One-Mic Madness

Are you aware that you can stumble into just about any music store with less than $100 in your pocket, and walk out with a small-diaphragm dynamic microphone that can capture just about every sound you need to record in your home studio?

Are you aware that you can stumble into just about any music store with less than $100 in your pocket, and walk out with a small-diaphragm dynamic microphone that can capture just about every sound you need to record in your home studio? Whether that choice is the venerable Shure SM57, or any number of the cool under-$100 dynamics available today, you can use that one mic to great effect if you simply employ a bit of experimentation and creativity.

Love Your Dynamic

Unless your ears are as sensitive as a fruit bat, the typical dynamic’s frequency response of 40Hz to 15kHz can accurately reproduce any instrument in the rock/pop/jazz arsenal. Its sweet proximity effect means you can avoid excess EQ slathering simply by moving the mic closer or farther away from the source, and its typically tight cardioid pickup pattern rejects most sound from the side and back. Most inexpensive dynamics can also take insane amounts of volume without overloading, and still deliver enough “airiness” that you don’t have to boost high frequencies to the point your track becomes an anti-personnel weapon.

On Vocals

The aforementioned proximity effect adds body and warmth to vocal tracks when within an inch or two of the capsule. There is also a presence boost right within the vocal range that helps reduce mush and increase intelligibility. Try to keep the singer as in front of the mic as possible, because of the cardioid pattern’s off-axis rejection. A pop filter is highly advised, as most small-diaphragm dynamics have little or no internal windscreen. A compression ratio of 2:1 with a –5dB threshold will help the vocal track stand out, and cutting 300Hz by a couple of dB will cure most instances of vocal muddiness.

On Electric Guitars

Even if your knowledge of mic placement is somewhat less than your understanding of the Zoroastrian religion, you’ll have a hard time getting a bad guitar sound from a good dynamic. If you are lazy, just jam it about an inch or two away from the speaker grille, and crank the bejeezus outta the sucker. If you are picking up too much treble and want a warmer tone, simply move the mic away from the center, and closer to the edge of the speaker cone. Backing the mic up a foot or two will add room ambience, and, for a change of pace, try miking the amp from the rear if it’s an open-back combo. While you are limited to a singe mic, modern DAW software can provide oodles of tracks. I recorded a track of each mic setup, and ended up with a wonderfully complex guitar sound that would make Jimmy Page crap his velvet trousers.

On Acoustic Guitars

Acoustic guitar is a bit trickier with a dynamic. If you are okay with a raw, lo-fi type of sound, simply point the mic at the 12th fret, and about three or four inches from the fretboard and bash away. For a more complex and natural sound, record a track using the 12-fret setup just mentioned. Now, record a second track with the mic pointed about four inches from the soundhole. Then, record a third track with the mic, level with your ear and pointing down to the body of the guitar. When it comes time to mix, if the sound is too boomy, bring down the soundhole track. Not enough ambience? Boost the ear-level mic track. Need more zing? Bring up the 12th-fret track. Cutting 500Hz will add more “transparency” without resorting to boosting the high end and adding additional noise.

On Bass

A dynamic loves miking bass amps almost as much as it does guitar amps. However, it works best addressing the speaker at a near-45 degree angle, rather than straight on. Remember that bass waveforms need more room to fully develop compared to midrang-y guitar, so place the mic ten to 12 inches from the speaker to let the sound stretch out. A compression ratio set to 4:1 with the threshold between –5dB and –10dB should smooth the sound out nicely. If you want more snap, boost 3kHz.

On Drums

While a dynamic mic would be my first choice to record any individual drum in a kit, trying to capture the whole damn thing with a single mic might be the height of masochism. However, it is possible to get a decent track, and here’s what worked best in my garage.

Put a blanket on top of the kick drum, and lay the mic on it, pointed at—to put it bluntly—the drummer’s crotch. This allows you to angle the mic towards the snare if you are not picking up enough of it, or angle it away if you are getting too much. A compression ratio of 6:1 with the threshold set to –4dB works best, because it adds punch while keeping the cymbals from washing out.