Microphone technique – Where to put the mic

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. 

Mic preamp guide

OK, so you got the ultimate $700 microphone! Now you plug it into your $30 mic preamp to record and we're set to go, right? Uhmm, no. Not so fast!

Your mic is producing $700 worth of sound, but the preamp is only letting $30 worth of it through! Why spend all that money on the mic, and then cancel it with trashy processing? 

What is a preamp? Basically it is an amplifier that takes the microphone level signal and amplifies it to line level, the standard used in recording systems. Also, it is often used to provide power to the microphones that require it. 

A good preamp is important in maintaining and enhancing the sound of your mics. When the preamp amplifies the sound, it can add or subtract subtle shades in the character of the sound. That's why it's important to use high quality preamps. You don't want them affecting the sound in a negative way!

Another thing to look for is the self-noise. I have two preamps in my studio, and I basically use the one all the time. The other one has so much self-noise that I hate it! This is important for each track, because when you mix all your tracks together, you get all the noise added together. The result may be much louder than you expect! 

So don't get a cheap mic preamp. I think it is more important to spend money on a microphone, but don't skimp on a preamp. The processing they add is very subtle, but that is they key. You don't want to hear the preamp. You can tell a difference from a $100 to a $1000 - it's a matter of you get what you pay for. 

A lot of the audio interfaces available will actually have a preamp or several built into it. They can often be just what you need. I like the ones that come on my MOTU 828. But I also have a Presonus DigiMax which provides 8 channels of high quality preamps. This is then a bargain. It's easy to keep adding more and more channels, and with the DigiMax, you can go a long way before you run out.

BTW, if you want to know the lingo, a preamp is also called a mic pre, or just a pre. Now, go impress your friends!

What should you look for when shopping for a mic pre for recording? If you're getting a high end one, look for things much the same as you would regular pres. 

Keep things like self-noise and trim level in mind too. You will most likely want phantom power too, so look for that. What cables do your microphones use? Make sure the mic preamp will accept them. 

Read some reviews on different preamps, and see what people are recommending. 

Yes! Now comes the fun part — doing the actual recording. 

Got your mic preamp? Go to Microphone Techniques

Mackie Big Knob Review

The Mackie Big Knob takes all the fuss out of studio volume control, letting you get back to important things - working on your music.

How many times have you wanted a quick and easy way to make subtle adjustments to the volume of your song, but it took over 10 seconds? Or something loud started playing, jolting you upright, but you can't turn it down quick?

As the name suggests, it has a Big Knob that works really well. The knob is easy to find, and you can do it without even looking at it. It has smaller knobs too, but the big one makes it easy to use.

I was looking for something to control my home recording studio. I had a computer and an interface, software and hardware. It all worked together, and I was getting decent sounds from it. 

But something was missing.

Whenever I wanted to change the volume, I had to mess with some arcane volume control knob in my software'; with a mouse! It was so hard (and imprecise).

Enter the Mackie Big Knob.

The Big Knob kept coming up in my search for studio volume control, so I gave it more attention.

Make no mistake, this is not some flimsy piece of gear that will break or malfunction in a few months - it is built like a rock and will last as long as you want it to.

Sound quality is always important in selecting a piece of recording equipment. Everything you hear goes through the studio monitor system, so it must be transparent. It can't color the sound, leaving you with a shadow of what's there.

That's why the Mackie Big Knob is an excellent choice. For the availability on the market, nothing will beat it. Of course, you could look at a super high end system, like the Grace M906. But the reality is, for a home recording studio, the Big Knob does the job as good as anything will.

Those two benefits alone are enough to make the investment worthwhile, but there's more!

  • Switch between headphones and monitors/speakers with a push of a button. The Mackie Big Knob has a plethora of connection points, allowing you can plug in several sets of studio monitors and switch between them at the press of a button.
  • Talk to musicians with ease. With the press of a button you can talk to anyone connected to the headphones mix, a separate channel that can be set up with a customized mix.
  • Replacement? Not necessary - it is rock solid and just won't break.
  • It looks great. That big knob? There's just something alluring in it.
  • Eyes free volume adjustment - with a knob that big, there's no missing it.
  • Manage cable clutter. When everything is hooked up, tie all the cables together, and run them behind the desk. Never worry about unsightly cables on the desk again!

