Microphone technique — What in the world is it?

Microphone technique or placement is one of the most artistic steps in the whole recording process. But how do you know where to put the mic?

There are people who seem to master it naturally, and others who seem to struggle after much practice. There are hosts of different ways to use it. But what is it?

Microphone technique is how you position the microphone while you are recording. Very simply, you want a spot where the mic will pick up the singer or instrument. Apart from that, do what you want!

What's the reason for it?

The main thing that microphone technique addresses is the need for different sounds from different people. Recordings would sound boring if exactly the same technique is used for everything! It's the same reason that we don't use the same microphone all the time.

Another thing microphone technique addresses is the frequency spread of the human voice or other instruments. When you sing, your voice projects the sound from your mouth. But, when it leaves there, it splits. The lower frequencies tend not to go far, and it sounds different depending on where you place and point the microphone.

Try it! If you can record yourself, do it. Try positioning the mic in front pointing straight on. Then take it down to chest height and point it at your mouth. Now point it over your shoulder, about ear height.

Record yourself singing in each position. Can you hear a difference in the recording? Try some other positions. Be creative! Place the mic to the right and left of your mouth, about 6-8 inches away, pointing at your mouth. Try it at eye level, center and to the sides, pointing at or not pointing at your mouth. Just for the experience, try it above your left shoulder pointing out front and slightly to the right.

There are no rules in microphone technique. Everyone does it a different way, but no one is wrong. The key is experimentation – try various ways to see if you can get a better sound.

After you try for a while, you'll see that microphone technique and placement is an art. There are guidelines, but no hard rules. It takes creativity.

So what are some guidelines? Glad you asked.

Practical guidlines for microphone technique

Now, let's look at some techniques used in microphone placement to get us started.

Try starting with the mic about 12-18 inches away from the singers' mouth. Aim it up just slightly to avoid plosives. See if it makes any difference aiming it slightly up or down.

I recently read to take an omni-directional microphone and aim it straight up. Put it just below the singer’s mouth, a few inches away.

That’ll eliminate plosives and get a nice open sound. With an omni you won’t get the proximity effect, so you can put it closer eliminate the exaggerated bass response. (More on plosives and the proximity effect below.) I haven't tried that one yet, but I'm anxious to.

For a throaty sound, try placing the microphone higher than the mouth. Point it down, aiming towards the throat.

My favorite for avoiding plosives — put the microphone in the 2:00 position and aim it at the mouth.

Do you have a good microphone technique tip (or maybe even question) that should be here? If so, please email me and let me know.

What are some other practical things you should think about in microphone technique? Here's a few we'll look at:

  • Plosives
  • Proximity effect
  • Volume adjustment
  • Room acoustics
  • Sound character

Plosives

Plosives — what are they? A plosive is when a person sings a p or b. This creates a puff (explosion!) of air that hits the diaphragm of the mic. That makes a boom or thud, and is recorded!

Do you know what a video camera sounds like outside in some bad wind? That is the sound of the air hitting the microphone. In the same way, when you have your singer too close to the mic you will get a boom whenever a plosive comes up.

Try getting a pop filter for your mic if you have problems with this. A pop filter takes the air and aims it away from the diaphragm while letting the sound through.

Proximity Effect

The proximity effect is noticed principally on cardioid microphones. As the sound source (your singer) gets closer to the mic, the bass frequencies are picked up louder. This tends to exaggerate the lower stuff, making a boomier sound.

You can use this to your advantage, though. To a point, you can make a voice sound fuller and more flattering by using the proximity effect on the voice. Just bring the microphone in closer to where it sounds good.

Volume Adjustment

When you're voice recording, make sure to adjust the volume correctly so the vocal doesn’t sound distant. If you have the preamp set too low, the recording will seem far away. Unless you want this sound, try to avoid it. (You can always turn it down later in the mix.)

When setting your preamp, you want to have the best signal to noise ratio you can get without clipping. (Clipping is when the signal gets louder than the maximum.) Of course, keep it balanced. I usually allow some headroom so a surprise peak doesn't ruin the track. I would rather have a track recorded 6 db to quiet than .01 db to loud.

Room Acoustics

The closer you have the mic to the singer, the less of the room's acoustic you’ll have in the track. This can be good or bad, depends on what effect you’re trying for.

My first thought says to eliminate as much of the room acoustic as possible. Then you can use a reverb unit to get precisely what you want. But if you’re in a room that sounds good, go ahead and use that.

Sound Character

When you are getting a microphone placement for your singer, make sure to move the mic around sideways and up & down to see if you can get a better sound. Get closer and farther away. Change the angle and experiment with different polar patterns (pickup patterns).

When you do that, you'll notice the sound changing character. A breathy sound close, more natural farther away. There are a lot of different subtle voice character changes in relation to position to the voice. Try a few to see what you like!

Keep in mind the style and spirit of the song. Some songs need a different character of voice (i.e. bright and bold vs. soft and dreamy). The singer can also change positions and vocal techniques during the song to change the character.

This is the real art in mic placement and technique. There is no shortcut to this other than experience. I wish it weren't so, but it is. I could give you pages of rules, and you could use them, and maybe even get decent results, but it is no substitute for actually trying them yourself.

What's next?

There's a lot you can do in the world of microphone technique. As you explore it all, keep in mind rule #1 of microphone technique:

  • Rule #1: There are no rules in mic technique!

Use the guidelines presented here and many other places on the web. But remember — use them only as building blocks.

As you progress in your experience, sometime you will want to record a group of people, or an ensemble. Be it a duet, quartet, small ensemble or choir, you'll probably get the opportunity sooner or later.

But how do you record that? What microphone techniques do you use there?

Simple. See Choir and Group Microphone Technique.

But what if you record to computer? What's next then? There are many options available for processing vocal recordings. Check out these at the computer voice recording page.

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