This is The Guide

Microphones For The Home Studio

Mar 27 — By The Tweak Contents ↓

Welcome to Tweak's class on Microphones! Will the newbies please sit up in the front few rows? Sorry dudes, only the pros can sit in the back. They already know this stuff. None of it is rocket science, even those sweaty drummers can figure it out. Any drummers here? A few ape-like figures make a displeased grunt. "Oops!" But you'll be glad you came, there's a section on basics for miking drums.

Okay! Now that you are up close, this Mic here can pick up any sound you make. By getting close to the Mic more of the direct sound is recorded and less of the reflected "hall tone" or room tone. Do rooms make a sound? Yep! Once you start using a quality microphone, you won't believe how noisy your home studio room is. So tip #1 is always to get as close to the source as you can and do your best to remove unwanted sounds from creeping in. The best condenser mics in the world can't help--they can actually make it worse because they are so sensitive, they pick up everything, even the sound of "air". You can improve the sound of any microphone by proper placement and reducing environmental noises.

With all the modern marvels that have been introduced in the last decade for our studios it may seem strange that the microphone has changed the least. A quick peek to the high end shows that some microphone designs used today were formulated in the late 60's, that's forty years ago! Since then countless models have been introduced, copied, resurrected and repackaged with small refinements. Few areas of the recording studio have been as hotly debated as to which is "best" for a particularly recording application. Some of this is hype and some of this is not and it can be difficult to sort through the mazes of issues. What I hope to do here is to give you some common references so you can at least talk about mics and their differences, and give you a useable roadmap for making decisions for your studio.

Like any other piece of gear, the same microphone can give tremendously different results depending on how it is used. There is a bit of expertise and experimentation that needs to happen when placing the microphone to capture a source. Even the best mics in the world will sound boomy and unusable if the vocalist gets too close. This same mic might fail miserably if recording an acoustic guitar if placed too far away, or off axis (angled away from the source). An inexpensive mic, placed optimally for the task at hand can capture exceptional nuances, and once a track is treated with EQs, compressors and plugins, the results can be outstanding. Yet a great mic. with an excellent preamp, given the same care during setup and post-treatment can be absolutely stellar.

Like anything worth doing, getting the best results takes a bit of practice, experimentation and work. Yet the chances of getting a great take are consistently better with a high quality microphone. Yet price and quality do not always match. Moreso in the area of microphones than any other piece of gear, you can spend a lot of money and get something that you don't like, or spend a modest amount to get something you like a lot. What are the duds? Which are the truly great finds? None of the mics listed to the left are duds, though the prices vary from under $100 to over $2000. Note that I have not listed low-priced "value" mics. If you are tempted to go to the sub $50 range of mic, I highly recommend saving up and going for an SM57, Here's a page listing all the mics under $100

Basics of a Home Studio Mic Cabinet

First of all, lets get real. Your home or project studio is not a pro studio. You probably don't have to be ready for any recording situation that comes up. Face it, your studio is probably not in competition with the Record Plant or Abbey Road. You probably record the same instruments over an over. Probably vocals, guitars, drums, amp cabinets and perhaps a few unique instruments you have. Point #1: Make a list of the things you record. At the TweakLab, for example, I record male and female vocalists, my acoustic guitars, amps, lots of hand drums, various world percussion and some exotic flutes and strings. For my needs, a large condenser and a dynamic for vocals, flutes, a small condenser for acoustic strings, drums and delicate things, a dynamic for general purpose stuff and miking amps, and an omnidirectional stereo mic for location and sampling. That is my list. Yours is going to vary, of course.

I started my mic cabinet with the legendary workhorse, the all-purpose stage hammer, yes, the Shure SM57. If it's all you have, you can use it to record everything, though for vocals and acoustic guitars, it is happiest with a good preamp. For recording your amp or really loud stuff, it will resist breakup even under extreme pressure. For vocals my first condenser was a Rode NT1, which is now replaced by the NT1-A. Once you have both a dynamic and a large condenser working for you, you have a lot of recording ground covered well. Condensers shine on vocals, acoustic stuff--anything that has lots of high crystalline frequencies. A third mic for me was a small condenser--the Shure SM81. More expensive than many, but I wanted high quality acoustic guitar recordings. Those 3 mics make a great basic mic cabinet for a home studio.

