- A microphone should be used whose frequency response will suit the frequency range of the voice or instrument being recorded.
- Vary microphone positions and distances until you achieve the monitored sound that you desire.
- In the case of poor room acoustics, place the microphone very close to the loudest part of the instrument being recorded or isolate the instrument.
- Personal taste is the most important component of microphone technique. Whatever sounds right to you, is right.
Types of microphones
These are the most common general-purpose microphones. They do not require power to operate. If you have a microphone that is used for live performance, it is probably a dynamic mic.
They have the advantage that they can withstand very high sound pressure levels (high volume) without damage or distortion, and tend to provide a richer, more intense sound than other types. Traditionally, these mics did not provide as good a response on the highest frequencies (particularly above 10 kHz), but some recent models have come out that attempt to overcome this limitation.
In the studio, dynamic mics are often used for high sound pressure level instruments such as drums, guitar amps and brass instruments. Models that are often used in recording include the Shure SM57 and the Sennheiser MD421.
These microphones are often the most expensive microphones a studio owns. They require power to operate, either from a battery or phantom power, provided using the mic cable from an external mixer or pre-amp. These mics have a built-in pre-amplifier that uses the power. Some vintage microphones have a tube amplifier, and are referred to as tube condensers.
While they cannot withstand the very high sound pressure levels that dynamic mics can, they provide a flatter frequency response, and often the best response at the highest frequencies. Not as good at conveying intensity, they are much better at providing a balanced accurate sound.
Condenser mics come with a variety of sizes of transducers. They are usually grouped into smaller format condensers, which often are long cylinders about the size of a nickel coin in diameter, and larger format condensers, the transducers of which are often about an inch in diameter or slightly larger.
In the studio, condenser mics are often used for instruments with a wide frequency range, such as an acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, voice, violin, cymbals, or an entire band or chorus. On louder instruments they do not use close miking with condensers. Models that are often used in recording include the Shure SM81 (small format), AKG C414 (large format) and Neumann U87 (large format).
Ribbon microphones are often used as an alternative to condenser microphones. Some modern ribbon microphones do not require power, and some do. The first ribbon microphones, developed at RCA in the 1930s, required no power, were quite fragile and could be destroyed by just blowing air through them. Modern ribbon mics are much more resiliant, and can be used with the same level of caution as condenser mics.
Ribbon microphones provide a warmer sound than a condenser mic, with a less brittle top end. Some vocalists (including Paul McCartney) prefer them to condenser mics. In the studio they are used on vocals, violins, and even drums. Popular models for recording include the Royer R121 and the AEA R84.
When miking at a distance of 1 inch to about 1 foot from the sound source, it is considered close miking. This technique generally provides a tight, present sound quality and does an effective job of isolating the signal and excluding other sounds in the acoustic environment.
Bleeding occurs when the signal is not properly isolated and the microphone picks up another nearby instrument. This can make the mixdown process difficult if there are multiple voices on one track. Use the following methods to prevent leakage:
- Place the microphones closer to the instruments.
- Move the instruments farther apart.
- Put some sort of acoustic barrier between the instruments.
- Use directional microphones.
A B miking
The A B miking distance rule (ratio 3 - 1) is a general rule of thumb for close miking. To prevent phase anomalies and bleed, the microphones should be placed at least three times as far apart as the distance between the instrument and the microphone.
Distant miking refers to the placement of microphones at a distance of 3 feet or more from the sound source. This technique allows the full range and balance of the instrument to develop and it captures the room sound. This tends to add a live, open feeling to the recorded sound, but careful consideration needs to be given to the acoustic environment.
Accent miking is a technique used for solo passages when miking an ensemble. A soloist needs to stand out from an ensemble, but placing a microphone too close will sound unnaturally present compared the distant miking technique used with the rest of the ensemble. Therefore, the microphone should be placed just close enough to the soloist so that the signal can be mixed effectively without sounding completely excluded from the ensemble.
Ambient miking is placing the microphones at such a distance that the room sound is more prominent than the direct signal. This technique is used to capture audience sound or the natural reverberation of a room or concert hall.
