Thursday, 4 September 2014

Mixing with Microphones

Last summer I put a few thoughts out on Twitter on how to craft a mix, as much as possible, with microphones. I had been working on a project where we had been recording the material through several sessions. Things generally sounded tidy, but some of the sessions had differences in sonic expression. It led me to daydream away to the next projects and throw out some thoughts on the use of microphones to craft a final mix from the very first time you press record. None of these tweets are "original thoughts," but we all need to be reminded some times. I know I do! :)

I had a lecturer in College who used to say that every time you place a microphone, you make a compositional choice. For the recording engineer, how true is that!

In a world of bright and affordable modern condenser microphones, think about how semi-pro recording has changed only since the 90's. High-end studios often have old ribbon microphones and U-47s and the likes. For the new generations who haven't learned the ropes in big studios on high budgets, we can often presume on of these two:
1) our mixes are going to sound brighter than previous generations, or
2) we are going to have to do more HF-reduction in the mix if we’re going for a more balanced mix.
Luckily, there's another way! Bring back the dynamics, ribbons and the smoother sounding types of condenser microphones. In recent years a lot of new ribbon, valve and classic FET-microphones have come on the marked. The sum of 20 bright modern condenser microphones in a room can sound... well, very bright! The sum of 20 smoother sounding microphones will sound more natural. This option doesn’t stack up a lot of high frequencies battling for your attention.

Let's say we put a band in a room with no microphones, but just have our ears to listen in. Perhaps we have a drummer and a percussion-player, they are likely to go at the back of the band. Chord instruments like acoustic guitars will be a little closer to us, and a vocalist would be standing right in front of us. We've just balanced a band by placing them at different distances from us with no mixer. Obviously, if we do it well, we'll get a very natural sound. But here's a question: how much of the close proximity transients from the percussion do you pick up when the instrument is on the other side of the room? With a bright modern condenser the instrument will appear closer to us in the mix. On the other hand, there are times when we want close sounds to sound smooth. Think about classic vocals of Bing Crosby, Billie Holliday and Chet Baker. You don't want them to sound too bright or too full of transients.

Some microphones have quick and some have slow transient responses. This helps to determine how up-front they sound in the mix—or alternatively, how much trouble we get combating transients! If we know we’ll need to reduce high frequencies and compress transients of a sound, maybe we should go for another microphone from the start. This solution will often sound more natural in the mix—just like our ears in a room.

Some months back I did a post on four tube condenser microphones. If you are looking for new microphones with a vintage sound you may want to check it out. Some other microphones of interest are MXL’s Genesis. You can get this both as a FET and valve version, it has been received very well by the industry-press. In the affordable spectrum, the Audio Technica AT2020 is somewhat softer than other modern condensers. Dynamic microphones may also be a good choice, and there's a well of new and old ribbon models on the marked. A word of caution here though: buy up on ribbon mics! You can get a very nice big membrane condenser from around a 100 Pounds (AT2020, AKG Perception 120 etc), but put a little extra cash in it if you want a nice ribbon. It will serve you well in getting that nice vintage sound!

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