Vocal Recording: Back Up From The Mic For Better Vocals

| Tips

Recording vocals seems easy at first. Just put a mic in front of your face and hit the “record” button, right?! If that’s the case, then why is it that everyone and their mother is asking about how to get better vocal recordings? Vocal recording and production is a huge topic mostly because vocals are what drive modern music, so you want to get them right.

The first step to a great vocal in your tracks is to record it better. So today I want to give you one very simple, very easy, no cost way to record better vocals at the source. This will make your mixing life a lot easier and you’ll enjoy the final product more. Are you ready for it?


TRR125 Back Up From The Mic For Better Vocals

Via Victor Pimentel Flickr

Move Your Singer Further Away From The Mic

Too many of us home/project studio people think the best way to record vocals is to put the vocalist right up on a mic. And when I say “right up on a mic” I’m talking anywhere from 1 to 6 inches away. Why do we do this? Two reasons: Because it’s what we see in the magazine ads and because we’re afraid of our “bad” room sound.

The Low End Problem

Two potentially bad things happen when you record that close to your mic. First you’ll get a lot of low end bass build up in your voice thanks to what’s known by the smart people as the proximity effect. Voiceover guys and broadcast announcers take advantage of this because it makes their voices sound boomier and bigger. For music recording, this is not a good thing. It will muddy your vocals and eat up tons of headroom in your mix.

Backing up from the mic instantly cuts out unnecessary low end, which allows you to get a healthy amount of vocal signal to your daw without need for extra EQ later on. Why not make your life easier at the offset?

The Swaying Head Syndrome

Secondly by recording so close, every slight bob of the singer’s head can affect the volume of the track greatly. The vocal volume goes from perfect one minute to annoyingly loud and awkward the next. Or the opposite, you’re getting a healthy signal to your DAW when all of a sudden the volume drops and you can’t make out the words. You might find yourself compensating for this by reaching for the gain knob on your preamp (which is annoying) or inserting a compressor to help out a bit, either way it’s a silly problem to deal with.

But all of this can be avoided by backing up closer to a foot or more away from the mic due to another geeky term, the Inverse Square Law, which basically means the further away you are, the less drastic of a volume change you’ll get from the inch or two movement in or out by the singer. This gives you way more play as the engineer. Your vocalist can bob around all he or she wants and you’ll get a much more even and natural sounding performance.

What About My Untreated Room?

Going back to why many of us tend to record vocalists (and everything for that matter) as close to the mic as possible; it’s to minimize room noise. We want to do this because, well, we might not have a great sounding room. Or we might have noisy neighbors or street noise. But don’t be so afraid of your room. In solo you might hear more “room” than you’re comfortable with, but with everything else in the mix it usually isn’t nearly as bad as you think.

And guess what? If your room sounds absolutely horrible, then don’t record vocals there! Setup shop in a closet somewhere with a bunch of clothes and pillows to tame early reflections on the wall. Then back up from the mic like I told you and you’ll get a great sound. Trust me.




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26 Responses to “Vocal Recording: Back Up From The Mic For Better Vocals”

  1. Andrew Bauserman

    Graham — So true !!! Thought I’d throw you 2 examples to support your case:

    After his recent passing, I came across this video of Davy Jones singing a children’s song. Look where he is relative to the mic. Skip to 3:11 and catch his last 4 words. They sound like he’s walking away, because he is! This isn’t volume automation. The EQ and openness of his voice change as he takes 2 steps back.

    Everyone’s heard of proximity-effect with cardioid mics. But do you know *exactly* how much boost you get, and on which frequencies? Recording Hacks’ awesome database has this data on very few mics. One with this data is the Shure Beta 58A: http://recordinghacks.com/microphones/Shure/Beta-58A
    Check out how much difference a change of 10mm (less than 1/2 inch) makes when you’re 2 inches from the mic (50mm – 60mm)! And if your lips are almost touching the mic (3mm), you get up near 1kHz before the effect is < 3dB. This graph makes it clear why the 80Hz high-pass filter on my lead singer's mic doesn't do as much as I expect — the first 15-20dB (at 80Hz) are just compensating for 2 inches of proximity-effect !!!

  2. John DeVault

    Great ideas. Backing away from the mic definitely helps me cut down on all the automation I have to do to tame the volume surges….not to mention the pops and sibilance.

  3. Dan

    Graham, could you talk more about ‘headroom’ sometime? I think I understand it, but it would be great to hear more about it. I think its one of those things that us not so smart people might not understand. 🙂

  4. Marijn

    Thanks, have a big recording project coming up in a couple of weeks, band with 5 vocalists. I certainly will keep this great advice in mind!

  5. SZKlemen

    Thank you for this one! Great advice!
    I always wanted to know why isn’t my voice clear as I hear others, and firstly I blamed mic 😉

    I have some more stuff to work on and will try this tip!

  6. Leo Alvarado

    I have a question on recording vocals. Where should I place the mic? Meaning do I place it towards the mouth, more towards the nose or chest? On pics you always see the mic hanging upside down more towards the nose. Is that correct to do? Or does it depend on the singers voice?

  7. Noah C

    what about a dynamic mic? Im sure the same rule applies, but does the ideal distance change?

  8. Angelo

    Are you aware of the John Coltrane / Johnny Hartman cd? It seems to me the vocals on it were recorded extremely close to the mic and they sound huge! In a good way! Then again, of course it IS Johnny Hartman..

  9. Nathan

    Graham, If we are recording vocals with an acoustic, or even in a live band setting and using a SM58, as opposed to a condenser mic in an isolated room, should we back off more than 6 inches? Thanks.

  10. Jim Covington

    How have you recorded Opera vocalists? ….. or vocalists who are not singing with a pop or rock group? All of my recording situations involve recording trained vocalists who are recording material that requires a huge vocal range and extreme vocal dynamics. The instrument accompaniment is usually simply a piano, or a string quartet which also plays with extreme dynamics. The mics I am using are AKG 414’s and some other Sony condensers. Recording the vocalists involves having he Opera vocalists always at least 6ft away….. the other classically trained vocalists around 2ft to 3 ft. from the mics. Most of the time all of the vocalists are recorded in large church sanctuaries. For the piano or string quartet, I use the placement techniques used by most of the old time engineers. For anyone who might be interested….. In the article in Sound On Sound……, there was a great discussion about mic placement techniques ….


    ….that many of those who enjoy your great articles and videos could also keep as a reference.
    I have passed along your site to 100’s of people that I have come in contact with who want or need advice on recording. I’ve learned quite a bit about digital recording from your video tutorials and articles.

    Thank you,

  11. rohan

    great tip.. would be great if someone could further detail if this applies to dynamic mics also..

  12. Kyle Echols

    One thing I’ve done when I have a vocalist who insists that they have to ‘eat the mic’ or they can’t sing is to put a second mic further away, record both to seperate tracks and then do a blind audition each for the singer. Guess which one they ALWAYS pick as the better sounding? You guessed it, NOT the one they were chewing on.

  13. Brian

    there are no rules….its all about the sound, effect, aand vibe your searching for…try all distances and angles and even what sidew of the mouth your singer is better from

  14. Tim

    And to think I was just about to go blow a bunch of money on a new vocal mic! Thanks for the slap in the face Graham!

  15. Clay

    Hey Graham,

    I recorded a client recently, and in the bridge he sang way louder towards the end (and I think must’ve backed off the mic a bit as well). The vocal for that line sounds thinner and like he’s almost in a different room than the rest of the song. Is there anything I can do to give it more presence and make it sound like the rest of his vocals?


    • Graham

      You could try some EQ just on that part of the track, but other than re record it, you’re stuck.


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