You can't rely on sample packs forever, you know! Our resident studio boffin Chris Lyth shares some tips for beginners on microphone selection and placement
While the bread and butter of electronic music production involves samplers, synths and drum machines as primary sound sources, our lovingly crafted machine grooves are often augmented by live vocals, guitars, brass and strings. Which means that sooner or later, almost every electronic music will need to do some actual recording – and will need a decent microphone to do it with.
Capturing a great live performance in a less than acoustically perfect studio is a test for sure, but it’s perfectly possible, and has been done on countless occasions. A big part of the battle is knowing what microphone to use and how to use it to best effect – so here's a practical guide for electronic musicians. Do note, however, that entire books have been written on microphones and microphone technique, and it’s impossible to cover every aspect in one article. The idea here is simply to give a practical crash-course on using microphones in a typical home studio environment, without burdening you with too much information.
Before we talk about microphones, we need to have a good look at the space in which we will be recording. What we're dealing with primarily are reflections: no matter how expensive a studio is, it will have reflections. Indeed, some live rooms are acoustically designed to be sympathetic to the music, so that the engineer can take advantage of the musical-sounding reflections of that space by using microphones at a suitable distance to capture the room’s natural reverb.
The typical bedroom studio, however, will not have a particularly pleasing sound for recording. The most practical approach for recording in poor-sounding rooms is to use a cardioid microphone (a mic that picks up mainly from the front) and record fairly close to the subject. In general, the aim is to minimise the amount of reflections entering the mic, so we need to take action to dampen down our recording environment. You can do this by hanging absorbent material behind and either side of the player or amplifier. Duvets are inelegant but readily available, and do a good job of turning a poor room into a decent sounding space.
If, on the other hand, you need a little extra sparkle when recording acoustic guitar or strings, then find a room with a wooden floor. You will still need to tame the refections from the wall with duvets, but it will give the liveliness that is needed. If this is impossible, place a reflective board on the carpet between the player and the microphone.
2. Choosing a microphone
Here’s the good news: these days there really aren't many truly bad mics on the market, and even a £75 mic such as the Audio Technica AT2020 can give superb results on many sources if used properly.
How often you plan to record vocals and instruments should be a guide as to how much you should spend. If you're a producer that’s looking to get a number of different vocalists and a variety of instrumentalists to record in your studio on a long-term basis, it makes sense to spend more on a great mic than if all you're going to record is an occasional snatch of your own vocals and the odd guitar amp.
While there is no perfect mic and each will suit a variety of applications, here is a small selection of microphones that will tackle a variety of sources…
Shure SM58 (£85)
A near indestructible dynamic mic that has been used for live vocals for 50+ years. It’s not an exaggeration to say that at some point in any major vocalist's career they will have used an SM58, and many swear by them. It will sound good on most things, and every studio should have one! In fact, SM58's are often used for vocals in top studios in preference to more expensive condensers, because sometimes a 58 will just sit more naturally in a busy mix and sound balanced and cohesive.
RØDE NT1-A (£139)
At £139 the RØDE NT1-A is an absolute bargain. It’s not as silky-sounding as some of the high-end, £1,000 plus mics, but it's absolutely capable of delivering professional results. Fun fact: Craig David’s early vocals were recorded with an NT1. This may or may not be a deciding factor for you!
Lewitt LCT 441 FLEX (£349)
A well-respected condenser mic that has a full sound andvariable polar pattern and sounds great on vocals, acoustic guitars, strings and brass, making it an incredibly useful all-rounder at a decent price. If you're looking for a mic to fulfil a number of duties, this is well worth a look.
Neumann TLM 102 (£499)
If you're going to be recording a lot of live vocals and instruments, and are happy to spend a little more, then the TLM 102 is a good investment: it offers amazingly smooth low-mids and airy high frequencies that will flatter vocals. But like all of the mics here it will handle pretty much anything, and exude class while doing it.
A few tips to help with the actual recording…
• Take time to get the headphone mix right, to make the performer as comfortable as possible.
• Always use closed-back headphones to prevent your backing track leaking into the mic.
• Always use a pop shield when recording vocals, because plosive pops will make your life a living hell.
• When recording multiple takes, be sure to keep the mic position constant, as altering this will alter the tone and make editing difficult afterwards.
• Make sure the room is quiet. This seems obvious, but even some quite well-known hits have been known to contain, when listened to closely, the sound of the No 43 bus going by outside because a window was open! More importantly, countless millions of vocal takes have had to be re-recorded for similar reasons…
• Don't go crazy with EQ when you're recording: use as little as you can get away with.
4. Mic'ing common instruments
Mic proximity and positioning are very important. With a close mic position (two-four inches) more bass, lip smack, mouth noise and detail will be present: this can be very effective if you are aiming for a very intimate, warm and breathy sound, but otherwise a typical working distance would be around six-ten inches, which provides a good level with plenty of warmth and detail.
Guitar and amps vary wildly in their tone, but as this is iDJ and not Metal Monthly, I imagine not too many readers are going to be recording dense thrash metal tones! If possible, get the amp off the floor using a stand or a chair. Mic position could be anywhere from right up against the grille of the amp to up to a metre away, depending on the room sound. If in doubt and in a small room, go as close as possible. Use headphones and move the mic around as you listen. The centre of the amp’s speaker cone gives the brightest tone, while moving it to the edge smooths and softens it off.
Recording bass is often done using a DI, but a mix of the DI’d signal and the amp gives a better sound IMHO. Mic positioning is very similar to guitar, but make sure that if your mic has an HPF switch that it’s turned off to capture those lovely deep notes. If you can get hold of a kick drum mic use it, but if not then any of the mics above will do a fine job.
With any kind of string instrument, consider where the sound is coming from. In a violin, the strings and F-holes face upwards, so you will have to get the mic high up on a stand and face it down towards the strings. For a louder performance, place the mic three feet away, or for softer warmer tones go for around 18 inches. With a cello, aim the mic between the bridge and the F-hole, around 18 inches away. Always use a condenser mic where possible for strings.
Brass can be hugely dynamic and produce high sound pressure levels, so sit your mic about 16 inches away from the bell of the instrument. Facing the mic directly at the bell will give a brighter sound, while placing it off-axis will give you warmer-sounding one. As always, the part being played should inform your decision making.
Use a Korg M1! :-)
If you are unsure when mic'ing up an unusual instrument, speak to the performer and move your head around the instrument to hear where it sounds the best, then place the mic there.
Words: Chris Lyth