A vocal microphone is usually a versatile mic, and works for a number of different things. But most importantly, it works amazingly on vocals. Microphones are probably the most important part of an audio recording studio (besides you, the engineer!). They are like the ears of your recording system. The same way your ears let sound into your brain, vocal mics take the sound into the system.
The term "vocal microphone" just means that it is especially suited to recording a voice or singing. There are any number of these available, and we'll look at a few here.
Why are they so important? Anything you do after the microphone is simply working with and polishing what's already there. You can do a lot with eq and compression, but you can't change what you actually recorded. You can make it sound better, but you can't polish mud!
It is very important to get a good sound when you record. That is where you should do most of your experimentation to get better sounds.
So, what is a good vocal microphone to get? How can you know which are good ones?
Here are a list of a few that are known to work well.
First, the Shure SM58 is everywhere. It uses a dynamic type of pickup, and is used on stage a lot. (More info on dynamic vs condenser.) The SM57 is a close cousin to the SM58, and eliminates the proximity effect (see below).
One that I like a lot is the Audio Technica AT4050. It is a large diaphragm condenser mic, and works wonderfully as a vocal microphone as well as a myriad of other things.
The Neumann KM184 is another one that works amazing for me. I do a lot of stereo recording, and this mic, in a set, delivers for that. However, it also works wonderful as a vocal mic. I used it on a recording with my a cappella quartet last year, and love the results. Finally, it is known as "the" guitar mic. Do you sense a pattern? The Neumann KM184 is good!
Look for recommendations. Ask some recording buddies, or call up a studio and ask them. Look online, especially at a site that gives reviews. Learn about the microphone. Check out Top 10 Vocal Microphones on this site.
When shopping for microphones, you need to consider several things in deciding what type of mic you need. These things are:
I would say that pickup pattern differences aren't crucial in the studio. (More info on these things on the microphones page.) On the stage you want directional mics to avoid feedback, but in the studio you probably won't have any speakers turned on while recording. You can experiment with different mics, or get one with a switchable pattern.
An interesting characteristic about cardioid microphones is that the closer the singer gets to the mic, the more the bass frequencies come out. This makes the sound fuller and bassier. The effect is called the proximity effect.
I think that large diaphragm mics work good on lead vocals, because they produce a warmer sound that makes a voice sound good. Of course small & medium diaphragms work good too, but results between the three may vary slightly.
When you look at body style, I think that the side address body style is used in studio microphones more. Front address mics are more commonly found in live sound applications. But don't base your microphone decision on this. Look at pickup pattern, brand, reviews, and price.
At any rate, be sure to see the article on microphones to help you further in choosing a mic.
When you're buying a vocal microphone, remember that you'll probably keep it for a long time. It'll get used on a lot of projects, and serve you faithfully. With this in mind, you should get the best one you can afford.
That will get you better results sooner, and it'll be much cheaper than buying a cheap mic now only to upgrade to a better one later. Don't be penny-wise but pound-foolish!
Take your time while shopping. Learn all you can about the microphone your getting, and about other ones close to the performance of it. Try to test it out before buying, if you can. Be a smart shopper. Check some reviews on different microphones to see what some pros are saying. Are they recommending it for vocals?
Lee started his career in recording with an auspicious goal - record tracks of his own voice singing in harmony. As a hobby project, it didn't have the funding to go to a studio and pay for someone to do it for him. Like many of you, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps to learn the art of recording.