You know, this makes the Mackie Big Knob well worth the investment. But all these great benefits are just sidelines to the real, bottom-line result.

Instead of focusing on silly frustrations like volume control, you will free yourself up to work on music. After all, isn't that why you started learning about recording in the first place?

Before I bought my Big Knob, I worried that the money could be better spent on something that made my sound better. Something like new mics, a better software plugin, or a mic preamp. But now I'm just so glad that I have my Mackie Big Knob.

It was worth it.

That said, it may not be worth it for you. Why? If you don't have studio monitors, for one. Or if you could better spend the money on some good quality mics or software plugins.

But if you have these things, what are you waiting for? Will the Big Knobhelp you?

Learn Digital Audio Recording – Your Roadmap for Success

Your Roadmap to Digital Audio Recording

You can learn digital audio recording! Beware, it's not easy, but it's doable. Perseverance is the key. Once you start getting it, you're accelerating faster.

But there are huge obstacles to climb while trying to learn audio recording. Like what kinds of recording gear do I need? Or how do I use them? If recording equipment is anything, it is confusing.

So where do you go? Many places on the net try to help in some way, but mostly they are incomplete. Forums are nice, but they do not give the beginner a fair introduction to recording. They are more suited to solving specific problems.

That's were I came in - to help people who need a place to start. I've traveled this path before, and I want to make it easier for others after me. I'm not an expert recording engineer, but I can help you along your path to success.

So, for digital audio recording, what should we know? Let me break it up into two categories - equipment and smarts. In other words, we need to know what we need and we need to know how to use it.

Well, that's simple enough, isn't it? 🙂 But we need to learn recording better, so let's examine these closer.

Equipment

We need to break down all gear into distinct classes. We have microphones, cables, preamps, mixers, and computer software among others. There is a definite recording chain traceable in any kind of recording, even using a cheesy laptop microphone. Your sound gets picked up my some sort of mic, transmitted to an amplifier, taken to a digitizer (unless you go analog), then recorded on a digital medium. Obviously this is a really simple chain, but it helps illustrate a point: any piece of recording equipment works in some part of the chain.

We need to understand the components of a recording chain before we can know how all this works together. To help with this, I've created a page on recording equipment. There I discuss the different types of gear you might need to make a recording.

Smarts

All the equipment in the world won't help you if you have no idea how to use it. Bummer! So to learn recording, we need to acquire some of these smarts. Well, here's where I try to help out too. Below I'll list where the pages on my site are that help out the learning. Make sure to browse the entire site too!

Mic technique and placement: how to use a mic

Mobile recording: taking the studio to the artist

Mixing: how to use a computer to mix a track

Recording Process: a look at a recording from start to finish

Voice Recording:recording voices

Stereo recording: using two or more mics to make a stereo effect

Further Learning

Learning is a lifelong process, both in digital audio recording and in the rest of life. Most of what we learn is by trial and error. We do things and they don't work, so we learn how to do them right. But by finding the right guides to coach us, this learning can be speeded up tremendously. Here are a few ways to do that.

First, you're doing it right now - reading this website. You are taking initiative to learn and further your knowledge.

Second, books are very helpful in learning about recording. I have three recommendations up at Recording Audio Books.

Third, I'm a big propenent of hands on study. Do some recording, and see what works and what doesn't. Play with the EQ. I think it is the best way to learn, next to doing it with someone else that knows how.

Lastly, you could investigate an audio production school. They offer intensive programs of study on the college level, so if you are serious about recording, these places may be able to help you out.

These are great places to start your research. If I left out anything important here, by all means tell me about it, and help others learn recording even better!

Laptop Digital Recording – Recording on a Laptop

Digital recording doesn't always stay in the same place. Laptop digital recording moves with you. 

You may have a bedroom studio, but there are times when you just need to be somewhere else. Maybe it's at a friend's house. Maybe a choir at church. Maybe it's a live concert to record.

>> Location recording is going somewhere that is not a studio. I also call it laptop digital recording.

You don't need lots of expensive equipment to do location recording. In fact, you probably can do it with what you already have.

I take my preamps and audio interface from my studio when I go on location. My regular mics work fine.

So here's what you need:

When you go mobile you will want lighter equipment. Rugged gear works better for the rigors of transport and many setups/teardowns. You also want something that can be set up and tore down fairly quickly.

