Recording music has become more accessible than ever. Whether you’re doing it yourself on garage band, setting up a home studio, or renting studio space, you’re going to need to have the same basic understanding of microphone placement techniques. No amount of quality acoustics or expensive microphones can compensate for poor microphone placement. This guide will help you maximize your resources and get the best sound out of whatever equipment you’re using. We’ll be covering in this guide electric guitars, acoustic guitars, electric basses, and some horns. For a more in-depth guide on how to microphone drums or how to microphone pianos, you can read those respective separate articles.
Table of Contents
Types of Microphones
First you need to understand what types of microphones are out there and which ones you’ll want to buy and or use. There are two main types of microphones carried at most music stores: Dynamic and Condenser.
The names refer to the method that each microphone uses to convert sound waves into electricity however the difference between the two types of microphones can be summarized with this broad statement: Dynamic microphones can pick up just about anything decently in chaotic environments, while condenser microphones can pick up some things excellently in controlled environments.
In professional studios, you’ll see condenser microphones everywhere. These controlled environments lend themselves to the use of high fidelity microphones. For live audio applications, you’ll see a lot of dynamic microphones.
Recording Tips and Techniques on Instruments
The acoustic guitar is a beautiful instrument and there are so many subtleties in its sound that can make a recording truly beautiful. This subtleties, however, are very easy to miss out on if the instrument is improperly miked. The first thing you need to know is that your guitar’s built in pickups, whether they came with the instrument or were installed later, are not suitable for recording. The inside of a guitar is a chaotic cacophony of frequencies bouncing rapidly before finding an organized way to leave the instrument through the tone hole. The sound that comes out of the tone hole is the main sound you’ll want to record.
Basic – A standard dynamic microphone like a Shure SM57 placed eight to twelve inches away from the tone hole will give you a pretty decent starting point for recording an acoustic guitar. This dynamic microphone is one of the most versatile and popular microphones in the music industry. It is designed specifically for use with musical instruments. You’ll see this microphone pop up a lot in this article. These microphones can handle a lot of signal so if you’re really letting it rip on your acoustic guitar, you won’t have to worry about a distorted sound.
Advanced – A single large diaphragm condenser mic can be used to capture a more comprehensive sound from your acoustic guitar. This Audio-Technica AT2035 is a great option that will wind up being a staple in any recording studio. Be careful when using microphones like this one, they often come with a little switch on the microphone that toggles between picking up sound on both sides of the microphone vs picking up sound only in the direction the microphone is placing.
For acoustic guitar, you’ll want to set this microphone to a directional setting. For this application, you will want to have the microphone at least twelve inches away from the guitar and aimed about halfway between your tone hole and your left hand on the neck. This will give you a sound more similar to what you hear when you play the instrument alone in your room. This will also pickup some of the left hand movement across the strings which you may think you do not want coming through on your recording but it goes a long way towards making the instrument sound more genuine and realistic on the other end.
There is a lot of quality literature out there on how to mike an electric guitar. There is a lot that goes into the sound that comes out of your amplifier and there is a reason why you will hear people compliment guitar players by saying, “they really have their tone dialed in.” Finding that crystal clear tone that not only gives clarity to your instrument but also serves to enhance the song or the style that you’re playing takes a long time. Once you have found it, you’re going to want it to come across clearly in your recording. There are a number of ways you can try to best recreate that sound.
The first step to recording your guitar is to make sure that you have your amp sounding exactly the way you want it to sound in the room where you’ll be doing your recording. You’ll also want to make sure you’re recording your guitar at the volume where you like the tone the most. Volume has a big effect on the tone of your amp, especially with tube amps. Take your time here and be picky, you will not be able to adjust your tone once it has been recorded.
If you’re having trouble finding your sound, try moving your amplifier around the room. Try changing your amp placement from in the middle of the wall to over in the corner. Try changing the distance between your amp and the wall behind it. Try changing the direction your amp is facing. In any enclosed room, the sound is bouncing all over the place. You would be surprised how the slightest variance in placement or direction can drastically alter the sound. You can also try propping your amp up on some legs or on a chair to get it higher off the ground.
