High-end pro gear is also smoother with less harmonic distortion at any operating level so the sound is automatically purer. Finally, pro gear will more often interface well, i.e., drive any subsequent processor you’d like in your vocal recording chain—from pro to junk.
I try to start with the best gear possible and I have my own collection to use when I’m “camping out” in a studio that does not offer my fave pieces. As an independent engineer, it’s a smart investment to own a high quality professional vocal recording chain you can use anywhere.
For more reasons that are not necessary to cover here, there are two schools of thought about the design philosophies and sound of mic pre-amps:
—“Super pristine” and transparent to convey accurately the microphone’s signal
—“Enhancement” – sonic embellishment through harmonic coloration and/or the inherent characteristics of non-linear, small signal amplifiers
Both types have their place in today’s recording but my preference for vocals (unless directed otherwise by the artist and producer) is for a transparent and clean signal chain. Some of my choices for clean, discrete transistorized mic pre-amps include the George Massenburg Labs GML 8302, Audio Engineering Associates RPQ, Avalon Design M5, and Millennia Media HV-3 and STT-1.
For tube-based pre-amps that can be operated in clean modes, I’ve always liked the Manley Mic/EQ-500 Combo, Groove Tube ViPre, DW Fearn VT-1, and old Telefunken V72 units. Tube mic pre-amps, by virtue of the tubes, have a built-in “personality.” They can be very clean but, when overdriven, get into coloration zones unique to each of them.
“Colorful” transistor microphone pre-amps I like are the old British Neve 1066, 1073 and 1084 modules for their thick-sounding Class-A design and line input, mic input and output transformers; for more punch and purity, I like the API (Automated Processes Inc.) model 512C amplifier for its Class-AB amp that gives a harder and “in your face” presence; the Helios Type 69 mic/EQ unit is ‘60s-era technology and a very “vibey” sounding unit also from England; and the Chandler Germanium, which uses esoteric transistors to produce its unique sound.
Mic & Signal Chain System
When deciding on a vocal recording chain, consider both the mic and mic preamp as a system. If you’re looking for a super warm and “tubey” sound, try using a tube condenser and a tube mic pre-amp.
Such was my choice for recording Rod Stewart on a couple of albums. He sounded best on a completely stock and original Neumann U67 tube condenser (no pad and no roll-off) into a tube-based Manley EQ500 Mic/EQ Combo that I followed with a TubeTech CL1-B compressor—a slightly colorful and all tube signal chain. This chain did not accentuate Rod’s raspy vocal quality we all love, yet it kept enough mid-range cut to compete with the track.
A much cleaner and more pristine path might be a Brauner Phanthera FET-based condenser microphone into a GML 8302 mic pre-amp followed by a dbx 160SL compressor that uses a VCA (voltage controlled amplifier) for nearly transparent gain control.
This signal chain would produce a more neutral or uncolored sound that is completely faithful to the source. I’ve found recording choirs with a super-clean chain like this reproduces the rich harmonic content in the best way.