This Article Originally Published in 1997
by Rob Chiarelli
Okay, so you find yourself spending hours trying to get your demo to sound like a record, but it just sounds like a demo and you want to know why. Well, most of you guys (and gals) probably have some pretty sophisticated stuff, but don't know how to get the most out of it. So, in the next few weeks I'll be sharing with you some ideas that will hopefully shed some light on the recording process, and the art of making killer demos.
So let's start with the basics.
The first thing to keep in mind is that a demo is just that, a demo. But that doesn't mean it can't sound great. For example, if you have a great ballad that sounds strong with just a piano and vocal, then don't spend 9 1/2 weeks doing the string arrangement, because chances are it won't sell the song. Spend the time on getting a great vocal. And when you mix it, make sure the vocal is clear as a bell and every word is understood. Let's talk about cutting vocals.
Sure there are a lot of choices in microphones, priced form $49.95 to 6,995.99. But even the most expensive microphone when placed incorrectly sounds like garbage. The key is distance, not EQ. Remember that eating the mic can be fine for live performances, but it generally chokes off the natural sound of the capsule. Have you ever had someone scream into your ear at 119 decibels? Well, a microphone works much the same way. Give it a couple of inches to breathe. And when cutting the vocal to tape, remember that the shortest path between the microphone and the tape is always the cleanest. A decent mic, a decent preamp, and a decent compressor will usually sound great direct, no EQ. Try it.
So, what's this thing called compression?
Although singers vary, and so do the characteristics of different mics and compressors, etc., a good rule of thumb is this: Less is more. Unless you realy want to change the sound of a vocal (or instrument) just use the compressor to cut off the peaks so the signal gets onto the tape properly. Over-compression will dull the vocal sound and make the vocal sound thin and unnatural. Most guys will use 4:1 to 6:1 compression when cutting a vocal. And remember, compression lights aren't supposed to be on all the time. Use your ears, they are always the best judge. If you have a compressor with an adjustable attack and release time, start with a fast attack and medium release and fine tune it with your ears.
EQ: When to use it, and when not to.
If the voice sounds good without EQ, don't use it. Just because there is a knob in front of you doesn't mean you have to turn it. Leave a good sound alone. If you're using a cheap dynamic mic that sounds dull to begin with and you can't correct it with mic placement, try a bit of EQ and brighten it up.. Intelligibility in a voice is usually around 6kHz. A little boost will do wonders. But if the microphone sounds "woofy", first try filtering out the low frequencies below 70Hz; that will usually clean up the low end garbage. If that doesn't do it, there's another problem area usually around 220Hz and another around 900Hz. Backing off a db or so there will usually do the trick, so don't over-do it.
If your mic has an adjustable pattern,(omni, cardioid, hyper-cardioid, figure 8) then I suggest you use the cardioid pattern (the heart shape) for lead vocals or up to four background singers (all placed in front of the mic in a semi-circle, fairly close to the capsule). For large groups (five or more singers) on a single mic, it may be more practical to place the singers around the mic and use the omni-directional (sphere) pattern. Let your ears and coomon sense be the judge.
What are some good microphones for the home studio?
If I were to buy just one mic for under $800.00, I would buy an AKG 414. They are great all around mic for both male or female vocals, background vocals, and acoustic instruments (and it's also one of my favorite drum mics). For that matter it works well on just about anything. That's why I recommend it. Other options might be the AKG C-1000, if you're on a smaller budget. If you don't mind spending $1300.00, a Neumann U-87 or TLM-170 are good choices, but I'm not sure it's going to make a difference in your demo (or record). Every professional studio in the world has at least two 414s and two U-87s. That should tell you something. But hey, if your really on a budget, a Shure SM-57 or SM-58 will work fine too. And for around $100.00 you can't beat it. Plus it's also a great stage mic.
Rob Chiarelli is part of TAXI's A & R department and has worked with artists such as Calloway, Teddy Pendergrass, Chuckii Booker, Club Nouveau, Samuelle, New Edition, and many others