Microphones don't generally vary much in relation to mobile laptop digital recording. Use the same rules you would regularly about what mic to choose and where to place it.

Cables are a smaller issue in location recording, but still pertinent - sometimes you need to run a hundred feet or more. I have several 100 foot cables. Don't use several 30' cables together (if you can help it). Why? It's more chances for the sound quality to have problems.

For the main gear (preamp and interface), an all-in-one box is definitely a nice hassle-free way to go. Check out MOTU's line of interfaces, specifically the 4-Pre, the 8-Pre, the UltraLite, or the 828mk3. I use the 828. It has two built in preamps and uses FireWire into the computer. 

Also look at some smaller interfaces, like the Lexicon Lambda or E-Mu 0204 USB. They have a few XLR inputs and go USB to the computer.

You can also use a separate preamp and go into the interface. This will take more cables and more space on your makeshift console.

case is really handy - something to put the core things like the preamp and interface. It's so nice to just grab that and go.

What kind of laptop?

Just a few guidelines for the laptop computer ensure a smooth recording experience. It should have decent speed as well as modest RAM and HD space. 

It does NOT have to be the best and fastest.

The exact model doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter if the laptop is Windows or Mac powered. It doesn't matter exactly what speed it is. 

Why? all you need is a decent amount of speed and memory. Record to an external hard drive (the internal one will probably be overloaded).

In the past, I used an Apple iBook G4 1.2gHz with 768MB RAM and a 60GB hard drive. The recording went to an external USB drive. My setup handled 3-4 tracks of 24bit audio just fine. 

The hardest things for a laptop are plugins. Regular recording doesn't need them much. (That comes later, in the mixing.)

You don't need a new model laptop to handle 4 tracks. If you already have a laptop, do a test by hooking up your equipment and recording something. See how it does.

How long does it take from the time you push record until it actually starts recording?

If your laptop is overloaded, try using a smaller program like Audacity to record the tracks. You can import them into your main audio editor later.

Here's what I use

You don't need much equipment to go onsite laptop digital recording. Here's what I take when I go out of the studio:

It seems like a lot (especially in my car's backseat), but it isn't all that much. It helps to get a small 4 or 6 space portable rack, like the Gator GR-4L. It holds the interface, preamp, power strip, some cables, and my headphones.

Mobile laptop digital recording doesn't take all kinds of expensive equipment. It just takes ordinary gear, like the stuff you have. Just pack it up and take it with you. 

Check out some of the light-weight portable audio interfaces available. They combine preamps with the interface, eliminating unnecessary clutter and gear. Get a good laptop, but that doesn't mean it has to be top of the line. Try experimenting with software. And have fun!

Introduction to Stereo Recording

Stereo recording is a multi-faceted approach to recording that posits very realistic recordings in reward for distinctly challenging situations. It's not something we do or think about consciously, but basically any recording uses stereo in some sense. 

First, let's examine this thing called stereo recording by dividing the term in half. We know what recording is all about, so we'll focus now on the stereo part. 

Stereo means sound that comes from two sources or speakers to surround the listener and make him think it's coming from more than one place. It's basically the first version of surround sound, but with only two speakers. That's why they call the playback systems stereos.

Think of it this way - you have two ears, and they give you an incredible amount of detail. Try closing just one ear for a minute, and pay attention to all the sounds you hear. Pretty boring, isn't it? The second channel of information gives you detail in time and loudness that make the whole aural experience much richer than if you had two noses and one ear. 

These small cues in time and loudness difference help us to pinpoint the location of sounds on a 3D level. We can point to a source in a 360 degree plane around us horizontally and vertically, and we perceive depth. All with two ears. This is why the recording world uses two channels (or more) in basically all recording releases. 

With two speakers placed a small distance apart and a stereo track (remember, two channels here, left and right) you have a soundstage. Stereo recording exploits the sound stage by filling it up with voices/instruments at different places.

The most basic form of this is recording the tracks and mixing them to different positions in a stereo mixdown. This creates an articifial stereo experience, because everything was tracked separately and mixed together - it's not real. Stereo recording tries to emulate and reproduce a real sound, a real soundstage. Whether it's a choir/orchestra combination or a single classical guitar, we go for real. A real sound like that is pleasing to listen to, and it accurately reproduces the original performance. 

