Miking live instruments may seem daunting to aspiring audio engineers. But the truth is the recording process can be broken down and explained in a series of steps that will allow you to get great-sounding results with nothing more than your ears, some basic knowledge about acoustics, and a little creativity.
Once you understand how particular instruments produce sound, how those sounds react within any given acoustic environment, and how those two factors influence the quality of your recordings, you’ll have a better idea of how far you can push the envelope before you smash it to smithereens!
Know Thy Room Prior To Hitting Record
First and foremost, it’s crucial to understand that the acoustic profile of a room will bear the most significant impact on the quality of your recording. Why is this?
Every single room in existence has what are called room nodes, where mid to low frequencies tend to build up whenever sound is generated inside the room.
From there, the reflections are dispersed and mixed with the sound of the original audio source, which causes acoustic anomalies such as phase cancellation, comb filtering, unbalanced stereo imaging, and greatly exaggerated (or attenuated) frequency ranges, just to name a few.
So, if we assume that you are recording in a less-than-ideal environment, than you need to install acoustic foam in order to reduce room nodes and reverberation (echoes).
If you’re on a budget, I highly recommend checking out acoustic foam packages online, which feature a wide variety of distributors who tend to offer very competitive, bang-for-your-buck solutions!
The first and most important step in combating room reflections is attenuating room nodes by placing bass traps in each corner of the room.
This is because low frequencies tend to congregate mostly in corners, and eliminating this problem will greatly reduce phase cancellation between the reflections and direct sound source. However, you will still have comb filtering due to reflections bouncing off of the walls to contend with. Which is where placing 2×4 acoustic panels will come in handy!
Fun Tips And Tricks
Now that we’ve sufficiently covered room treatment (which I believe is crucial for those of you who might not be able to afford in a professional recording studio), it’s time for the fun stuff!
Read more in the book “Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio“
For the remainder of this tutorial, I’ll cover miking techniques for drums and the acoustic guitar.
There are countless schools of thought that prescribe specific methods for achieving that “perfect” drum sound, and arguably, each method is just as valid as the other so long as the desired results are achieved.
The methods I’m about to introduce are a few techniques that I picked up from Australian audio engineer Michael Stavrou’s “Mixing With Your Mind”, with slight modifications based on my own experience with these techniques.
Making Your Drums Sound Larger Than Life
When I came across “Mixing With Your Mind”, I was attending an audio engineering school where sheer efficiency and “getting things done” seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.
I didn’t really take issue with this particular aspect because, after all, we were informed many times that recording engineers don’t often get a second chance in the “real world” if they can’t get the job done.
However, there were very few students looking for ways to push the boundaries beyond simply placing a mic where it “looked” like it would actually be of good use and instructing band members to set up their instruments in random locations throughout the recording booth, both of which produced mixed results that often sounded just slightly better than mediocre.
One of the most fascinating techniques I picked up from Stavrou’s book is known as “The Killer Drum Sound”, and while you may think that this kind of sound could only be achieved with mics that cost more than the car you drive, nothing could be further from the truth!
Quite simply, getting that “killer sound” starts first and foremost with the placement of the drum kit in the room, and that placement starts with the floor tom. But why would you start with the floor tom instead of the snare or the kick drum?
As Stavrou explains, “Because of its deep resonance, the floor tom gives the best indication of how the drum kit, as a whole, will sound within your room.” And as all rooms reflect sound, it’s best to know where exactly the place the kit so that the reflections aren’t out-of-phase with the drum kit itself.
That being said, how you go about placing the floor tom?
Well, you can either ask the drummer (which is a smart choice if it’s his drum kit) or your assistant to hold the floor tom and move slowly around the room as you smack it with a drumstick.
What you’re listening for is how the floor tom resonates with the room in a particular location.
Does it sound thin?
Keep moving. Does it sound meatier, even though it could use some more “oomph”? You’re getting warmer!
The ideal location of your floor tom is where it sounds like a massive psychoacoustic earthquake with a Richter scale of 20!
Once you find that spot, have your drummer set up there, and the rest of the kit will fall into place. When I tried out this technique for the first time, I was floored with the results I got!
