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Where should the mic go to capture all the tone your rig is putting out? In the center of the cone? Off to one side? Near the speaker surround? Against the grille? Pulled back away from the cabinet a bit? Should the mic be angled or straight on? The list of possibilities is long.
If you read about guitar recording at all, or visit online recording forums where electric guitar is discussed, someone will surely say, “Mic placement is critical, moving a mic even a half-inch will make a huge difference.” Sheesh, nothing like making a difficult task even more challenging. How the heck are you supposed to get the mic in the best place when such a small movement can result in so much change?
A Pro Technique
Fortunately, there is an easy solution to finding the best place for the mic. (Note that I said the “best” place, not the “right” place. There is no objectively “correct” place for the microphone, but the “best” place is the one that subjectively sounds the best to your ears and that works best in the context of your recording.) Pro engineers have used the following technique for many years. I’d never heard an actual name applied to it, but recently, when multi-platinum engineer/producer Keith Olsen (Whitesnake, Scorpions, Carlos Santana, Joe Walsh, and many more) was telling me how he places mics on guitar amps, he called it “shavering,” which is as good a name as any.
Here’s how shavering works: Set your amp up, turn it on, and let it warm up. Plug in your guitar and dial up the tone you want. Important: when you have the tone you want in the room, unplug your guitar! Choose your mic (don’t worry, we’ll be talking a lot about microphones in future issues) and plug it into your preamp, interface, or mixing console. Turn off the studio monitors and plug in a set of headphones. Now, turn the gain and the master volume on the amp all the way up. You should hear strong hiss coming from the amp. Warning: before proceeding to the next step, double-check that no guitar is plugged in.
Put on the headphones. Now take the microphone in one hand and hold it up to the amp’s speaker. You should hear the hiss from the amp through the microphone and through your headphones. You may need to increase the gain on your mic preamp, and you may or may not need to turn up the headphones in order to hear the hiss at a decent volume.
One more cautionary note: Be very careful of noise in the room if you have the preamp and headphones cranked, and be wary of someone inadvertently plugging into the amp. Any stray noise could blast you at extreme volume through the phones and damage your hearing. Not to belabor the point, but don’t mess around. Even if you don’t permanently damage your hearing, you’ll blow your ears out and not be able to hear accurately for hours—which will effectively bring the session to a screeching halt.
Now, very slowly, move the microphone around the speaker. You’ll hear the tone of the hiss change as the mic moves—it will sound vaguely like an electric razor (thus Olsen’s “shavering” name). Experiment with angling the mic, moving it in and out, and so on. You’ll quickly begin to hear the differences each of these changes makes to the tone of the hiss.
Here’s where different engineers’ approaches diverge on this technique. Olsen moves the mic until he finds the spot on the speaker where the mic picks up the brightest sound. Other engineers look for the hiss to sound the same through the mic as it does when you’re listening to the speaker in the room. Others look for a “balanced” hiss with a neutral tonality. Still others look for the spot on the speaker where the hiss is the darkest in tone. (I suggest recording some tracks using each approach to see which works best for you. You may prefer different approaches in different contexts.) Once you’ve found the spot, take off the headphones and set the mic in its stand in the location you found most appealing. Return your amp to its normal gain and volume settings, and dial back the mic preamp gains and headphone volume to the settings you usually use for recording.
That’s it. Now you’re ready to lay down your tracks. The advantage of this technique is that it gives you a practical method for locating a good mic position. It’s also dependable. If you look for the brightest hiss each time you place the mic, for example, the mic will deliver a consistent sonic image of that amp, no matter how long it has been since you last laid down tracks. Give shavering a try—it works!
Mitch Gallagher is the former editor in chief of EQ magazine. He has written more than 1000 articles and six books on recording and music technology, and he has also released an instructional DVD on mastering. A guitar player for more than 30 years, Gallagher operates MAG Media Productions and the Sound Sauna studio, is adjunct faculty at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), and is Sweetwater’s Editorial Director. His upcoming book is entitled Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Electric Guitar Sound. To learn more, visit mitchgallagher.com.