Choosing microphones for your studio can be a daunting task, thanks to the enormous variety of offerings in terms of type, brand, and price. And of course, just having good mics isn’t enough to ensure good recordings. Successful miking also requires knowing what mic to choose for a given source, and how to find the best placement.
Given how broad the subject is, and the fact that so much has already been written about it, we thought we might get some new perspective by picking the brains of a number of working professionals—both engineers and recording musicians—to find out what their “go-to” mics are, and to learn some of their miking techniques and tricks.
A former guitarist for the Dap-Kings, Brenneck has become a top producer of old-style funk and soul music. He’s produced multiple albums by the singer Charles Bradley, the Menahan Street Band, and the Budos Band. A long-time Brooklyn resident, he works at his studio, The Diamond Mine, in the Queens, N.Y., neighborhood of Long Island City.
Brenneck takes a “less is more” approach when it comes to miking. Interestingly, his retro-sounding productions get their sound, in part, through the almost exclusive use of dynamic and ribbon mics, rather than condensers. “We use a lot of Electro-Voice RE15s and RE16s,” he says. “We also have an Electro-Voice 636. If we were cutting a large rhythm section, we got to this point where we would use the ribbons on the drums, use the same ribbon to overdub the horns, and everything else that’s live, just mike it up with similar-sounding dynamic mics.
“When I first started making records, all I had was a Shure 565—an older version of the SM57. I made two records using only that microphone: Charles Bradley’s first record, No Time for Dreaming, and Menahan Street Band’s first record, Make the Road by Walking. I had literally bought these microphones really cheap on tour, and went home and made those records on an 8-track in my apartment. And then I mixed them at Daptone [Studios]. People like Mark Ronson would ask me, ‘Man, how did you get those drum sounds?’ I was like, ‘Well... [Laughs] one mic and a half-inch 8-track.’ With the limited gear that we had, we couldn’t do anything fancy. So it was really about capturing a great performance.”
EV RE16EV 635AShure 565 So where did Brenneck place that single drum mic? “We’d move it all around. But the spot that we loved is—if the drummer is facing you—about a foot in front of the kick drum, and a foot off the ground. In between the kick drum and the hi-hat, kind of underneath the snare drum.
“You get a really cool kick drum sound, but you get a very specific snare drum there. And then everything else bleeds. The hi-hat bleeds, your high tom toms are loud, your floor tom is quiet, the ride cymbal is quiet and the hi-hat’s really quiet. It was a great spot for doing funk and soul music, where the kick and the snare are the most important things.”
These days he uses three mics on the drums, which, most people would still think of as a pretty minimalist setup. “We usually have an RCA 77DX or an Altec 639 pretty far overhead,” he says. “About three feet or so above the kit, kind of going for a Motown type of sound. And then a kick and a snare mic. We have a small ribbon mic that we put on the kick. It’s an Altec, like the little brother to the 639B, the 671B. We call it the “Mini Bird Cage.” We don’t put it right in front of the kick, but we’ll put it in that spot off to the side of the kick where you might get a little from the bottom of the snare drum and an indirect kick drum sound. Then also an overhead, and a mic pretty much on the snare drum—on top, to blend in, kind of facing away from the hi-hat, just facing the snare, and trying to only get the crack from the snare. And the cymbals and tom toms are kind of in focus because of the overhead, and we have control over the kick and snare.”
According to Brenneck, the most unusual miking technique he ever used featured the drummer with a mic wrapped around his neck and hanging down on his chest. “Not wrapped around like a noose,” he points out, “but just the cable hanging around his neck. That was before we could afford mic stands. It would be pointing down, right at the snare drum. There were records that we made like that.”
A longtime engineer in the Bay Area, Crews moved to Brooklyn four years ago to help launch a studio called Figure 8 Recording. “It’s owned by Shahzad Ismaily,” Crews says. “He’s been an active studio musician in NYC for the last 20 years. Some of the people he’s worked with include Laurie Anderson and Mark Ribot and Yoko Ono. So we kind of hit the ground running. We’ve been open for about two years and have had a lot of awesome sessions.
Crews says his two favorite mics “on the planet” are the Josephson C700 and the vintage Brauner VM1KHE (Klaus Heyne Edition). “I just think those mics are the best mics I’ve ever used, in terms of what you put it in front of them, you get.”
Describing the VM-1, which is a large-diaphragm tube condenser, Crews is effusive: “Particularly for vocals, the VM-1 is like no other mic I’ve ever used when it comes to really capturing detail.”
