John Altschiller’s Reveals his Miking Secrets

“What is my secret?” asks John Altschiller, the man behind the mix for everyone from the Foo Fighters to John Mayer. “I go into the control room at least twice before I touch anything. If I don’t like what I’m hearing, I change mics or the mic positions. EQing should only be done to augment the natural sound you have—not to create a sound that doesn’t naturally exist.

“Mic placement is a forgotten art. Today, in the interest of time, a lot of people throw a microphone in front of an instrument, and worry about it later at the mix. When I record an acoustic guitar or a violin or a clarinet, I always stick my ear on the instrument to see where the mic should go, because every instrument is different. I used this technique while recording Keller Williams for the album, Dream. For ‘Kiwi and the Apricot’ and ‘Slo’mo Balloon,’ we were recording acoustic guitar and vocal at the same time. I placed my ear by the 12th fret, because that’s where I thought the right place might be, but that was not where the guitar sounded good to me. I found the perfect placement toward the back of his fretting hand. The guitar was full, and the phase relationship with the vocal microphone seemed good. I was, however, missing some sparkle, so I positioned a Blue Dragonfly near the top of the neck to get some top end.

“Air is a natural compressor. If you look at pictures of the Beatles’ recording sessions, you’ll notice how far the mics were placed from the instruments—and that’s a different approach than a lot of people take today. But the Beatles’ engineers knew. They were recording for mono, and getting a balance for the room. Air is your first line of compression, and I believe in exploiting it as a resource. I like far microphones on sources—from guitar amps to horns to vocals to drums. For example, I’ll start with two Coles 4038s on a kit—one high over a drummer’s head and one a few feet in front of a kick—and dial in my sound.

“But every drummer plays differently, and you also have to take that into account. For example, Phish’s Jonathan Fishman is not a hard-hitting drummer who bashes the drums. He is light, fluid, and precise. So I had to take that into account when approaching his kit when I recorded him on Picture of Nectar—especially with the toms. We also had a challenge in the linoleum floors at White Crow studios in Burlington, VT. Linoleum doesn’t resonate well, and it was making the kick and the toms sound flat. So we brought in an old wooden drum riser, and we placed the kit on top of it because, of course, wood resonates better than a hard surface like linoleum. This not only helped with the kick sound, but also with the toms.

“The kick was miked with an AKG D112—on the inside, to get the attack—and we compressed it heavily so it didn’t sound too clicky. A Neumann FET U47 placed about eight inches from the outside of the back of the kick drum helped get the sound Jonathan had become used to hearing from where he sat behind the kit. For the toms, we used Neumann U89s, which are magical-sounding. The warm, round quality they imparted on the toms really enhanced the perceived balance of the kit. The mics were not placed directly over the head—they were slightly angled over the back of the tom to compensate for his light touch by focusing on his stick attack. Listen to ‘Eliza’ on the album to hear this technique at work.

“I also use the old speaker-as-a-mic trick. I like using a Yamaha NS10 on bass drums. I use the speaker on the outside as a sub—you just wire the speaker into a mic cable, and just use the monitor as a mic. Any speaker can be used in either direction—to capture sound or monitor it. Take the two leads of the speaker, and hook one to positive, and one to negative in a standard mic cable, with the female end cut off, and plug the cable into a mic preamp. I place the speaker right in front of the drum head—which gets no attack, but great sonic low end. Then, Yamaha came out with the SKRM-100 SubKick for recording bass drums. It’s a much cleaner setup. They were made for live applications, but they sound great in the studio. They get that thud-y Roland TR-808 kick sound. It sounds great, and it’s perfect for getting that classic hip-hop kick sound without relying on samples.”