Focus on the Music: Tracking and Live Recording
By Will Dyar
As a natural progression from the last “Focus on the Music” article dealing with recording preparation and setup basics, we’ll be looking at microphones and techniques for mic and source placement. Before getting into details, there’s something we need keep in mind. Remember that, start to finish in the recording process, it’s all about the performance. At the core, all we need to make a recording is a source, a microphone, a preamplifier, and a recording device. Don’t stress about having equipment that is considered the best or most expensive — use what you have, embrace limitations, and learn how to shape sounds to your liking on the way in. After the source, the microphone is next in the chain, and it’s design and placement gives us further control on the recorded sound.
Common Microphone Designs
- Dynamics — Dynamic microphones are where most of us start our collections. These are the mics you most often see being used in live performance or broadcast applications. They tend to be durable and work well on a wide variety of sources. Most dynamics can handle loud sources and air pressure, like a loud amplifier speaker and close miking drums.
- Condensers — Condenser microphone designs require a power source, usually 48v phantom power, an internal battery, or a dedicated power supply. Condensers typically capture extended frequency information and have higher output levels than dynamic or ribbon mics. This can prove useful for lower volume voices and instruments and can help to reveal more detail with lower noise.
- Ribbons — Ribbon microphones use a thin membrane tensioned to capture sound and pending the design, usually have smooth/controlled high frequency response. This results in a slightly darker tone and can be forgiving when used on bright or edgy sources. Ribbon microphones often benefit from being paired with a higher gain preamp as their output can be fairly low. Noise might be more noticeable when using a low output ribbon on a soft, low-volume voice or instrument. Though, there are several companies currently making “active” ribbon mics that have higher output and require phantom power. Ribbon microphones need a little more thought and care in use. Wind gusts, whether naturally occurring or from air blown by mouth, loud speaker, or bass drum port hole can cause the ribbon to lose tension. A loose or stretched ribbon can result in loss of information (dull or limited frequency response) and distortion. It’s wise to put a little space between the mic and a source that pushes air and to use pop filters, especially with vocals. Some older ribbon mic designs can be damaged by sending 48v phantom power, but most modern ribbon mics are not affected by a direct application of phantom. If pin 2 or 3 on the mic cable comes in contact with the ground and causes a short, it can cause the ribbon to flex and stretch. If you’re using a TT or TRS patchbay, applying 48v phantom power should be avoided when patching cables on the patchbay, as a quick short happens when the patch cable is seated in the connector.
Common Polar Patterns
Polar patterns are used to describe the physical range and direction a microphone picks up sound. Below is an extremely basic description of a few common patterns. A quick google search of “polar patterns” will give plenty of detailed information and diagrams.
- Cardioid — This polar pattern is very common and picks up an array in the direction the mic is facing, front and sides. They do pick up some ambient sound as well, particularly condensers.
- Hypercardioid — This is a tighter, more focused pattern that also picks up a little information from the rear of the mic and can be good for rejecting unwanted bleed from sources beside the mic — think close mic on a snare drum with the side or body of the mic angled to reject some of the high hat bleed. Being a little more focused, hypercardioids can also help counter some of the quick reflections that occur in a small room. These also work well for recording live with multiple instruments in the same room. There’s also a “supercardioid” pattern, and as you would expect, is even more tightly focused.
- Figure Eight — This pattern is common in ribbon mics and multi-pattern condensers. The mic is picking up information from the front and back of the diaphragm, and rejecting sound at the sides. They tend to have a focused, but still natural sound with some ambience. They can also work great in a live, multi-microphone recording scenario, especially when utilizing the “nulls” at the sides to reduce bleed from neighboring instruments.
- Omni — This pattern is typically found on condensers, but there are a few dynamic versions out there, too. Omni mics pick up in all directions and are great for capturing natural tone and ambience. Omnis also perform well close to sources in that they tend to have less proximity effect than other patterns. Proximity Effect is an increase in low frequency information when a microphone is placed close to a source. I love omnis as room mics, on acoustic instruments, and close miking toms, bass amps, and outside bass drums.
- More Mics = More Problems. This is a saying I heard many years ago and continues to resonate with me. Multiple mics placed at different distances from a source have the potential to cause phasing issues. Basically, this means that sound waves reach each microphone at varied intervals and can be askew from each other in peaks and troughs. It has the potential to result in loss of tone and focus. A prime example of potential phase problems is miking a drum kit with many mics: stereo overhead mics, stereo room mics, two bass drum mics (one inside and one outside), two snare mics (one top and one bottom), and a single mic on each tom. You bring them all up in the mix and realize the bass drum just doesn’t have the punch and tone that it should…you flip the phase on the bass drum mics and it feels a little better, then you realize the snare sounds a little odd…you flip the phase on that…but it’s still not right…so you try flipping the phase on the overheads…then the room mics don’t sound quite right and the toms are choked…and on and on.
