Building a vocal chain is a succession of stages starting with a singer and ending with a sound you are happy with.
But what goes into this process, and what are the best vocal chains for different music genres?
While there are many different features and processes that can be used we will concentrate on the microphone, preamp and compressor for five different music genres.
We will look at some basics of vocal chains and how different types of music require different approaches to building one.
Best Rock Vocal Chain
What do you need for the best rock vocal chain? We take a look at the Flea 47 NEXT mic, the BAE 1073 mic pre/EQ module and the 176 Compressor from Retro Instruments.
A classic rock vocal is raw and gritty and for this, a microphone modelled after the iconic Neumann U47 is best. In this case, it is the Flea 47 NEXT which is a cardioid version of the Flea 47.
Perfect if you don’t need an Omni pattern microphone.
If you want a genuine rock tone with analogue grit, the Neve 1073 preamp has a muscular sound. But you can have more tonal control courtesy of three bands of EQ with the BAE 1073 mic pre/EQ module.
Based on the vintage UA 176, a true rock compressor of the 60s, the Retro Instruments 176 is a very fast compressor. It is also a faithful recreation of the Bill Putnam 176 vari-mu compressor.
So what are the pros and cons of this rock vocal chain?
- Authentic rock sounds with rich harmonics
- The microphone has improved isolation
- Preamp/EQ module will retrofit in Neve 80 Series consoles
- BAE 1073 has an excellent reputation and is highly recommended
- 176 Compressor has a unique voice symmetry tool
- The compressor has a host of modern features for top-quality production
- Flea 47 NEXT microphone is certainly not cheap
- Pre/EQ Module has a modified gain structure which may not suit everyone
- 176 Compressor has no direct competitor on the market
Best Country Vocal Chain
Country music focuses on the vocal, so it is important that you choose the right vocal chain to suit this genre.
The Upton 251 is a large diaphragm condenser microphone which gives country vocals a versatile balanced frequency. This makes it suitable for a range of vocalists.
It has Upton’s T14 transformer and their CK12 capsule and gives a clear low-mid range and superb highs.
One of the best preamps for country music is the API 512C. It’s clean with a clear-cut mid-range. The open top-end doesn’t distort the vocals but helps them cut through the mix.
An easy to use but nevertheless top quality preamp.
Regardless of the sound you are going for, classic Nashville or modern country, the Empirical Labs Distressor EL8X compressor will deliver the perfect tone.
It’s so versatile that it can go from soft to aggressive limiting, it even has a nuke setting.
- The Upton 251 is regarded as one of the finest microphones ever made, based on the classic Telefunken ELA M 251
- It is smooth with a balanced mid-range
- The API 512C Preamp makes any mic sound pristine and uncoloured
- A warm, musical but punch preamp
- Empirical Labs Distressor EL8X compressor offers a wide range of features and control
- Offers several modes that without compression colour the signal
- The Upton 251 is a very expensive piece of equipment retailing at just under $4,500.
Best Pop Vocal Chain
Pop vocal chains are all about capturing a clean and crisp sound with plenty of detail and clarity. To do this you need the right microphone, preamp and compressor.
We look at the Manley Reference cardioid microphone and the Manley Labs VOXBOX to see how they work together to get the precision needed for the best pop vocal chain.
The Manley Reference cardioid mic has a gold sputtered diaphragm which has a gauge of 6 microns.
This makes it thicker than the Gold Reference series but with a capsule fixed in the centre. The tonal balance is particularly prized for vocals along with its liquid character.
The sound from this microphone resembles the vintage tube mics such as the U47.
A perfect complement to the Manley Reference cardioid microphone is the Manley Labs VOXBOX. It has everything you need in one compact unit.
The VOXBOX has a mic preamp, Pultec-style EQ, a compressor and a de-esser.
The preamp is similar in design to the Manley mono microphone preamp and has just as many features. Meanwhile the compressor component is a mixture of their ELOP and Variable MU.
