Punch Drunk(2)

Depending upon your perspective, miking guitar cabinets can be a frustrating and hopeless activity, or a thrilling foray into experimentation, discovery, and bountiful shades of kick-ass tone. Defeatists typically bemoan their lack of high-end microphones, a dearth of mic options, the absence of a pristine acoustic environment, and various other woes such as crap mic preamps, semi-pro outboard gear or plug-ins, and limited inputs. Whaaa. Whaaa. Whaaa.
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Let’s cut to the chase. No one who really and truly aspires to make good recordings should subscribe to defeatist psychobabble, because any imaginative individual with an average work ethic can document fabulous guitar sounds with two microphones of any value (one dynamic and one condenser), two inputs, any old type of preamp, and zero outboard gear. The not-so-secret secret here is savvy microphone placement guided by the qualitative analysis provided by those two auditory devices on the sides of your head. Now, let’s look at some common single-mic positions.

DEAD-ON

Mic Type: Dynamic.

Position: Point the mic directly at the center of the speaker. If the cabinet has a grille cloth, rest the mic right on the fabric. If not, place the mic about four inches from the speaker’s dust cap or the middle of the cone.

Tonal Characteristics: Dry impact. Tight and punchy with meaty bass content. Excellent isolation.

Variations: For enhanced highs and a more dimensional sound, trade the dynamic for a condenser. You may have to pad the mic input if the amp is blasting to avoid unwanted distortion. If the condenser has multiple polar patterns, try cardioid first to maintain isolation. If bass is too pronounced due to proximity effect [a boost in the low-frequency response of a directional mic when the mic is placed very close to the sound source], switch to omnidirectional. This will diminish low-end mud, but it will also capture sound in a 360-degree field around the mic position.

Ear Training: Move the mic around the speaker — a little below or above the cap, over to the right and left edge, down to the bottom edge or up to the top — to audition how slight position changes affect the tone. If you stumble across a sound you love — freeze.

ROOMY

Mic Type: Dynamic.

Position: Place the mic approximately three feet from the cabinet, pointing directly at the center of the speaker cone.

Tonal Characteristics: Natural roar. Enhanced mids and highs, de-emphasized bass. Natural ambience.

Variations: To capture more sparkle — as well as a clearer and more dimensional room sound — use a condenser.

Ear Training: Try moving the mic around the cabinet (and even behind it if it’s an open-back cab), as well as increasing the distance between microphone and speaker. Look for a point where the source sound (the amp) and the room sound collaborate to produce an exciting and natural tone.

AMBIENT

Mic Type: Condenser.

Position: Place the mic at least ten feet away from the cabinet, at a height of at least five feet.

Tonal Characteristics: Wide-open spaces. Blossoming ambience with a midrange sting.

Variations: Move the mic around the room to find a sweet spot where the reflections and source sound congeal in an animated mixture of impact and expanse.

Ear Training: If your condenser is a multi-pattern model, switch between cardioid, omnidirectional, and hypercardioid to audition how each polar pattern affects the sound of the amp and room.

OFF-AXIS

Mic Type: Condenser.

Position: Switch the mic to its cardioid pattern, and place it approximately three inches from the speaker (or grille cloth) at a 45-degree angle.

Tonal Characteristics: Funky snap. Shimmering highs with a taut midrange and moderate bass response.

Variations: Slightly adjust the degree of the off-axis position, and trade the condenser for a dynamic or an affordable ribbon mic.

Ear Training: While maintaining the same off-axis position, move the mic to different areas around the speaker. Listen for those moments when the resulting sound causes the hair on your arms to stand at attention.

Next Issue: Stereo miking strategies.

Michael Molenda is a seminal San Francisco punk, multimedia artist, and producer who has recorded tracks for everyone from NASA to Paramount Pictures to various major and minor labels to hundreds of bands you’ve never heard. He currently co-owns Tiki Town Studios with producer Scott Mathews, and is signed to MI5 Recordings.