Of course, you can go farther into this, with better and more specialized mics. Two dynamic mics that I love are the ElectroVoice RE20 and the Sennheiser MD421II. These are often used as broadcast mics but do well for strong vocalists and other instruments that blat and blast.

As you start moving towards professional studio sound, you may move towards professional mics as well. Here we are talking about the Neumann line, with their least expensive, but great, TLM 103, the pro pop vocal standard U87Ai, and others. Another vocal standard among pros, the AKG C414XLII. And then there are ribbon microphones, which add yet another sonic signature, Of course there are many others, and pro studios may have 20 mics in this caliber. But for the home studio, I think it is a good idea to aspire to at least one of these. Call it your crown jewel, take care of it and it will last a long time.

I should point out that microphones sound better with excellent preamps. To get the realize the full subtlety and nuance that a fine mic provides, it needs clean, quiet, gain, or amplification. But you will hear a huge difference between condensers and dynamics even with the cheaper preamps tacked on to audio interfaces.

Setting up Microphones

Is this an art or a science? A little of both, but often, just a matter of experimenting till something grabs you. I've done extensive mic placement when sampling instruments for my sample cd roms and recording vocalists. For every sample that makes the final cut on one of my cd roms, I will have over 100 source samples recorded. Consider the microphone to be an ear. To hear the finest nuances of any instrument, you have to point the ear in a way that the sound vibrations "hit" the diaphragm of the mic jus right. So I put my wave recorder in record and go to the instrument, play some hits, move the mic, play some hits, move the mic, play some hits---get the idea. When I get back to the waveform editor, I will find that one position sounded better than all the rest and within that position there is one sample that rings clear and true with unmistakable quality.

Ambient and Close Mics

With drums in particular, having 2 mics set up is ideal. Recording in stereo, the close mic, which captures all the nuances close to the instrument, may be set up within 6 inches of the source, depending how loud it is. The Room Mic might be a few feet back and pointed anywhere. The farther away it is, the "longer" the sound becomes. If you are trying to get killer snares and rock toms, for example, you want to move these out quite a bit. This will give you a natural sounding reverb that only expensive effects boxes and plugins can deliver.

Matching the Microphone to the job.

Vocals The human voice evokes our attention like no other sounds. Are ears are acutely sensitive to very tiny inflections in the air around the vocalist. The goal of the microphone is to capture the innermost soul of the vocal. Our ears are conditioned to want to hear a slight treble presence coloration on a typical voice. So accuracy alone is really not the name of the game hear. Its accuracy plus good sounding coloration with high definition presence that is not bright, but warm. Large capsule condenser microphones often get the call for their clean and aggressive high frequencies. So do dynamic microphones, especially with vocalists that have strong powerful voices. Condensers can distort if a loud vocalist gets too close. Dynamics are also a good choice for rooms with a lot of ambient noise. In fact, if you are recording in an ugly sounding reflective room, you have a good argument for choosing a quality dynamic mic to minimize interaction with the room. There are also ribbon microphones, which may also be used for vocals when you need a rounded "natural" sound. Ribbon mics require stronger preamps like the dynamics and benefit from variable impedance (a high end feature) on preamps. Ribbons are also more delicate and require more handling care. They can sound "dark" on "average" preamps. They are also expensive. As you start your mic collection focus on dynamics and condensers, save the ribbons for later in the game when you have a great preamp.

What you need to watch out for when buying your first Mic

Assuming you understand the basic mic differences, make sure of two things before you buy.

1. If buying a condenser mic, be sure you have +48v phantom power on your preamp.
2. If buying a dynamic mic, you don't need phantom power, you need gain on your preamp. The SM57 and other dynamic mics need plenty of gain to get a good level, about 55-60 db. Some of the newer inexpensive audio interfaces are designed for condensers which need about 40-45db. Most mixers can handle the SM57. A typical preamp with 60db of gain is fine. If all you have are the preamps on your gain-challenged audio interface, and you can only pop for one mic, make is a large condenser. On a budget around $100 smackers, the Studio Projects B1 is perhaps the best game in town.
3. Avoid buying used microphones if you can but in particular avoid buying a used ribbon mic as these are susceptible to damage due to misuse more than a dynamic.

