Audio Week: Favorite Vocal Chains


Unless you only deal with instrumental music, vocals play a big part in your productions. Whether you record singers, rappers, background vocalists, or voice talent for video games, animation, film, or audiobooks, the tracks need to somehow stand out and blend in. To get tone that’s big and natural, a top-notch vocal recording chain can be the inimitable key. With gear from Neumann, SSL, Rupert Neve Designs, and many others, there are bountiful choices for creating your own favorite vocal chain. Need some examples? Read on!

Change Mics in the Mix

If you record at home, on tour, or anywhere that’s available, a setup that saves space without compromising versatility is probably a high priority. How about one mic that rivals the power of mic lockers many studios only dream of owning? To enjoy that luxury, you’ll need the Slate Digital VMS Kit, a bundle featuring Slate’s VMS ML-1 microphone and VMS-ONE mic preamp. Aside from its simplicity and tonal flexibility, the most significant attraction to this vocal chain is the lack of commitment it requires; it lets you “change” virtual microphones and preamps in the software realm after the recording.

Slate Digital VMS Kit with ML-1 Modeling Mic and VMS ONE Preamp

The ML-1 is a straightforward large-diaphragm cardioid condenser mic with no switches, dials, or hidden settings, and the VMS-ONE desktop preamp was designed by Paul Wolff (of API greatness) for transparent, linear response. By that description, the bundle doesn’t sound too special. However, what it doesn’t do is the key to its success. The VMS Kit is built to deliver clean and pure tone, a blank sonic canvas for you to experiment with. The aural colors come from the included Slate VMS (Virtual Microphone System) software, which provides painstakingly created virtual preamps and tube mic models for you to access at any time during tracking or mixing.

Imagine having two prized vintage preamps and eight legendary classic tube mics at your disposal, and being able to swap mics even after the vocalist has gone home. That’s what the VMS Kit gives you, but in the form of plug-ins that run inside your DAW. Plus, more mic models are available for purchase in case you feel the urge to expand your virtual mic locker.

Premium Analog Textures with Maximum Versatility

A more traditional approach to a vocal recording chain is a high-end microphone and rackmount analog outboard equipment. Although it involves committing to many settings during the recording, this particular vocal chain boasts tone and texture combinations you just can’t get with software at this point—there are no plug-ins that even attempt to model these units!

First, the mic… The Blue Bottle Mic Locker is an absolutely massive microphone, at over 15" tall, and its enormity is not limited to its physical stature. This Class-A vacuum tube condenser microphone includes four hot-swappable cardioid capsules so you can get the ideal vocal tone—bright and silky, crisp and modern, robust and vintage, or all-around detail—without having to change mics, switch stands, or even power down the unit. Also, more Bottle Cap mic capsules are available for other tones and polar patterns. The Bottle’s prized tone is preferred by major artists such as Imagine Dragons and AFI, and by recording facilities such as Fame Studios—yes, the place that made the Muscle Shoals sound is now partnered with Blue Microphones.

Blue Bottle Mic Locker Tube Condenser Microphone with Four Interchangeable Capsules

Then, the channel strip… The Millennia SST-1 is an all-in-one analog channel strip boasting more than 130 optimized signal topologies. That’s an impressive statement, but what does it mean for you? It means you can have a mic/line/instrument preamp, a mastering-grade parametric EQ with four bands, an opto compressor/limiter, and an opto de-esser in a single 2 RU piece of hardware. Hold your applause, because there’s another big reveal. You know the ongoing “tube versus solid state” debate? The SST-1 makes arguing about that irrelevant. It lets you choose vacuum tube or solid-state signal paths independently for the preamp and EQ/dynamics sections, and gives you the power to configure the input with or without a transformer at the push of a button.

Millennia SST-1 Origin - Twin Topology Channel Strip

Wow, 32 all-analog signal chain combinations (not counting the EQ/dynamics routing options) with one microphone and one outboard unit. Imagine the possibilities….

A Tasty, Classic Lunchbox

When you want something classic, but can’t decide between the likes of Neve and SSL, why not get both? A popular approach in this case is to get a microphone, multiple 500-Series modules, and a “lunchbox,” which uses a single housing and power supply for a bunch of preamps and analog signal processors. This saves you a significant chunk of money because you don’t have to pay for separate housings and power supplies for each component.

A time-honored studio tradition is the nickel Neumann U 87 Ai, a transformer-balanced, multi-pattern, large-diaphragm condenser microphone with a slew of awards and hits to its name. If you want the Neumann brand statement and a sound that’s somehow linearly accurate and laced with character, you can’t go wrong with the U 87.

Neumann U 87 Ai Condenser Microphone

As for what you run the U 87 through, that’s where the “lunchbox” comes in. The Black Lion Audio PBR-8 provides eight slots and an integrated TT patchbay for quick and easy signal routing; this single enclosure can hold your entire analog front end. Neve and Solid State Logic are two of the most widely used and desired tone makers in the history of audio recording. By stuffing a lunchbox with two preamps (the Portico 511 from Rupert Neve Designs and the VHD Pre from SSL), two equalizers (the Rupert Neve Designs 551 Inductor EQ and SSL’s E-Series EQ module), and two compressors (the 535 Diode Bridge Compressor by Rupert Neve Designs and the SSL E-Series Dynamics module), you can have the best of both sonic worlds—the clean punch of an SSL console and the warm, unforgettable texture of Neve circuitry.

Black Lion Audio PBR-8 Enclosure and Patchbay for 500 Series Modules

Big Analog Tone, Small Budget

If you’d prefer to stay in the analog domain and avoid digital modeling, but you can’t allocate funds for a premium signal chain, there are budget-friendly options that deliver shockingly good sounds.

The Aston Microphones Origin and the Blue Bluebird SL are large-diaphragm cardioid condenser mics with convenient pad and roll-off switches to help you avoid distortion and overbearing low frequencies. Both mics provide a clear, open sound that competes with microphones far outside of their price class, so either mic would serve you well for studio vocal recording.

Aston Microphones Origin Cardioid Condenser Microphone

Inspired by the venerable Neve 1073 mic preamp, the Golden Age Project PRE-73 Jr won’t overwhelm you with oodles of options; it’s just a simple Class-A preamp with up to 70 dB of gain, selectable phantom power, and a polarity switch. With the Origin or Bluebird SL routed to the PRE-73 Jr, you can record stellar raw tones and fiddle around with plug-ins in your DAW for things like EQ, compression, and de-essing.

Golden Age Project PRE-73 JR - 1073-Style Microphone Preamp/Direct Box

In the End

Of course, those are just some examples of the innumerable combinations in use. Feel welcome to share your favorite vocal chains in the Comments section! Interested in expanding your knowledge, fine-tuning your workflow, or figuring out what gear to get? Visit B&H’s Audio Week page to read tutorials, comparisons, and buying guides about audio for video, podcasting, live sound, music recording, and more.