. Output circuitry usually doesn’t have the capability of distorting too much, so it also could be used as a clean boost. Both gain and volume shouldn’t be used separately but rather in tandem, however, to actually understand how to use them, we need to educate ourselves with a bit of history.
Analog vs digital recordings
Vintage audio equipment used to be very noisy, so back in the day, audio engineers had to crank up the gain to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. The upside of that technique was that overdriven equipment produced very pleasant harmonic distortion on top of the very powerful signal. Nowadays, there’s nothing to be gained from recording the hottest signal possible since digital equipment has a very broad dynamic range and doesn’t produce any noise. Additionally, digital clipping doesn’t sound nearly as pleasant as an analog one, so it’s better to avoid it by recording with a lot of headroom. As a general rule, modern audio engineers tend to record 10 dB below 0 dBFS, which would be approximately -18 dBFS on a VU meter in your DAW.
How to set up a preamp
Now that we’re finally ready to adjust our preamp, you have to understand that the settings are very situational and the exact numbers very much depend on how loud the vocalist actually sings. All you have to do is make sure that the output level of your mic preamp matches the sweet spot we described above. After that, it’s as simple as deciding how much distortion would suit your particular project the best.
If you’re looking for a significant amount of coloration, turn your gain up until you’re satisfied and attenuate the signal with a volume knob to match -18 dBFS in your DAW. If you want a very clean and transparent sound, use as little gain as possible and turn up the volume to match the numbers above. You can always go higher than that, but be aware that this increases your chances to hit digital clipping.
Apart from gain and volume knobs, your preamp might have other adjustments that you may find of use. If your preamp is provided with low-cut and high-pass filters, you may clean your vocals a bit to save yourself some time later on. Cut somewhere around 80 Hz for male voice and somewhere around 100 Hz for female vocalists. If the signal from your microphone is too hot, you may attenuate it with a pad button if it’s provided. And you can use a phase switch if you record multiple microphones from different positions.
As we established by now, the mic preamp settings for vocals depend on how loud your vocalist sings. You can choose a tube, solid-state, or digital preamp, considering what suits your needs and capabilities the most. After you’ve chosen a perfect preamp, increase the gain if you want more coloration or decrease it if you desire a cleaner and more transparent sound, compensate the gain adjustments by setting the volume knob in such a way that it would hit -18 dBFS in your DAW. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself in the process.