Bare Bones Miking

I’m going to assume that the typical readers of this column are somewhat like me in that they don’t have a collection of vintage, matched, modified, museum quality German microphones nor do they have an infinite stock of any type of mic for that matter. Let’s just refer to some of that stuff as unobtainium for now. In the past, choices for microphones were limited to a few manufacturers but now there are innumerable ones to pick from making it all but impossible to hear and compare all of them.

In my personal arsenal I need a pair of small diaphragm, omni or cardioid condenser mics, some dynamic mic’s like a Shure SM57 or two, a few SM58’s , a couple of Senhieser MD 421’s , an AKG D112 or D12, plus a large diaphragm condenser mic, a few lavaliers and a couple of ribbon mic’s. You can cover off just about any situation with this array.

We’ll start with the drums. (See article Sept / Oct ’06.) Usually I put a pair of omni, small diaphragm, condenser mikes as overheads a few inches to a foot or so apart, about four feet from the closest drum and from behind the drummer. I place a D112 inside or in front of the kick drum and then place a large diaphragm condenser mic ( I use a Lawson 47mp or a Rode NT2 ) around waist or chest level, about 10 feet in front of the kick to cover the whole kit as a room mic. Usually an SM57 between the snare and the hi hat pointing towards the edge of the snare is sufficient to bring out the snare. Some folks mic the snare from below as well as from above. If I think I need to work the toms I’ll place an MD 421 over each tom, again aimed more towards the rim to avoid ring and again some people like to mic the toms from below as well. Keep in mind, this is only one guy’s take on these miking issues. A bit of imagination can go a long way in searching out sounds. Be creative. Simply use what sounds best. As with every recording, the sounds you need will vary with the song, the preamp, the compression, the instrument and the players.

I prefer to use two tracks for bass, one DI and one a miked bass cabinet. For example if I need an aggressive bass line with lots of grainy highs and high mids then, as opposed to eqing, I’d use a mic, amp and cabinet combination that gave me those frequencies to mix in with the DI. If I need a reflective sound, as opposed to using a processor, I distance the mic and get natural room reflections. In the case of acoustic bass, mike the F hole close with a large diaphragm mic or even your D112. A strategically placed small diaphragm condenser will give any ambience required as well as a bit of sizzle and/or reflections.

Because of the wide variety of acoustic instruments, we’ll limit ourselves to just a few examples.

In the above list I included lavalier mics. They are those tiny mic’s used by TV announcers that clip on to their lapels. They come in a variety of price ranges, are relatively inexpensive and extremely useful to mic in hard to reach places. We frequently have to mic some fairly esoteric instruments and I find lavaliers to be the solution in many cases. For example: plectrum dulcimer, African thumb piano and even mandolin are likely candidates. The tiny mics can be clipped inside the instrument or on the outer edges and, depending on their fidelity, can even be used to mic an area from a distance, even drums and horns. I personally have quite a few lavaliers of varying quality and price. They have all been useful in the studio.

Horns produce a lot of sound pressure level and need to be miked with mics that can take it. From our pared down list, the most likely prospect would be the MD 421’s although some of the others, like the SM57 and SM58, can work in a pinch.

I usually use a large diaphragm condenser and a small diaphragm condenser on acoustic guitar, the large capsule on the lower bout behind the bridge and the small capsule pointing from a foot or so out in front covering where the neck joins the body and the front edge of the sound hole.

Recently I was recording an acoustic guitar in a strange room and my “go to” setup sucked. I eventually threw up an SM57, moved it around a bit, and lo and behold, it gave me everything I needed, a tight, non – reflective sound without too much noise from the attack of the pick and without too much woof in the lows and low mids.

A lot of ribbon mics are very fragile when it comes to SPL so check out their specifications before you use them. I’ve seen that there are several manufacturers who make them a lot more robust and they can take a whopping +140db. That’s certainly louder than anything I’d be recording. Good ribbon mics are great on just about anything. They reproduce beautiful, dense mid range. The majority of the sounds we hear in recordings are mid range.

Electric guitar is dense with mid frequencies therefore a great contender for the ribbon mic. I usually use two mics on the electric guitar, one close in (ranging from a ribbon or a large capsule to an SM57) and one or two (for a stereo field) small capsule condensers, or again ribbon mics, 3 to 5 meters from the amp to capture reflections and a dense sheet of mids to mix in with the close mic. Believe it or not, usually the distance mic is prevalent in the mix. Depending on the room and its’ nature by design, you can adjust the amount of reflective sound on the instrument by adding more of the distance mic in the mix, again eliminating the need to add digital processing after the fact.

Vocal miking techniques could be argued or discussed endlessly. The fact of the matter is that there is no exact method. You’d be amazed by how many vocal recordings have been done with SM57’s and SM58’s. Though often thought of only as live performance mic’s, sometimes the 57 or 58 can fill the studio need beautifully. For instance, aggressive rock vocalists who are used to shoving the mic half way down their throats in live performance may feel more comfortable using what they’re accustomed to. Other advantages in using a SM58, for example, are that they handle sibilance (sssss) and popping better than a large capsule mic and, if tracking in a shared envoirnment, they reject external sounds quite admirably. Given a choice, I would usually pick a large diaphragm condenser mic but some voices require very special consideration. If a voice is sibilant and tonally aggressive, we have to avoid mic’s that enhance those frequencies and steer towards those that don’t and vice versa. When selecting a mic to record our own voices we must be cautious not to pick a mic because someone told us about it or it worked well on their voice. Try it before buying it even if it means renting it once. So put on your best ears and above all, have fun.

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