My studies culminated through Boston’s Berklee College of Music and as such the reference material I still have to this day is my go to any time I’ve got a question. A great book available to the public through Berklee Press that I highly recommend is “Recording in the Digital World.” This reference isn’t the end all of recording bibles, but it covers the basics and intermediate thought and technique on pretty much everything you’ll ever need to know in your home studio. The ISBN for the book is 0-634-01324-6 and is written by Thomas E. Rudolph and Vincent Leonard Jr. whom are both professors at Berklee College of Music.
Now, if you’ve been following along in my series, you should hopefully at this point have your own studio space setup. Your desk space should be against a flat wall, but pulled out slightly. You should hopefully be in an oblong room preventing unwanted standing waves. You should also be setup with an audio interface of some kind and a piece of software able to work with that interface and record your audio.
Now, if you’re paying attention you might say to yourself “Hey, that’s fine and dandy if I have an electric guitar, but what if I want to record an acoustic?”
That’s right, I didn’t cover microphones in my last article. Mainly because microphones very so much and the techniques behind using them are so differentiated that it deserves a careful look and consideration.
In fact, it deserves such a close look that I’m not even going to be talking about mic placement techniques, but only about microphone choice in this week’s article. So, lets get to it.
There are three main types of microphones and within those three types, five listening arrangements.
Dynamic mics are the most robust microphones you can buy. Their durability makes them ideal for loud, sharp noises like drums or a loud amplifier. They are not however sensitive to soft sounds and thus aren’t the best choice for instruments are sounds with a wide dynamic range. For instance, you probably wouldn’t use this style microphone on an acoustic guitar, piano, or vocals. These microphones also tend to be the least expensive with examples from $50.00 to $500.00. For those of you wanting to mic your amp this is the microphone you want to have.
Ribbon mics are among the most sensitive microphones available. Because of their sensitivity, they are also highly fragile. Simply dropping one of these microphones may render its operation either suspect, or completely null and void. The ribbon microphone should never be used for a loud or sharp instrument. Best suited for wide dynamic range instruments that emit soft tones. These microphones are generally used for the recording of soft stringed and woodwind instruments. Many microphone companies have actually stopped producing these microphones. Regardless, may high-end productions, especially those involving symphonic sections still utilize these microphones. They are costliest microphones ranging from $500.00 to over $5000.00.
The condenser microphone is the mainstay of the digital recording world. Used correctly a single condenser mic can be utilized on nearly any instrument in your arsenal. Special care must be taken when micing very loud or sharp instruments, but it can be done. The condenser microphones capture a clear, precise signal over the range of human hearing. They tend to bubble and add loft in the upper frequency range while they tend to fall of slightly below 50hz in the bass range.
This style microphone is going to be your best choice to record anything from vocals to guitar and piano. As such it’s going to be the microphone that I focus most on throughout this series. Solid examples of this microphone can range to many thousands of dollars, but a quality piece can be had for around $100.00 to $300.00
Furthermore, the condenser style microphones offer the best adjustment options for recording use. Many microphones will have the ability to lower input sensitivity, roll off bass frequencies or even change it’s listening pattern.
These added features make this style microphone even better as a “jack of all trades.” The sensitivity reduction allows for use with toms or an amplified guitar, while the bass roll-off reduces the undesired result of the “proximity effect.”
It requires a more thorough explanation, but the end result of the proximity effect is that bass frequencies tend to be amplified when micing a source in close proximity to it’s sound source. Most of the time this is an unwanted recording artifact that having a bass roll-off will combat. However, if you have an instrument that doesn’t project bass adequately, the proximity effect can be used to overcome that.
Lower end condenser microphones will obviously omit most if not all of these features. This isn’t necessarily a problem, however if your project studio has plans to expand at any time, purchasing a microphone that will grow with you from the get-go will be the best financial decision.
Now, to complicate the matter further, within each of these microphone types exist five separate pickup patterns. The pickup pattern is how and in what direction the microphone “listens” to sound. Certain listening patterns are best suited to different situations. Generally speaking your microphone will display the pickup pattern somewhere on its body.
So why is it necessary to have microphones that listen in different directions? In all things regarding recording the term “garbage in, garbage out” applies. We learned this early on while trying to do basic recording the equipment not designed for it. This holds true when micing. If your sound sources is in front of you, but you’re listening behind you as well, you may pick up noise that is not desired. This is the specific reason you want to choose the right listening space for your microphones.
The cardioid pattern is you’re a-typical directional pattern. Where 0 degrees is the sound source, the cardioid's primarily listening takes place from 90 and 270 degrees from this source. It has very little if any listening behind it, making it optimal for instruments that do not desire any reflection or reverb to fill out the sound.
The super cardioid pattern offers a slightly wider listening area to the sides of the object while also providing a very slight amount of listening behind the microphone. This type of microphone may be good for a piano where the open sound lid acts as a soundboard that you may want to pickup nuance from.
Hyper cardioid microphones shorten the listening field left and right of the sound source while providing added reward listening. This microphone may work well for a vocal comp where an early reflection is desired to thicken sound.
The omni directional microphone listens equally to a room at 360 degrees. This microphone works well as an ambiance mic for capturing audience reaction, early and late reflections for echo processing or for a venue that produces a characteristic feel or sound.
The figure 8 pickup pattern listens forward and aft while attempting to ignore sources at 90 and 270 degrees. Much like the omni directional microphone the figure 8 pattern is good for ambiance settings, but more specifically for choral and symphonic settings where listening to both the source sound and reflected sounds is desirable.
For the purpose of our own home studio and micing an acoustic guitar my recommendation is to acquire two cardioid pattern condenser microphones. If you are wanting to mic and amp I highly recommend also purchasing a cardioid pattern dynamic microphone. As I mentioned, the condenser can if done correctly mic a loud source like an amplifier. However given the lower cost of a dynamic microphone I believe that it’s worth the investment.
Along with these microphones you will also need cables to connect to your audio interface.
Cables is an easy area to skimp and save some money. Although we all have to work within a budget, I can’t stress enough that purchasing high quality cables will help create the most pristine recordings possible. Remember, “garbage in, garbage out.” Low quality cables skimp on shielding and have a tendency to pickup signal and noise outside of the source sound. They also generally carry higher electrical impedance, which hinders the audio signal that is being delivered to your audio interface.
Expect to purchase cables every couple of years. With the electrical signals flowing through the cables, they can and do deteriorate over time.
Once again I would like you all to navigate to your favorite online music store and start researching microphones within your budget.
Until next week, happy recording!