Apart from the realness factor, logistical factors necessitate using stereo. For example, take a choir scenario: you have a 36 voice choir to record. There's no way you can get 36 mics in to record each person individually, unless your studio has bottomless funding. You have to do some sort of grouping and mixdown. You can learn more on the choir recording page. 

So we use stereo in recording to reproduce a real, life-like, you-are-there aural experience that sounds pleasing to the ear. We do it because we have to sometimes, but because we like the sound. 

How to use parametric EQ

A parametric EQ is the most important audio plugin that a home recording engineer can use.

Why?

It is a powerful tool that helps us to get a decent sound.

How EQ works (in general)

All sound is made up of frequencies, or vibrations. Frequency means how fast the sound waves are vibrating - a person can hear from around 20/40 hertz (vibrations per second) all the way to around 20,000 hertz (also known as 20 kilohertz). In some amazing way, sounds of all shapes and sizes combine together to give our ears a treat.

Any instrument or voice you can record will utilize certain of these frequencies in the sound. But sometimes the capture process (recording them) doesn’t give an ideal representation.

That’s where EQ steps in, to equalize things and make it sound better. How? By adjusting selected portions of the entire spectrum. If some frequencies are too high, cut them a bit. If others are too low, boost them.

There are any number of reasons why it is not perfect the first time, but most are technical, and we don’t need to get into that here.

See this page on EQ for a little more background.

Parametric EQ

Parametric EQ is a fancy way of naming a useful way of implementing EQ. For comparison, the other kind is a graphic EQ.

Parametric EQ

There is another kind of EQ called a graphic EQ. It focuses on the same adjustments, but "sees" them in a different way.

Graphic EQ

They both work with frequencies, and they both boost or cut at specific levels. The difference is in customizing - a graphic EQ has sliders for specific frequencies, but they can’t be changed. A parametric EQ has knobs instead of sliders. The knobs allow you to dial in a precise frequency, called the band.

So here’s a detailed look at parametric EQ controls.

  • frequency
  • width or Q
  • gain

Frequency

A parametric EQ allows you to specify the center point for frequencies affected by this band (remember, band is this particular adjustment). 

This is the control that you will probably spend the most time working with, because it is more important than the other controls. 

Why? It matters more what frequencies you adjust (highs, lows, mids, mid-lows, etc) than it does how much you cut/boost, or how wide the band is. This does not mean the other controls are not important, they are just lessimportant.

The frequency control should be the first parametric EQ control you study.

Width or Q

The frequency knob sets the center point for what frequencies are affected by this band, and the width sets how much on each side are affected.

Look at the pictures to clarify.

Parametric EQ with a wide Q

Parametric EQ with a narrow Q

The first one is using a wide Q setting so that it affects many surrounding frequencies. The second picture shows a narrow band, that just cuts a few.

What is a good setting to keep this at?

Use your ears as a judge. Once you find the problem frequency (see Find the Frequency), cut some narrow before going wider. I don’t have a set value that I use, it just depends on what needs to be done.

Gain

The simplest parametric EQ control. Yay! 

Once you have the other two controls set on a band of EQ plugin, just dial in the gain to where it does the most good.

But be careful, even here. This is where many beginners go wrong - they try to cut the living daylights out of a problem range, or boost way to much on a missing area.

Somewhere in my recording education, I learned a really good principle for EQ. When you do an EQ adjustment, use half the gain than what you would like to. In other words, if you think a cut at 1400 with a width of 1.2 and a cut of 8db makes things better, try making the cut 4db. Come back to it later and see if it sounds good, or if it really needs the 8db cut.

Shapes

Yes, parametric EQ has a shape! 

Each band of EQ is a certain shape. They usually fall into one of 5 categories:

  • bell
  • high pass
  • low pass
  • high shelf
  • low shelf

The difference is in what shape they interact with the sound spectrum. 

Parametric EQ filters

Recall the pictures above where each band operated on a shape similar to a bell curve - equal on both sides. It drops off from the middle, how soon depends on the Q or width setting. 

The bell filter is what you will usually use a parametric EQ for.

The high pass filter is useful for limiting the amount of bass frequencies in a track. The human ear can only hear down to about 20 hertz (a good one), so it doesn’t make sense to include sounds lower than that. Not only that, but it saves the speakers from having to try to make those high energy sounds.