It also has a stereo link function and a limiter section.
- The Manley Reference cardioid mic is highly acclaimed and works brilliantly with vocals
- Its features and attributes are akin to some of the vintage tube mics such as the U47 when they were new
- Manley Labs VOXBOX is an all-tube channel strip that offers everything you need to get your vocals radio-ready
- Extremely versatile with ability to use everything or just the preamp
- Very expensive pieces of equipment, the two combined would set you back in excess of $8,000. Not for the amateur!
Best Hip-Hop Vocal Chain
Vocals reign supreme in the hip-hop music world, so you will need a vocal chain that can deliver.
We take a look at the Sony C800G PAC microphone, the Neve 1073 CH preamp and the Tube-Tech CL1B compressor.
We’ll also consider the Sony C-100 Hi-Res mic as a more budget friendly alternative to the C800G PAC.
This is a microphone that world class rappers such as Eminem, and Dr. Dre. It has been around since 1992 and in the last 30 years has remained one of the most popular microphones for this genre of music.
It is a large double-diaphragm condenser microphone with a customised cooling system and its own external power supply. This makes it possible to deliver extremely high quality sound.
For those who shudder at the price tag of the Sony C800G PAC there is a more affordable alternative.
The Sony C-100 Hi-Res condenser microphone is ideal for rising hip-hop talent. It is suitable for recording, live or broadcast scenarios.
The Neve 1073 CH Preamp is hand wired and a faithful replica of the original 1970s design with all the same components. As such it delivers a sound of uncompromising quality.
It works with a range of microphones and can be purchased as a single unit or in multiples.
Tube-Tech’s CL 1B compressor conveys smooth compression with no dissonance. It is a high quality and versatile piece of equipment, used in almost every genre.
It has an instinctual interface and is very easy to use.
- The Sony C800G PAC is a world class microphone used by world renowned rappers.
- Sony produced the Sony C-100 Hi-Res condenser microphone for up-and-coming rappers, a great lower cost alternative to the Sony C800G PAC
- The Neve 1073 CH preamp accepts signals from a range of microphones
- Tube-Tech’s CL 1B Compressor is extremely popular in the rap community for its multiple features
- The Sony C800G PAC Microphone is probably beyond the budget of many but there is the alternative of the C-100 Hi-Res mic.
Best R&B Vocal Chain
As with rock music, R&B can be divided into the modern or more vintage sounding categories.
Modern R&B will lean more towards the pop music vocal chain. With vintage, you will need to take a slightly different approach.
We will look at the Soyuz SU-023 Bomblet microphone and Shadow Hills’ Mono GAMA preamp and how they work as an R&B vocal chain.
The sounds of R&B call for a colourful microphone that will deliver a soulful vibe into your mix. The unique Soyuz SU-023 Bomblet does just that. It is modelled on the 19A19 LOMO mic.
LOMO was a Russian-French company based in St Petersburg that made optical and medical instruments as well as audio equipment including microphones.
Every one of these microphones is handmade, so you know it is high quality.
The Shadow Hills Mono Gama is a powerful preamp that will instantly take you back to the sounds of Motown.
It pairs perfectly with the Soyuz SU-023 Bomblet to produce a silky and character filled sound.
- The Soyuz SU-023 Bomblet has a triple backplate system which is unique to this microphone, giving it a rare quality
- Its transformer uses a particular core which is sourced from the Ural Mountains
- The Shadow Hills Mono Gama preamp features outstanding sound quality
- Quality in design and features make this preamp a high-end piece of equipment
- Not all settings on the Shadow Hills Mono Gama preamp are gain matched.
Buyer’s Guide To Vocal Chains
We have looked at just three elements of a vocal chain and of course there are more that you can add according to your taste or need.
But the basic microphone, preamp and compressor set up that we have covered here is the minimum you will need for any vocal chain regardless of the genre.
