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The “Right” Mic Placement

Brandon Drury —  June 8, 2010

Way back in the day when I first got started recording bands, I remember feeling very frustrated. I had done all my homework, read a few books that showed a few conventional mic placement options for recording drums, and was all ready for the big day. Of course, that session didn’t go so well and the drums ended up sounding rather embarassing.

I remember posting on a recording forum, “I put all the mics in the right spot, but the drums sound like crap”. Fletcher, from Mercenary Audio, stood up said it bluntly, “If it doesn’t sound good, you DIDN’T put the mic in the right spot”.

This was a hell of a shock for me, but also a tremendous eye opener. It occurred to me that all these little mic placement pictures you see in books, magazines, etc don’t mean a damn thing. In the pursuit of robo audio, anything goes.

I can see how a person just getting started with audio recording may need a little bit of help with ballpark suggestions on where to place the mic…….actually…..SCRATCH THAT! NO, I DONT!

Audio engineering IS the pursuit of mega sound. This “pursuit” business is THE name of the game. PERIOD. If you aren’t in the pursuit business, you aren’t an engineer. You are just a musician with a mic in your hand. PERIOD. Even bothering to show a person a starting place is a bad idea. It implies that you can just follow some diagram and come up with killer tones.

The very first thing a beginner should be shown is that they shouldn’t be shown. If they don’t have a good guess where a mic is supposed to go, they need to go out and figure it out themselves. How? Easy. By listening! By trial! Be error!

I can imagine a few of you are shaking your head, as if we are doing a favor when we tell a beginner that a snare mic should go here, a kick mic should go there, bla bla bla. I guess some people put this engineering thing on a pedestal as if it’s REALLY hard to learn. While engineer is a process, the biggest difference between a beginner and a guy who makes a nice living engineering is the fact that the big engineers accept the fact that there is gonna have to be a pursuit and they don’t give in until they find the magic they are looking for. (There are probably a few other differences, obviously, but I’m positive this is the biggest difference.)

So if you aren’t happy with the sounds you are getting, it may be time to start LOOKING for some better sounds.

Brandon

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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7 responses to The “Right” Mic Placement

  1. fHumble fHingaz June 8, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Hear, hear…Just do it!…Just thought I’d add that a big consideration (when close micing drums at least) is somehow fitting them in between all the drummers kit-pieces while simultaneously keeping them clear of his flying sticks! – that often limits your scope in mic placement more than anything else. After all, nothing’s going to affect your drum performance (& subsequently the tone) more adversly than a drummer who’s had to radically alter his technique to try and avoid hitting your microphones while he’s playing!

  2. I think the bigger perspective here is how mics work: mic pattern theory, how every mic FAILS to follow pattern, proximity, mic interplay with location in the room and relative to other sound sources, artful use of spill, etc. Listening to instruments in person, then listening to how a mic choice and placement compares/contrasts – this is the craft. These create too many variations for there to be a “right way” to place a mic.

    I DO think it is useful to learn some of the basic stereo mic arrays though, AND to feel free to adjust beyond the exact mic placement when appropriate. Michael Williams’ “Stereo Zoom” and many of his other writings have heavily influenced my stereo mic technique.

  3. When I was 13 I remember micing the back side of my little peavey amp thinking I had discovered the most killer tone ever.LOL I agree that you should be fearless in your mic placement experiments. I dedicate 3 days to mic experimenting per 6 months. I always end up finding something cool and it stops me from getting stale with mic placement.

  4. Right on!! What you think will work, may not! I don’t know anyone who can “calculate” where the best mic placement will be. Guesswork and trial and error are key here, and the best you have are “educated guesses” if you’ve done it enough to get a feel for how things work…..