Basic – Before you hit the record button, you’ll want to audition every individual speaker cone on your amp. Lets say you’re using a 4×12 cabinet. Theoretically, all those four speakers should be producing the exact same sound, but as your amp ages there might be slight variances from speaker to speaker. Do some test recordings with each speaker cone and see which you like best. Once you’ve found your ideal speaker cone, you can start by taking a Shure SM57 and placing the microphone a couple of inches off your speaker grill, just off-center of your desired speaker cone but angle your microphone slightly towards the center of that cone. Because an SM57 is a dynamic microphone, you’ll be able to capture a pretty clear sound regardless of how loud you’re playing (within reason).
Advanced – Once you’ve set up your SM57 on your favorite speaker, you can diversify your sound by miking your 2nd favorite speaker with a different microphone. There are a number of large diaphragm condenser microphones that are made specifically for recording electric guitar but one of the most popular microphones is the AKG C414. Large diaphragm microphones will do a better job picking up the ultra low frequencies that your SM57 will miss.
Make sure that you place this microphone the same distance away from the grill as your SM57. Those slight variances in distance will create tiny amounts of phasing as the sound will reach each microphone at slightly different times. Once you have good signal coming through both microphones, you can play around with your mix and blend and balance the two until you have a pretty good mix in your control room or in your headphones that sounds like your guitar tone.
There are two main options for recording a bass. You can either record the amp similar to how you would record an electric guitar, or you can use a dedicated DI box. A direct input box takes your bass signal and records it directly into the mix the same way your amplifier takes your bass signal and amplifies it. Not too many bass players have the equipment and the experience to have a truly dialed-in tone so a DI box is a suitable option for most players. If you are one of the few who has worked tirelessly on their tone and wants to recreate that sound on your recording, you’ll want to mike your bass similar to how you miked your guitar, but you’ll have to spend a bit more money on the right microphone.
Basic – The easiest way to record a bass is with a DI box. They’re actually very affordable. Some DI boxes come with knobs and adjustable settings but that is not super necessary depending on your setup. Several bass amps actually have a DI output that will send to your DI box the same signal that it sends to the speakers. A good option for your DI box is this Behringer Ultra-DI600P.
Advanced – If you want to mike your bass amp, you’ll need to pay close attention to the frequency response of the microphone you choose. A low open string E on a bass vibrates at about 41hz, and if you use a 5 string bass, a low B vibrates at about 30 Hz. If you see a microphone that says it picks up anything as low as 40hz, that does not mean you’re good to go. Your microphone will advertise what frequencies it will detect but it will give the best results at frequencies towards the middle of those ranges, not on the outer extreme edges. Basically a microphone that can pick up as low as 30hz will perform better on your 41hz notes than a microphone that can pick up as low as 40hz. You can actually use the same microphones you would use to mike a bass drum to mike your bass amp and it wouldn’t be half bad but there are better options out there.
The Sennheiser MD421 has long been the go to microphone for this application. It has a frequency response of 30-17,000hz. You’ll want to place this microphone six to eight inches away from your speaker grill.
There are some misconceptions about miking brass and woodwind instruments. It is actually much easier than you would think if done correctly. The most common horns that you’ll be miking are saxophones, trumpets and trombones. We’ll cover all three here.
Saxophones – Most people look at a saxophone, see that big metal bell at the end of the instrument and assume that they need to aim their microphone right at that bell. That bell is actually the main source of sound only when playing notes at the very bottom of the range of that instrument. The sound on the saxophone typically escapes at the first open key. As such, when miking a saxophone it is better to have one microphone, about 12 inches away from the instrument, aimed at the entire front of the instrument rather than at the bell. That same Audio-Technica AT2035 that we discussed earlier for the acoustic guitar will actually be a great candidate for miking a saxophone.
Trumpets & Trombones – Remember when we were talking about how dynamic microphones can handle a lot of signal? Remember when we were also talking about how SM57s are dynamic microphones designed specifically for instruments? The SM57 works for brass instruments better than just about anything else! You don’t have to worry about low-end response for trombones as they are not bass instruments, they’re actually tenor instruments. The notes a trombone makes are the notes that are right around the center of a piano.
Position an SM57 about 6 inches away from the bell and make sure that bell is always aimed directly at the microphone. Any slight variance in bell angle could drastically altar the sound. The biggest consideration when miking brass is making sure they don’t bleed into other microphones. Brass sound goes everywhere. If you’re recording multiple horn players at once, you’ll want to build each brass player a little cubicle out of as much muffling as possible.