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Microphones for Music, Part 2
In the second part of a two-part series, we explain how to use mics in the studio and on stage to record voices and instruments.
Read Part 1, Choosing a microphone for recording your music. Choosing-a-microphone-for-recording-your-music
A Place to Start
If you have a limited budget and just want to get started recording with one good all-around mic, the best place to start would be with a large diaphragm condenser mic that has selectable, variable polar patterns.
Especially good for capturing vocals and acoustic instruments, you can also place these mics in front of guitar amps and drums and get great results. They work well in a number of different scenarios.
With today's DAWs you have the ability to record or sample most sounds directly into your computer software but with the addition of just one good microphone to your setup you'll be able to capture the nuances and subtleties of a live room performance and greatly improve your recordings. There are several models that are optimized for home studio use.
Check out the Sennheiser MK 4 Studio Mic, the MXL series that offers several models at varying prices or one of our personal favorites, Audio Technica's rugged 650 Series.
Whatever mic you chose to work with there are some simple techniques that will make it easier to capture a good sound. Most of these techniques can be applied to both live sound reinforcement as well as studio recording with some slight modifications we'll discuss.
Remember-there are no set rules. As you become familiar with your microphone and recording setup you will hear what works best for you.
Before you begin recording take note of your immediate surroundings. Try to eliminate any reflective or "noise-y" surfaces that may affect your vocal tone adversely. Make sure your microphone is securely positioned preferably in a shock mount to keep it isolated from any unnecessary vibrations.
Always place a pop filter between the vocalist and the microphone.
A Few Essential Microphone Accessories
Pop Filters/Wind Screen
A must have for recording a vocal performance these fine mesh/nylon mic attachments act as a wind barrier between the vocalist and the mic (see photo, above). When a vocalist sings close into a mic certain sounds like "P,B or T" create little puffs of air that shoot from the mouth causing unwanted "pops" or thuds that the mic can pick up. By placing a pop/filter windscreen in front of the vocalist this problem is greatly reduced.
When you're using microphones in a live or studio performance situation you want to try to reduce noise from handling or stand movement as much as possible. External shock mounts hold a microphone in a suspended position to get more isolation from its surroundings. Many microphones have internal shock mounts built in. By keeping the capsule away from the housing you can more easily control unwanted vibrations.
Necessary so you can hold and position your microphones exactly where you need it. Having an adjustable horizontal arm or "boom" stand is really convenient because you can adjust the angle and length of space from your source.
The vocalist should start out standing about 6"-8" from the mic, close to the pop filter. Record enable your audio track, begin singing and then slowly move in and out from the mic. Listen for changes in the tone, especially the bass frequency. It's best to make these judgments when listening to the overall track and not solo'd, as what you might perceive as too thin when solo'd could be just right in the context of the song.
Mics in the cardioid pattern are particularly sensitive to something called "proximity effect". The closer to the mic you sing the more "boomy" the sound becomes. Decide how much bass you need in your vocal to sound good in the track and have the singer move on or off the mic accordingly. You can also try using your microphone's figure-8 pattern to greatly reduce proximity effect or if your mic has a low-cut switch try using it to eliminate unwanted low frequency rumble.
For miking vocals on stage, dynamic mics like the Shure SM58 are the industry standard. By having the vocalist "eat the mike" you can get a really strong signal and rejection of most other sounds. Condenser mics aren't preferable because they pick up too many other peripheral sounds and it can be difficult to isolate your live vocal.
The "S" Word!
Another thing to be aware of when recording a vocalist is "sibilance". Listen to how certain sounds like S's, T's, or K's are translating to your recording because they can quickly become overpowering and distracting. You can try turning the microphone slightly to one side (i.e., face the diaphragm at a 45 degree angle rather than head-on) so the "S's" aren't hitting it directly. Good control over sibilance can actually be improved by the singer's technique as well. By not accentuating the problem syllables or by slightly changing their attack it can greatly be reduced.
Miking Acoustic Guitars
One simple technique for recording an acoustic guitar with a single microphone is to start by placing your mic facing the guitar about 6"-8" from the strings, at the midpoint where the neck meets the body, or at the 12th fret. This will produce a good balanced sound—adjust the angle of the mic towards the neck if you want more top end or tilt it more towards the sound hole if more body is needed.