The solution is the high pass filter. It does what you would think - only lets through frequencies that are higher than a certain point. So if you put a 40 hertz high pass on a band of EQ, anything lower than 40 is taken out, while the rest is untouched.

Even though our ears can hear down to 20 hertz, most instruments don’t even use the range between 20 and 60 hertz. I find no discernable difference when I use a 60 hertz high pass filter on choral music. The lower notes on a bass guitar are down in that range, but most instruments don’t need it (and sound better without that clouding up the rest of the mix).

low pass does the same for high frequencies - it cuts anything above the threshold point. It is less useful than a high pass. At least that’s how I’ve found it.

Don’t let the two names mix you up - high pass operates on low frequencies, and low pass operates on high frequencies.

low shelf filter is close to a high pass. Instead of just cutting everything that is lower than the threshold, you can set a specific level of gain or boost. In other words, you could set a low shelf filter to boost all frequencies lower than 400 hertz (and then have a high pass to cut anything lower than 60).

Parametric EQ with a low shelf and and a high pass

The most important tip for parametric EQ that I can leave with you is experiment.

As you could guess, the high shelf is the opposite of the low shelf, and boosts or cuts all frequencies higher than the threshold.

Visualizer

Most parametric EQs show you visually what your adjustments look like. This is in the form of a line from left to right across a “sound spectrum,” from low to high frequencies. When you boost or cut, it shows the visual details of that cut so you can see how much you are doing.

Parametric EQ - tips and techniques

In my years of working with audio, I’ve found a few techniques that work really well for making good use of a parametric EQ. Keep in mind - these are not magic bullets, but helpful starting points or techniques that will help you get started quickly.

Small adjustments

I mentioned this before, but it stands to be mentioned again. Don’t do too much! Many times I’ve spent long periods of time working with a track or mix, trying to get the EQ right. But at the end, I just didn’t like it. In that case, I took all the EQ off and started from scratch.

Every time I did this, I remembered that it just doesn’t pay to try to do too much. Don’t make it complicated. Make EQ as simple as you can, and it will probably sound better.

Find the frequency

I’ve lost count of how many times I use this technique - pretty much all the time.

It’s simple - if you hear something that is not right, find the offending frequency. Start by taking a narrow Q and a lot of gain, and “sweep” up and down the spectrum. 

The narrow width helps you find the exact spot, and the gain amplifies the problem when you sweep over it. During your sweeps, listen for the places where the problem jumps out. Find the middle of that section, and set the frequency control to that. 

Now all you have to do is reset the Q and gain to best take care of the problem.

It’s a simple thing, really, but incredibly powerful.

Try a different Q

Sometimes when I’m using the “Find the frequency” technique, I end up with a bunch of small adjustments that address small problems, but I still have a fundamental problem.

In these cases, it’s probably my Q settings that need work. Maybe instead of cutting in three small areas, I need to use one band to cut the same area, but with a wide setting.

The most important thing

A parametric EQ is a powerful tool that will help you achieve that elusive good sound in your mixes. But only if you use it correctly.

I wish I had a cure all solution, or a set of presets for an EQ plugin. That would make it easier for all of us.

But part of the magic about mixing is the process to that sound.

Please experiment with EQ. try things this way, and try them that way. Spend time with the Find the Frequency technique. Discover how boosts and cuts sound in various frequencies across the spectrum.

The most important tip for parametric EQ that I can leave with you is experiment.

Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t know any other ways. Sure, read the books. Learn all you can about EQ and digital recording.

But all of that theory won’t do you any good until you have some cold, hard experience with EQ.

Let me know how it goes.

How To Do Choir Recording

Choir recording can be potentially frustrating or very rewarding. It is different than recording solo vocals or duets. There are new things to think about, different problems to face. We'll look at the challenges unique to recording a choir. I'll be targeting specifically a choir of voices, but you can use these techniques for instrumental ensembles too (orchestra, band, or other ensemble).

Here is a bird’s eye view of what we are going to look at:

  • Stereo recording 
  • Room sound 
  • Mic choice 
  • Microphone technique
  • Mixing choir recordings
  • Special effects - EQ, compression, reverb, etc. 

What about stereo sound?

