I just watched a live-session music video of a guitarist on YouTube that someone sent me. And just a quick count here I saw 6 microphones on his guitar, and two mics for his vocals.
The vocals were fine, but the sound from the guitar was predictably flat and lifeless, and even body slaps with his fingers didn’t hit like they should.
While it may be tempting as a recording engineer to visually arrange microphones for an instrument based photos you’ve seen from famous studios or a famous recording session, it’s hardly a sound recording practice to chuck them up like you saw in a picture.
Sure, there are rules of thumb you can follow when setting up for a recording, based on what instruments you have and based on the recording space. But those are very general mic placement rules, and the way to excellent recorded sound is not to emulate anyone. It’s to get very specific with your mic placements, by listening.
As we learned last week, every instrument is different, and sound can emanate from surprising angles. This week, we look at the benefits of paring down your total microphone count in the pursuit of better sound.
To begin, we’ll start with the “why.” Our ears make a big deal out of subtle timing changes. It’s how we can locate stuff around us in 360 degrees just based on the sound, and only using two ears.
If you can picture a microphone as just a set of ears, you can imagine when you add more of them at different angles and distances, the results could get confusing.
There are times when you need to get closer to the instruments — when it’s loud, when the recording space isn’t helping with the sound, etc. In these cases it could be helpful to add more mics, if only to cover entire instruments better, and cut down on bleed.
But in my experience, I’ve learned I don’t really care about bleed in a live session, and I like to first improve the surrounding environment before I get in closer and add more mics.
With the instrument or amp/speaker arranged at the right height and with the boundaries being the right distance away, a good room can help its sound coalesce at a point in space where it sounds marvelous, and everything you want to hear is there.
If you can help this happen, you place one good mic in that spot and you’ll get more out of it than you would with several mics. Yes, it is the hard way of doing it and a bit old school, but the results are better, and to lead into my final point: sometimes the modern conveniences available to today’s recording engineers can lead us away from thinking about sound waves the way we should.
Just because your digital audio workstation software can handle 500 tracks doesn’t mean you need to use more than 10. And if you don’t hear the right sound coming through the monitors, don’t touch that equalizer knob. Go back to the source, and make whatever adjustments you can from there. Your musicians will thank you, and if you upload the result to YouTube, who knows — my ears may thank you, too.