Finding The Best Microphone

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Originally published on dolphinmusic.co.uk Tue November 25, 2008

Finding the best microphone can be a little daunting, so we've put together this beginners guide to microphones

Finding the best Microphone
Microphones can be quite overwhelming to buy online, so we want to help making the process easier for you. Whether you want to learn about the types of microphones there are and how you should mic up a drum kit, or whether you're looking to buy microphones for your large ensemble.

First, a little about microphones. Microphones are basically simple devices designed to do one thing: convert sound waves in the air to their electrical equivalent. One of the first questions you may encounter is, "Do you want a dynamic or condenser microphone?"

These are the two most popular types of microphones in the world. But which one is right for you?

The Dynamic Microphone

Dynamic microphones are typically inexpensive and rugged, with fairly low sensitivity. In layman’s terms, this means they are good for handheld or "close-miked" applications. Dynamics are commonly used for solo vocalists and on drum kits.

Shure SM58 Pictured is the Shure SM58 - and industry standard and one of the most popular dynamic microphones in the music industry.

Condenser Mics

Condenser microphones, on the other hand, are typically (but not always) much more sensitive than dynamics. Make a good quality condenser microphone your first choice for miking ensembles, or other applications where the microphone will be placed at a distance (> 2 ft.) from the sound source. Condensers are typically used for recording orchestras, choirs, and in other applications where you wish to capture the sound of the ensemble, versus individual sounds.

Large ensembles (band, orchestra, choir)

recording a choir

Use a stereo microphone setup to most accurately capture the sound of a large ensemble. Stereo recording is not as complicated as it sounds.

For simplicity sake, we’ll use the most basic type of stereo microphone techniques, the X-Y pattern. Use two microphones of the same model with the two mic capsules placed as close as possible, and facing each other at an angle ranging from 90 – 135 degrees, depending on the size of the sound source. (see below). For a wider coverage area, the larger angles should be used. The X-Y pattern results in good stereo separation and excellent mono compatibility.

Microphone X-Y technique Credit: Wikipedia

A second, somewhat simpler way to record in stereo uses what is known as a "single-point" stereo microphone, such as the Rode NT4 Stereo Condenser Microphone. The Rode NT4 has a single microphone housing that contains two microphone elements, electrically combined to produce a stereo output. The advantage to this type of microphone is simplicity; put the microphone on a stand and point it at what you want to record. When recording a large ensemble, you may choose to use more than two microphones to adequately cover each section.

A technique known as "area" coverage uses multiple microphones to cover small sections of the ensemble. Using a choir as an example, use one microphone for each 6-9 foot wide section, and aim the microphone capsule towards the last row. Microphones should be placed 2-3 feet in front of the first row of the choir (see right). The same technique can be applied to concert band or orchestra, by using one microphone per section.

Recommended Equipment/ Suggested Models:

Microphones for small ensembles (jazz combos, string quartet, vocal jazz groups)

recording jazz

The stereo techniques described above can also be successfully applied to smaller ensembles, but to achieve a more "pop" sound, use multiple close microphones, generally one per instrument. Detailed below are some simple techniques for getting good sounds for a variety of instruments or vocals.

Recommended Equipment/Suggested Models:

Vocals

Try using a handheld style (although mounted on a stand to reduce handling noise) dynamic microphone, such as the SM58 or Beta 58A. Place the microphone roughly 3-4 inches away, and pointed somewhere between the nose and mouth. If possible, try to isolate the vocalist from any unwanted sounds – in another room would be ideal. The SM58 is an industry standard and can be found on pretty much every stage/studio in the world. For over 50 years this mic has been relied on by artists and studio owners, and to commemorate, Shure released the Shure SM58 50th Anniversary Edition in a really cool silver finish!

Electric Guitar Amplifier

Use a Shure SM57 microphone roughly 1-4 inches from the loudspeaker, pointed toward the centre of the speaker cone (see below).

shure sm57 recording

 

Drums

While seemingly complex, you can achieve a relatively decent drum sound with only four microphones:

  • Kick Drum – Place a Shure Beta 52A Kick Drum Microphone inside the kick port hole.
  • Snare Drum – Use an Shure SM57 to mike the top head, placed at a 45 degree angle.
  • Toms and cymbals – Use a pair of condenser microphones suspended over the drum kit, either spaced apart or using one of the stereo microphone techniques described earlier.

If you have a limited number of microphones, use the following chart:

Number of Microphones Positioning
One Use an "overhead"
Two Kick drum and overhead
Three Kick drum, snare, and overhead
Four Kick drum, snare, and two overheads

 

 

Piano

recording piano

For a grand or baby grand, place a SE Electronics sE2200a II MP Microphone or Aston Spirit Multi-Pattern Condenser Microphone roughly 12 inches above the middle strings, and 8 inches from the hammers. The lid should be at full stick to allow enough clearance for the microphone. For an upright, place a similar microphone just over the open top, above the treble strings.

Woodwinds

Use a Shure SM57 placed a few inches above the bell and aimed at the sound holes

Brass

A miniature condenser microphone (Shure Beta 98H/C) clipped to the instrument and aimed into the bell yields good, up-front sound quality with great isolation. Alternatively, a dynamic microphone on a stand (Shure SM57) 1 to 2 feet in front of the bell provides similar results, but is slightly more cumbersome. The closer the microphone, the brighter the sound.

In Summary:

The techniques and concepts introduced here only scratch the surface of what can be accomplished with some basic audio equipment. Feel free to experiment and
develop your own techniques, just remember a few key points:

  • Use only as many microphones as necessary.
  • Keep the microphones as close as possible to the sound source.
  • When powering up the sound system, turn amplifiers on LAST and off
    FIRST.
  • Overhead and boundary microphones will never sound like a lavalier.
  • If it sounds good, it is good!

View a complete range of microphones over at PMT Online or visit any of our stores for expert advice on recording techniques and microphones.

 

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