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The Recording Guitarist: Mic Makes Right

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Mic position can sculpt tones to suit the song, or compensate for gear that doesn’t sound quite right as-is. Remember, though, that the tone you prefer in isolation might not feel right in a mix. Example: Here are three of the previous clips, heard this time in a full track. Which do you think works best? Bright position 1? Warm position 3? Or brighter, thinner position 4?

A micro-guide to mics. Here’s the world’s shortest description of mic properties—don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

Dynamic mics (examples: Shure SM57 and SM58, Sennheiser MD 421, Electro-Voice RE20) tend to provide crisp sounds with strong presence and impact, though they can be brittle at times. Condenser mics (examples: most Neumanns, the various AKG-C414 models) tend to sound smoother and less colored, if sometimes less exciting. Ribbon mics usually sound warm and smooth, with relatively soft highs (though Royer ribbon mics, such as the R-121, combine the treble snap of a dynamic with the warmth of a an old-school ribbon).

Here’s that clip again, heard through an SM57 dynamic, a Neumann TLM 103 condenser, and an R-121 ribbon. Agree with my descriptions?

April 2014: The Recording Guitarist - Playlist 3 by premierguitar

The mic you have. Chances are you’ll only have the luxury of agonizing over mic choice if you’re lucky enough to work in studio with a well-stocked mic locker. We regular Joes and Josephinas toiling at home just go with what we’ve got. For many that’s an SM57, because you can score one for less than $100. (There’s no shame in the 57—countless classic performances were recorded with one.) It’s a fine first mic, and one you’ll keep using even if you expand your collection.

Things get more complicated when you start blending mics—a topic we’ll take up next month. One little teaser: The same old clip, tracked through a dynamic 57 and a ribbon 121, with the two tracks panned in stereo. Dig how the phasing between tracks conspires with the (mono) amp vibrato to generate a head-spinning stereo field.

Okay, one last mic story: I got to eavesdrop in the studio while the Chili Peppers were working on One Hot Minute. Then-guitarist Dave Navarro was overdubbing guitars, but the engineer wasn’t satisfied with the sound.

“Throw a 414 on there,” suggested Dave.

The engineer squinted through the glass into the tracking room. “That is a 414.”

“Wow,” said Dave. “I had no idea there actually was such a thing as a 414! I just blurt that out when someone wants to change a sound because engineers always say shit like that. You learn something every day.”

Dave’s deadpan humor makes it hard to know when he’s kidding, though I’m pretty sure he was. But the “learn something every day” part? No joke!

So what are some of your hard-won lessons about microphones and electric guitars? Send them to joegore@premierguitar.com.

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