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Improve Your System: Microphones

There’s a couple of little sayings that if you spend any time with me (or you read my blog a lot) you’re going to start picking up. ‘You’re only as good as your weakest link’ and ‘poop in, poop out’. These two little phrases can often apply to the microphones we choose to use.

Microphones are the very starting point in the long chain from musician to the congregation’s ear. As such, it’s very important that the microphone you use is the right one for the job and is of as good a quality as possible. There are dozen of microphone manufacturers making 100’s if not 1000’s of different microphones. I’ve seen microphones for £20 and microphones for £5k plus. How do you navigate what seems to be a huge market and get the right microphone for you?

Right Microphone for the right job

The old adage of a bad workman blames his tools often rings true but one thing I’ve learned in doing installation work is that part of this analogy can lie with the workman selecting the right tool for the job. If I’ve gone into my tool box and can’t find the right tool (normally because my colleagues have borrowed it and not put it back!) then I often have to make do with a similar tool. It’s either results in a poor job being done, more time taken or something breaking!

It’s the same mentality we need to use when looking at microphones. Some microphones are for very specific things. Some are the ‘multi-tool’ that can suit a variety of uses. Some can be bought at a great bargain and some it’s worth investing in. We’re going to look at a couple of areas and the microphones that are often used.

 

Drums

Drums is a huge area when it comes to microphones. There are a number of different microphones that are needed and often you’ll find manufacturers sell ‘kits’ that allow you to get a good set of microphones on a decent budget. You might find (if you have a small building) that the only microphone you need is a kick microphone or a kick with two overheads. If you’re mic’ing the entire drum kit then you’ll need at least one kick mic, at least one snare microphone, Tom microphones and overheads. You may even want to separately mic the hi-hat.

Some people like to try and use the same manufacturers for all of the microphones on the drums. The advantage of this is that as microphones do colour the sound so the ‘sound colour’ you’re using is the same. However, I would suggest that this only really matters on the toms and the overheads – everything else sound so unique that it doesn’t really matter.

I could fill several chapters of a fairly chunky book full of discussions about the benefit of different microphones – but don’t want to go into it here. However, there are a few basics that are important with the drum microphones…

  1. Make sure you use condenser microphones for the overheads – dynamic microphones (such as the Shure SM57) have a poor high-frequency reproduction so often never sound as good for high frequency ‘transients’.
  2. Use dynamic mics everywhere else – they’re better at rejecting bleed from other drums and can handle larger amounts of SPL from the drums.
  3. If you are limited in microphone channels, I would prioritise in the following order: – Kick, Overheads, Snare, toms, additional mics (I.e. HiHat, additional kick, additional snare etc.)

Guitar amplifiers

In smaller rooms amplifiers don’t need mic’ing up but it’s always helpful to try and mic them.  If you have enough stands, try and mount the microphone front on rather than the ‘rock and roll’ option of draping the microphone over the amp. That’s how they’re designed to work!

By pointing the microphone at the centre of the cone you’ll get a very warm sound but moving it a it to the edge of the cone you’ll get more ‘crunch’. I normally place the microphone just in from the edge of the cone, about 3cm away from the amp grill. If you’re luck enough to have enough channels to mic the guitar cab front and back, don’t forget to phase reverse one of the microphones (otherwise it tend to sounds rubbish!).

Again, not going too deep into discussion on the benefits of different microphones, you probably want to use dynamic microphones for live sound – meaning you get a great sound nice & close to the grill. Bass amplifiers can also be mic’ed in this way, though use a microphone with a good bass response – maybe even a microphone primarily designed for a kick drum.

 

Vocals

 When it comes to choosing your vocal microphones, there are maybe one of the biggest selections out there. Every manufacturer has a different feel and each manufacturer will have a good range of vocal microphones. For example, Sennheiser are famous for producing warm sounding microphones.

Dynamic vocal microphones (such as a Shure SM58 or beta 57A) tend to offer better feedback rejection than condenser vocal microphones (such as a Shure beta 87) and will have a closer range (meaning it’s much better for rejecting on stage noise). However, condenser vocal microphones pick up the higher frequencies much better, meaning you’ll often end up with a clearer tone.

If you are blessed enough to have a choice of microphones, it’s important to match the vocalist with the right microphone. For example, if your vocalist has a very warm voice, using a Sennheiser would accentuate this and potentially end up resulting in a muddy sound. Hiring, borrowing or demoing microphones with a vocalist may help you find the right microphone for that vocalist. If a vocalist is serious about what they do, they may even wish to invest themselves in the right microphone for themselves (in the same way a guitarist will buy his own amplifier.

If you have only a couple of microphones to fill a range of vocalists, Shure offer a good range of fairly neutral sounding microphones. Many engineer’s will swear by the classic SM58 but if you can afford the beta range, the beta 57’s or even 58’s give a significant improvement in quality.

 

Strings

 String players (such as violin, viola, ‘cello or even double bass) often provide a bit of a problem in terms of feedback. To get the best sound, condenser microphones should be used but this can often cause feedback issues. To compensate for this, I tend to use tie-clip microphones taped onto the black bit the other side of the bridge (pointing towards the bridge/player). This often gives a good quality of sound and (most importantly) a good volume.

However, you can invest in electronic pick ups for string instruments, making your job even easier!

 

Brass/woodwind

 Woodwind (flute, clarinet etc.) can often be picked up either with an overhead condenser microphone or a WORN tie-clip microphone. Both work well.

With brass instruments (trumpets, trombones and including saxes) the best bet is to use a dynamic instrument microphone (such as a Shure beta 57) pointed directly at the ‘bell’ of the instrument. However, to avoid excessive volume levels you should back the microphone off a little. It’s will also get you a ‘fuller’ sound.

 

DI boxes

 DI boxes are used when electronic instruments don’t have a balanced XLR output. Often, this is acoustic guitars, bass guitars and keyboards. It my also include electric drum kits, strings with electronic pick ups, DJ decks, laptops and even some electric guitarists.

The general rule of thumb is that active instruments do better with passive DI boxes and passive instruments do better with active DI boxes. Active instruments are ones that either run off mains (such as keyboards) or have a battery (like some basses or acoustic guitars).

However, this is a rule of thumb, and either type will work fine.

 

Experiment (it’s an art!)

Selecting and placing the right microphone is an art not a science (although there is acoustical science involved!). Often, you may find different placing for different microphones or different instruments work better in different ways. Experimenting is so important – you may find some random position that gives an amazing sound.

If you’re experimenting, may sure you listen and trust your ears. Make sure there is no EQ on the microphone channel. Don’t forget to share (comments section below is perfect!) as well. Who knows, you may have come up with a revolutionary new placement technique!

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