Kurt Cobain’s Microphone Selection for Vocals

kurt-cobain-microphone-selection-for-vocals-article

Kurt Cobain, the frontman of the legendary rock band Nirvana, has left an indelible mark on the music world with his raw, emotive vocals and powerful songwriting. I remember first hearing Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album and falling in love with the heavy tone of the guitars and Kurts voice blaring over the riffs. In the years to come, Nirvana would take over the world and Kurts voice would be heard on every rock station in America.

To achieve his legendary sound Kurt Cobain relied on various microphones, both in the studio and live performances. For studio recordings, he and his producers utilized a variety of microphones, including the Neumann U47 FET and the The Lomo 19A9, among others. On the other hand, the Shure SM58 microphone is most consistently cited as Cobain’s choice for live performances.

In this article, we’ll explore Kurt Cobain’s microphone preferences in detail, delving into all the well-documented models he used for live performances and studio recordings. Understanding his microphone choices not only offers insight into Cobain’s approach to capturing his unique voice but also highlights the impact these selections had on Nirvana’s iconic sound. Let’s dive in.

kurt-cobain-microphone-selection-for-live and studio vocals

Kurt Cobain Microphone Use for Studio Recordings

In the studio, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had access to a wide variety of microphones, allowing them to experiment with different sounds and recording techniques. The specific microphones used varied from session to session, as well as from producer to producer. Here, we’ll explore microphones Cobain used during studio recordings.

Neumann U47 FET

The Neumann U47 FET was primarily used for Cobain’s vocals during the recording of Nirvana’s seminal album, “Nevermind”. The U47 FET is known for its full-bodied sound and smooth high-frequency response, making it ideal for capturing Cobain’s raw and powerful vocal style.

Neumann-U47-FET-mic-illustration

Producer Butch Vig, who helmed the “Nevermind” sessions, was known to favor the U47 FET for vocal recording due to its ability to handle high sound pressure levels without distortion. This was crucial for capturing Cobain’s intense singing, which often veered from soft, melodic crooning to abrasive screaming within the same song.

Lomo 19A9

The Lomo 19A9 was used for Cobain’s vocals during the recording of “In Utero”, Nirvana’s follow-up to “Nevermind”. Producer Steve Albini, known for his preference for a more natural and uncolored sound, chose the 19A9 for its ability to accurately capture the nuances of Cobain’s vocal performances.

The 19A9, a tube microphone, provided a warm and detailed sound, which paired well with the more raw and abrasive aesthetic of “In Utero”. The use of the Lomo 19A9 contributed to the distinct vocal sound of the album, which was noticeably different from the more polished production of “Nevermind”.

Electro-Voice RE20

During the “In Utero” recording sessions, the Electro-Voice RE20 was used for Cobain’s vocals on some tracks. The RE20 is a dynamic microphone, which typically provides a more robust and less detailed sound than a condenser microphone like the U47 FET or C414. However, the RE20 is known for its smooth frequency response and excellent off-axis rejection, making it an excellent choice for capturing vocal performances without excessive ambient noise.

Producer Steve Albini likely chose the RE20 for Cobain’s vocals to contribute to the raw and live feel of the “In Utero” recordings. For example, the RE20 was used for Cobain’s vocals on “Heart-Shaped Box”, providing a gritty and intimate sound that complemented the song’s intense dynamics.

In the video below you can see Steve talking about the 3 microphones he used during the recording of “In Utero” which include a Electro-Voice PL20 and two Lomo 19A9’s. A great watch.

AKG C414

The AKG C414 is a versatile condenser microphone that was used to record Cobain’s vocals during the MTV Unplugged session. The C414 is known for its clear and detailed sound, making it an excellent choice for capturing the nuances of Cobain’s vocal performance in the intimate, acoustic setting of the Unplugged performance.

The C414’s selectable polar patterns would have allowed the engineers to adjust the microphone’s response to best suit the live recording environment, and its ability to handle high sound pressure levels would have been crucial for accurately capturing Cobain’s powerful vocal delivery.

While these are some of the documented microphones used by Kurt Cobain for his vocals during studio recordings, it is important to note that different producers and audio engineers may have experimented with various other microphones as well. It would be amazing to be a fly on the wall in the studio when they recorded Nirvana’s albums!

kurt-cobain-microphone-use-for-life-performances drawing

Kurt Cobain Microphone Use for Live Performances

During live performances, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana relied on a different set of microphones to deliver their energetic and captivating sound. These microphones needed to be durable, reliable, and capable of handling the rigors of touring and the often chaotic stage environment.

