Getting great recordings starts with proper microphone technique. While having quality gear is important, understanding correct mic placement fundamentals will take your home recordings to the next level.
In professional studios, engineers spend years perfecting their mic technique. Though home studios present some limitations, you can apply many of the same core concepts even in a small space.
Read on for an overview of essential microphone techniques every beginner home recordist should know.
Choose the Best Spot in the Room
One of the most important factors in recording is finding the optimal spot to place the performer and mic in your room. Take time to test different setups and listen critically.
Walk around clapping your hands – listen for uneven decay or “boinging” resonances. These indicate problem spots where reflections may color your recording. Try to find the driest, most neutral area of the room.
Avoid placing instruments/mics in corners, as proximity to walls can overemphasize bass frequencies or cause phase issues. Set up in the middle of the room if possible.
Position loud instruments like drums or amps away from walls. Face directional mics at an angle rather than straight on to surfaces, which reduces reflections.
Avoid being too close to windows, as glass intensifies reflections. Lift speakers or amps off the floor with isolation pads to reduce phase cancellation from floor reflections.
Listen Like a Pro
Train your ears to zero in on the optimal “sweet spot” for mic placement. Cup your hand behind an ear, or cover one ear completely, and move around a performer’s sound source until you hear the most pleasant tone. That’s where you want to put the mic.
Getting the best source sound and finding the ideal spot comes before reaching for EQ or other processing. So, take the time to listen carefully and experiment with placement.
Know Your Mic’s Pickup Pattern
Choose a mic that complements the source sound, and consider its directional pickup pattern.
Omni mics equally pick up sound from all directions. Place an omni by listening for the sweet spot, then mic there.
Cardioid mics are most sensitive to sounds straight in front, rejecting more sound from the sides. Cupped hand listening will help find the best on-axis position.
Figure-eight mics pick up equally from front and back, rejecting sides. Useful for two-source stereo miking.
Directional mics progressively roll off high frequencies off-axis. On-axis tends to boost highs. Keep the mic pointed right at the source sound.
Follow the 3-to-1 Rule
Placing mics too close together results in phase cancellation – frequencies canceling each other out, losing body and punch.
The 3-to-1 principle prevents this by keeping mics far enough apart.
If mic A is 1 foot from the sound source, mic B should be at least 3 feet from mic A. This prevents shared sound arriving at different times.
You’ll often bend this rule in real-world recording, but it’s a handy starting point for multi-mic placements. Violating it requires checking phase.
Mind the Phase
Phase is about microphones capturing the same sound synchronized. If one mic is slightly delayed, phase cancelling occurs at certain frequencies.
This is most critical with drums and multiple mics. Just one out-of-phase mic can make a multi-miked instrument lose all its power and body.
Always check the phase when using multiple mics:
- Use the polarity flip switch to hear which position sounds fuller.
- Try inverting polarity on individual channels while listening – choose what sounds best.
- Check phase relationships by listening in mono.
- Be sure to check phase on stereo overheads.
- Follow the 3-to-1 rule to minimize potential phase issues.
You won’t achieve complete phase alignment, but listening tests can get you very close.
Watch Proximity Effect
Certain mics exhibit proximity effect – an exaggerated bass boost from being positioned very close to the sound source.
Though sometimes desirable for a warm, radio announcer-type sound, the proximity effect often muddies up tracks with tubby low end.
This occurs on all directional mics to some degree but is more pronounced in mics with larger diaphragms. Ribbon and condenser mics are especially susceptible.
Avoid proximity effect by positioning directional mics at least 6 inches back, utilizing an omni-pickup pattern, or using a mic with a smaller diaphragm size.
Use Stereo Miking for Width
Several mics can capture a wider, more spacious stereo image. Spaced pairs of omni mics work well, along with X-Y and Mid-Side techniques.
For X-Y, place two directional mics together with capsules angled outward at 90-110 degrees. This picks up a coherent centralized image.
Mid-Side uses a forward cardioid mic and a sideways figure-eight mic. The channels are matrixed into left/right. Allows width adjustments.
Remember to check the phase on stereo mics – a misaligned phase can really degrade stereo imaging and width.
Close miking isolates instruments from the room ambiance. But being too close causes problems:
- Bass buildup from proximity effect
- Harsh, sterile, “in your face” tone
- Loss of instrument resonance
- Phase issues when combining multiple close mics
- Use omni or small diaphragm condenser mics when possible to limit proximity effect.
- Pull back farther than you think – try 3 feet or more to capture some room.
- Experiment with farther sources mic’d closer to add body and thickness.
- Limit close mics to provide separation. Capture ambience with room mics.
While close miking has its benefits, also capturing the sound of the room is key for a natural, dimensional sound.
Room mics supply ambience and blend, tying all the close mics together. They also provide flexibility in the mixing stage.
When room miking:
- Listen for the room’s best-sounding area, just like placing instrument mics.
- Condenser mics work well to pick up nuanced room tones.
- Omni mics give the most realistic, diffuse room sound.
- Cardioid room mics offer some ambient rejection if isolation is needed.
- Try overhead mic positions to capture blended ambience.
Once you have a handle on the basics, don’t be afraid to experiment:
- Unexpected, off-axis placements can provide interesting tonal colors.
- Distance creates natural compression and thickness. Try miking from 10+ feet back.
- Combined close and distant mics blend detailed clarity and natural roominess.
- Creative ambient effects can be captured from stairwells, hallways, etc.
Following Fundamental Principles
Pro studio engineers still rely on core mic technique fundamentals even with years of experience. Resist the urge to overcomplicate things.
Concentrate on nailing positions, choosing appropriate mics, listening critically to placements, checking phase, and finding the sweet spot in your recording space.
With practice and experimentation, you’ll be on your way to pro-caliber results. Using these essential microphone techniques, you can make the most of your home studio recordings.