Recording and Production: Close-Miking Techniques

Close miking is a core skill for recording all kinds of sources from guitar and drums through to keyboards and vocals. Joe Albano takes you through the fundamentals of this technique.  

Recently, we ran an article that described different stereo miking techniques which are widely used in recording. This time, I’ll look at the other side of the coin - close-miking - with a description of some standard close-miking techniques and mic choices for various common instruments (and voice). So without further ado, let’s jump in, starting with the instrument that usually utilizes the largest array of close mics, the drums.

Drums

Of course, it’s possible to capture the sound of a full drum kit with only two or three mics - many of the drum sounds on classic 60’s recordings were achieved that way - but more typically the drums are recorded with a combination of stereo overheads (at a distance of a few feet) and close mics on the individual kit pieces (and sometimes the hihat), all with directional patterns to minimize crosstalk/leakage. The overheads provide the sound of the cymbals plus the entire kit, but with a thinner, more midrangy tone than your typical modern drum sound; it’s the close mics that bring that fat yet crisp presence to the individual drums that we’ve all gotten used to ever since the era of multitrack recording began in earnest  in the early 70’s.

The usual multi-mic array consists of dynamic mics on the drums, with condensers for the hihat (when used) and the overheads, but there are no rules, and many engineers use condensers even on the individual kitpieces. Dynamics provide a nice punch, while condensers offer a bit more clarity and detail - there are no wrong choices, but here are a few suggestions based on popular approaches..

A multi-miked drum kit

A multi-miked drum kit

The go-to mic for snare is the Shure SM57, placed anywhere from an inch to several inches above the drum, either pointing down at the edge of the drum, or aimed towards the center. Many engineers also mic up the snare from the bottom (ideally recorded on a separate track), and here sometimes a condenser may be used in place of another ’57. It’s important to remember that since the bottom drum head will be vibrating in opposite polarity to the top head, the polarity (often labelled phase) of the bottom mic needs to be reversed for the fullest sound.

The toms are miked up individually, using the same techniques as the snare, with either 57’s (in most small clubs) or Sennheiser 421’s, which provide a bit more top and bottom end, for a more aggressive attack. Once again, condensers can be used for both snare and toms when extra clarity and openness is desired over punch.

Miking the kick depends on whether the front head is left on or removed. For a more traditional two-headed sound, a mic a foot or two in front of the front head will capture a nice round sound. Alternatively, a hole might be cut in the front head, and the mic positioned just inside, or the front head may be removed altogether and the mic pushed inside closer to the back of the batter head, for greater attack. Often a second mic is also used, either a couple feet in front, for more air, or by the batter head where the beater hits, for extra snap. 

As far as mic choices, mics with more extended low-end response are usually preferred to a ’57, like the 421, or (even better) the ElectroVoice RE20; many engineers even like to use a LDC, if available. A popular trick involves adding in a small speaker wired in reverse as a mic for the kick, where the speaker’s larger diaphragm captures extra subsonic energy - Yamaha even makes a mic/speaker specifically for this purpose.

Bass

It’s common for the bass to be recorded as both a DI signal for depth and clarity, and with a mic on the bass amp for grit and punch. The same mics recommended for kick (421, RE20) are usually good for miking the bass amp as well, typically placed an inch or so from the speaker grille, anywhere between the center of one speaker’s cone (bright, presence) to the edge of the surround (darker, warmer). Some bass cabinets incorporate multiple speakers of different sizes, and even HF horns, and if that’s the case, you might need to use an additional mic to fully capture the tone the preferred tone the bassist is hearing.

When it comes to the upright bass, a condenser mic with good bass extension a foot or so out, aimed near the bridge, should get the job done, but this may not always be possible. Upright bass is a relatively quiet instrument, typically used in ensembles of significantly louder instruments, and so very-close miking may be required to avoid excessive leakage. A popular trick is to wrap a small mic in foam or cloth and wedge it into the bridge - while this approach will require some EQ, it can succeed in isolating the bass signal to a significant degree. Just as with electric bass, many players’ instruments are equipped with onboard pickups (mostly for live gigs), and the blend of DI and mic can sometimes provide a better tone.

One option for miking upright bass

One option for miking upright bass 

Electric Guitar

Conventional wisdom calls for an SM57 an inch or so from the grille, positioned by ear as described above. And this works 99% of the time - it’s the classic approach, but not the only one. Different mics will bring out different aspects of the guitar tone - bright, punchy, nasal, full, warm - any of the mics already mentioned, or any of the many similar dynamics or condensers could be a good choice. For a warmer, smoother tone, a ribbon mic can often do the trick - just remember that when positioning ribbons, even the ones that look like pencil condensers are actually side-address mics.

A second mic, at a distance of a foot or two (or three) is often used to capture more of the sound of the amp loading the room, bringing in that thump and slap that subliminally lets the listener know that the amp is cranked and really pushing it - a potentially more exciting sound, even before resorting to mix processing.