- It takes time to learn how multiple mics on a single source react. Sometimes it means placing mics, recording a little, listening back, pinpointing where the problem might lie, moving mics, then testing and repeating till we get it right. A simple way to avoid these issues is to use less mics. This takes practice, too, but can yield better results more efficiently. That said, and not to confuse, sometimes being out of phase benefits how the source sits in the mix. Perhaps a thinner/odd or boxy tone works better for the source in a mix of lower frequency instruments or vice versa. In the end, it comes down to listening and going with what feels right for the production. There’s nothing wrong with setting up a bunch of mics, just know it can take a little extra effort to get it “right.”
- One Focus. Think about instruments and ensembles as a single source, particularly with something like a drum kit. Yeah, it’s made up of multiple drums, but it’s being played as one instrument. We should also consider the type of production we’re working on. A drum kit with a close mic on every drum and a stereo overhead can work great for a more direct/focused or modern sound. But what if the band is going for a classic jazz, folk rock, or soul sound? — a mono overhead and a mic in front of the bass drum will give you a better chance to get the right vibe. Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t feel like you need tens of microphones on a source to make a good recording. I’m a drummer and in most scenarios I prefer less mics — not getting enough floor tom? — move the overhead a little closer to that drum. The same idea goes for tracking a live ensemble — you’ll likely have individual spot mics for each instrument, but also work to position a mono mic or stereo set that captures the ensemble as a whole. Not enough guitar and too much drum kit? — move the ensemble mic(s) closer to the guitar and further from the drums. You might realize that you can use this setup for the majority of the sound and just blend in spot mics for definition. Or, for a more focused sound, keep the spot mics up and blend the ensemble mics in for a little more natural room tone and ambience.
- Tighten Up. When setting up to track live, try positioning instruments closer together and firing sound in the same general direction — essentially like you would on a stage — in a line or slight arc with drums and amps aimed in the same direction. This can help distant or room mics get a better balanced and more consistent capture of the ensemble. Of course, if an instrument is lower volume and not being captured well enough, turn p the volume of move it closer to the ensemble mic/s. If this isn’t a possibility due to space concerns, consider placing rhythm instruments like drums and bass beside each other to get a more focused rhythm section and low end sound. A packing blanket or two thrown over a spare mic stand or chair can work as a baffle to help cut down a little bleed with closely placed instruments. If there’s a singer performing live, have them face the band or the loudest instrument (like drums) and use a mic that rejects or picks up less sound to the rear. You’re going to get some bleed, but this can help keep it to a more manageable amount.
- Double Up. When recording overdubs, try doing some takes with a close mic and a distant mic. It can be tricky where to place the distant mic and might cause phase issues, but if you have time and the inclination to experiment, you’ll likely find some cool spot for that distant mic. It might just be a foot or two deeper in the room vs. the close mic, lying on the floor, in a far corner, aimed at a window, close to the ceiling at the back of the room, up a stairwell, or down a hallway — anything goes. This can be fun but don’t let it eat up too much time. Test some options and just go with what initially inspires you. When it comes time to mix, you might find that you like the distant mic better than the close mic or that blending just a little in with the close mic helps the tone. Remember, there’s no rule that says you have to use every track you record. If you feel like a track isn’t working when you get to the mixing stage, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it muted.
- The Constant. Consider leaving a mono room mic set up in the same position while tracking multiple instrument and vocal overdubs. When doing this, try moving the voice/instrument and close mic (if using one) to different parts of the room and keep the distant mic stationary. This can sometimes give a nice sense of space in a mix.
When choosing mics for your recording, consider the source and it’s tone in the room — is the singer’s voice naturally sibilant or a stringed instrument a little edgy and biting? — use a darker toned mic, try backing off the mic a little or angling the mic off-axis so that the source isn’t firing directly into the diaphragm. Bass guitar not cutting through enough? — try using a brighter rmic that has more bite and edge. Are cymbals on a drum kit loud, heavy and cutting? — stay away from brighter voiced mics as overheads or you’ll be fighting the “ping” and wash when you’re mixing. Try using fewer mics, and instead, use space and distance to your advantage — put a few more feet or inches between the mic and source and experiment with distant mics to help give more dimension to your recordings and mixes.
Simply by learning the tone of your mics, listening to the source in the room, and placing mics accordingly — you’ll be in great shape!
In the next article, I’ll be giving some tips for editing, mixing and sharing files with collaborators — so get set up and start recording!