In live performance situations it is not always preferable to mike an acoustic guitar. It can be easier to control your signal by using a bridge transducer pickup through a direct box into the PA.
Miking Electric Guitar Cabinets
Once you've gotten a great sound out of your amp in the room it's always a challenge trying to capture that sound for your recording. If you have a single mic you can try this close miking technique on your speaker cabinet.
Essentially you're trying to find the best position for that mic on the speaker cone. The closer you place your mic to the center of it the more high frequencies you'll pick up. If you want less top end in your sound try moving the mic off-center out towards the edge of the speaker cone. You can also move the mic back or introduce a second mic, away from the speaker cone to get more room/air sound and reduce low end.
Dynamic mics like the Shure SM57 are industry standards for capturing a loud guitar sound both in the studio and live but a large diaphragm condenser will also do fine. You may want to filter out the high and low frequencies that extend beyond the range of electric guitar- typically below 60Hz and above 15kHz.
Miking Bass Guitar
Many bassists prefer the clean, distortion-free sound of recording direct without an amp or prefer to mix the two signals together. An amp can add more character to your sound but capturing good low end has it's own challenges.
Bass frequencies take distance to develop so you'll need to place your mic a foot or more from your speaker cabinet (not on the speaker cone as with a guitar cabinet.) Get down in front of the cabinet and move your head to the spot where you hear the best low-end response and put the mic there.
Most live sound engineers don't mic the bass amp live either. They prefer to take a direct signal into the PA (through a DI box) to have more isolation control of the bass frequencies in the overall mix.
The key to recording a drum kit is to capture the full range of frequencies it produces from the low end of the kick drum to the sizzle of the cymbals. Using a single mic on an entire kit will give your recordings a unique sound but for added dimension and frequency response you can reinforce that mic with close mics on the individual drums. These mic positioning techniques can be used for drums live on stage also.
Using a dynamic mic like Shure's SM57 will give you a nice "crack" and low end body. Point the mic at the edge of the top rim, about 4"-6" inches away, parallel to the surface of the head and facing the drummer. Eliminate any "ring" by moving the mic away from the rim. To lessen the attack or "crack" or to get more body, move the mic up and point it towards the center of the head at about a 45-degree angle.
For good "attack" place a dynamic mic like Sennheiser's E604 or 421 at the edge of the top head close to the rim but a few inches off the head. The more you angle the mic towards the center of the head the more body and less attack you'll get.
There are a number of mics like the Electro-Voice RE-20 or AKG D112 that can handle the demands of miking a kick drum.
For more attack, place the mic inside the kick drum and point towards the beater. Move the mic away from the center to get more "thump" or body. Placing the mic inside the drum increases the separation of the mic, so it won't pick up the sound of the other drums as much. You also might want to try placing the mic in front of the head outside the drum to get more ring and less attack.
Small diaphragm condenser mics like Shure's SM81 are particularly good at capturing the cut and high end of hi-hat and cymbals.
Use one or two in a stereo pair above the drums in a 90 degree cross pattern to eliminate phase cancellation. (Check out our review of the SM81 Mic for more details).
No Rules! Just Guidelines
There are many ways to mic instruments and none of them are wrong. It all depends on what sounds good to you and what works best for the type of music you are recording. We've come a long way since the days when young sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, risked his job at EMI studios in London by "boldly sticking a mic where no mic had gone before" inside a Leslie speaker cabinet to fulfill an impossible request from Beatle John Lennon to make his voice sound like the "Dahlai Lama chanting from a mountaintop". It was this pioneering spirit and out-of-the-box thinking that launched a generation of bold new rock and roll sounds!
Always remember that the best instrument at your disposal is a good pair of discerning ears!. Train your ears to differentiate frequencies of the sound sources you are recording. This will guide every decision you make in the selection and use of microphones for your recordings.
Just for fun...here's a video of Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens recording the song "Since You Went Away" for his solo album in our studio, House of Vibes. Note how the mic is placed with the pop filter between Pat and the mic.