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Guitar Tracks: The Right Mic, Pt. 3

Before you can make any sort of decision about which mic you might want to use, you need to have a firm grasp of two things: the type of mics you have in your collection, and how each of them sounds.

Welcome to the third part of our ongoing look at microphones. In our first two installments, we discussed three different types of mics: dynamic, condenser, and ribbon. We also examined polar patterns, sound levels, pads, and more. Check out Part 1 or Part 2 of this series if you missed them.

Now it’s time to apply what we’ve learned and start to look at how to choose the right mic for your recordings. Right up front, before you can make any sort of decision about which mic you might want to use, you need to have a firm grasp of two things: the type of mics you have in your collection, and how each of them sounds.

But how to do that?

The first step—knowing the type of mics you have at your disposal—requires some homework, because dynamic, condenser, and ribbon designs perform differently. Your mics may also have different polar (pickup) patterns. And, they’ll likely have different feature sets (pads, low-frequency cuts, switchable polar patterns, etc.).

To acquaint yourself with each mic, either break out the documentation that came with it or browse the manufacturer’s website to learn all you can about that model. You don’t need to absorb all the tweaky spec stuff. Instead, it’s the features and functions that are important—you want to know what the mic does and how it works. It also helps to know the frequency response (for example, 80 kHz–22 kHz) and to look at the frequency-response graph— which will show you if there is a boost in a particular part of the frequency range or if the response rolls off the lows or highs.

To answer the second question—how does each mic sound?—you’re going to have to put in some studio time. When I get a new mic, I put it through a battery of test recordings: electric guitar, vocals, nylon- and steel-string acoustic guitars, hand percussion, and so on. First, I record all those sources with any switches on the mic off, then I’ll engage each switch to hear what difference it makes. This means switching on the pad, then the low-frequency cut, then changing the polar pattern, etc. Each switch affects the sound, and you need to know how.

If you have more than a couple of microphones, these sorts of test recordings get hard to manage. I like to create a separate Pro Tools session file on my computer for each type of test recording. I have two for electric guitar (one for clean and one for dirty tones), one for vocals, one for nylon-string, etc. As each new mic comes into my studio, I record its test tracks into the appropriate session. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a pretty nice selection of tracks highlighting each mic that I own or that I’ve reviewed or tested, and that allows me to compare each mic to the others.

Testing your mics and keeping sound files of these tests allows you to compare and evaluate each mic you own in the context of the others. It’s good to test a mic with a variety of sources—electric guitars, nylon- and steel-string acoustics, vocals, percussion, drums, and so on. Shown here are some sound files from my mic-testing collection. Careful labeling of the mic model, source, and switch settings is imperative.

To keep these sonic tests as

consistent as possible, I play the

same music (I load in a track

I know well and play or sing

along with it), and I take very

careful notes so I can use the

same mic positions and use the

same mic preamps and settings.

I don’t do any EQ’ing, compressing,

or other processing.

The idea is to get a straight

recording of each mic, so I can

do easy A/B comparisons and

really hear what each does.

I also have similar Pro Tools

sessions where I use the same

mic, but switch out different

preamps. You could also do

one where you use the same

mic and preamp, but change

the mic position. Regardless

of what you’re testing, you’re

basically following the scientific

method: Keep everything

the same except for one thing

you change for each test. This

approach really lets you hear

the difference that one change

makes—or doesn’t make.

Once you’ve got your test

tracks down on tape or hard

drive, spend some time listening

carefully to them. If you’ve

got tracks for a few mics, do

listening comparisons—this

will require careful volume-level

matching (a track that’s louder

will always sound better to our

ears than one that is quieter in

a direct comparison), and it’s

best if you can do such comparisons

“blind” without knowing

which mic you’re hearing.

Have someone else switch the

tracks behind your back so you

can concentrate on what you’re

hearing, not what you’re seeing.

The goal is to get a firmly

grounded understanding of

how your mics operate and a

clear picture of their innate

sonic characteristics. Once you

have this knowledge, choosing

the best mic for each situation

becomes much easier. We never

know exactly how a mic will

sound until it’s in front of the

guitar or amp, but at least these

tests provide a good starting

point for choosing the best mic

for a particular application.

Next month, we’ll continue

our discussion of how to choose

the best mics to capture your

tones. See you then! By the way,

if you have suggestions for topics

you’d like to see covered here

or questions about any of my

columns, drop me a line at

Mitch Gallagher is

the former editor in chief of

EQ magazine. He’s written

more than 1000 articles

and six books on recording

and music technology, and

has released an instructional

DVD on mastering. His upcoming book is

entitled Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate

Electric Guitar Sound. To learn more, visit