Recording an instrument you’ve not encountered before can seem daunting. Here’s a rule of thumb that guarantees a decent result every time.
You’ll find countless how‑to guides which take you in detail through a whole raft of techniques for miking conventional instruments. But sometimes you’ll encounter something a little out of the ordinary, and you won’t have such a reliable body of advice to fall back on. At other times, you might simply find yourself on a session having to record something more ‘normal’ but which you’ve not recorded before, and have no time to research it.
In both cases, you need to be able to get a good sound down, so what do you do? Well, a simple rule of thumb has served me very well over the years, and in this article I’ll take you through it. If you tuck this ‘trick’ away in your mental toolkit, along with a good understanding of mic polar pickup patterns (there’s another article explaining more about that here), you need never be fazed by a new recording situation again!
The first thing to point out is that close‑miking unfamiliar sources with a single mic is rarely a good bet. Why? Well, if you place the mic too close you’re unlikely to accurately capture the instrument’s sonic character. Different parts of the instrument are likely to vibrate or resonate in different ways so, at best, you’ll favour one part of the instrument over another. At worst, not only might there be variation in the levels of different notes, but you’ll also fail to capture information that’s crucial to the instrument’s character.
Placing a single mic far away from the instrument will avoid those problems so will ensure that you capture the whole instrument, but it will also mean you capture lots of the room acoustic. Unless you’re working in an acoustically sympathetic space — not always an option — that’s not going to be desirable either, and even if it’s a broadly pleasant‑sounding space, it might not always be one that’s appropriate for the song/mix in question.
To find a good point between those two extremes, it might seem obvious that you could simply wander around the room and place the mic where you hear the instrument sounding good. For example, you might try pointing a mic over the player’s shoulder, close to their ear, so as to capture something close to what the player can hear. Sometimes this approach can work reasonably well, especially if you have time to refine the mic position to find the sweet spot. But microphones don’t ‘hear’ the world in the way that we do, which makes that approach unreliable. For starters, our mental processing helps us to ignore unwanted sonic elements, such as poor room acoustics, a player’s breathing or the rustle of clothing, and mics just can’t do that.
Furthermore, a mic can’t successfully mimic the way sounds arriving from different directions are picked up with different frequency responses because of the shape of our ears. In fact, the directional response of a microphone is very different from that of the human ear (even if a ‘dummy head’ setup can get you close). Unidirectional (ie. cardioid and hypercardioid) mics tend to lose high‑end sensitivity as the sound source moves off axis, so although things might sound subjectively good to you at a particular point in space, the off‑axis room ambience won’t be rendered accurately by the mic and you could well end up with something that...