While today’s top recording engineers place a lot of value on vintage and esoteric mics and preamps, most agree they mean little without a good performance. “I’ve always been against the rules of schooled recording,” Mark Howard says, “because performances and communication go such a long way.” As Daniel Lanois’ lead engineer for more than 20 years, and as a producer in his own right on albums by the likes of Marianne Faithfull, The Tragically Hip, and Victoria Williams, Howard has the cred to buck convention when he wants to. “Whatever mics or gear you have, or whether everything needs to be isolated or not—it’s like, hey man, just get it on tape and then you can start worrying about that stuff. You can have the perfect isolated guitar, but without that magical take, you’re really nowhere.”
That said, even those who don’t have access to Yo-Yo Ma or Herbie Hancock can still capture the best recordings possible of acoustic instruments. Naturally, it all begins with mics and mic placement. We asked Howard, along with the Dap-Kings’ Neal Sugarman and producer Bill Laswell’s chief engineer Bob Musso, to weigh in on their approaches to getting the most out of live strings, horns, and percussion, and we got some pretty interesting answers.
The Dap-Kings lay tracks in Daptone Records’ House of Soul studios. Hanging on Strings “I tend to use microphones like paints,” Howard explains. “If I want a certain tone or color—especially with acoustic guitars, and even pianos—modern or bright microphones can get a bit harsh. A dark microphone usually gives me a smoother result, so I’ve had a rule of thumb from early on to use ribbon microphones, like old RCA 44s or 77s, or the Coles 4038 from the BBC period. It’s basically a creamy, warm sound, like the acoustic guitars you hear on those old Rolling Stones records with Jimmy Miller [Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed]—they don’t sound like picks on a fretboard, you know? Modern acoustic guitars can sound almost too sparkly through a brand new Neumann, so for anything bright, I’ll use a dark microphone on it.”
If you don’t have an extra two or three grand to bid on a vintage RCA ribbon mic, there are cheap alternatives available. (The MXL R144, for example, retails at around $100, and does a decent job of smoothing out high end.) Of course, because ribbon mics tend toward low output, it helps to have a decent mic pre—Howard swears by his GP2 BL99s, designed by Bob Lanois—and, if you’re on a budget, there are lots of options. (For example, you can get a Focusrite ISA One, based on Rupert Neve’s original design, for less than $500.)
Gear aside, though, Howard’s approach to capturing an acoustic guitar, piano, or string section is unique among most engineers, primarily because he doesn’t work in a traditional studio. His journeys have taken him to some unusual locales, including an old schoolhouse (for Tom Waits’ Real Gone), a turn-of-the-century New Orleans mansion (for Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy), and Daniel Lanois’ own cathedral-like home in Silver Lake (for Neil Young’s Le Noise). Howard often ends up traveling with his studio, which these days is stripped down to a TASCAM DM3200 digital desk and an iZ Technology (formerly Otari) RADAR 24 hard disk recorder.
“For me, the studio is the recording area,” he explains, “so usually I’m sitting at the console, and the band is right there next to me. Especially on acoustic instruments, I like to keep everybody in a really tight circle, just relying on each other instead of headphones. The way people make modern records, with everybody isolated in different rooms, you end up losing that communication. The way I do it, you can get a pretty incredible thing that nobody ever really thinks about. That communication goes a long way, as far as tightness in their playing is concerned.”
Howard cites Dylan’s Oh Mercy as an example; at times, there were nearly a dozen people, including several guitarists, elbow-to-elbow in one room, with only a few mics set up. (Howard never sweats about leakage when he’s recording.) Two years later, he took a similar approach to pianist and minimalist composer Harold Budd’s By Dawn’s Early Light, with a few variations. The result is an album that literally resonates with an acoustic lushness of space—natural reverb in particular.
“That was also in New Orleans,” Howard recalls, “in this big room with chandeliers and a fireplace. Harold was playing a 1920s Steinway B grand. He’s a very soft player, so I put an RCA 77 right on top of the piano, maybe an inch off the soundboard. There were blankets draped over the whole piano, because we had strings, harp, and B.J. Cole on pedal steel in the same room, with separate ribbon mics on them, too. And again, they were all huddled up in a semicircle, with no headphones, and they just performed it. I mean, it was incredible.”
