Guitarists must know not just how to play electric guitar or acoustic guitar but also how to control their amplifiers and racks of pedals in order to get the best possible sound. Likewise, as a singer, you want to have a basic knowledge of microphones, monitors, and the recording studio.
This is the singer's most important tool, and they are not created the same. In the studio, you will find very sensitive microphones that pick up every nuance of the voice. However, for live performance, these microphones are often too sensitive and fragile.
Live microphones are usually less expensive and can withstand some pretty heavy handling. It is not unusual to see these workhorses battered and dented yet still working just fine. The Shure SM58 is the standard live microphone and costs around $100.
Some singers prefer a wireless microphone, especially if their performances involve a lot of movement on stage. Be careful with low-end models as the receivers' frequencies sometimes cut out and have poor audio quality. So be sure to do your research to find an affordable option with excellent sound and frequency stability.
There are even models of live stage microphones that have a built-in effects control button. These mics allow the singer to switch between effects with compatible devices like digital harmony and vocal effects. These are handy for solo singer-songwriters who may be running their own sound on a simplified PA system, and these can still be found at an affordable price range.
On the other hand, studio microphones are far more expensive; some are well over $10,000. But these days, luckily, the prices are coming down, and there are many more options that have excellent sound quality at a more reasonable price.
These studio microphones are usually condenser microphones and are very sensitive to where you sing in relation to the mic, so the recording engineer might have you move around a bit to find the perfect spot for your singing voice.
You also might sound better on certain brands and models of studio microphones. For example, some mics are more suited for instruments, and some are a better choice for vocals. So if you are able, try as many mics as you can, and once you find a mic that sounds great with your voice, be sure to take note of it for future reference.
For home recording and podcasts, there is also the USB microphone option. These are handy as they are straightforward, don't need an interface, and attach to your computer's USB port. But if you want a higher sound quality recording, you may want to invest in a condenser microphone for recording vocals.
Just a heads up that most karaoke microphones that come with karaoke machines tend to be low quality, and you would not want to use them in a live or studio situation. Usually, any mic that is hardwired to the cable is not considered professional or high quality.
Monitors are used so singers can hear their voices in live situations. For example, a live band will create extremely loud volumes, making it impossible to hear yourself singing. The monitor is a speaker pointed towards the singer that plays their amplified voice back to them. Being able to hear yourself in the monitor is critical for a good performance.
Many singers prefer “in-ear” monitors. These are earbuds that amplify the singer's voice back to them. Unfortunately, these tend to be more expensive and may not be available at all venues. Similar to wireless microphones, as these rely on receivers and frequencies, they are not all created equal, and there is a reason quality in-ear monitor systems are expensive. There is nothing worse than your mix cutting out in the middle of live performance due to weak equipment signals.
Learning to sing with a monitor takes some practice. Ensure you have monitors set up in your rehearsal room when practicing with other musicians. Experiment singing your favorite songs with the monitor at different angles and volumes to get a feel for what would work best for you in a live setting.
The same goes for in-ear monitors. It will take you some time to get used to the feeling of your sound being right in your ear and not hearing as much room sound. The sound can feel flattened at first with fewer voice effects and less ambient room noise. This can make some singers pull back a bit and not sing in a full voice, so always practice with in-ears before hitting the stage. When in soundcheck, it is also very important to take your time to dial in what instruments, other singing voices, and how much of each you want in your ears.
In The Studio
Modern recording techniques have transformed the process for the singer. I recommend doing some home recording with GarageBand or a similar program to see how recording and the editing process works. It will make it easier when working with an engineer. These days setting up a basic home recording studio is easier than ever, and quite often, you can get started with inexpensive used music studio equipment.
Not long ago, you were limited to the number of tracks you could record as recording equipment was on tape. Singers would usually have one track for their vocals. They would sing a take and then go back and “punch in” new vocals over the mistakes, a tedious process that sometimes would accidentally erase parts of the original take they wanted to keep.
Now the number of tracks is virtually unlimited. Singers now record any number of vocal takes and pick the best parts from each take. These takes are composited into one track for the finished vocal. Even punching in a word or two is so much more precise with the computer-based digital recording.
A basic studio setup would include the following pieces of equipment: A DAW (digital audio workstation - or recording software like GarageBand, Logic, Protools, etc.), an audio interface (converts your voice or live instruments to digital audio), studio monitors (or studio headphones to start), a condenser studio mic and a computer capable of handling live recording. Basic software like GarageBand comes free on most iPhones and Macbooks, and it is a great place to start to practice home recording. Also, some interfaces come with free recording software. A lot of the basic or starter equipment is also small enough to be used in a mobile studio setting, such as when a singer is on the road.
There is a wide range of effects that are used on the voice to make it sound better and help it blend in with the other instruments correctly. These sound effects are not just used in the studio but also in live situations. Therefore, working knowledge of these effects can help you sound your best in all situations.
Here is a list of the most commonly used voice effects that are used to enhance audio quality.
Reverb: This gives the voice a sense of space, like singing in a large empty room. Reverbs can create different sized rooms for all kinds of effects.
Delay: This is an echo type of effect. This is very effective when used in combination with reverb.
Pitch Correction: The most notorious tool for singers. It can certainly be overused, but it is a vital help in the studio even with very good singers. Excellent vocal takes can be saved by using pitch correction to make minor adjustments—a huge time saver.
Compression: Sometimes, we can sing a note too loudly for the recording or live volume settings. Compression keeps the notes from going beyond a certain volume threshold. Very important for keeping the mix of instruments and voice balanced.
If you have invested or are planning to invest in a good vocal mic, either for studio recording or live performance, you will need some additional equipment to be able to use your mic. These items can be found at a beginner-friendly price and can often be found used for extra savings.
Some of this additional equipment you will find in a home studio or a singer's gig kit would include mic cables (XLR cable), a mic stand, a pop filter for recording, and auxiliary cables for connecting musical instruments, wireless mics, or in-ear monitors to sound systems or recording studio equipment.
Know the tools of your trade, and you will be a better and more efficient singer and musician.