Miking a guitar amp

Miking a guitar amp 

Acoustic Guitar

Here, to capture the brightness and snap of the strings and the air and resonance from the body, condensers are the best choice. Small-diaphragm pencil mics (AKG 451, Neumann KM 84/184, Shure SM81, others) are probably the most popular choices, but large-diaphragm condensers will work equally well, bringing their typically more pronounced upper-midrange presence to the task. 

Usually, most engineers will start by positioning the mic about a foot in front of the guitar, aimed at the twelfth fret, and then adjust the position and angle between there and closer to the bridge - the twelfth-fret position favors the strings, for a bright, strummy sound that sits well in a mix, while moving closer to the bridge may offer more body resonance, for a fuller tone. I usually recommend that you avoid pointing the mic directly at the sound hole, as this can be prone to picking up too much “boom”. 

Miking acoustic guitar

Miking acoustic guitar

It’s also common to add in a second mic. Two mics could simply be configured as a stereo pair, for a wider, more ambient image, but as often as not the second mic is either positioned a little further away, for extra room tone, or with one mic favoring the strings and the other the body for a potentially richer tone, optionally recorded on separate tracks and blended to taste in the mix.

Other strings - like mandolin, banjo, ukulele, etc - respond well to the same approach but many of these are much more resonant than acoustic guitars, so the choice of mic may need to reflect that; a mic with a strong upper-midrange peak (like a typical vocal condenser) may result in too much “glare”, and a smoother, more subdued model (some pencil mics or reference mics) might work better, especially if combined with a slightly more distant placement when called for.

Brass & Winds

Wind & reed instruments - like flute and other classical winds, and saxophones - are typically miked up with a condenser around a foot above or in front of the instrument, typically aimed somewhere around the center of the instrument (the holes) rather than directly at the mouthpiece area. However, in some playing styles the player’s breath noise is an important part of the sound - think of a jazzy flutist, or a breathy sax on a ballad. In those cases, miking up the mouthpiece may be in order to better capture that stylistic attribute. Normally, I’d advise against sticking a mic down the bell of a sax (except in some live on-stage situations) - most of the sound, at least the most well-balanced sound, comes from the holes, and a bell mic will often capture way too much honk. Unless isolation is critical, or the player is in motion (which would call for one of those clip-on mini-condensers), the foot-in-front approach will usually yield the smoothest, most balanced tone.

Bell brass instruments - trumpet, trombone, cornet, etc - are usually addressed with a mic a foot or so in front, pointing straight at the bell (or further back, and even slightly angled, if the sound is too focused and leakage is not a problem). Here, pretty much all types of mics are widely utilized, and each brings its own benefits: dynamics handle the air pressure well when closer positioning is used; condensers provide the brightest, crispest sound; and when the sound is too bright & crisp, ribbon mics are a popular choice, for a more mellow, and potentially more well-balanced tonal character.

Miking brass with a ribbon mic (image courtesy of Royer Labs)

Miking brass with a ribbon mic (image courtesy of Royer Labs)

Keyboards

Acoustic piano is miked in stereo (with small or large-diaphragm condensers), with placements from a few inches above the strings (rock/pop), to the edge of the piano case (jazz), to a few feet away (classical). The Hammond organ is recorded with mics on its companion Leslie speaker, typically a stereo pair pointing at the high-frequency horn, and one or two mics (I prefer one, for a more solid bass) aimed at the low-frequency rotor. 

Miking a Leslie cabinet

Miking a Leslie cabinet

To capture as much of the swirling effect as possible, the stereo pair should be separated, on different sides of the cabinet, at angles from around 90° to 180°. The Leslie sound is comprised of tremolo, Doppler Effect (vibrato), and phase shift - closer mics will emphasize the tremolo component, for greater “throb”, while somewhat more distant placement will emphasize the Doppler and phasing aspects, picking up a greater proportion of the sound bouncing around the room as the speakers spin.

Voice

Finally in the studio vocals are almost always captured with a large-diaphragm vocal condenser (Neumann U47, U87, AKG 414, AT 433, etc, etc), positioned between 6” to a foot from the vocalist (the width of a hand with fingers spread), with the appropriate windscreen/pop-filter in place. That’s been covered in detail in many other articles so I won’t dig in too deep here.

Vocal miking

Vocal miking

In fact, I’m pretty much out of room, so I’ll wrap up this roundup of close-miking techniques and choices by mentioning that, as always, these suggestions, while they do represent widely-used and well-tested approaches, shouldn’t be taken as rules by any means - an engineer with a good ear may be able to get gold out of even the most limited mic cabinet and restrictive placement options. So take these recommendations as starting points, and don’t be afraid to experiment, until you find the particular setup that provides just the results you need.

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If you liked this article we'd suggest you check out the Audio Concepts series, Audio Mistakes series and song writing and production courses.

 

Joe is a musician, engineer, and producer in NYC. Over the years, as a small studio operator and freelance engineer, he's made recordings of all types from music & album production to v/o & post. He's also taught all aspects of recording and music technology at several NY audio schools, and has been writing articles for Recording magaz... Read More

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