Acoustic instruments

I can talk about acoustic guitars best as I have been recording them a long time with numerous techniques and types of microphones. I shoot for 3 things when recording acoustic guitar. The sound of the pick hitting the strings, the "wooden" sound of the body and a sense of pressure and movement coming from the strumming hand. Though it breaks with studio wisdom, I have found awesome results mixing and matching different mics, such as PZM with dynamics, condensers with electrets when trying to capture a stereo image of the acoustic, taking time to experiment and place the mics to get the most out of them. And it pays to try the traditional techniques such as the X-Y technique, where two mics have their capsules very close (without touching) pointing to the instrument at a 90 degree angle from each other. There is also the ORTF technique, where the mics cross each other ay a 110 degree angle, (instead of pointing at each other at a 90 degree angle like XY) which is good for recording at a greater distance, like in front of a stage. I've also realized great results with a single condenser.

Sampling and "On Location" Recording

Samplists need a stereo Mic. Or need to set up 2 mics to capture what the are sampling. Back in the studio, when editing samples, you might decide that either the left side or the right side or both are keepers. But you do want to have the option to 2 takes per sample. Your odds of getting a better sample are increased. For sampling I favor condenser mics, unless the environment is noisy. Then the dynamic will work. For samples you have to have high frequencies intact and in abundance, but it does no good if the high frequencies are imbued with environmental noise. Recording ambient environments is also a job for stereo. Here a matched stereo pair or a stereo mic is important because you know you want to preserve the stereo image in the final sample. I've tried many techniques with great results.

Old School: One favorite, though hard to do, is with 2 PZM mics taped to opposite sides of a big piece of plywood. That's separation! For outdoor ambience, try placing mics as far apart as your cables will let you. Objects in the stereo field appear extremely wide due to the delay from one source to another. Finally, you don't always want people to know you are recording. For stealth mode sampling I've attached ie clip mics to my trouser pockets, stuck stereo condenser mics in backpacks with the head sticking out a little, and used minidisk recorders and cassette recorders with small cheap mics.

New School: The new generation of portable recorders like a Zoom H4n are great for recording environments. If you can get one that has XLR inputs as well as an onboard pair of XY Condensers, all the better, That way you can substitute some dynamic mics when the need arises.

Recording drums

Here's the basics in 3 paragraphs. I'll cover as much as possible, but note this is just a primer. Opinion varies widely on the best way to do this. How many mics? What gets its own mic? You might be surprised to find out if you could poll some top engineers that some famous rock songs have been recorded with as few as three mics, one directly in front of the kick drum and two overheads panned hard left and right to capture a natural stereo image. However, if you plan to do extensive processing of kiks, snares and toms, you may need to have a mic for each. Also, note that you don't have to capture the drums all at once. You can overdub the snare later.

In general, you need a mics that, above all, can handle a high SPL (sound pressure level). The loud dynamic hits will cause distortion at the output. This is really the case with sampling drums, where you want to stick the mic as close as possible to get the high frequencies of the "Thwack". Some mics come with a -10 pad. This may be in the form of a switch or an additional capsule you screw in to the housing. Either way, the pad will filter down the input into a more reasonable useful signal.

The Kik Mic has to be able to handle hi SPL and low frequencies. Many a condenser will distort like madness here, so dynamic mics get the call. Popular Kickin' mics are the AKG D112, Shure SM57 and Beyer M88. It can be placed a few inches away from the front kick drum head or sometimes engineers place them inside the drum. The Snare mic too has to handle hi demand, SPL wise. And it should be rugged. Drummers pack a real wallop into their hits and many times they will accidentally slam right into the mic, if placed anywhere near the snare (a good argument for placing the mic under the snare). The SM57 is a great mic for this. Other fine mics for snares are the AKG 414eb and the Sennheiser MD421. Overhead mics need to pick up the whole kit from a greater distance, so they can be more sensitive, but it still helps to have one with a pad. Condenser mics usually get the call. Small condensers are a good choice. For Toms, the Sennheiser 421 is usually a top recommend. Miking cymbals can be done with condenser mics to capture the hi frequency shimmer, but again be advised to get one with a -10 pad and cymbals have a lot of sustained sound energy.

