Written by Antonio Anzaldua, Warm Audio
There are an abundance of talented recording engineers and producers in today’s music industry. Recording has become more affordable and accessible than ever before due to recording gear, plug-ins and software plummeting in price. I meet many people who think they can “buy” their way to better sounding recordings, but I believe recording is like most things in life - practice makes perfect! Fundamentals, such as microphone placement, gain staging and understanding impedance, are very important but not always a ton of fun to learn about. Because of this, many people skip these fundamental steps and say things like, "We’ll fix that later in the mix”. Unfortunately some things can’t be fixed in mixing! Learning how to use the gear you own is essential, so let’s dig into some of the most commonly used mic placement techniques for vocals, acoustic guitars and drums. As a general disclaimer, every instrument, musician, and room is different; so there is no “one size fits all” microphone placement method.
For these examples, we’ll look at a few common sources that benefit from the use of condenser microphones. The microphone I'll be speaking to in these examples is the Warm Audio WA-87. A little about this mic first. When designing the WA-87, we based it on the vintage 87 circuit from the 1960’s, carefully comparing it to the real deal at every stage of the WA-87's development. I find this microphone sounds fantastic on pretty much everything. So, if you haven’t already checked one out I highly recommend that you do.
Best Vocal Microphone Techniques
Let’s discuss vocal mic placement first. While many engineers are quick to patch in a compressor when recording vocals, I find that the best compressor is actually the space between a source and the microphone. The closer you are to a mic, the more dynamic your voice becomes. I find that about 6 inches from the capsule provides the perfect distance to keep a vocal dynamic, but not in an overwhelming way. For intimate vocals, I find a distance of 3 to 4 inches works well. I like to position the pop filter at the desired distance so a singer can't get closer to the mic accidentally. Using a shock mount will help decouple the WA-87 from rumble noise from other sound sources vibrating through the floor and up into the microphone stand.
Most engineers like to use a cardioid polar pattern for vocals, but this, like everything else, is something to experiment with. For example, if you’re getting too much low end from a vocal, try switching to to omni-directional. This will remove the proximity effect and brighten the signal. Another example might be when you have a singer that is also playing acoustic guitar simultaneously. In this case, try using the figure 8 polar pattern on the WA-87 for side rejection and aim the side down, towards the singer’s guitar. Then do the same with the acoustic guitar microphone with the side pointed towards the singer’s mouth. Vocals are probably the most varied source you'll encounter in recording, so experimenting is crucial.
Acoustic Guitar Microphone Techniques
Now, let’s discuss acoustic guitar mic placement. The WA-87 does a stellar job with acoustic instruments because condensers capture more detail than the typical ribbon or dynamic. As you set up your microphones, always try to keep in mind what the rest of the mix is going to sound like. Will it be an acoustic-only performance? Is there a band involved? How important is the acoustic guitar going to be in the mix?
When a band is involved, I like to keep acoustic guitars recorded in mono. With a single WA-87, I would place it around two feet from the guitar, in front of the 12th fret and aimed at the sound hole. This is a starting point and depending on how bright I want the guitar, I will angle it more or less from the sound hole. Distancing the WA87 by two feet also helps with dynamics. Depending on the type of body, acoustic guitars can be very boomy instruments which can cause issues with dynamics. When mixing, low end frequencies (bass) will cause your compressor to react aggressively since low frequencies are much more powerful than high frequency waves at the same perceived amplitude. I find that placing the WA-87 microphone directly in front of the sound hole exacerbates this issue. If you want more low end, bring the mic closer to the guitar or switch polar patterns.
Stereo Microphone Techniques for Acoustic Guitar
If you're recording an acoustic guitar in stereo always think about phase. If your microphones are set the same distance from the guitar (assuming you have two of the same microphone) you will be in phase. If your two microphones are different distances from the guitar (or are different types of microphones) the same signal will hit the two microphones at different times which could cause some frequencies to drop out due to phase cancellation. This disproportionately affects low frequency material and is especially important for instruments like drums (more on this later). Many engineers like to use an XY pattern to avoid potential timing and phase problems. It also removes the need for measuring microphone distances. I personally like to combine a mic in the position described above with a second “over the shoulder” microphone. This provides a very natural sound from the vantage point of being close to the guitar player’s ear. I place a WA-87 next to the musician’s head so the mic “hears” what the guitar player hears. Then, I measure the distance of both mics to the sound hole of the guitar (where most of the low end resides) and make sure they are equidistant. Guitar players will often “mix” themselves by how they play, and the closer your recording comes to what the musician hears while performing, the happier they’ll be. This also makes mixing easier.
