In The Minimalist series, we’re discussing simple solutions to a variety of audio applications and situations. In the previous post, we looked at streamlined PA setups for singer/songwriters. This time around, we’ll cover ways to record multiple singers with just one mic.
There’s a long tradition of recording a group of singers gathered around one mic, and it can be quite effective under the right circumstances. It’s a particularly useful technique if you’re recording an acapella group or barbershop quartet, or some other ensemble where the singers have experience blending their voices together. In those cases, the vocalists might find it disconcerting to sing their parts as overdubs.
Another good application for a single mic with a group of singers is if you’re going for a big choir sound, but only have a few vocalists. Instead of recording them one at a time, you can layer many tracks of them singing together, which will save time and sound more authentic. Even if you’re just layering harmony parts on a pop song with a couple of singers, using one mic is often a good choice.
In this post, we’ll look at what you need, both in terms of gear and technique, to record successful group vocals on a single mic.
Finding a Pattern
For group vocal recording, it’s useful to have access to mics with different polar (aka “pickup”) patterns. The pattern indicates how the microphone picks up sounds. Depending on the situation, you can use the characteristics of different polar patterns to your advantage.
Many mics have a single pattern, but others, such as the AKG C414 XLS let you switch between several. Cardioid is the most common polar pattern. It’s considered “unidirectional,” which means that it picks up mostly from the front, and rejects from the back and sides. Supercardioid and hypercardioid are other variations, with even tighter pickup areas.
A mic with a Figure-8 pattern (aka “figure of eight”) is considered “bi-directional.” It picks up equally from the front and back, and rejects sounds from the sides. A mic with an omnidirectional pattern (aka “omni”) picks up sounds from all directions equally. All three patterns have their uses in different types of group-vocal situations.
Unless you need to fit more than few people around the mic, it’s usually best to avoid omnidirectional patterns. This is especially true in home studios where the room acoustics are often subpar. Since an omnidirectional mic picks up from all around, it will capture more reflected room sound. Also, omnidirectional mics don’t give you the “proximity effect,” which is a bass boost that occurs when you get close to mics with other patterns. The proximity effect is often useful for singers, giving their voices a little more heft.
With cardioid or figure-8 mics, you want to capture a voice (or any source, for that matter) “on-axis.” That means directly into where the mic picks up. Sounds picked up off-axis will not be as loud or as clean. That’s one of the reasons you wouldn’t want to put two or more singers on separate mics in the same room. The sound of one singer will be picked up slightly in the other’s mic (this is known as “bleed” or “leakage”), and vice-versa. The bleed will be off-axis, so it will not sound as good as the direct sound. Even worse, the singers’ voices won’t be totally isolated on their respective tracks, which can cause a number of headaches during mixdown.
Now that we’ve gotten those basics out of the way, let’s look at three different group-vocal scenarios.
If you want to record two singers on the same mic, figure-8 is your pattern of choice. Because a figure-8 mic picks up evenly at the front and back, put one singer on each side.
If you have up to four singers, you can gather in a semi-circular configuration around the front of a cardioid pattern mic. If nobody moves too far to the side, you should be able to achieve a pretty good blend and sound. You’ll hear it if someone has moved past the mic’s pickup area and is being recorded off axis.
The advantage to using cardioid in this instance is that you’ll get less room reflections than you would in omni. In a home studio, where acoustics are more likely to be problematic, this could help you get a better sound.
If you have a larger group, using an onmidirectional pattern mic is the way to go. If you can fit everyone around the mic at an equal distance, they’ll get picked up evenly. For all three scenarios, start with everyone equidistant from the mic and adjust positioning as needed to fit the vocal arrangement, and to compensate for singers with louder or softer voices.
When it comes to recording group vocals, sometimes simpler is better. If the circumstances are right, the single-mic approach is efficient, and can result in excellent sounding tracks. Do you have any insights into achieving great results using the single-mic technique? Let us know what worked for you in the comments.