Stereo and surround technique
Stereo miking is simply using two microphones to obtain a stereo left-right image of the sound. A simple method is the use of a spaced pair, which is placing two identical microphones several feet apart and using the difference in time and amplitude to create the image. Great care should be taken in the method as phase anomalies can occur due to the signal delay. This risk of phase anomaly can be reduced by using the X/Y method, where the two microphones are placed with the grills as close together as possible without touching. There should be an angle of 90 to 135 degrees between the mics. This technique uses only amplitude, not time, to create the image, so the chance of phase discrepancies is unlikely.
To take advantage of 5.1 sound or some other surround setup, microphones may be placed to capture the surround sound of a room. This technique essentially stems from stereo technique with the addition of more microphones. Because every acoustic environment is different, it is difficult to define a general rule for surround miking, so placement becomes dependent on experimentation. Careful attention must be paid to the distance between microphones and potential phase anomalies.
Placement for varying instruments
When miking an amplified speaker, such as for electric guitars, the mic should be placed 2 to 12 inches from the speaker. Exact placement becomes more critical at a distance of less than 4 inches. A brighter sound is achieved when the mic faces directly into the center of the speaker cone and a more mellow sound is produced when placed slightly off-center. Placing off-center also reduces amplifier noise.
A bigger sound can often be achieved by using two mics. The first mic should be a dynamic mic, placed as described in the previous paragraph. Add to this a condenser mic placed at least 3 times further back (remember the 3:1 rule), which will pickup the blended sound of all speakers, as well as some room ambience. Run the mics into separate channels and combine them to your taste.
High sound-pressure levels are produced by brass instruments due to the directional characteristics of mid to mid-high frequencies. Therefore, for brass instruments such as trumpets, trombones, and tubas, microphones should face slightly off of the bell's center at a distance of one foot or more to prevent overloading from wind blasts.
Technique for acoustic guitars is dependent on the desired sound. Placing a microphone close to the sound hole will achieve the highest output possible, but the sound may be bottom-heavy because of how the sound hole resonates at low frequencies. Placing the mic slightly off-center at 6 to 12 inches from the hole will provide a more balanced pickup. Placing the mic closer to the bridge with the same working distance will ensure that the full range of the instrument is captured.
A technique that some engineers use places a large-format condenser mic 12-18 inches away from the 12th fret of the guitar, and a small-format condenser very close to the strings nearby. Combining the two signals can produce a rich tone.
Ideally, microphones would be placed 4 to 6 feet from the piano to allow the full range of the instrument to develop before it is captured. This isn't always possible due to room noise, so the next best option is to place the microphone just inside the open lid. This applies to both grand and upright pianos.
One overhead microphone can be used for a drum set, although two are preferable. If possible, each component of the drum set should be miked individually at a distance of 1 to 2 inches as if they were their own instrument. This also applies to other drums such as congas and bongos. For large, tuned instruments such as xylophones, multiple mics can be used as long as they are spaced according to the 3:1 rule. Typically, dynamic mics are used for individual drum miking, while small-format condensers are used for the overheads.
Standard technique is to put the microphone directly in front of the vocalist's mouth, although placing slightly off-center can alleviate harsh consonant sounds (such as "p") and prevent overloading due to excessive dynamic range.
A general rule for woodwinds is to place the microphone around the middle of the instrument at a distance of 6 inches to 2 feet. The microphone should be tilted slightly towards the bell or sound hole, but not directly in front of it.
It is important to understand how sound propagates due to the nature of the acoustic environment so that microphone technique can be adjusted accordingly. There are four basic ways that this occurs:
Sound waves are reflected by surfaces if the object is as large as the wavelength of the sound. It is the cause of echo (simple delay), reverberation (many reflections cause the sound to continue after the source has stopped), and standing waves (the distance between two parallel walls is such that the original and reflected waves in phase reinforce one another).
Sound waves are absorbed by materials rather than reflected. This can have both positive and negative effects depending on whether you desire to reduce reverberation or retain a live sound.
Objects that may be between sound sources and microphones must be considered due to diffraction. Sound will be stopped by obstacles that are larger than its wavelength. Therefore, higher frequencies will be blocked more easily than lower frequencies.
Sound waves bend as they pass through mediums with varying density. Wind or temperature changes can cause sound to seem like it is literally moving in a different direction than expected.
- Huber, Dave Miles, and Robert E. Runstein. Modern Recording Techniques. Sixth Edition. Burlington: Elsevier, Inc., 2005.
- Shure, Inc. (2003). Shure Product Literature. Retrieved November 28, 2005, from http://www.shure.com/scripts/literature/literature.aspx.