So what should you be looking for in each component to build the best vocal chain? Let’s take a look.
The starting point for any vocal chain is the right microphone. And there will be different ones to suit different vocalists. What suits a jazz singer will not necessarily work for a hard rock singer.
One of the best types of microphone for vocalists is a large diaphragm condenser mic.
Although you can use dynamic and ribbon microphones, they tend to be reserved for when you want a certain type of sound.
Of course every voice is unique, so it may take a while to find the perfect microphone, and it pays to experiment with a few before deciding.
Some microphones favour the low end and will produce a warm sound. The vintage tube microphones such as the Neumann U47 is one such mic and one of the most famous used in studios worldwide.
Other microphones are characterised by their high end such as the AKG C12 which is a very sensitive mic and gives great clarity. As do the modern versions based on it.
A bright microphone will suit someone with a darker voice. A more hefty mic in the low end with a levelling top end will deal with a shrill or bright voice.
Doing some research before buying is recommended and studying frequency response charts can help with this. Try and deal with a company that has a good returns policy just for peace of mind.
If you are starting out something like the Sony C-100 Hi-Res condenser microphone is a good place to start as it won’t break the bank but will produce excellent results.
The first thing to look for on a preamp is the amount of gain and whether it has sufficient headroom. This reduces the amount of distortion even on really loud notes.
For condenser microphones this would mean gain of 30–40dB. If there is a ribbon microphone being used this would require gain of 70dB-80dB so bear this in mind.
Most importantly make sure the output of the preamp isn’t distorted.
Many amps are built to be transparent and the majority of them are without transformers as even the best transformers can cause changes to signals passing through them.
Using as simple a circuit design as possible means there is less chance of change to the signal.
Other preamps take their cue from vintage designs modifying them to deal with the demands of modern audio production.
Choosing between coloured and clean preamps will depend on the sound that you want to achieve. A clean sound on vocals will suit some genres while a coloured preamp will give you a warm, thick and vintage sound.
The choice between different preamps will typically be down to personal preference and what works best for your music. There are a lot of well built and well designed preamps on the market, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find one that meets your requirements.
There is a huge range of compressors and limiters to choose from with a lot of hardware based options.
You can choose either solid state or tube signal paths. For gain reduction paths you have a choice of VCA, FET, optical, or tube.
The degree of complexity of compressors also varies. Some are very easy to operate with just controls over gain and peak reduction. Others allow a greater degree of control over the different variables.
Your main focus when tracking vocals should be to make sure that you end up with the right sound. Over using the compressor at this stage could mean that when it comes to mixing you will have trouble.
Concentrate on controlling the peaks to allow the quieter parts to be heard and so you are not overloading your DAW.
At this point, you are getting the vocals to sound right, so any additional compression can be done at the mixing stage. You can add it more easily than you can take it away.
A combination of an excellent microphone, preamp and compressor should give you the sound that you want. If you feel like EQ is needed then you can add a filter of your choice.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Do You Put On Vocal Chains?
There are no strict rules about what to put on a vocal chain but in general a typical chain would include a preamp, EQ, compression and any desired effects.
What Makes A Good Vocal Chain?
A rule of thumb is to have around 3dB of compression on the main vocal. Any more than that and you risk squashing the dynamic range of the vocal and making the voice sound unnatural.
Should You Track Vocals With Compression?
You should only track vocals with compression if you are confident that the compressor settings will produce the result you want.
Compression interacts uniquely with different vocals. Additional compression can be added during mixing so less is more in this case.
Do You Record With A Vocal Chain?
Singers like a vocal chain that makes them feel confident. But one that works at a recording session may not be enough at the mixing stage.
Why Don’t My Vocals Sound Professional?
If vocals are dynamic in volume a compressor may have to work harder to level things out. When the compressor works too hard it can cause the vocals to become squashed and unnatural.
Do I Really Need A Preamp?
An external preamp will improve your sound quality and help you to get more sound variety on your recordings.