Audio / Tips and Solutions

How to Pair a Microphone with a Sound Source

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Let’s begin with what you won’t see in this article: You won’t find the customary list of mics, their governing attributes, or a list of instruments they flatter; mics age differently, making that kind of list largely moot. Also, it wouldn’t necessarily help if you didn’t have those microphones, many of which are quite expensive.

Likewise, you won’t see a right-brained crystallization of concepts you’d come across in a book such as, “Mixing with Your Mind.” Michael Stavrou does that better than I could ever hope to.

Instead, we’re going to cover basic concepts, as well as some tips, tricks, and considerations that have worked for me over the years.

Learn the Basics (and Hopefully More) of the Microphone

Later we will consider factors arguably more important than the microphone. But still, a basic understanding of microphones will help you get quick results.

In all mics, a transducer converts soundwaves into electrical energy, though different design principals in the capsule engender different results. Simply speaking, you’ve got:

Dynamic (Moving Coil)

A coil is affixed to a membrane (called the diaphragm), vibrating in opposition to a surrounding magnet, transmuting a soundwave into electrical current. These mics tend to be quite robust on stage, can handle a good deal of loud transients, tend to be especially resonant between one and 4 kHz, and often roll off high frequencies above 10 kHz or so. They’re often used on drums, live vocals, and guitars.

Ribbon

Like a moving-coil capsule, a ribbon uses a membrane, but this one is very thin—say the equivalent of a tiny piece of foil—which vibrates in the middle of a magnet. Ribbons tend to be more accurate than moving-coils, but also more sensitive, and can be damaged by the implementation of phantom power. It is said that their “resonant peak” occurs at the bottom of their range, securing a flatter frequency response afterwards. They can also be flattering on instruments with natural high end.

Condenser

Here you’ll find two conductive plates at work, one acting as the diaphragm, vibrating with the sound source, and modulating its distance between the other plate. This motion varies the capacitance and voltage of the resulting signal. Condensers require external power to run and, due to their construction, tend to have specific colorations, particularly in the highs and high-midrange. Often, you’ll hear them on vocals, where they engender the present, silky sound we’ve come to expect in pop.

There are subcategories of course, and uses vary across makes and models.

Next, We Have Polar Patterns

Omnidirectional

Sound is captured all around the capsule.

Cardioid

Sound is captured in a heart-like pattern around the microphone, with minimal response (if any) coming from the back. There are variations and substrata of Cardioid patterns, but we don’t have the space here.

Figure 8 (Also called Figure of Eight or bidirectional)

Sound is picked up immediately in front of the capsule, and immediately behind it, with virtual rejection on the sides. This polar pattern can be quite useful when trying to get separation among live instruments.

Go ahead and do more research into these concepts, since drilling information into your head will help you avoid making catastrophic mistakes (like running phantom power through a ribbon microphone), and will aid in situation-specific circumstances (singer/songwriter wants to play guitar while singing? Two figure-8’s please!)

Consider the Considerations

With technical knowledge in hand, here’s what I consider when pairing a mic with an instrument.

The Instrument

An instrument’s characteristics will have a huge effect on how I mic it. I don’t mean the instrument itself, but the way the instrument expresses itself: An acoustic guitar can be extraordinarily bright, or quite dull, depending on the make, the model, the strings used, and of course…

The Player

There’s a classic story in which Charlie Parker may/may not have pawned his sax right before an important gig. Either way, he used a plastic saxophone for Jazz at Massey hall. What did he sound like? Charlie Parker. People have their unique timbre. Use your ears to hear what’s different about the player you’re miking, and react accordingly.

The Room

The room is quite important, maybe more so than the mic itself. If you’re in an unfamiliar room, walk around while clapping your hands, listening for flutter echoes. Use the higher and lower registers of your voice to test out low-/high-frequency responses. Once you find a pleasurable spot, set up there: You’ll be more inclined to use the sound of the room to your advantage, using off-axis positioning with confidence.

The Track

The track itself will dictate how you’ll want to work. If you’ve heard the demo, you’ll have a good idea of harmonic motion, arrangement, and genre, which will influence your decisions. For instance, in a pop track, I might not put a ribbon microphone on a singer, because today’s pop tends to require a bright, sparkly sound out of the vocal. However, on a rock track, a dynamic or a ribbon might just be the ticket.

The Function

What’s the instrument doing in the track? Is it providing percussive elements? Or is it laying down harmonic pads? This will influence mic choice and placement as well.

Now that we’ve got our concepts and considerations, here’s…

A Miscellaneous Grab Bag of Tips!

Know thy voice, know thy mic

If you’re trying to get a good sound, it always helps to have a reference you can count on. To judge a new monitoring situation, I run a record I’m deeply familiar with through the system and run it through the “childhood test” (i.e., does this record sound like my childhood? If not, what about it sounds different from how it sounded in my childhood?). For microphones, I have my voice. I know it well from listening to it in singing and voice-over contexts. I can judge a microphone’s innate qualities by seeing how it stacks up to my own voice, because I know what to expect from my recorded voice. I can use this knowledge to assess any microphone I’ve never used before. Does one make my voice sound (even) more nasal than another? Does another add low-end? This will be good information for utilizing a microphone.

