Is Mic Placement Becoming A Lost Art?

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Sometimes I’m shocked by the types of questions people ask me. I work with and teach a lot of beginner recording engineers so I’m used to simple, foundational questions. That’s not the issue.

What scares me are the types of questions that go something like this, “Should I move the microphone around to get the sound I want or should I just leave that to EQ in the mix phase?” The fact that this question is common reveals something about our generation of audio engineers: mic placement technique is becoming a lost art.

Where You Put The Mic Matters Most

Where you choose to place your microphone(s) for a given source is the most important decision you’ll make in the studio. More than which mic you use, which room you record in, or even which instruments or musicians you record, mic placement is paramount. I can say this confidently because nothing can affect and determine the final outcome of your tracks more than where the mic goes.

The slightest change in angle, the smallest tweak in distance of a microphone to an instrument can completely alter the captured sound in your DAW. This is why good engineers become very particular about the mic being exactly where it needs to be. Of course there is no magic formula to know where to put the mic every time, but before anyone even thinks about hitting the record button, you should be absolutely OK with where your mics have ended up.

Your First Line Of EQ

Once you have your instrument or vocalist sounding the way you want in your room then you must think of mic placement as your first line of EQ. Do you want a beefier guitar tone? Adjust the mic accordingly. Need more attack on the piano and less sustain? Move the mics. Need less harsh cymbals on the drum kit? You guessed it, move the friggin mics. You never want to rely on EQ, whether on the way in or later in the mix, to determine your sound. That’s what microphones are for silly!

The problem comes from two mindsets: First we believe that it’s less about where the mics are and more about the price tag (or quality) of the mics in question. Not true. Second mindset is that we believe that as long as a sound is captured, the sculpting of the sound is left for the mixing phase. Not true. The incremental improvement in audio quality that you might hear in a more expensive microphone can never rival the vast difference you’ll hear by simply adjusting the mic placement.

Let’s Be Old School

I really don’t want to see our craft as audio engineers, even hobbyists, fall apart as naive people reach for expensive plugins to “fix” their recording mistakes. I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t make for good music. Let’s not join this “new school” of laziness in the studio but rather let us focus on being “old school” in the sense that we use microphones and mic placement to capture the sounds we want. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s worked for decades and it will work for you.

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24 Responses to “Is Mic Placement Becoming A Lost Art?”

  1. Renato

    Hi Graham, excellent post!

    I believe mic placement is so avoided because it’s really hard to achieve great results if you don’t understand what you’re doing when moving the mic around (like if you want less gain on a certain frequency what movement should be done with the mic, or if I move the mic here, WHAT will change on the sound). Another thing it’s that you can’t simply teach mic placement, cause every different room/mic/instrument gives infinites situations, so if I move MY mic in a certain way in MY studio to record MY guitar, might not have the same effect on YOUR room, YOUR mic, YOUR instrument, etc.

    Still it’s awesome to try. I’ve recently caught myself with a pair of headphones and a mic in my hand, pointing it at all directions of my room and listening and paying attention to every changes it does to the sound. I’ve not only learned a few behaviors of my room, but also what should I do to treat and soundproof certain parts of my room. Next step will be with the actual instrument, can’t wait to try. And for the lack of a better word, I’m realizing that buying a better mic without enhancing placement it’s like polishing a shit: it could be shiny, but it is still a piece of shit. =P

    Reply
  2. Kawentzmann

    Ignoring mic-placement posibly has the same roots as not finishing a mix. To acknowledge the importance of mic-placement (and other aspects of capturing a performance) is to commit. It’s something you can’t change later on, and it seems like that thought scares beginners.

    Reply
  3. Lo Mei

    Is it becoming a lost art, or are noobs just being noobs?

    I don’t know about you, but it took me a while before the idea “mic placement” stuck. I think part of that was because I didn’t have the experience to appreciate the value of it.

    It’s just a learning process.

    Reply
  4. sam bates

    Hmmm, I think mic choice is just as important if you’re looking to replace EQ with mic technique. In fact, IMHO you’ll get better results quicker choosing the right TYPE of mic – the position will fine-tune this.

    Still totally agree with you though, just a build on an excellent post!

    Reply
    • sam bates

      …although to clarify, I’m not debating the likes of ‘will a U47 or 251 be better here?’, more like ‘will my ribbon mic add more warmth and softer transient response than my small capsule condenser?’. Painting in the broadest strokes first, basically.

      Reply
  5. Andrew

    Is mic placement becoming a lost art? I would give that a BIG FAT YES!!!

