A Day in the Life of an Engineer

(or Getting the Best Possible Sound on a Vocalist)


The singer was an alto with a voice as big as a barn, and I mean that in a good way. She has enormous warmth and depth to her voice. You've probably heard her on the radio (if you've listened to the radio in the last 10 years).


The mic lineup was:


1 Neumann U67 (vintage)

2 Telefunken 251 (vintage)

3 Neumann M149 (new)

4 A-T 4060 (new)

5 Manley Gold (new)

6 AKG C-12 (vintage)

7 Brauner VM-1 (new)


The mic pre lineup was:


Neve 31102


Focusrite ISA-110

Buzz Audio MA-2


We started with all the mics on stands adjusted to her vocal height. All

the mics were lined up with all the diaphragms in the same vertical plane at

exactly the same height. We started with all the mics going through the Neve

console we were recording on. The reason for this is that I wanted to move

through the mics as quickly as possible. So all mics were plugged into the

console pre's and assigned to individual tracks, so that I could record all of them and

let the artist come in and hear the results. Involving the artist is a critical step. Not

only do they get to hear the options and make their opinion known, it also involves

them intimately in the process of capturing their most valuable asset--their voice. So

always record the mic outputs onto separate tracks. It also allows you to go back and

double check your first impressions.

Also, double check and make sure all the mics are working before the

artist steps up. And put a noise source in the studio (like a portable radio

or metronome) and adjust the mics so that the output level is close from mic

to mic. Differences in gain of as little as .5 dB can affect your sonic

impression and judgment when comparing two pieces of equipment.

Now for the moment of truth. We ran the track to her phones and made sure

she was comfortable with the levels and then started.


1) The Neumann U67 ($4K and up)--a great vocal mic, and works well on female

vocalists especially. Nice and warm are typical characteristics.


She sang two lines through it and I stopped the tape. NEXT. It was way too

mushy for her. Warm but not defined. Sounded very covered. It took about 4

seconds to know it was wrong.


2) Telefunken 251 ($6.5K and up)--a great vocal mic that many artists won't

record without. The second engineer in Branson, MO when I recorded Andy

Williams (of Moon River fame) said it was Andy's favorite mic.


She sang the first verse. It sounded better than the 67, much better. It had

an interesting mid-rangy character. The top end was better, but it sounded

very processed. I double checked the patching, because it sounded like there

was a compressor in the circuit. Nope. It just pinched down and compressed

the sound. Next.


3) Neumann M-149 ($4500)--I used this mic in a shootout with another female

vocalist several months ago and it trounced everything in the lineup except

for a 4050, which was close but not as warm. I borrowed this one from a

friend because I thought it would be magic on this artist's voice.


First verse again. Nice midrange. OK on the top but nothing to write home

about. A little husky in the 200-400 range. Overall it sounded very nice. No

magic though. Oh well, sometimes it works. Then there are other times.


4) A-T 4060 ($1100)--the cheapest mic in the lineup. This is a great mic, as

you can tell by the fact that it's even in the running.


Ran the tape. Sounds dark. Dark and flat. Hmmm. I've heard lots of people say

that this is a bright mic. Judging by its cheaper siblings (4033 and 4050),

it should be. This one is the second biggest disappointment in the lineup. It

is definitely out. It sounds worse than any others except the 67. And one

other thing. It has the same squashy, compressed sound that the Telefunken

had. To some, that might be a compliment, sounding like a Telefunken.

For today, I'll pass.


5) Manley Gold ($5000)--I've never even seen this mic before, but the guys at

Underground Sound said I should check it out. It sure looks good on the mic

stand. There's something psychologically inspiring about singing into

something that is gold-plated. Anyway...


First verse. Whoa! We have a serious contender here. Not to imply that I was

worried, though. This mic sounds a lot like her voice. Tons of presence.

Warmth for days. It's big and full but still has lots of top. Man, it sounds

good. Really good. I'm glad I had it here.


6) AKG C-12 ($6K and up)--This is considered by many engineers to be THE

vocal mic. I knew going in that this was the mic that the singer had used in

the past and knew she liked. The security blanket in the lineup, for the

artist and the engineer both.


Ran the tape. Nice. I must admit that there is something about this mic that

"likes" vocals. It has a sizzly top end that is exaggerated for sure, but not

to the point of being splatty. It is a definite winner. It sounds good enough

that I could use it flat to tape. Definitely a finalist.


7) Brauner VM-1 ($5K)--I've been more excited about this vocal mic than just

about any other mic in a long time. The last time I recorded Amy Grant, this

mic won out over 5 other primo mics, including Keith Thomas's C-800G that we

had sent over because she had used it for all the vocals on her last record.

It's bright but not sizzly. Very sweet mic. This was my expected winner from the start.

Tape, please...


Dang. It's really bright. Really crispy. Almost harsh. It's

glorious in its detail and sounds really nice overall, but it's just too

bright for her voice. This surprises me a bit, because I remember it being

warmer sounding than the 800G, which is admittedly a very transparent mic.

Sorry, don't call us. We'll call you.


Time for the artist to come in and give her impressions. And get the

producers take too.


****** Page 2 ******


The artist and producer already had pretty good ideas of what they liked.

Artists can tell by what they're hearing in their phones whether or not

they'll like singing on a certain mic. They want it to flatter them in the

phones. "Don't give me the truth, just tell me lies."