You might be wondering how studio keep the hi hat sound out of the snare mic, something called "bleed". The mics directional pattern comes in here. You want your close drum mics to reject all sounds except the drum its pointed to. There will always be some bleed, but you work to minimize it when you set up the mics. That is the art and science of drum mic placement made simple. Some producers use noise gates after the Mic preamp. The gate can be set to cut out all of the signal unless it get a really loud burst. That takes a bit of trial and error to set up, but if done well it can improve the separation at the board. That way you can, for example, add a big sounding reverb to just the snare as many 70's rock ballads did, or further process your snare with lower mid frequency eq for a contemporary trash sound.

Decisions...

All these choices! The difficulty for may startup home studios is deciding whether to go with just one super quality microphone or getting several less expensive mics. If your option #1 was to get the Neumann U87, for the same money you could get a CAD e200, Sennheiser MD421II, a Shure SM81 LC, an AT 822 stereo, and half a dozen SM57s, enough to get a pro studio off the ground. But a home studio doesn't need lots of mics, particularly if you are not recording drums. In that case, maybe just a couple of good ones will make on happiest in the long run. Another buying issue is going with a lower cost large condenser, say, the Rode NT1a. If you one day decide to get a better large condenser, the Rode may become unused or a dead investment. Fortunately, mics, unlike synths, samplers and computers, retain their resale value quite well, especially on the higher end. Some solid advice for a newbie is to get a Shure SM57 first. It will do it all. Then as funds permit, get a large condenser for vocals, a small condenser for delicate instruments. You will have the majority of recording situations covered and you will appreciate how each different mic contributes its own signature to the final mix.


Do Mics really sound different?
Yes. Every mic "colors" the sound in one way or another, much like the way speakers color the sound of your home stereo. Some mics try to be "transparent" but this is not always desirable. With vocals and many instruments, for example, you want a mic with some presence boost for that pro-sounding "sheen".

What is this directional pattern nonsense?
What are you? a Drummer? Then you above all need a uni-directional mic so when close miking they pick of what it is pointing at, not everything in the room, like an omni directional mic does. Cardioid mics are directional because they pick up everything in the heart-shaped pattern in front of the mic. A Bi-directional pattern is also called a "figure 8" pattern cause that is how it looks on a graph. You can record from the front and back but not the sides.

What is Phantom Power?
Condenser mics output a weak signal that must be boosted so the mixer's preamp can boost it further into a useable signal. Some condenser mics use batteries to do this. Other's rely on getting this power from the mixing board. Boards that feature phantom power send a voltage down the mic cable to the mic which is used to amplify the signal there. The signal then arrives at the preamp and is further amped. Dynamic mics do not need phantom power. You can read more in the forums about it and in this article by Shure

What's a -10 pad?
A Pad refers to attenuation, or a lowering of volume, output or loudness. A -10 pad reduces the sensitivity of the microphone by 10 decibels so it can withstand louder sounds like drums, cymbals, screaming vocalists and other awfully loud things. Some mics may have -20 pads or -15 pads. You normally cannot adjust this--its on or off.

What's Bass Roll-off?
Some mics have a switch that cuts the lower bass frequencies that the mic pics up. Why? When you record with a quality microphone you will find there is more bass in your environment than you thought. If you are recording close to an ventilation system vent you will find that even a normal rush of air coming out is enough to make a thundering wind boom. Traffic, railroads, airplanes even if far away can be picked up. Finally, a big problem in the mix is getting rid of unwanted bass. it sometimes makes sense to get rid of it at the source. Many mixers have bass rolloff switches on preamps, so if the mic does not have it it is usually no big deal.

Here are some great resources:
Interfacing Professional Microphonesto Computer Sound cards by Shure
Building a Mic Cabinet on Any Budget Electronic Musician Sept 2000
Mic Placement at Nick's Picks
Transom Tools Microphone FAQ
Microphones by J. B. Calvert
How MS Stereo works
Harvey Gerst talks about choosing the Right microphone
My Favorite Microphones by Lionel Dumond
Stereo Microphone Techniques by Bruce Bartlett
Recording drums By the SAE Institute the largest Institute for Multimedia, Audio Education and Digital Film Education worldwide
Graph comparing different mics at http://www.thelisteningsessions.com
Compare how different Mics/preamps sound at the Listening Sessions

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Cool Quote
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Keep it simple, keep it sexy, keep it sad. --Mitch Miller

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Assemble the Right Group of Microphones for Your Creative Projects

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Excellent vocal recording microphones

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