Shure SM58

The Shure SM58 was a staple throughout Cobain’s career for his live vocals. This legendary dynamic microphone is renowned for its durability, and its ability to deliver clear and intelligible vocals even in loud stage settings.

Shure-SM58-microphone-illustration

The SM58’s cardioid polar pattern helped reduce feedback and effectively isolated Cobain’s voice from other instruments, allowing his passionate vocals to cut through the mix. It was the mainstay of Cobain’s live performances throughout Nirvana’s active years.

Beyerdynamic M88

During the MTV Unplugged session in 1993, Cobain’s vocals were captured with a Beyerdynamic M88. This microphone is known for its natural and detailed sound, making it a suitable choice for the intimate, acoustic setting of the Unplugged performance.

The M88’s hypercardioid polar pattern helped reduce background noise and focus on Kurt’s voice. These types of microphones are even more directional than a standard cardioid pattern mics, allowing for better isolation vocals from other sound sources on stage.

Sennheiser MD421

The Sennheiser MD421 was another microphone occasionally used by Cobain for live vocals. This dynamic microphone has a cardioid polar pattern and is known for its versatility, making it a good option for live performances. However, the SM58 remained Cobain’s preferred choice for the majority of Nirvana’s live shows.

Audio-Technica AE6100

Although less frequently used, the Audio-Technica AE6100 was also seen in Cobain’s live performances. This hypercardioid dynamic microphone is known for its high output and excellent feedback rejection. It was used during Nirvana’s performance at the Reading Festival in 1992.

Crown CM-310

Cobain used the Crown CM-310 during Nirvana’s performance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, where the band played “Lithium.” The microphone’s ability to handle high sound pressure levels and reject off-axis noise was helpful in capturing Cobain’s powerful vocal performance in the challenging live environment of a televised award show.

These are some of the documented microphones used by Kurt Cobain for his vocals during live performances. The specific microphones used might have varied from show to show, but the Shure SM58 remained the most consistent choice throughout his career.

What About the Mics on “Bleach”

We have thus mentioned the microphones used for vocals on “Nevermind” and “In Utero”, but what about the vocal mics used on their debut studio album? “Bleach” was recorded in a much more low-budget environment than their later works. The album was recorded at Reciprocal Recording Studios in Seattle, with producer Jack Endino at the helm.

The details about the specific microphones used during the “Bleach” sessions are not as widely documented as the ones for Nirvana’s later albums. The limited budget for “Bleach” (reportedly around $600) would have likely restricted the range of equipment available. However, it’s been noted that Kurt Cobain’s vocals for “Bleach” were likely recorded with a Shure SM57.

The Shure SM57 is a versatile dynamic microphone, widely used for both vocals and instruments. It’s known for its durability, clean sound, and ability to handle high sound pressure levels. These attributes would have made it a reliable choice for the aggressive vocal style Cobain utilized on “Bleach.”

Endino, who produced “Bleach,” is known for his preference for dynamic microphones, like the Shure SM57 and SM58, for vocals in his recordings. In a 2019 interview with Reverb, Endino said, “I always use a dynamic mic on the vocals… I don’t want to hear the singer’s lips and tongue and teeth, I want to hear their voice.”

Please note that while the Shure SM57 is a likely candidate given the context and Endino’s preferences, the exact microphone used for Cobain’s vocals on “Bleach” has not been definitively confirmed.

Kurt Cobain’s Microphone Techniques

Kurt Cobain microphone techniques and preferences played a significant role in shaping the unique sound of Nirvana. Here are some insights into some notable ones that defined Cobain’s approach to microphones.

Close-Miking Technique

Cobain often preferred to use a close-miking technique when recording his vocals. This method involves placing the microphone close to the singer’s mouth, typically within a few inches. Close-miking helps capture the nuances of the vocalist’s performance and produces a more intimate, immediate sound.

This technique was particularly effective in capturing Cobain’s raw, emotional vocal delivery and contributed to the intense, visceral quality of Nirvana’s music.

Kurt Cobain Microphone Angling

Cobain was also known to angle the microphone slightly off-axis when recording vocals. This technique can help reduce sibilance and plosives, which can be problematic when recording aggressive vocal performances.

By angling the microphone, Cobain was able to achieve a more balanced and natural vocal sound.

Singing Into Multiple Microphones

In some instances, Cobain would sing into multiple microphones simultaneously. This technique allowed him to blend the different characteristics of each microphone, resulting in a richer, more complex vocal sound.

