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Listening Like a Microphone, Part 1

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This month in our Signal Chain column, we’re going to take a short detour to talk about the art of listening. Everyone will agree that listening is important when it comes to finding your ideal tone, but not many people know how to listen “better.” One of the things you can do to sharpen your listening skills is to carefully observe how a microphone “hears” a given signal source, and how it translates that electrical energy into a sound or tone you desire. I started to do exactly this some 16 years ago when I initially got interested in the recording arts, and continue to do it today.

It’s important that you start recording as soon as you can, because doing so will open up a brand new world and help you attain an entirely different set of listening skills. Those of you in a band will likely have an advantage here, as one of the benefits of playing with other people is the fact that you can (and quite frankly, should) record every band rehearsal. There are two good reasons for this. First, you’ll catch all the happy accidents that occur when you’re working songs out (which you can use as a reference later on), and second, you can learn valuable lessons in mic placement and capturing a great band sound with only a few mics.

I found the best method for determining actual microphone placement is to use a pair of headphones and carefully listen to the sound of the microphone as you walk around the room you’re recording in. Once you find the sweet spot where the first mic sounds good, place the second mic on the opposite side of the stereo field—this is one of the key elements to capturing all the details and nuances produced by your band. In my own situation, I found out that recording our band in a small garage with a low ceiling was interesting, because the two spot mics ended up being staggered—the left microphone was placed some eight feet from the drum kit, while the right microphone sounded really great around 12-14 feet away from the kit. It was at this point that I could clearly hear the hi-hat, cymbals, and snare drum match up with all of the other drums in the 12-piece kit our drummer played.

Once you’ve mastered the art of placement, you can turn your attention to the mics themselves. The art of getting great recorded sounds begins with great microphones. Every microphone has a sonic personality, and as such, it can bring quite a bit to the table in terms of tonal options. Since I have developed my own personal “default settings” when it comes to critical listening, I tend to look for microphones that will make me sound more like an improved version of what I usually sound like to begin with. For me, more often than not this means pulling out a ribbon mic.

Nearly all of the classic records I loved as a kid were recorded using ribbon-style microphones, which were some of the earliest microphones ever designed. Ribbon mics were Les Paul’s hands-down favorite when he cut records, due to their open and naturally accurate sound reproduction. Good bench references of what these types of microphones sound like come straight from the Jimi Hendrix catalog. Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s legendary engineer, was known to use ribbon microphones quite often (the Beyerdynamic M 160 in particular), as did George Martin when he recorded the Beatles.

Fun fact: It has been said that EMI actually had very strict rules regarding the distance you were allowed to place these ribbon microphones in relation to the source. George Martin pushed the envelope, and as a consequence, blew quite a few ribbon elements by placing them closer to loud sources than EMI rules permitted. Several examples of this included the close mic’ing of both guitar amps and Ringo’s kick drum with ribbon mics! If you’re looking to stretch your critical listening muscles a bit, try putting on a classic Beatles album and listening for the telltale “pfffftttt” noise that a ribbon mic makes as it attempts to warn you it’s too close to the fire. This is a great exercise that will help take your auditory chops to the next level.

You might have guessed by now that I own a couple of ribbon microphones, being a recording nut. One feature of nearly all ribbon microphones is the “figure-8” polar pickup pattern (giving these mics their “bi-directional” tag), which is ideal for capturing ambient room sound via the ribbon’s rear “lobe.” This makes ribbons highly useful recording tools. Simple changes in mic placement will drastically change the overall sound. You can also record with the rear lobe of the microphone, giving you a different, brighter tonal character. It’s a very slick trick that is bringing ribbon mics back into vogue in recording environments everywhere.

As I said earlier, every mic has its own sonic personality, and next time we will drill down on this topic a little deeper, comparing three ribbon microphones against each other and discussing their sonic differences. Until then, fire up your recording software or DAW, plug in a few mics, and start listening carefully. You might be surprised by what you find.


Dean Farley
is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.
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