    Just like the recording studios are slowly dying because of the revolution of home recording, so are the “essential” ways of recording GREAT TRACKS like something as simple as mic placement are slowly dying.

    Think about the old school essentials of making great tracks in comparison to today and how it now gets done:

    ANALOG DAYS VS DAW DAYS

    -Great singers -okay singer(s) and autotune

    - Great engineers – Anyone with a Mac/PC computer and a DAW is an engineer LOL

    - Great Producers -The engineers is the producer

    -Great Musicians -The engineer is the musician (at least commonly for the most part).

    I don’t know about you, but I think what separates the boys from the men are simply who knows how to carry off the “essentials” skillfully and modernize/adapt with the times.

    As Bob Dylan said “The Times are a changing.” So learn to adapt with it!!!

    Reply
  6. Robert

    I tried micing up my amp yesterday according to what I learned from ReThink Guitar. And … BOY … does it sound good! Really better than my previous attempts with the Line6 POD (which I already thought to be great). The downside is that I can no longer record at home. But I’ll be happy to take the long way to my practise room from now on.

    Reply
  7. Samuel Hanson

    Ari Levine is the extremely successful producer and only engineer behind Bruno Mars. Ari is part of the Smeezingtons with Bruno and Philip Lawrence. Ari proudly admits to owning one mic and also has proudly stated on many occasions that he thinks engineers over think mic placement way too much. He used the one mic he owns for Brunos vocals and guitar on this song “The Lazy Song”. When asked about his placement, Ari replied that he just points the mic at the source. Simply as that… That being said, I think being simple and just doing whatever sounds good is all we need to worry about. So I guess I’m not really in line with this one too much. Or most of the comments it seems. Don’t argue with me though, check out Bruno’s songs and just try to make a song sound better than his. Chances are most of us can’t. Just my thoughts!! Thanks Graham.

    Reply
    • Kawentzmann

      It’s a frame of reference that is being establish with an approach like that. So, relative to each other you start to be able to make out the individual sounds just as well. That is also the reason people can judge (sort of) the sound of a guitar in an amateur YouTube demo – because the camera mic pointed at the source is a common, thus transparent, learned way of recording. Some of my favourite recordings (like Bert Kaempfert for example) were recorded with less than a handful of mics, “pointed” at the source – which would sometimes be a big band with horns and strings!

      Reply
  8. Carl M Borsing

    It can often be hard to find the perfect mic placement, but it’s more often than not about proper preparation and, well, simple common sense. The acoustical properties of the room, in which the actual recording will take place is King. If it’s not possible to find good placement then chars draped with heavy blankets etc will have to placed strategically. Price of microphones matter less (if at all!) since you can purchase incredibly capable mics for $100 (or even less). Use your imagination after you’re done with all of the above but also try adding a mic with different characteristics near your new found location (LOL). You’ll be amazed by the high $ sound you’ll end up with after you finally mixed them together..

    Reply
  9. Brent Fisher

    I use my Zoom H1 recorder,a four transistor amplifier and a magnetic loop antenna to record VLF radio transmissions in stereo. Even though the recorder records every radio station below 48kHz it is in reality selecting from a very large set of possible performances–even though the transmissions bounce off the ionosphere and can be heard worldwide, the VLF signals in Rhode Island as opposed to New York are as different to the recorder as the speech of the names “John” and “Smith”. Same goes for microphones…you think you are recording ONE take of a song, but in fact you are choosing from a set of possible songs. To select a totally different song (in binary code), just move the microphone.

    Reply
  10. RAYMEOUS

    Mic placement is huge… but I don’t get to carried away with it. As Graham mentions in another video, sometimes having too many options distracts you from simply getting to work.

    What I tend to do (again not an expert here) is place the mic the way I “think” it will sound the best. Record a quick sampling of it, then do maybe 1 or 2 variations. These could be actual mic placement changes, or simply twisting the mic so its off axis intend of straight on.

    By keeping it this simple, it:
    1) Satisfies my need to make sure I at least tried to get a good sound, instead of just going with wherever I set it up the first time.
    2) Prevents me from wasting all day trying out 17 different mic locations, or microphones, and keeps me more focused on the big picture: getting stuff recorded.

    I hope this helps.

    Reply
  11. Micah

    I agree. Though I’m young, and relatively inexperienced, my newfound tendency to do things “the hard way” has paid off. If your track doesn’t sound alright to you prior to Compression/EQ/Effects, you have bigger problems at the source/room/micposition/gain staging.

    Reply
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