Stereo recording is a sister subject of choir recording, something you need to know a bit about. I'll do a quick primer, but you should mosey on over to the stereo recording page to learn more about it. 

A stereo track is simply two coordinated mono tracks played on two independent speakers, arranged on either side of the listener. They can be either speakers or headphones, but the have to be two separate sound sources or tracks.

To record stereo, you record two separate tracks, one for the left output, and one for the right. They don't necessarily have to be placed in a left/right pattern, but they will be panned out in the mix. When you play this back (on a stereo sound system) you will hear a soundstage. It gives dimension, or depth and width to the field of sound you are hearing, a feeling of "being there." 

When you record one voice, stereo doesn't make so much sense (although you easily can). With one track, it can be panned wherever you want - you can make it sound like it's coming from the left or right. But with a choir or chorus, there is a sense of depth and location - and spatial positioning.

Have you ever listened to a recording in mono that should've been in stereo? Didn't it just seem to lack depth, clarity, and sparkle? I think stereo adds so much to a choir recording that I wouldn't do without it.

Room Sound

If you were to record a choir, where would you do it? Can you get 25 people in your bedroom or living room? (25 people is a medium sized choir.) You might be able to do it, but space sort of comes at a premium then. If you did it, you might notice that the group sound is just not what it should be. This comes from any number of things, but the room in which a choir is singing will have an impact on how they sound. 

Also, anything needs breathing space to sound good. Try going into a closet or other very tight space, and sing a few notes, or play a song on your guitar. Now go into the living room, or other bigger space (but not outside). Does it sound different? How? This is a good exercise to experiment with, as it will give you an understanding of how room sound works. 

A big group or choir needs a big space, but proportional to its size. Also, a choir will sing better (and love it) in a pleasing acoustical space - it helps their blend and the reverb reinforces their singing. 

When you're placing mics for a choir in a larger room (or any size really), the distance you stay away from the group will make an impact on the mix between voice and reverb sound. But that's a topic for the mic technique section. 

Mic Choice

One difference between recording solo vocals and a choir is the microphone situation. Obviously, you can't have a Neumann microphone for each choir member. Besides breaking the bank, you would have to separate the choir, and have a royal mess of mic cables. And could your recorder handle that many tracks?

Even if you went to all that trouble, and tracked each individual voice, you wouldn't have the "choir sound" that we want. The blend wouldn't be there - you would have to blend them electronically. Have you ever heard of the saying "The whole is more than the sum of it's parts"? This is one case where that is true!

Instead, use a stereo setup. A pair (or several) of mics placed at strategic spots will will do well. What spots? See below.

So when we record the choir as a whole, we need to make sure the mix is right. No one person should stand out above the rest; everyone should be on pitch and well blended. If you do your choir recording without checking these things, you might be disappointed with the results.

In other words, you need to mix the choir as you record.

Mic Technique

Well now, this cannot be covered in a few short paragraphs! But we'll do our level best, reserving a whole other page for further discussion on this matter. 

I tend to like to use stereo recording for a choir recording. As you will see later, stereo is a 2 track attempt at reproducing the sound as closely as it can, giving you a "being there" kind of sound. Stereo stuff uses 2 or 3 mics placed in predefined patterns, like XY, ORTF, Mid-Side, DIN, AB, and so on. Each of these placements has particular blessings and difficulties, or else there would be one grand accepted method. There isn't. 

Another popular way of recording a choir us seperating the parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, or SATB) and tracking each one separately.This gives more control in the mixing environment, like if the soprano overpowers everyone else on a line, you can pull them back. This method will give you 4 tracks (or however many you use) to play with, rather than the 2 or 3 with stereo. I've had good results with this when mixing these 4 tracks with a stereo pair of the whole choir.

Like I said earlier, I prefer the stereo recording strategy, because of the more accurate sound I get. But I do say that with understanding - it is slightly less flexible when it comes to mixing. I recommend you read my article on choir mic technique that goes into more detail on this subject. 

Mixing

Mixing a choir recording is unique from a multi instrument/vocal recording. In one sense, it is easier, but in another it has new challenges that complicate it further. 

