Tips for Recording Instruments with Microphones

Written by: Headsnack

Electric Guitar: There are many ways to record an electric guitar such as direct into the mixer/audio interface, using the amplifier line out or speaker output, miking the speaker cabinet, or a combination of these. For this article we will focus on miking the speaker cabinet.

  1. Turn the amp up to a fairly strong level as amps sound fuller when they’re turned up.
  2. Place a dynamic (moving coil) mic about one foot away from the speaker. The tone coloration of a moving-coil mic can add bite and clarity to the guitar’s higher frequencies. Most guitar amps have one or two full-range 8 or 12 inch speakers. If the amp has more than one identical speaker, point it at the center of one of them to get a sound with more bite and edge. Point it towards the outer rim of the speaker to capture a warmer, smoother sound.
  3. If miking a speaker enclosure with separate tweeter and bass speakers, move the mic back two or three feet to get the overall sound of the cabinet. Just note that the sound of the room may also come into play.
  4. Before using EQ and other processing, use mic placement and experiment with different mics to create your desired sound.

Acoustic Guitar: If your guitar is acoustic-electric, the same rules as above apply regarding being able to record direct but we are going to focus on miking the instrument. First off, its important to record in a space that sounds good. If the space affects the guitar sound in a negative way, you’ll have a tough time getting it to sound right in post production. Also, use condenser mics as they will capture the subtlety of the attack, as well as the sound of the pick on the strings.

  1. When recording with one microphone, typically a small-diaphragm condenser will work well. A successful approach is to move the mic around as you play until you hear the sound you’re look for. You will hear dramatic changes in the frequency content of the guitar as you change mic placement. For example, aim the mic at the sound hole if you’re seeking a boomy, bass-heavy sound. This being said, many condensers have a bass roll-off switch that attenuates signals between 60 and 150Hz. This can be extremely helpful, especially when close-miking.
  2. There are three common positions for miking an acoustic guitar. In front of the sound hole (lows), over the neck (highs), and behind the bridge (mids).
  3. Stereo recording is a bit more complex due to possible phase issues but sometimes a unique stereo image is desirable. Here are a few different methods:
    • Don’t forget the 3:1 rule (see Stereo Recording Techniques section) to minimize negative phase interactions.
    • Spaced Pair (A/B): Place one mic over the 12th fret, one over the bridge.
    • X/Y: Using the X/Y configuration, aim them at the 12th fret from a distance of six to ten inches.
    • X/Y Distance: From one to four feet away, create an XY configuration and move the mics to locate the sweet spot.

Drums: Ideally when recording drums, several microphones are used to separately record several tracks which are later blended and balanced during mixdown. If you don’t have a pile of mics, let alone eight to twelve available inputs, fear not. A few condensers for the percussion instruments such as cymbals and tambourines will sound great, as will dynamic mics for close-miking toms, snare, and the kick.

  1. Be sure to keep the mics out of the drummers way. You don’t want to ruin a take, let alone the microphone. There are many mics designed specifically for fitting into tight spots within the drum set.
  2. It’s best to point mics at the drums, 1 to 2 inches away and at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees. If the mic is pointed across the drums, there will be more leakage (hearing the sounds of different drums from one mic).
  3. Employ the 3:1 rule to minimize phase influence.
  4. The acoustic sound of the room can make a big difference in the sound of the recording. If you use a distant miking technique, this sound will play an important role in the feel of the drum track.
  5. If you only have one large diaphragm condenser (with a cardioid pickup pattern), each of the following are viable options:
    • Position it in front of the set, six feet above the floor.
    • Another option for one mic is to place it behind the kit but over the drummer’s head.
    • Also try placing the mic on a boom stand, directly above the kit, pointed down at the center of the kit.
  6. If you have two microphones, the following are tried and true practices:
    • As stated previously, place one condenser on a boom stand, directly above the kit, pointed down at the center of the kit. The second mic should be a dynamic cardioid that is positioned inside the kick drum, aimed at the head, halfway between the center of the head and the shell.
    • If you have two condensers (or better yet, a matched pair), Try the X/Y stereo miking technique with each mic a few feet above the cymbals, at a 90 degree angle from each other, pointed down at the drums.
    • If you have more than two microphones, use the aforementioned techniques (using one inside the kick drum) but also add a dedicated dynamic microphone for the snare head, then the toms, etc.
    • Several accessories can prove very valuable when recording drums as they are designed to prevent bleed from one mic to the next.
    • The Primacoustic Crashguard Drum Mic Shield is a sound-shielding device that isolates the drum mic to attenuate the sound of cymbals while recording.
    • The On Stage DM01 Rim Mount Drum Clip is a compact, durable shock resistant clip that securely attaches to your drum rim for miking.
    • The KickPort Drum Insert is great for getting more punch and less ring out of your kick drum. It limits the amount of dampening to the head, and allows the drum to resonate beautifully to provide a great kick tone.

Bass Guitar: More often than not, engineers will record the direct sound of the bass, without using microphones. This is due to the clarity and definition of the sound, which allows for more control when mixing down the instrument. That being said, miking a bass cabinet is also a viable option, especially on harder rock songs.

  1. Using a dynamic microphone, keep the mic close to the speaker to get a good, tight sound (up to a few feet away). Just be careful that the bass isn’t too loud or it could overload the mic. For this reason, choose a mic that is capable of handling high SPLs.
  2. Unlike acoustic guitars which benefit from the sound of the room, such is not the case with bass. Too much room ambiance can cause the low end of the mix to sound muddy. Room ambiance is different depending on frequencies, especially bass which takes on a boomy characteristic.
  3. Similar to recording electric guitar, experiment with placing the mic in front of each of the different speakers within the cabinet. Usually, one of the speakers sounds better than the others. Also remember that the center of the speaker has more edge and highs, whereas the outer produces more warm, smoother lows.

Vocals: Just as the sound of the room plays a part in recording instruments, the same is true for vocals. The less reverberation in the room, the better. A dead room will give the vocal a sense of presence and allow you to use a compressor without the level of the background noise (or reverberation) interfering with the recording. There are several ways to deaden the sound of the room, including hanging blankets and other materials that absorb sound waves. Later in this article we will discuss several products that are invaluable for capturing a great vocal performance.

Both dynamic and condenser microphones can be used for recording vocals. Just remember that with dynamic mics, high frequencies aren’t produced very well. Combine this with the proximity effect from being close to the mic, and you’ll end up with a deep, bass-heavy sound that can often be described as gritty or dirty. Many styles of rock and blues work well with this sound.

Large diaphragm condenser mics are the most common choice for vocals. They are designed to produce the entire frequency spectrum and result in a full-bodied sound.

Ribbon mics can also work nicely if you are looking for a crooner-type of sound like Frank Sinatra.

Every singer’s voice is unique, some sound smooth, others can have a nasal quality. Where you place the microphone will have a direct effect on the tonal quality of the recording.

  1. Placing the mic directly in front of the singer’s mouth will result in a balanced, natural tone.
  2. If you are hearing a lot of noise from the singer come through the recording, try moving the mic three to four inches above the singer’s mouth and angle it toward the mouth. This will eliminate a lot of the noises as well as clean up any nasal sound coming from the singer.
  3. Moving the mic four to six inches below the mouth, while aiming up at it, will result in a thicker sound, great for thin-sounding voices.

The difference of one inch in either direction can vastly change the quality and impact of the vocal recording. Remember, the most important rule in recording any source whatsoever is to experiment.

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