Too often, I see younger engineers pass over very quickly, in both their setup and troubleshooting, microphone placement. This seems to be a common issue, whether at a local church, music venue, or even some large-scale events, that I’ve been a part of over the past few years.
There are so many small adjustments one can make, that will help you arrive at a great sound.
It’s not uncommon to walk into a church or venue and come across some crazy mic placement (and sometimes mic choices) on the drum set and guitar amps. While these two seem to be the biggest offenders, I’ve also seen this done with choir microphones or even how singers hold their mics when singing.
While there are a ton of great video resources that can go into great detail about different instruments on YouTube, I wanted to do a rough overview on the subject.
Even though I am a Waves guy, and pretty much have a plug-in for any situation I run into, before you start grabbing your EQ to make adjustments, the first thing you should do: listen. There’s a big difference between something that needs minor EQ’ing and sometimes having to do even drastic adjustments, but if something just sounds really bad or wrong, chances are that the mic is in the wrong place.
The mic placement could be wrong for many different reasons. Whether it’s drums or anything else, many things could be off.
Take a kick drum microphone, for example, where maybe the stand got kicked by someone on stage, to where it is now three feet away from the spot you originally put it. Maybe the boom arm loosened, to where it is now causing the microphone to rest up against the nearby drum head or side of the drum. Then again, sometimes it’s just because the mic’s placement was poorly thought out to begin with.
While I think there are many easily available resources out there for people to learn how to mic an instrument, people unfortunately often don’t take the time to learn, or sometimes opt to copy someone else who doesn’t really know how to best do mic placement either.
Back in February, I took a position at Liberty University, located in Lynchburg, Virginia, as the production manager for event production. This department at the school handles the live audio/video/lighting needs for the university, and we have a very diverse staff that includes student workers on up.
Among those events, was one where Liberty brought in a national act, and I was the engineer for the band. We had several people help getting the band’s equipment on stage and mic’ing the instruments. While doing a quick line check of the drums, the snare drum just sounded very distant. It’s not that it tonally sounded bad, just very off and distant, as if there was a short reverb on the drum.
With my eyesight not being so great anymore, I went up on stage to check the mic placement and discovered that the mic had been moved out of the way by the drummer and was about 3-4 feet away from the snare drum. From there, I put the mic back in my go-to snare position, and all was well again.
While I was up on the stage, I also decided to check the rest of the mic placements, from those for the drums to the guitar amps, only to find out that the guys who set them up really didn’t know how to mic those instruments.
This same issue cropped up at the church I was at, which had amp enclosures. One of the guitarists there (whose amp never really sounded great to begin with), resulted in my pulling up his channel before rehearsal, and it sounded off and very different from normal. Why? It turned out that he had opened the enclosure to make some changes to his amp, knocking the mic out of position. The mic was almost pointing backward! Upon seeing that misdirected mic, I put it back in to its correct position and we were good to go.
When hanging choir mics, that task is also one that is notorious to where mics are often turned in the wrong direction. If you are having more feedback issues than usual with your choir mics, go take a look that all your mics, to make sure they are in the correct position.
Such tips are obviously the basics in terms of microphone placement.
The more in-depth side to microphone placement, though, is understanding how small adjustments, from how close or far a mic is placed, can dramatically change the tone.
Let’s take a second and look at mic’ing a guitar amp. The first thing you need to know is exactly where the speaker cone is. Sometimes an amp’s grill cloth makes it very hard to see the cone inside. If you think your speaker is consists of a two-driver, 12-inch low frequency cone configuration, but it’s really a 4-by-10, you will find yourself mic’ing a piece of wood on the cabinet (I say this from personal experience).
Upon finding the speaker in question, take a light to the grill cloth if needed, and look for the speaker cone, which is often located in the center across its width. Then look to where the edge of the speaker cone and the rest of the low frequency driver meet. Place the microphone facing straight on this spot, this is called on axis. This in general is going to be a great starting point for you to place the microphone, regardless of what mic you end up using.
Following that positioning, go back and listen to it. Does it sound too bright? If so, then you will want to move further away from the speaker cone, toward the outside edge of the driver. Is it too dark? Then you will want to move closer to the center of the driver. This is your first step of EQ, way before you touch any faders on your mixing board.
An additional option is aiming to be off-axis, where instead of having the mic facing straight at the speaker, you move it slightly up/down or to the side. This also gives a dramatically different sound that should be part of your soundcheck, before you grab an EQ knob.
The same thing would apply with drums, as there are many ways to mic a kick drum. You can put the mic just inside the drum hole or all the way inside the kick drum. Then if you have it either just inside the hole or all the way in, is it facing the beater or slightly off to the side?. There are so many small adjustments one can make, that will help you arrive at a great sound.
Take the time to experiment and learn the differences. It will allow you to make informed choices, versus just copying what you saw someone else do.
Where are you placing your snare mic? Is it pointed toward the center of the drum head, or is it pointed toward the edge of the drum or somewhere in between?
All these things make a huge difference in getting a great drum sound. When you consider that drums are acoustic instruments, that means the room they are in will greatly affect their sound. Then you look at what kind of drum heads are being used, and if there is any dampening for the drum head. All of this should play into how to mic the drum.
One of the best things you can do, if you are at your church, is sit down at the kit while no one is around. Put some headphones on and move the microphone while hitting the drums. You will be very surprised when you find those sweet spots in terms of mic placement.
You can also hear the difference with your vocal microphones used by the singers. Some people hold the mic down toward the center of their chest when singing. Besides not be able to get much volume, or gain before feedback, the resulting tone is very bright and thin.
If you take that same mic and have them put it up toward their mouth while singing, you will get much more volume from it, before it will start feeding back, especially if there are floor monitors.
There is an additional benefit, in that there will be an increased low-end response (called proximity effect) where the voice will sound fuller and more natural. Any of you that have to mic using lapel microphones, often know how the right placement makes all the difference in the world.
Therefore, before you start making EQ adjustments at your next rehearsal or soundcheck, check out where the mics are positioned.
Plan on trying some new positions and see if you can find something you like better. That is what that time is for, so take the time to make the physical mic adjustment. By doing so, it will give you more tools to create a great mix, instead of settling for something that doesn’t sound right, where no matter what you do, EQ’ing won’t end up being the perfect solution.