Sugarman 3 (left to right)—Rudy Albin, Neal Sugarman, and Adam Scone. Gimme Some Horns Saxophonist, composer, and Daptone label head Neal Sugarman knows a thing or two about nailing a live performance. Not only does he lead the horn section for one of the tightest touring bands on the planet (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings), but he’s also a bandleader himself. The Sugarman 3, the trio he founded in the mid-’90s with organist Adam Scone and drummer Rudy Albin, has just released What the World Needs Now—the group’s first album in ten years and, sonically, a definitive nod to producer David Axelrod’s late-’60s Capitol era. A number of guest players, including bassist (and Daptone producer and co-founder) Gabe Roth and trumpeter Dave Guy, help round out the session, which swings hard in the spirit of Daptone’s raw and quirky “urban retro soul” sound.
“As musicians, I think we’re all getting better at what we do,” Sugarman says, “and to make a richer-sounding record, you have to start with the arrangements. And what we talk about sometimes in arranging is real different now than what we used to talk about. For instance, the idea of ‘Let’s sound dumb, hard, stupid, and energetic,’ that was maybe ten years ago. Now it’s more about, ‘How can we get this record to sound open? What don’t we need, so the music can breathe a lot more?’”
For recording the horns, Sugarman relies on a method that hasn’t really changed much since he started working with Roth in the studio more than ten years ago. On Dap-Kings sessions, the three players—tenor sax, trumpet, and baritone sax—will gather around one mic, which is usually a vintage Shure 315 ribbon mic (in mint condition, often less than $300 on eBay).
“When we’re recording, it’s always about the blend,” Sugarman says, “and of course, that’s after we’ve decided that this is the right arrangement for the song. That’s a given. But is there enough trumpet? Is the trumpet being supported properly by the tenor? Is the baritone poking through the right way? We’re all on one microphone, so we only have one shot at it. But you also have to trust the guy behind the desk. So when we ask Gabe, ‘how’s the blend?’ he might say, ‘Sounds good—trumpet take one step back,’ you know?”
Everything at Daptone studios is recorded to tape, and Roth will sometimes hit the horn section with a Tube-Tech PE1C Program Equalizer to fine-tune the high end, but for the most part, the horns are recorded pure, just as they sound in the room. “One thing I will say is when we’re picking microphones, we’re trying to get a character out of them,” Sugarman clarifies. “Those old ribbon mics can be real temperamental—we might even use an old RCA or one of the Shure ‘Elvis’ mics [the 55S ‘Baby Unidyne’] if the other one gets blown out. Microphones have a lot of personality, and we’re conscious of that. You’re making a record, and it all has to fit together, whether you want a darker sound or a brighter sound. So there are a lot of variables—everything from what room we decide to cut the horns in to what microphone we’re gonna use.”
Bob Musso. Percussive Thinking Having worked with producer Bill Laswell for more than 20 years, Bob Musso has seen a lot of heavyweight drummers and percussionists walk through the doors at Orange Music Studios in New Jersey. When he’s not manning the Neve desk at Orange, Musso also teaches at New York’s Institute of Audio Research, so he has his ears wide open to the nuances of recording drum kits and hand drums.
“I’ve seen engineers mic up drum kits with nothing but U87s, and nothing but SM57s,” he says, “which is the difference between a hundreddollar microphone and a three-thousand-dollar microphone. Honestly, I think anything is possible. From my experience, if I’m recording a good musician, I can put one mic in front of them, and they’re gonna sound great. But as far as adjustments go, I’m constantly looking for whether someone has too much of a dynamic range and starts overloading the mic or the preamp. I might put on a pad or back off the mic or just change it. I’m always up for changing if my choice doesn’t work for a situation.”
One of the more versatile mics that Musso relies on is the Sennheiser MD421, which he’ll use on the inside of a kick drum, on toms, on congas, and in one special case, on tabla drums. “I don’t think there’s anybody on the planet who plays harder than Zakir Hussain,” he says, citing the tabla maestro known for his work with the ’70s fusion group Shakti, as well as with Mickey Hart, Bela Fleck, and Laswell’s Tabla Beat Science. “I usually end up using 421s on him because they won’t distort. I remember when that mic first came out, it was advertised with a .38 special pistol in front of it, basically to say that it wouldn’t distort if you fired a gun from a foot away [laughs]. So whenever I hear anything really loud, I’ll use 421s because they really keep the definition under those circumstances.”
