Mic with your ears not your eyes.

Everyone starts to position microphones based on what they see done by others or read in a magazine.   Sometimes they experiment and move mics to see if the sound improves, but usually once someone ends up with a mic setup they like they stop trying to improve it

There are certain standard approaches that have been successful, but even these approaches should never be considered “etched in stone”.  Always experiment, especially if it just means putting up a second mic to try a new position without moving the mic you are already happy with.

Once upon a time I was doing the typical thing of going with what I was told worked or what I watched the Engineers I had assisted do.  I was recording piano with a pair of matching mics in an XY pattern around the hammers.  I knew about many approaches (another mic at the far end of the piano and then pan that mic over to the bass side of the stereo spread, pair of PZMs taped to the piano lid, throwing mics under, over, and in the holes, etc).  Sometimes I would use a pair of mics just outside the lid but only when I could get away with more warmth and less percussive clarity.

One day I was working with Warren Wolfe, who was a very talented pianist.  I was setting up my mics and he said , “You know, nobody ever wants to hear my advice to get the best piano sounds, they always just put mics in the same places.”

I stopped what I was doing, looked him right in the eye and said, “OK, tell me.”  He then said, “All you have to do is to put your head in the piano and listen.  Where it sounds good is where you put the microphones.”

Sooooo, I moved the mic stands out of the way and listened while he played.  Fortunately he played in a way that allowed me to hear how the different sounds from the piano at different ranges and volumes bounced around the piano box…the resonating chamber.  I then put mics where my right and left ears where (very different from the tight XY I usually did) and played with the angles until I felt they were closer to my actual ear positions.  When I threw up the faders, I was blown away.

The sound was full, and had a more intimate sound than when I used outside mics.  From then on I always moved my head around inside the piano while the musician played not only wide range material but the actual parts and ranges they would be playing that day.  Sometimes I went back to the XY over the hammers or pair just outside the box, but in general I always found places in the piano I liked.

From then on I would always listen before placing the mic, often getting weird looks from the musician while I walked around them getting closer and farther and moving my head up and down searching for the sweet spots (you would be surprised there can be more than one, each slightly different).  Even guitar amps deserved listening to as each speaker sounded slightly different.  Yes you can accomplish the same thing by having someone moving mics around from an eye driven position while you listen in the control room until your mic hits the sweet spot, but doesn’t it make sense to go find the sweet spots first? 

Sometimes you may need to find different spots that emphasize different parts of a sound, or even different parts of a sound that must be captured independently.  A good example of this is how I record Sanshin, which sounds sort of like a fretless banjo made of snake instead of paper played with rhythmic syncopated notes rather than arpeggios (see the Rinken Band).  When I walked around and listened while Rinken played, I noticed a spot where it sounded rich, and that within that spot I could easily hear both an attack and a throaty twang.  To capture that I used a condenser for the highs and an old ribbon for the throaty twang, both in the sweet spot I prefered.  Rinken told me nobody had every captured the real sound of the Sanshin before.  If I had not listened first and in doing so learned what was important to capture I would have ended up with something typical (thin) rather than strong.

In general, you are best off moving your head around the area of an instrument (including above and below, close and far), then placing the microphone where your ear hears the best sound.  Start with suggested positions, but put your HEAD there and listen before you automatically put a mic there and assume it is the best starting placement.

The key to mic placement is understanding what you are tying to capture, choosing the right mic and finding the location and positioning to most strongly capture the sound source.  You may have to make sacrifices for the performance (moving the acoustic guitar mic because the musician is wildly throwing his picking arm around) or sacrifices due to available microphones (etc) but you will always capture the music if you mic with your ears instead of your eyes.

---- The "Instruments in the Studio" page was supposed to be a basic run-through of what to expect, but ended up a rather comprehensive extension of this page. I am reprinting it here for convenience, please no "you posted the same stuff twice" comments. ----


You will encounter various instruments that you will need to record, and record well. Some will be very easy, such as plugging in a bass or a synth. Some will be difficult, such as recording a quiet singer standing between a loud drummer and a Marshall Stack.

It helps to have an idea what the instrument should sound like in the end (which you learn by listening to “model” songs with specific sounds you want to emulate), but also to have an idea of how the instrument actually makes noise.  You need to know that a flute projects important sound from the top, and that shoving a mic into an instrument’s hole or flared end is not necessarily the right thing to do.

RESEARCH any instrument before recording it for the first time.  Where does the sound come out?  What part of the overall sound will it be expected to fill?  Is the instrument a solo sound or part of an ensemble? These things will influence any decisions you make. Remember to use any pictures or descriptions of mic techniques you see as something to TRY, not something to automatically do (even whatever you read here). 

TALK TO THE MUSICIAN and ask what they usually do to capture “their” sound.  Most people do not do this, but rather just grunt at the musician while setting up the mic in the same old way.  You might be surprised at what you hear, and just the act of asking makes the musician trust you a little bit more.  Take what they say into consideration, and even set up what they usually do as an alternative to compare to if you have the extra mic and fader.  Do not forget you are capturing THEIR sound, which they sometimes know well.  Of course expect the occasional person who sounds one way in their head and another way out their horn.

WALK AROUND and move your head up and down around the instrument until you find a “sweet spot” (please use caution with drums and Marshall Stacks).

CHOOSE A MIC that will optimally capture the tonal characteristics you noticed are important when in the sweet spot, such as a bright sounding mic for cymbals rather than something boomy (like an RE-20).

PLACE the mic where you thought sounded good, and MOVE it if needed or if just curious.  You can always go back to where you were, especially considering how easy it is to document with cell phone pics these days.

If you are dealing with a direct plug, such as with a bass, synth, computer (etc), you will need to make sure you are getting into your system the right way (often through a DIRECT BOX).  That’s it.

Once you have your instrument (from either mic or direct) in your input channel, now you can process with compression and eq if needed and record your sound.