With a stereo recording you have two tracks, that need to be panned far left and far right. That's simple enough, but all the other mixing needs to be done during recording. If a voice is standing out in a certain position, move that person back, or beside a person that blends a bit better. If you need more alto sound, switch some alto singers front and the overpowering parts back. A solo needs to stand out in the front, not too far that they dominate, but not back far enough that they are drowned out. 

If you record each part separately, you have more options for panning the material. For this, I'll save the goodies for the specialized mixing for choirs page. 

When working in the post-recording environment, you want to avoid bold or indiscreet plugins or processors. You don't have other tracks to mask the silly sounding stuff - choirs, chorales, choruses, orchestras, instrumental or vocal ensembles, etc, need a natural sounding recording. For this most of the fun weird stuff is out, like extreme echo, flanger, pitch modulation, etc. All your processing will do it's best to remain discreet, indistinct. Unless you are going for a purposefully distinct sound, use caution. 

Special Effects - EQ, Compression, Reverb, etc. 

These are fun aspects of choir recording, simply because of what you can make a choir sound like. Combined with the study of mic placement and technique, you can make a choir sound like what you want to! That said, it is your job to make sure they sound their best. 

I use EQ some on choir recordings, to help me make up for the mistakes made in mic placement. But your goal is a natural sound, right? Lot's of EQ will start to make the recording sound articifial, a no-no in this world. The rule is easy does it! EQ can be a life saver, but it needs to be used sparingly on choir recording. That said, it is almost essential.

Compression is another handy tool, but again, to be used with caution. (As a matter of fact, anything you use on a stereo recording or choir recording should be used with caution!) A compressor will start to suck away the dynamic range of a choir, taking away their work on subtle dynamic nuance. I generally use a touch of compression, but keeping a good deal of breathing space for the group. 

Reverb is another tool I love. You can record in good sounding spaces, but somethimes you need to fill things out just a tad. A reverb (set to a gentle sound, remember!) will do wonderfully. The problem is that many times it is very difficult to get a pleasing sound. With so many knobs to turn, a reverb plugin can be frustrating when you don't know which one to turn to get the sound you're looking for. But take heart, you will find it eventually, though it may take you a while at first. 🙂 

Any other special effects are touchy - if you try weird stuff your choir recording may end up sound, well, weird! I use a de-esser sometimes, and a smidgeon of stereo positioning (but only to correct errors that happened previously), and a few others occasionally, but the bread and butter stuff are the EQ, dynamics, and reverb. 

Choir recording is a stretch for a recording engineer, but a rewarding one nonetheless. It fills my ears with joy when I sit back and listen to a wonderful choir recording - you know what I mean, right? I enjoyed this survey of choir recording, and I hope you did the same. 

I am always thinking about ways to make this more helpful to you as a choir recording engineer, so if you have any ideas to help me or questions you would like addressed, do send your input on choir recording.


Studio Headphones – a studio monitor’s sidekick

Why headphones for home recording?

Every studio should have a set of headphones. From the smallest project studio to the largest commercial production studio, they play an important role in helping engineers, producers and artists hear and judge the music they are making. 

Headphones (or cans, as they're sometimes called) have totally different sound than a set studio monitors. The whole audio spectrum is different, largely because of the distance from the speaker to your ear. Even near field monitors are 2-4 feet away, while heaphone speakers are less than 2 inches. 

Because of this the tonal qualities will be different. The music will sound "up there", or right at you. Because the speakers are right beside your ear, a track panned to center will seem to come from inside your head, not in front of you. 

By putting the sound so close to your ear, headphones will let you listen more critically to the mix. Some eliminate external sound, and they all let you listen to the more subtle dynamics and other possible background noises that might've been introduced during recording. 

Since the speakers are so close to your ears, the sound doesn't need to be nearly as loud as nearfield studio monitors. The cones are much smaller, like 1 or 2 inches instead of 5 to 8 inches. (Just imagine an 8 inch speaker mounted in a set of phones!) 

But by being smaller, the bass response is limited. They do well at covering it up and sounding good at the lower frequencies, but you will never get the bass you can "feel". I make up for that by leaving my monitors on so it fills out the low end, but doing the critical listening with the cans. 