Even if you don’t care to pay attention to any of the other methods in “Mixing With Your Mind” (which I highly suggest you try nonetheless), this is the one technique that’s an absolute must if you’re looking for a drum sound that’ll kick you square in the balls when you finally push up the faders!
One additional tip that I would recommend is that if the floor tom sounds a little flimsy or uneven in tone, ask your drummer to tighten it up (and if he’s any good, he’ll likely take note of the issue himself and address the issue accordingly) before you begin your “floor tom test”.
When Chasing Fire Is Actually A Good Thing
There is one particular theme in Stavrou’s book called “Chasing The Flame”, which involves placing the microphone at a certain distance from the instrument where its envelope has fully sustained (a.k.a. the “flame”).
This is the point where all the frequencies generated by the instrument are more in phase than at any other point outside this specific location, allowing the instrument to stand out effortlessly in a mix without requiring you to choke it to death with loads of EQing and compression to make it fit.
While you can often find the “flame” by listening through headphones as you go about miking an instrument like a guitar or saxophone, I’d be hard-pressed to find any engineer willing to mic a drum kit while wearing headphones simultaneously (that is, if they care at all about their hearing)!
Aside from the sheer loudness factor, the direct sound from the drum kit would likely interfere with the sound coming from the headphones, making it significantly more difficult to find the flame you’re looking for in the first place.
What Stavrou recommends (and I swear by this technique myself) is using the hairs on the back of your fingers to determine mic placement.
This is done by covering the diaphragm of the mic with your fingers (place your ring finger over the center of the capsule for optimal accuracy) as you get the mic into position while the drummer smacks away at his snare, tom, or kick. If your hairs vibrate for several seconds and tickle like crazy after every hit, just hold the mic in place and lock off the stand. You’re done!
Acoustic Guitar Tips And Tricks
When recording an acoustic guitar, the type of mics you choose for the task will produce varying results as well as the particular mic positions you employ.
If you place a mic too close to the guitar, you will run the risk of picking up atonal buzzing and fingering noises and less of the performance itself. Especially if you’re using a cardioid or hypercardioid microphone for the task.
A basic rule-of-thumb to follow is to place the mic a little over a foot away from the guitar, and ideally towards the base of the neck and just above the hole for a more even-sounding response.
Of course, if you prefer a brighter sound, you can position the mic slightly higher along the neck, and vice-versa towards the hole if you’re looking for a darker, bassier sound.
In my experience, aiming a condenser microphone with a cardioid polar pattern towards the base of the neck while positioning a hypercardioid mic higher along the neck (make sure you angle the mics away from one another to reduce potential phasing issues) will give you both the fullness and the brightness that you’re looking for!
Another important factor that you should take into consideration is the size of the room you’re recording in. The smaller the room, the narrower the polar pattern you’ll need to use in order to capture the sound of the guitar as accurately as possible.
As such, you’ll need to set your mic’s polar pattern to cardioid or hypercardioid.
If you’re looking for a less “direct” sound and something that’s more ambient and spacey in tone, you can use can use a microphone with an omni polar pattern, but if you’re in a room that’s relatively small, try positioning the mic a little closer (about 6 to 8 inches) for optimal results.
Learning By Doing It Yourself
At this point, you’ve been given enough basic information to achieve quality results during a recording session, no matter what kind of room you might find yourself working in.
However, if you haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet, I highly recommend that you visit and spend some time in a professional recording studio so that you can see how professional recording engineers operate and ply their trade on a daily basis.
If you have the budget, rent out a room at a well-regarded facility and get to know the studio and the engineers that work there. However, if your budget is limited, applying for internships is an excellent way to gain massive amounts of experience and insight into how things really work within a professional recording studio.
Just make sure that you don’t mind having to pour coffee, scrub toilets, and run miscellaneous errands for people!
You might not get a job after everything’s said and done, but the experience and knowledge you’ll gain from the process will definitely prove useful and invaluable throughout your journey in this incredibly competitive, yet remarkably invigorating and exciting industry!