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Choosing the Right Microphone

Published: Sun July 18, 2004  News Feed

This article has recently been updated for 2012. Please see HERE.

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.

  • 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.
  • 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)

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 above). For a wider coverage area, the larger angles should be used. The X-Y pattern results in good stereo separation and excellent mono compatibility.

A second, somewhat simpler way to record in stereo uses what is known as a "single-point" stereo microphone, such as the VP88. The VP88 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:

  • 2 cardioid-pattern condenser microphones (Shure SM81, Shure PG81, Shure KSM27)
  • Microphone stand(s)
  • Shure Shure A27M – an accessory that allows you to mount two microphones on one stand.
  • Microphone cables with XLR connectors
  • Stereo microphone mixer with at least 2 microphone inputs
  • Cables to connect mixer to recording device

Small ensembles (jazz combos, string quartet, vocal jazz groups)

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:

  • Vocal microphone (Shure Beta 58A, Shure SM58, Shure PG58)
  • Guitar amplifier microphone (Shure SM57, Shure PG57)
  • Drum microphones (Shure PG52, Shure SM57, two Shure PG81 or Shure SM81)
  • Piano microphone (Shure PG81, Shure SM86, or Shure KSM27)
  • Woodwinds (Shure SM57, Shure PG57)
  • Brass (Shure SM57, Shure PG57)
  • Microphone stands
  • Microphone cables with XLR connectors
  • Microphone mixer with enough inputs to handle the desired number of microphones
  • Recording device (see next section)
  • Cables to connect mixer to recording device

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 (see right).

 

 

Electric Guitar Amplifier

Use an Shure SM57 microphone roughly 1-4 inches from the loudspeaker, pointed toward the center of the speaker cone (see figure 4).




Drums

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

  • Kick Drum – Place a Shure PG52 inside the drum, approximately 1-6 inches from the beater head.
  • 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 (Shure PG81 or Shure SM81) 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

For a grand or baby grand, place a Shure PG86 or Shure KSM27 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 (see above).

Woodwinds

Use an 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.

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!

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