There are many kinds of headphones available; we'll look briefly at a few:

  • Open back
  • Closed back
  • In ear
  • Wireless
  • Noise canceling

Audio Technica Headphones

Sennheiser Headphones

Open back headphones are just what they sound like - open backed. They leave room for room ambience or other sound to come in to the ear as well as the signal coming. That eliminates the need for saying "Huh?" everytime someone wants to tell you something. If you are doing overdubs, either with an instrument or vocally, open backs will let you hear what you are playing or singing live as well as the recorded materal. 

Closed back headphones are opposite of open back - they close off that area and isolate the ear from ambient noises. I prefer these for mixing, because nothing gets in - just what you want to listen to. But wearing closed backs for a long stretch is a little taxing to the ears - mine start to feel stifled and ready for a break after a while. 

In ear headphones come in two formats - earbuds or in ear monitoring. Earbuds generally don't seal out sound, but just half the distance of regular phones to your ear. These may be ok for iPods, but not for studio mixing and listening. 

In ear monitors are designed to seal off outside noise, like closed back headphones, but to a much larger degree. These are used on stage sometimes, in lieu of stage monitors. They are better suited to use on the stage rather than the studio. 

Wireless headphones are becoming wildly popular it seems. The concept is exciting - just put them on and forget about the cords! They are nice, but you won't find them in studios for the same reason you won't find wireless microphones - wireless just doesn't give you the sound quality of wired equipment. 

Noise canceling is a technology that senses the ambient noise and tries to add counter balancing white noise to make it seem that the ambient noise is not there. In my opinion, it just messes with the sound quality. It's a great idea for subways and airplanes, but a studio (even a small project studio) needs something more. 

So what are some good models to look for? I like the Audio Technica ATH-M40 Headphones. I own a pair of Audio Technica headphones, and really like the quality and build of them.

In the meantime, why don't you let me know which are your favorite headphones, and why. 

Graphic EQ tips and techniques

Graphic EQ tips and techniques (and how to get precise results)

EQ is the most basic editing tool available, and a graphic EQ is the easiest to use EQ tool. But is a more precise tool available?

If you read much on Bedroom-Recording.com, you'll know that I think EQ is an important tool in working with sound. A graphic EQ is a way of seeing EQ. It tries to make it a little easier to use.

Does it? 

The short version: yes, but with limited power.

This is not a re-run of what EQ is and how it works. (Click on the link for that.)

Quick refresher:

Sound is built of frequencies. 

We often need to make adjustments to help things sound better. EQ (aka equalization) comes to the rescue by letting us zero in on a few specific frequencies. This makes the music sound better.

Graphic EQ tips and techniques

Operating one is simple - move a slider corresponding to a specific frequency.

The sound spectrum is divided into between 3-30 "bands." A band simply means a specific zone that will be adjusted by a single slider.

A band is the same thing in a graphic or a parametric EQ - a specific zone of adjustment. In a parametric, you have more control over which frequencies are affected. A graphic is more limited - whatever frequency the slider works on. That's usually similar to a band pass filter in a parametric EQ.

What happens when you find yourself boosting or cutting a lot in one place? This could end up sound unnatural. Try boosting or cutting the surrounding bands. (Of course, make that less than the first one.)

Most EQ plugins come with presets. They are helpful at solving common problems, such as electrical hum (60 Hz hum). Check out the presets. You may be able to start with one and customize it to exactly what you need.

My last tip is more of a cop out than a tip. I'm sorry.

Learn to use Parametric EQ!

I'm serious. If you are serious about getting a good sound, you will want to learn to use a parametric EQ.

Why?

As I said earlier, a graphic EQ is easy to learn and use. But it's not as easy to get precise results. 

How are the two kinds of EQ different?

In the end, they both do the same thing. They boost or cut frequency ranges to balance the final output.

The difference is in how they go about choosing which frequencies to change. A graphic unit works with predetermined ranges. That makes it harder to experiment. 

If you know already what adjustments the music needs, it will be fine. But if you're like me, you need flexibility to find the exact problem spot in the sound spectrum.

A parametric unit lets you sweep back and forth until you find the right area

So if parametric is so much better than graphic...

Why use it instead of parametric?

It's simple and quick.

Your car stereo may have a graphic EQ - highs, lows, and mids. It's not as critical to have precision in the car, and those are the rough adjustments that make the most sense. Plus when you're driving, it needs to be quick.

I recommend that you find both kinds of EQ in your software. Experiment with them both. Am I right? Or am I wrong?

Discover more about Parametric EQ