As for the C700, he says Figure 8 Recording owns the “S” model, which is a three-capsule stereo mic capable of both MS and Blumlein miking. “If I’m going for something where I really want to achieve the highest fidelity,” Crews says, “those are my two best bets, those are the mics I’d buy on an unlimited budget.”
But Crews also uses much less pricey mics in his day-to-day studio miking chores. “I came up on budget and cheap microphones, so I would say, if I’m recording drums, I’m hardly using any expensive mics. The most expensive mics I use on drums are the overheads, which are Coles, or I use these really nice B&K omni mics. For everything else on the kit, I use budget dynamics. I would say, a lot of them are pretty standard. I really love the Electro-Voice 635A; it’s a dynamic omni mic. I’ll stick one in the middle of the kit or sometimes kind of as a combination kick-beater/under-snare mic, and put it through a pretty heavy compressor or I have this Bogen P.A. preamp that distorts it pretty well. You can just cram it and it’s the best drum distortion I’ve ever heard.”
Crews revealed a trick he uses for getting a great room sound for drums and other sources: Use an old handheld cassette recorder as a microphone. “They’re really cheap on eBay. I don’t even know the model of the one I have; it’s an old Sony. The important parts it has are an onboard microphone and a built-in limiter. You don’t put a cassette in it. You trick it into thinking there’s a cassette in it. You stick a Q-Tip or something in the little tab, and then put it in record, and you come out the headphone jack.”
He places the recorder about six inches in front of the kick, toward the right edge of the drum when facing the kit. “It’s just peeking around the kick towards the snare. The kick is kind of blocking the snare. And that way it’s giving me the most amount of kick, otherwise, it’s too snare heavy. But it gives you very attack-heavy kick that sounds really different than if you just stick a mic inside the kick drum. Something about the attack makes it sound more natural.”
He even uses the cassette recorder as a secondary vocal mic: “I tape the recorder on a really hi-fi mic, and just use it as a second signal. I try to match them up distance-wise to minimize the phasing. That can be really cool. It’s like what people are going for with a Copperphone or any of these low-fidelity microphones, but it has a sound that’s really special.”
Malay (aka James Ryan Ho) is an L.A.-based producer who works with artists like Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, and Zayn Malik. When he’s not producing in high-end facilities like Larrabee Studios in L.A. and Germano Studios in New York, he brings a well-equipped traveling rig to the home studios of artists he’s recording. It includes some very nice mics including a Wunder Audio CM7 (a remake of a Neumann U47 tube condenser), a Neumann M 149, and a pair of Coles 4038 ribbon mics, for which he finds multiple applications.
Josephson C700Brauner VM1KHEColes 4038 One such application is using the 4038s in a spaced-pair stereo configuration as room mics on a vocalist. The feed from the 4038s is used in the mix in conjunction with the main vocal mic—often the CM7. He started using this technique when recording a vocal trio called Third Story.
“I would cut them live, which is kind of old school,” he says, “now that everybody layers everything.”
He’s found that the room mics give him more sonic options. “It’s a darker sound, so it doesn’t really tend to get in the way. But it’s kind of nice. Maybe during a chorus section, when you’re trying to have a little elevation. You can manipulate so much stuff with plugins and stuff now, but for me, it’s still a fun challenge to find ways to not use the plug-ins.”
He liked the sound of the 4038 room mics so much that now he’s using the technique when recording single vocalists, such as Sam Smith. But Malay finds many other uses for his 4038s. “I’ll use them on piano because they have such a warm, dark tone. In the digital world, a lot of engineers and producers are chasing how to make stuff as warm as possible, so it’s fun to have dirtier sources, kind of more distorted, grimy-sounding things. I’ve used the Coles in a few instances on a lead vocal. Not on purpose, but it was there, and somebody sang a demo take, and they [subsequently] couldn’t beat the vibe of the take, so they just kept it. But I love the way the 4038s sound, and they always seem to be the go-to in any scenario.”
Wunder CM7Neumann M149 When asked what was the most unusual miking technique he ever used, Malay relayed a story that should be filed under the heading, “Don’t Do This at Home.” He was working with Zayn, who had previously been in the boy band One Direction, but was now doing a solo album. Malay was looking to demonstrate to Zayn how the studio can be a creative place, a place to experiment. “Where he came from, he’d walk into the studio and they’d hand him songs already written, and he had no way to really be creative.”
So what happened? “It started like a joke, almost like a dare. I put a condom over the CM7 and put it in water and recorded the sound of swirling it around in water. It was kind of like an ambient thing. I ended up taking that sound and copying it and pitching it and panning it,” he said. “It kind of like blew his mind. It blew my mind, too. I’ve never done anything like that. I was thinking, ‘I hope this condom doesn’t leak.’”