  5. I’ve been through the “I’ve got a buddy with a studio and it’ll only cost this much” scenario to be wary of the fact that even if you like the friend suggesting someone, know the guy who’s going to record, don’t believe that anyone would really try to steal your girlfriend because he’s “So nice”, in the business world, people believe in exploitation. You can read about it anywhere. If it’s misinformation in textbooks, a sound guy who actually knows how to get the tone but avoids so you’ll spend more money on studio time, or an anal nasty guy who starts showing aggression when you would like to “add more room sound on the drums because Jimmy Page walked out of a studio cos the engineer didn’t add any when Zepplin wanted to record their first album”. The fact that John Bonham sounds like a real drummer sounds when you hear him or her in an average practice room and the recording of 90% of drummers sound like drum machines is not only because he was so good. It’s because Jimmy Page managed to capture his playing dynamics (remember playing dynamics… Shheeesh) by using condenser mics at a distance from the kit. I found that (any engineer who refutes this or implies that it’s less of this and more of something else is a pretentious, anal…) besides the cymbal mics, you need 1 or 2 condenser mics about 4 or 5 metres from the bass drum at about 1 foot off the ground. You should sound like a live drummer again. Close mics are only there for helping with definition between the drums so you can discern which drum is doing what. You also have to make sure that if you need to cut mid-range and boost bass on the distanced mics to make it sound better: Don’t let them con you, insist or go elsewhere.

    I highly recommend that you make the guy sign a contract before hand that he has to tweak as you require with no resistance or you’ll go elsewhere with no payment for his time. They waste time with valve mics and using 3 or more mics on a 4 x 12 guitar cab when you can stick a SM57 mic 5cm from the speaker grille, at an average volume and get glissy, warm, bassy guitar tones. They’re always hanging the mics over the top of the amp at live gigs so the speaker is at 90% to the centre of the mic, sayng it should be okay. I read an article on Butch Vig, tried the placement live and sounded like Bullet in the Head by Rage Against the Machine. Guess what the guys said: “Eeer that’s not soo good. Why don’t we try…”

  6. Setting up for not only, but especially close miking drums & cymbals seems to be science, art, experience, and curiosity with varying portions. Patience and dozens of listening tests are recommendable, too.

    My experiments to find the best close miking setup included two room mic stereo arrangements compared to finally 13 close up mics for 12 instruments, two for the snare drum and one each for all other pieces of the kit. After trying with several dynamic mics, too, I ended up with the bass drum miked under head with an omnidirectional SDC, and all other instruments miked over head with cardioid SDCs, all with activated -10 dB pad.

    There are disappointing and amazing discoveries to be made on search for the best setup for both sound quality and playability for the drummer. The most delicate task regarding sound was to achieve the best positioning of each cymbal mic including hi hat – a very slight change in mounting position, distance and angles can do more to or against the sound than any EQ setting could save or ruin.

    Our drummer hit his instruments more than a hundred thousand times but never hit any microphone up to now. He never had to change his playing technique in any way, too.

    During recording I leave the phase of all the mics normal since the drummer of my band is preferring this sound for cueing. In the mixdown I revert the phase of snare drum top mic and all tom mics. We have found out this by experiments, too.

    The only thing I wish I had known before is that I will end up using + 48 V PP supplied SDC mics with -10 dB pad only. It would have saved me some money I spent on dynamic mics that perhaps I won’t use anymore for recording.

    Since then I don’t record the left and right channel room signals anymore when recording drums & cymbals only. We apply our final close miking setup for recording the whole band on 21 tracks during rehearsals, too. In this application we also changed to cardioid SDCs instead of dynamic mics for recording vocals.

    In the end, it was an inspiring experience in particular for the drummer and me. The even more inpiring and thrilling result of it all is that with the exception of the low cut required for cardioids all EQing is for art’s sake, and not in order to try to restore something that was lost during process.

    I wish similarly exciting experiences to everyone who wants to record real drums.

  7. I’ve been recording gospel music for 10 years and always have trouble when it’s bluegrass and everyone is playing at the same time. I just get a lot of mic bleed what is the best way to place the mic to help clean up the sound.
    I’m useing a yamaha aw2400 with a presonus studio chanel my mic’s are shure 87 beta,AKG Perception 200. Thanks Mike