Avoid putting a mic right up on the source—unless you have to

If you need to overwhelm to contain leakage, that’s one thing. Otherwise, sounds benefit with a little bit of air, especially in a great space.

Use the proximity effect to your advantage

The closer you get to a microphone, the more low-mid range you’re going to elicit. If your instrument could use more 300 Hz or so, bring the microphone in.

Big picture drums

When miking a drum kit, I would try to achieve a good overhead sound first, and then fill in with spot mics.

Use a figure eight to reject sounds you don’t want

The sides of the mic are virtually dead. Thus, you can angle the microphone in such a way that anything on its sides are out of the line of fire.

Think polarity, but go for character over polarity

People obsess about getting their signals in solid phase cohesion. This is good practice, but it should never be at the expense of a characterful sound.

Before recording an instrument, tune it extensively, and if it’s a string instrument, tune it multiple times. It needs to settle into its intonation.

Stereo or Mono Miking?

In my opinion, the answer lies not in the instrument, but in its function. If your piano is the big feature of the song, then a stereo spread might be suggested. If it’s one of many harmonic instruments, mono might be preferable.

If the sound you’re miking is natively harsh, try pairing it with a mellower mic, and vice versa

There’s no sense putting an innately shrill mic on something like a trumpet—there’s a reason that many jazz records utilize ribbon microphones.

If you’re taking a DI with an electric instrument’s amp, check the polarity between the two signals up front

This way, you’ll have your sound ironed out before the mix process, and putting it into the track might be as simple as putting up the faders and blending the sound.

Try turning the mic off-axis to get mitigate particularly harsh sounds

This tip is great for project-studio operators with a small microphone locker. If you find yourself consistently, aggressively de-essing vocals you’ve recorded, try placing the capsule at a slight angle to the singer. The same goes for a piercing brass instrument or an alto or soprano saxophone. This can cut the harshness, but at the same time, it teaches you to utilize every part of your microphone—not only a valuable exercise, but a way to add variety to the sonic palette.

That’s all the space I’ve got. B&H has plenty of video tutorials for specific miking techniques. And as always, feel free to leave a comment if you have a specific question!

4 Comments

Great article and as said before, the Charlie Parker story is spot on. For those just starting to record and even those that have been in the studio all of their lives... a lot of articles tend to overcomplicate things and use wording that beginners may not understand. I tend to call out the writers of these kinds of articles for showing off or trying to sound smarter than they are. Either that or trying to keep newcomers away from the business, so that they have little or less competition. The article above is well written and doesnt do this.

my two cents... the best thing you can do is train your ears to pick out frequencies, so you know what you need to adjust before recording. There are many free courses onlne to do so. By doing so, you will be able to easily pick out the perfect mic for any situation. Not only that... but also better your ability to piece each track together in the mix, to keep from overlapping frequencies, so you will save your time in post and the mastering process.

Alan Parsons is one of the best at this and I highly recommend his course on DVD, which is one of the most extensive and teaches you everything you need to know about every inch of the recording, mixing and mastering process. If you can keep your frequencies for each instrument in check, you wont have bleed from one track to the next... which will help you avoid cancelling out frequencies and muting or total deletion of sounds that overlap in their frequency range. Stereo separation is also another great tool for keeping your sound stage alive and it can be used to great effect to surprise and delight listeners. Little nuances can also make or break any song. You will be surprised how flat or boring a song can sound by leaving the simpest of these tiny little accents out. Whether it be a 3 note sax piece or something on guitar.

The best advice I can give to anyone is... listen and experiment. Don't let anyone tell you how to do your thing... if you get caught up in the technicalities of recording, its easy to get frustrated and lose your ambition. If you have an idea, record it simply first, play with it and then go back and seriously record once you are happy with it. Once done recording, walk away from it, let it sit for a week or two and then go back with fresh mind and ears and add those little nuances I talked about earlier. You could also bring other musicians or producers in to see what they come up with.

and lastly, have fun... The best musicians and songwriters are those who love what they do. If its not enjoyable, you are getting too technical. Its time to step back and let go of the hangups. Get back to just enjoying writing and recording, like you were a child seeing anything for the first time.

Thanks for the kind words!

What a coincidence, you happened to name the namesake of my favorite band. I grew up listening to the Alan Parsons Project, and aspired to the level of their production and mixing when I was first starting out. To this day, I'm an avid member of an Alan Parsons Project listserve (remember those?).

I also cannot recommend Alan Parsons' ASSR course enough. I remember watching him toy around with, of all things, a Yamaha mixing board (if memory serves, it was an LS9), and getting beautiful timbres on an accentuated echo. It boggled my mind, because I was never able to make that particular board sound like I wanted it to when I worked with it in clubs and in rehearsal studios. It just goes to show how much experience and ears trump any one piece of gear! 

Very well written article.  There are a lot of gems in the various strories and suggestions. Not sure someone who hasnt spent his life in studios will appreciate the amount of wisdom in this article, but as someone who has spent his life in studios, this covers about 90% of what you need to know for succesful recording.  After having used just about every high end mic, preamp, converter and console, as well as their bargain basement counterparts, I'd have to say the the Charlie Parker story sums up the entire recording process better than anything.  It's all about the player and the performance. Thanks for a great article.

The diagrams of the different types of microphones use the labels "sound output" and "output audio signal" which are wrong. They should say "electrical signal output" instead.

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