A staff engineer at San Francisco’s legendary Fantasy Studios for the past eight years, Adam Muñoz has had a lot of miking experience. “We do it all here, with the three rooms going,” he says. “Every day it’s a different session. The three of us here can handle everything from string quartets to big bands. I just had a 30-piece big band in Studio D the other week. We do game audio, voiceover stuff—pretty much everything that can come in the door, we do.”
Muñoz likes to use more than one mic on a source. “For example, I’m doing a trumpet overdub tonight and I’m putting up a ribbon and a condenser. A lot of times I’ll either choose one, or I’ll blend the two. So I am multi-miking things a lot, with a bright mic and dark mic, whether that’s a ribbon or an 87 [Neumann U87] or a condenser with a 57 [Shure SM57]. I find that I do that a lot. With guitar amps, I’m almost always using a 57 or a Shure SM7 with a Royer 121 or a U87 or something dark—just both capsules side by side, and blending between the two.”
He told us a story of how he accidentally discovered a way to use an AKG-414 as a “character” drum mic. “I was tracking at the old Bearsville Studios in New York, and I just had a 414 [AKG C414 EB] in onmi as a talkback mic, and I can’t remember why I wanted to print it, but I think I had to print it in order to be able to hear something. When we got to mixing, it became the drum sound for that record. The presence that the mic had, and what it did for the drum track for that record was like, ‘Oh wow!’ And to this day, I still do that.”
These days he uses a C414 B-ULS. “That’s my go-to talk back mic, and I usually print it, because every once and a while it’s like, ‘Wow, that really helps the drum track.’ And it really has a presence to it, because they’re really bright.”
And placement? “When I’m just using it as a talkback, then obviously, I’m putting it closer to whomever I need to hear. But when I know I’m going to cheat and use it as a room mic; then I do try put it closer to the kit. It’s just about 10 feet away or so—directly in front, just in omni. And a lot of times with that, I’ll either really compress it, or even, and again this is just for drums, put a little crunch in it.”
Vanessa Parr has established herself as an engineer in the competitive L.A. music scene, working for 11 years as a staff engineer at The Village Recorder, as a freelance engineer, and now as a staff engineer at UCLA’s brand-new studio facility. Describing her work as being generally “pop-rock oriented,” she’s engineered for such production heavyweights as T Bone Burnett and Larry Klein, working on projects for Lucinda Williams, John Mayer, and Elton John, among many others.
“I generally always go to any studio with a couple of AEA R84 ribbon mics,” she says. “In the world of microphones they’re not too expensive. The passive ones are under $1,000. They’re so multifunctional. I use them on pianos a lot. I use them on acoustic guitars.”
AKG C414Shure SM57Neumann U87 Why a ribbon, rather than a condenser on an acoustic guitar? “The world that I kind of trained up in was very roots-based, so we didn’t use a lot of condensers, we used a lot of ribbons and dynamics.”
She feels the R84’s tone is more pleasing on an acoustic. “I really hate when I hear a guitar track and all I hear is that clanky attack. What’s nice about the ribbon is that you get a lot more of that twangy, midrange fullness. So if I use the R84 on acoustic, I usually put it through a Distressor, or something like that.”
She says she generally starts with the R84 about 6 inches back from the 12th fret of the acoustic. “A lot of times what I’ll do is, I’ll get a decent level on it and then I’ll put the guitar player’s headphones on and have him play, while I move the mic around until I find the place where I like it best. I’ll angle the mic more toward the neck it it’s too boomy, or I’ll angle it away from the body of the guitar a little bit more, or sometimes just pull it back a little.”
Shure SM7AEA R84 She likes her R84s on piano, too. “On super bright pianos, they’re great,” she says and then offers this tip: “There’s a nifty little device floating around now, the Cloud Lifter by a company called Cloud Microphones. It’s an impedance matcher, and you can throw it on the back end of a ribbon mic—ribbon mics traditionally have a pretty high impedance, sometimes you have to really crank the gain up, especially with old ribbons. And it really helps with that. It takes phantom power, so it will turn any ribbon microphone into a mic that requires phantom, but for $150 you get a lot more clean gain.”
Another go-to mic for Parr is the Shure SM7. “For $350, or whatever it costs, it’s such a great multifunctional mic. A lot of times I’ll use one in conjunction with whatever fancy tube mic we’re using on the singer, especially if it’s a loud singer. Because a lot of times, if a singer is really loud, you lose all the body of the vocal when you’re mixing. And it gets really aggressive. So having an SM7 with that is a nice complement.”
Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist in the New York area.