Mark Howard in the studio with Neil Young. In general, when recording Hussain, Musso will set up two 421s about four inches away from the center of each tabla head, with one room microphone (usually a Neumann U47 tube) about two to three feet away, angled downward. He always checks the phase of all three to avoid any cancellation.
For anyone else on tablas, large-diaphragm condenser mics like the Neumann U67 and U87 are usually the best bet because they tend to pick up more subtleties.
Musso always assigns a separate track for each mic, and depending on the player and the performance, he might use a combination of Neve (1073, 1081, 1084, or 1066) or Focusrite (ISA 828) preamps, primarily for their sonic character or coloration. He starts off adjusting the gain somewhere between 50 and 75 percent— far enough above the noise floor to avoid recording a noisy signal, but with enough headroom in case of sudden transient bursts that could cause an overload or clipping. If the bottom is too thick, he’ll engage a highpass filter to roll off some of the low end. In general, he doesn’t compress, limit, gate, or EQ the mic signal before recording, preferring instead to leave his options open for later.
He takes a similar approach to miking and recording congas. “A lot of the time, I’ll use the 421s pointed at the center of the conga head, with a U47 or a U67 room mic above them. If the drummer isn’t playing hard, I might use a pair of AKG 414s or ADK Hamburgs. For me, it depends not only on the volume that the person’s playing at, but especially the room that they’re in. If it’s an overdub and they’re in the center of a large room by themselves, I can pull the mics away a little more and get more of a room sound, which is more natural for congas. But if they’re playing with a group, then I’ll usually get more of a closemiked sound to avoid leakage.”
As always, experienced engineers like Musso stress the importance of keeping your ears open. If you’re trying to emulate the reverberating strings on James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” or the dry, gritty sound of the Horny Horns on Parliament’s Mothership Connection, give yourself a few different options for recording the source before you get into applying compression and effects sends. The main thing is to get the performance you’re looking for—after that, the rest will follow.
Bill Murphy is a freelance writer based in New York City, and a regular contributor toElectronic Musician and Bass Player.
Setting up virtual mics in Cakewalk SONAR X1. Non-relevant sections are grayed out for clarity; the EQ on the right shows the highpass filter.
Virtual Miking With Guitar
Most engineers use two mics with guitar to get a good stereo image, but this can lead to phase issues, make setup more challenging, and of course, double the preamp noise.
So try this alternative: Mike the guitar with a single mic, and use “virtual miking” to create the stereo image. This eliminates all phase issues, keeps noise down, and means you can spend your money on one really great mic instead of two “okay” mics.
Position the mic carefully for the most balanced tone, and record into your DAW. Make three copies of the track. Pan one copy left and run it through a lowpass filter so you hear the “boom” of the body. Pan the second copy right and run it through a highpass filter to accent the finger squeaks and fretting/picking. Pan the third track to center, and roll off some lows and highs to compensate for the increased lows and highs in the left and and right channels.
The end result sounds like the guitarist is right in front of you, with the panned channels positioning the guitar in the stereo field. And with no phase issues, the guitar will have a strength and presence that’s difficult to achieve with two mics. —Craig Anderton
ART’s Voice Channel is just one of many mic preamps that features a variable input impedance control (located to the right of the input jack
Don’t you wish you could have some more mics in your mic locker? Choose a mic preamp with variable input impedance, and you can. Dynamic mics in particular sound different when feeding different input impedances, from brighter and louder with higher impedances, to darker and softer with lower impedances. The difference is subtle, but can definitely be significant enough to add a certain “character” you might not have otherwise. —Craig Anderton
An isolation booth is one way to reduce noise when recording acoustic instruments, but another possibility is a wireless mic and a quiet space away from any background noise.
Ssssh . . . Keep it Quiet
Unless you have a dedicated, soundproofed area, background noise—especially from computers and air conditioning—is always an issue when recording acoustic instruments. One possible solution is an isolation booth, like those made by WhisperRoom (shown; whisperroom.com) or VocalBooth (vocal booth.com), although they’re not exactly inexpensive. A less costly workaround is to use a wireless mic with sufficient range that you can find a quiet room (or even a large closet), set up your mic inside, and close the door. Although many wireless mics are designed specifically for vocalists, there are models intended for more general-purpose miking, as well as multiple wireless systems designed for wind instruments. While the sound may not be quite as wonderful as your favorite wired mic, in situations where low noise is critical, wireless can provide a suitable answer. —Craig Anderton