Move The Damn Microphone

Years ago, I was second engineer on a Christian project where one of the musicians was buddies with a famous engineer who had worked with Eric Clapton and tons of other big stars. This guy—who was donating his time to the church as a favor to his friend— had his name on quite a few of the ’60s and ’70s records I loved, and I was pretty jazzed to watch him work. But I was more than a little disappointed when he touched just three things the entire session: a single Shure SM57 microphone, the volume fader, and the Record button.
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Years ago, I was second engineer on a Christian project where one of the musicians was buddies with a famous engineer who had worked with Eric Clapton and tons of other big stars. This guy—who was donating his time to the church as a favor to his friend— had his name on quite a few of the ’60s and ’70s records I loved, and I was pretty jazzed to watch him work. But I was more than a little disappointed when he touched just three things the entire session: a single Shure SM57 microphone, the volume fader, and the Record button.

His fingers never twisted the EQ knobs. He didn’t glance at the racks crammed full of sexy compressors, limiters, de-essers, and noise gates. He didn’t ask to rummage through the mic cabinet. He didn’t seem to do much of anything at all. And yet, his tracks sounded . . . amazing. This was my first hardcore lesson on the critical importance of mic placement.

Freedom of Choice

While it’s certainly no crime to subject input signals to all kinds of manipulation via compressors, EQ units, and other processors, it’s also not a bad move to document sound more organically. For one thing, capturing signals flat can ultimately produce cleaner and more robust sounds, because you’re not sending the signals through the EQ circuitry twice—once when tracking, and again while mixing.

Now, it may seem nutso in a DAW and plug-in obsessed culture to maintain that modern, pro-quality sounds can be crafted without resorting to EQ tweaks, but I’ve seen it done so I’m a believer. If you’re willing to abandon processing for a spell, here’s how you can record great-sounding tracks by simply moving a microphone.

Protect the Environment

Step number one is ensuring your recording space is up to the task of delivering good sound. Walk around the area where you plan to record the instrument, and clap your hands. If you hear flutter echoes, edgy slapbacks, weird boinks, or other anomalies, either put up some absorptive materials, or choose another place to record. When you believe you’ve found the perfect spot, confirm it by placing a mic where your ears are, and having the musician play. If you hear everything clearly and naturally, call “Bingo.” If you can still hear annoying echoes, metallic-sounding reflections, or any resonances that make you wince, then keep searching. Few home environments are perfect, of course, but attempt to find the space that serves up the most natural sounds with the least amount of compromises.

Mic Positioning Is All About the Ears

Les Paul used to say that if a player didn’t have good ears, he or she would probably never be a professional musician. It’s kind of the same with mic placement. You have to be able to hear minute differences in detail and tone as you move a mic around a source sound. It helps to know what type of sound you’re looking for—or, at least, to know it when you stumble upon it. Happily, some aspects of mic positioning can be learned through trial and error, even if your ears aren’t as revved-up as Les’ were. You just need to place the mic at a starting point, and then learn where the desired audio events occur. Let’s use a guitar speaker as an example. Position the mic dead center on the speaker cone. I’m sure you already know that moving the mic back from the speaker can slightly diminish lows and low mids, as well as capturing more air or room tone. But what if you want more mids or highs? Does moving the mic toward the right edge of the speaker do it for you? How about placing the mic offaxis? Maybe the best sound is captured when the mic is pointed at the top edge of the speaker, or the bottom edge. The goal here is to find your bliss. There’s no right or wrong— just what sounds fabulous to you—so explore and experiment.

A Vow of Compliance

Moving mics around is obviously not as easy as using console EQ, so you have to commit to the process. Tracks crafted through mic placement may also sound a bit different than if you twiddled EQ knobs, and you’ll have to be the judge as to whether that difference is desirable, or worth all the trouble. But you’ll certainly learn volumes about sound production by painstakigly repositioning a mic around a source, and, as a result, your tracks might just achieve that sonic gleam that makes them more special and dimensional than those created by the knob twisters.