Microphone Placement for Drums
Finally, let’s discuss one of the most important instruments to record correctly from the start, drums. In my experience, drums are the most challenging source to record. One thing to remember before you start setting up your microphones: the better your drum set sounds, the more professional your recordings will usually be. Before recording make sure you've got a fresh set of drum heads and that they're tuned to the drummer's tastes. You'll also want to go through the kit and check for any loose hardware to ensure that you've minimized any potential rattle from being picked up by your microphones.
There are so many different drums in a single kit, and therefore so many phase issues that can pop up. Miking up an entire drum-set can require a lot of expensive gear as well as a good sounding room. That’s a tall order for most budding producers that don’t have access to a professional recording studio. But guess what? Many famous innovative engineers and producers have created masterpieces dealing with limited equipment and track count limitations. They also had to deal with higher noise floors and limited editing and mixing functionality. Some of the best recording engineers in history have found ways to create wonderful recordings with very limited equipment.
One of my favorite drum microphone techniques is the “Glyn Johns” overhead pattern. If you're curious who Glyn is and why this technique is so widely used, I'd recommend taking a quick look at his recording credits. You'll be convinced.
In this pattern, you'll place a WA-87 above the drum kit, roughly four feet directly above the snare. You'll then place a second WA-87 on the side of the kit, overlooking the floor tom, also facing the snare. You'll then want to measure both mics to ensure that they are equidistant to the snare. This doesn’t have to be exact, as, to my knowledge, Glyn Johns himself did not measure these, but made sure they were within a few inches. Furthermore, while most people measure these mics from the snare, I like to measure from the kick beater instead. I find this helps avoid phase issues on lower frequencies, where they tend to become most noticeable. So, using the "Glyn Johns" drum mic technique, you can get the majority of your from just two WA-87’s. Close microphone placement can be added to the two mic setup we just described, but be careful to listen how this affects the low frequencies. Flip the phase switch of the snare mic back and forth and listen for which signal has the best low frequency presence. Glyn Johns sometimes didn’t even use a snare mic! He would set one up just in case, but often didn’t end up using it in the final mix. Also worth noting, the lower the overhead mic, the more snare you will get into the mix. This also affects how much of the room ambience the WA-87 will pick up.
Something to keep in mind with the Glyn Johns setup is that you can add or remove low end by using proximity effect to your advantage, and also experimenting with polar patterns. The closer you move the overhead, side mic, and kick mic to the kit, the more low end they will each pick up when in cardioid or figure 8 modes. Some engineers like to use figure 8 for the side mic, and will make a copy of the side microphone track in their DAW. Then they hard pan both side mic signals and flip the phase of one. This exaggerates the stereo field and can change the sound of the room because of the side rejection. The back of the figure 8 microphone will serve as a room mic since it only picks up reflections; no direct sound. The same technique is used in MS (“Mid-Side”) overhead configurations, but that’s another article. Figure 8 mode also exaggerates proximity effect more than cardioid mode.
A more common practice in popular music recording is the “spaced pair” overhead pattern. In this configuration, one WA-87 will be placed over the floor tom and the other WA-87 above the high hat. Exact measurement from the kick (or snare) is more important in the “spaced pair” configuration than in a Glyn Johns pattern because more phase issues can creep up when microphones do not pick up low end from the center. Adding individual snare and kick microphones into your mix becomes more important in the “spaced pair” configuration. Just like before, flip the phase of the snare mic to find which settings give you the most low frequency presence. Typically, engineers keep spaced pair overheads in cardioid, but there are no rules! Try new things, see what sounds best to your ears with that particular drummer in that particular room.
Final Thoughts on Mic Placement
There is no “right” way to record! It’s always good to learn from those who came before you, but experiment to find what suits you and your aesthetic. At the end of the day, recording should be a fun and rewarding experience. The more you find what you like, the more other musicians, songwriters and engineers will buy into what you’re doing. Trust your ears, they will learn much faster by just listening than by watching a VU meter for an arbitrary level.
Many engineers starting out place microphones according to what they have read to do. Novice engineers often don’t listen carefully enough to how their audio sounds before hitting the record button. Many issues in a mix can be avoided by simply moving a microphone a few inches from its starting location. Always listen back to some test takes to make sure the sound you’re getting is what you really want. While you’re tracking, try to get as close to the finished sound as possible. This will make mixing a breeze. Also, keep in mind that the more microphones you use for a source, the harder it will be to mix. It will always depend on the genre of music, but sometimes a minimalist approach is just what the doctor ordered.