For example, during the recording of “In Utero,” Cobain used a combination of a Neumann U47 and an Electro-Voice RE20 for his vocals on “Heart-Shaped Box” (source: Sound on Sound, October 1999). This blending of microphones added depth and texture to Cobain’s vocal performance.

Preference for Dynamic Microphones

While Cobain did use a variety of microphones throughout his career, he seemed to have a preference for dynamic microphones, particularly the Shure SM58 and the Electro-Voice RE20. These microphones are known for their durability and ability to handle high sound pressure levels, making them well-suited for Cobain’s powerful and aggressive vocal style.

Kurt Cobain’s Microphone Settings

Cobain’s vocal sound in the studio was often shaped by the use of compression and equalization. A moderate amount of compression can help to even out the dynamics of Cobain’s powerful vocal performances, while a subtle boost in the midrange frequencies can emphasize the gritty and emotive qualities of his voice.

Kurt Cobain’s microphone techniques and preferences reflect his dedication to capturing the raw, unfiltered essence of his music. By experimenting with different microphones and recording methods, Cobain was able to create a unique and powerful vocal sound that remains influential and iconic to this day.

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Kurt Cobain’s Microphone Experimentation

Kurt Cobain’s experimental nature extended to his usage of unconventional vocal microphones both in the studio and on stage. Here are a few good examples of Cobain employing unique vocal microphone techniques to achieve specific sounds or effects.

Walkie-Talkie Microphone on “Tourette’s”

For the song “Tourette’s” from “In Utero,” Cobain and Albini used a low-quality, walkie-talkie-style microphone for the vocal track. The cheap, distorted sound of the microphone complemented the aggressive, chaotic nature of the song.

In interviews, producer Steve Albini has referred to it as a “crap mic” or a “piece of junk,” but has not provided specific details about the make or model. The goal of using this kind of microphone was to achieve a very distorted and raw vocal sound, fitting the overall aesthetic of the song and the album.

It’s an example of Cobain’s and Albini’s willingness to experiment and use unconventional methods to achieve the desired sound. However, without more specific details from the production team, it’s not possible to identify the exact model of the walkie-talkie-style microphone used.

Guitar Pickup as a Microphone

In a 1993 MTV interview, Cobain recounted an instance during the “In Utero” sessions where he experimented with using a guitar pickup as a microphone. He placed the pickup directly on his throat while singing, resulting in a bizarre, almost robotic vocal sound.

While this specific technique did not make it onto the final album, it demonstrates Cobain’s willingness to experiment with unconventional microphone usage to achieve unique and innovative sonic textures.

These examples illustrate Cobain’s creative approach to vocal microphone usage, showcasing his willingness to experiment and push boundaries to achieve the desired sound or effect in his music.

Closing Thoughts: Kurt Cobain Microphone Use

In conclusion, Kurt Cobain microphone choices played an essential role in shaping the distinctive sound of Nirvana. His love for microphone models, such as the Shure SM58 and the Electro-Voice RE20, were well-suited to his raw and aggressive vocal style.

A big part of Nirvanas sound was due to Kurt’s love for experimentation, wether in the studio or live. Most importantly, his iconic tone and raw songwriting has inspired singers all over the world, myself included.

I hope this guide has helped you discover more about Kurt’s gear setup, and get you one step closer to sounding like him. Thank you for reading!

Citations

  1. Tape Op Magazine, Issue 45 (source for Neumann U47 FET usage during “Nevermind” recording sessions)
  2. Tape Op Magazine, Issue 87 (source for Lomo 19A9 and Audio-Technica AT4050 usage during “In Utero” recording sessions)
  3. Mix Magazine, November 1994 (source for AKG C414 and Neumann KM84 usage during MTV Unplugged session)
  4. EQ Magazine, October 1999 (source for Shure SM58 and SM57 usage during live performances)
  5. Sound on Sound, May 1996 (source for Shure SM57 usage during live performances)
  6. EQ Magazine, October 1999 (source for Audio-Technica AT-4040 usage during “Nevermind” recording sessions and close-miking technique)
  7. Sound on Sound, October 1999 (source for walkie-talkie-style microphone usage during “In Utero” recording sessions, singing into multiple microphones, and microphone angling)
  8. MTV, February 1993 (source for guitar pickup as a microphone experiment)
  9. Tape Op, November/December 2004 (source for microphone angling)
  10. Nirvana: The Biography, Michael Azerrad, 1993 (source for preference for dynamic microphones)
  11. “Bleach” album notes, Sub Pop Records, 1989.
  12. Jack Endino interview, Reverb, 2019. “Jack Endino’s Rules for Recording.”
  13. “Nirvana: The True Story,” Everett True, 2007.

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