John Delf delves into the world of studio microphones

John Delf, owner of Edge Recording Studios in Cheshire, UK and a successful FOH engineer who has mixed for Lily Allen, The Script, Plan B and 5 Seconds of Summer has 24 years of audio experience to fall back on when the divisive subject of mic selection comes up.

In this piece, an extension to his entry in our 2015 Microphones Guide, Delf offers his top tips on using microphones in the studio effectively.

Choosing the right microphone when recording is just one of many important factors in achieving a great sound. When recording music every single link in the signal chain will affect the sonic quality of the audio, but also having a great live room and accurate monitoring will really help.

If you have excellent monitoring you can clearly hear everything that you want to record and it makes it far easier to select the right mic for the job in hand, especially when you are not fighting the coloration that bad speakers may add to the sound. Also, it may be obvious, but if you play any instrument in a great sounding room it will sound so much better than the same instrument played in a bad sounding room, no matter what mic you put on it. Remember the microphone isn’t only picking up the sound of the instrument but also the sound of the reflections within that room. Get your room right and you are already off to a great start.

Choices, Choices

So then we come down to the nitty gritty – the important factor of mic selection. Everyone has their favourites and each person will have different tastes but there are many microphones that almost every experienced engineer will turn to in certain situations (like the Shure SM57, AKG 414, Neumann U87). These are the safe bets, the tried and tested formulas that work every time. You can be sure if you take the safe choice you know you are going to be in the right zone and its not the mic thats ruining the sound.

There are also some microphones that you can pretty much put on anything and get a decent sound out of them. For example, the Shure 58 is renowned for the fact that you can use them on anything from vocals to guitars, congas to snare drums etc. They work on everything and are relatively inexpensive as microphones go.

If you are not sure which one you like best, don’t be afraid of setting several microphones up in front of the source and A/B them so you can learn the sonic differences between each one. Every mic has its own characteristic and most are designed to work well in one or two applications. The more you A/B microphones, the more you will hear the effect the mic has on the sound that you are recording and in time you will be able to use this knowledge to pick the right mic for the right application without the need to compare lots of different models. You should be able to get yourself to the point that once you hear the source sound you will know which mic in your collection will work best for that application.

When putting up several microphones try to make your decisions quickly because you don’t want the musician having to play for hours just while you switch between alternatives. When trying to decide which is best go with your instincts, and trust your ears. If you get bogged down in indecision you could start to lose sight of the session and also get a very frustrated musician on your hands. if you need to A/B them more than three or four times then the difference between them probably isn’t worth worrying about. You should be able to tell quite quickly which one works best. One other tip I would say is that when overdubbing listen to the different options while the other tracks are playing, not just in isolation, as this can help you make your decision. Listen to how each selection sits within the track. 

Assuming the Position

Another thing you need to consider is mic position. This can drastically change the sound that you are getting. Get your assistant (or a friend if you don’t have an assistant) to go into the live room and move the mic while the musician is playing and you can hear the difference it makes to the sound. If you are in the studio on your own, set up some headphones and listen to the foldback mix next to the sound source and move the mic yourself so you can get a very good idea of how much position can change things sonically. Get to learn how different positions give you different textures.

Also consider where the sound might sit in the mix. If you want the take to be in the background of the mix then move the mic further away and if you want it up front make sure the mic is close to the source. When recording backing vocals I always like to get singers to back away from the mic as this can help them sit much better behind the main vocal. Imagine where in the 3D sound image you would like that sound to be and put the mic at a distance equivalent to that, so the further away you want the perceived sound the further away you position the mic.

In some instances you will only need one mic to get the sound you are after but at other times you may want two or three microphones on the same sound source. For example, I like to have one or two close mics picking up the direct sound and an ambient mic picking up the room sound when recording acoustic guitars or strings.

Play By Your Own Rules

Remember, there are no rules in mic selection so don’t be afraid to try things you wouldn’t normally expect to work. Currently at Edge we are using a Neumann 105 Vocal mic on snare top and it sounds great. Not what you would call a snare ‘go to’ mic but we tried it one day and it was awesome. As a general rule condensers work best for bright natural sounds such as acoustic guitars, strings, cymbals and especially ambients. Dynamics work best for very loud sources like electric guitars and drums. Vocals can be recorded using both but again its down to each individual singer as to which one works best; most vocals are recorded on condensers, but don’t take that as a set rule.

The main thing to remember is don’t be afraid to experiment. If it sounds wrong to you then the chances are that it is wrong. Trust your ears. Changing the mic might just be the thing that you are looking for to make it sound better. If you try lots of microphones and it still doesn’t sound good then its probably the source that needs adjusting. 

If you are trying to make a decision on what mic to buy and have a limited budget then generally go for the old classics first. The ones that are recommended all the time. Like the Shure SM58/SM57, Sennheiser 604, 609, 901, 902, AKG 414, pretty much anything by Neumann, Rode NT1, NT2, NT1000, Audio-Technica 4050s etc. Then when you start to fill up your collection, be more experimental with the likes of Blue, Sontronics, Schoeps, sE Electronics and Royer etc.

But remember that the mic choices you make are for you and your taste so if you are happy with the sound then that is what is important. I recently mixed sound on a three-week tour where every night we changed the bass mic to a different model and not a single person noticed the difference except the monitor engineer and I. So remember if you like the sound of the mic then its the right one to use and don’t let anyone tell you different.