We listened through and they rated each mic.


The 67 I had recorded over.

The Telefunken and 4060 were non starters.

The 149 was warm, but that was all.

The Brauner was just too, too bright.

(Is this starting to sound like Goldilocks and the three mics?)


The contenders were the C-12 and the Manley.

The C-12 had "the stuff" but it lacked the breadth on the bottom. The C-12

was a little sizzlier, but not in a way that I couldn't pick up with

equalization. The Manley had it all and seemed to compliment her voice the



The consensus was that the Manley was the most flattering on her voice.


The one thing that I know for sure is that I'm glad I took the time to check

out as many options as possible. All these mics are great. On a given day,

any one of them would work fine on her voice. None of them sounded bad (well,

I'm being diplomatic). But there were startling differences from mic to mic,

and the winner was just slightly better than the second runner up (C-12).


The most important thing though...the artist knew that I really cared about

capturing her instrument. I mean, how crazy is it to spend two hours on drum

sounds and then 10 minutes on the vocal sound when it's a vocalist's record?

Whose picture is going on the cover anyway?

She was sure that we were going to capture every nuance of her vocal

performance and make sure she sounded better than she had ever sounded



That makes for a good vocal performance, which is what this is all about.


Tear down all the other mics and let's start shooting out preamps.


******* Page 3 *******


In our last episode, Lynn Engineer and Larry Producer had decided with Amy

Artist that the Manley mic was the best. So now it was time to decide on



We lined up four. Using 30 dB of gain on each.


The mic pre contestants were:


Neve 31102

Martech MSS-10

Focusrite ISA-110

Buzz Audio MA-2


1) The preamp in the Neve 8068 that we were recording on. This is the

pre we had used to decide which mic to use, so it was the benchmark.

We rolled the tape...

It sounded nice. Very usable. Everyone thought it was very nice sounding.


2) The Martech MSS-10. This unit belongs to a good friend of mine that I

greatly respect as an engineer. He loves it and uses it exclusively on vocals. Other

engineering luminaries like All Schmitt use it as well.

I was quite eager to hear it.


We plugged the Manley into it and rolled the tape. Ouch. Very bright.

Enormously bright. And very hard, even brittle in the midrange. We turned it

off after about 10 seconds. The sound was so piercing that I kept wanting to

turn it down, and even after turning it down, I kept wanting to turn it



I know the person who designed this preamp and have used his gear and

modified consoles for years. He's a genius. The only way I can describe this

reaction and this sound is that there must be some mismatch between

the output and input impedance of the mic and the pre. It was really

unusable. (Again, that is for THIS voice in THIS studio with THIS mic on

THIS day.)


3) The blue Focusrite ISA-110s. This unit, which I have owned since 1987

(the first ever Focusrite gear in Nashville, by the way), has been my

reference preamp for years. There are few things that don't sound phenomenal on

it. I plugged the mic into it.


Sure enough, I was not disappointed. It sounded about 60% bigger than the

Neve pre. There was a depth and dimensionality that words can't describe. It

was warm and present and seemed to have "more of everything" than the Neve,

which we had all agreed sounded nice. We think we have a clear winner. It

probably can't get any better than this. But on to contestant #4.


4) The Buzz Audio MA-2. This 2 channel mic pre is very rare. (There are six

of them in the Western hemisphere. I should know. I imported them all

myself.) They are made in New Zealand. I found out about them when a producer

returned from recording a project "down under" and we spent 6 hours trying

to match a vocal sound. We couldn't do it with ANYthing in Nashville. So I

spent months tracking down the builder and eventually bought six pair of

them. I can tell you more if you want to know.


So we lined it up and rolled the tape. Wow.


It wasn't like the Focusrite. It was warmer and bigger and had all the

presence of the Focusrite but it was smoother in the midrange. It made the

Focusrite sound more like the Class AB design that it is. (The Buzz is all

discrete Class A.) The midrange was silky, not forward. The warmth of the

vocal just came out of the speakers and wrapped around you like a big warm

hug. The sound was huge. It accented her enormous voice and brought out the

lower midrange richness that we were looking for like no other pre did.


So, the verdict?


The artist came in. Agreed with my conclusions on the first two.

Nice on #1.

Harsh on #2.


Now the hard part. Do we like the more focused, present but slightly forward

midrange from the Focusrites or the warmer bigger sound of the Buzz?


After some discussion, I convinced them that getting the midrange presence

of the Focusrite would be easier to accomplish by EQing the Buzz than to get

the warmth of the Buzz by low end EQing the Focusrite.


So the final verdict was Manley to the Buzz with 28 dB of gain.


We tried patching in my Tubetech CL-1A and it messed too much with the

sound. We tried patching in my Pultecs to do any EQing that we might need on

a cut to cut basis. It changed the sound too much too.


So the whole record was cut with the mic feeding the pre feeding the

tape machine input. It sounds fabulous. It doesn't need a thing. A second engineer

heard it today (different second , different studio) and was bowled over

by the depth and warmth of her voice. I

think we captured the best her voice has to offer and she agrees with us. It

really does sound great.


Now to make sure we keep that sound in the mix. That's the task for this



Lynn Fuston

3D Audio Inc

Music Mixing and Mastering

Franklin, TN


email: go3daudio@aol.com


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