Like many amateur recording artists, my equipment is cheap. For my first projects, the sound wasn’t as important as just getting down my ideas, but now I want to get a more polished, expensive sound from what I have. The most obvious area for improvement is the vocals — I have an ancient Radio Shack ‘universal’ type instrument microphone that I use for all my open air recording. It has a bizarre sound profile, and on recordings it tends to sound pretty muffled. My goal was to turn this muffled sound into something crisp and defined, like what a high-end vocal microphone might sound like. Of course, I’m realistic and I know the subtle nuances of a $1000+ microphone are not going to be there, but if I can get the general character at no additional cost, that would be of huge value to me.

First, I listened carefully to some recordings that I consider to have a high-quality vocal track. I compared the sound profile of these to my own recordings with my microphone, and I tried to identify the most obvious difference between the vocal frequencies. I noticed that my microphone appears to have a much larger low-end sensitivity, so large that it overwhelms any high frequencies that my mic may be picking up. It ends up making me sound a bit like Kermit the Frog, or like I’m singing underwater.

I tried EQ and reverb, but both really had more of a post-processing effect on the vocal. They weren’t doing enough to kill off the bad frequencies. I already knew that a lot of professionally recorded vocal tracks use filters, but I also assumed that running multiple filters would destroy the timbre of my vocal tracks. Instead, I decided I’d try to find a single, simple filter I could apply that would remove just the “bad” frequencies of my vocal track, with the hope that what was left would sound better. Since my mic’s output is so low-heavy, I settled on a generic, software-based high-pass filter plug-in to a popular recording application. I left all the default settings, figuring that I could always undo it and change them later if I wanted to, but as it turned out, I wouldn’t need to. Just the default high-pass filter “fixed” the vocal from my microphone. It sounds a tiny bit telephone-like, but most filters do that. In exchange, I get a vocal that to my ear is 90% of the way to a big, expensive-sounding microphone. Is it perfect? No, but:

  1. It’s a better sound than where I was.
  2. It’s fast to apply.
  3. It’s at no additional cost to me.

Other microphones may require a low-pass filter vs. a high-pass filter, but I highly recommend trying either of these out if your vocal sounds either raspy or like Kermit.

Photo credit: / CC BY-ND 2.0
Getting expensive-sounding vocals from a cheap microphone