Vocal Chains for 4 Different Genres
Every genre has its own unique sonic signature. Pop music is known for being ultra-slick, while punk music is raw and unfiltered. EDM is quantized tight to the grid while jazz is loose and free-flowing.
A good engineer understands how every piece of equipment in the signal chain affects the sound. While one microphone may sound great for one vocalist, it may sound terrible on the next.
You wouldn’t show up to a blues session with your Dimebag Darrell tribute guitar, right? The same concept applies to selecting the right vocal chain. In this blog, we’ll break down some of our favorite vocal chains for recording different genres, including pop, hip-hop, rock and R&B.
Vocal Chain for Pop / Electronic
Pop music is all about capturing a clean, detailed sound. Superstars like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande have their choice of world-class studios, stocked with high-end microphones that many of us only dream of.
Large-diagram condenser microphones like the AKG C12, Neumann u87, and Manley Reference microphone are common choices for pop music, due to their brilliant top-end and crystal-clear sound.
However, with the rise of ‘bedroom pop stars’ such as Billie Eilish, Halsey, and Clairo, more and more artists are finding success using more affordable microphones, such as the Neumann TLM 103 and the Mojave Audio MA-200.
As for EQ, you’ll need something capable of making cuts with surgical precision, as well as broad, gentle boosts. The ideal EQ will add shimmer and shine to your vocal track without making it sound harsh or shrill. The Manley Massive Passive, GML 8200 or Maag Audio EQ4 are all excellent choices.
When it comes to compression, the Tube-Tech CL 1B is a popular choice for its thick, velvety sound and versatile attack and release settings. For a more ‘up-front’ sound, try an 1176. And if you’re looking for a clean, subtle sound, don’t be afraid to reach for a digital compressor like the Fab Filter Pro-C 2.
Vocal Chain for Hip-Hop / Rap
A great hip-hop vocal sound features a rich low-end to convey a sense of power and a bright top-end to help the vocals cut through the mix.
From Kanye West to Lil Wayne to Eminem, the Sony C-800G is the mic of choice for the world’s biggest rappers. However, with a $10k price tag, it may be difficult to justify. Another common (and more affordable) mic that’s often used for hip-hop is the AKG C414 large-diaphragm condenser microphone. For those in need of a more gritty, in-your-face sound, check out the Shure SM7b dynamic microphone.
As for EQs, some artists like the pristine sound of an SSL 9K channel-strip, while others prefer the husky, saturated sound of a Neve 1073. But one of the most popular pieces of equipment found in hip-hop studios is the Avalon VT-737sp channel strip, which features a tube-mic preamp, a silky-smooth EQ, and an optical compressor.
Compression is important to help accentuate the percussive elements of the vocal performance. When an artist is rapping at 100-miles per hour, compression can help punch out each individual syllable. Optical compressors like the LA-2A, the Tube-Tech CL 1B and the one found in the VT-737sp are great because they interact well with low-end.
Vocal Chain for Rock
Generally speaking, most rock songs fall into one of two camps. It’s either gritty and imperfect with tons of saturation, or technical and precise with a more focused sound.
If you’re going for the gritty classic rock or indie rock kind of vibe, it’s best to use a vintage tube microphone like a Neumann U67, Telefunken ELA M 251E, or Neumann M49. If you can’t get your hands on an original, there are plenty of modern-day replicas, such as the Peluso P-67, Warm Audio WA-251, and Flea 49.
If you’re going for a more modern sound, the Shure SM7B is beloved for its smooth, wide sound and high SPL-capabilities, making it a favorite amongst hard rock and metal vocalists. For a more balanced, high-end sound, try the Sennheiser MD 441-U, which is a dynamic mic that looks and sounds like a condenser.
As for EQs, any console channel strip will do the job. The Neve 1073 is great for warm, highly-saturated sounds, while the API 550B has a more bright, open sound. The SSL channel-strip is somewhere in the middle with its signature midrange bite.
The 1176 is an absolutely essential tool for tracking or mixing rock vocals, often used in conjunction with an LA-2A. For a more punchy, aggressive sound, try a snappy VCA compressor, like the dbx 160. Recently, the Empirical Labs Distressor has become all the rage for its ability to emulate the sonic characteristics of all of the compressors listed above (and then some).
Vocal Chain for R&B Music
Similar to rock music, R&B vocals can easily be sorted into ‘vintage-sounding’ and ‘modern-sounding’ categories. For the modern-sounding solution similar to Usher, Alicia Keys, and The Weeknd, things will look pretty similar to the pop music vocal chain. But for more soulful vibe like Solange, D’Angelo or Erykah Badu, we need to use a different approach.
Ribbon microphones are perfect for adding vintage vibe to any track. The Coles 4038 is a popular choice for its balanced frequency response and smooth roll-off above 15 kHz. The Beyerdynamic M 160 is a hyper-focused handheld option that works great for tracking live with a band. If you’re looking for a more affordable and durable solution, check out the sE Electronics Voodoo VR2 active ribbon microphone.
The ultimate R&B EQ is the Pultec EQ-1A. First introduced in the 50s, this classic EQ is loaded with tubes, giving it a thick, rich sound. Another popular choice is the Neve 1073 for its familiar fuzz, or the Trident A-Range EQ for it’s warm, musical tone.
When it comes to compression, tube compressors like the Fairchild 660, LA-2A, and Tube-Tech CL1B are all great for giving off that warm vintage tone. Another option is to pair a FET compressor like the 1176 with a low-pass filter to roll-off the high-end.
Of course, it would be great to have a locker full of vintage microphones and a rack full of analog tube gear. But for those of us who are still working in-the-box, you can easily find great-sounding plug-in versions of all of the models listed above.
Similarly, microphone emulation systems like Slate Digital VMS and Townsend Labs Sphere make it easy to capture the same character and charm of some of the most popular microphones in the world through advanced emulation technology. So, even if you’re not working in a world-class facility, these suggestions will still help you capture that signature sound.