How to Mic Right

How to Mic Right
Andy McDonough

Experts estimate that as much as a remarkable 30% of overall sound quality can be attributed to the proper selection and position of the microphones on stage. So when it comes to mic-ing drums and instruments, it pays to get it right.

When worship musicians are giving their all, it’s the audio engineer’s job to capture that great sound and energy in the mix. However, as anyone who has tried can tell you, it’s not as easy as just putting up a few microphones. Even if a church is lucky enough to have great players, quality audio gear and a good acoustic space in which to worship, there are many things as a knowledgeable engineer can do to improve the sound. Experts estimate that as much as a remarkable 30% of overall sound quality can be attributed to the proper selection and position of the microphones on stage. As a result, what an engineer knows about microphones and the care taken to place them for proper instrument mic-ing can separate a good mix from a great one.

As much 30% of overall sound quality can be attributed to the proper selection and position of the microphones on stage.

David Walters is the media director at Chapel Hill Bible Church in Chapel Hill, N.C. With over 10 years of experience in worship audio, sound engineering for video productions, and recording, Walters says that while understanding the basics of mic-ing instruments in the studio is a good starting point, the worship environment presents some unique challenges for audio engineers.

“In a perfect world, you would do in church just what you would do in the studio to get great sound,” he says, “but the reality is different. In a studio situation, you typically have lots of time and control. Whereas, in a worship situation you have all of the challenges found with live sound, like trying to isolate instruments and preventing feedback, but you may only have an hour to get ready-if you are lucky.”

When preparing volunteers to help him engineer audio, Walters advises them to learn about the technology first. “Your personal experience will ultimately be your guide, but you can find a wealth of information about mics and mic-ing techniques,” he says. “Learn about how microphones work, polar patterns, characteristics and options selection. Then, get out some mics and really listen to them in different situations.”

How to Mic Right
Experts estimate that as much as a remarkable 30% of overall sound quality can be attributed to the proper selection and position of the microphones on stage. So when it comes to mic-ing drums and instruments, it pays to get it right.

Finding the right mic
Audio pros have an old adage, “While some mics can work well for many applications, no single mic will be great on everything.” Since one mic won’t address all the issues an engineer is likely to find on stage, it’s important to know something about the characteristics of different types of microphones, as well as have a good selection of mics with different diaphragm types, polar patterns, and sensitivity.

Exceptionally good microphones can be exceptionally expensive, but that doesn’t mean your church needs a vault of expensive microphones. Walters reminds his volunteers that it’s not all about how expensive your microphones are. In his estimation, “The appropriate choice and good placement of an affordable mic will always beat out an expensive mic in the wrong place,” David Walters, Media Director, Chapel Hill Bible Church, Chapel Hill, NC.

For Walters, finding just the right mic has a lot to do with what role the instrument will play in the mix. “The challenge is to find the mic in your microphone closet that is best suited to the source and how it will work in the mix,” he says.

Walter relies heavily on the industry favorites, Shure SM57 dynamic microphones and Shure KSM137 condenser microphones. He uses SM57s for close-up work, like guitar amps and snare drums, and the KSM137s for situations that require a broader reach and different qualities, such as deployed in an X-Y configuration over a string section or as a supplemental mic added to a lead or featured acoustic player. “These are my ‘go to’ mics,” he says. “They are affordable, reliable, and each can work well for many different situations.”

For drum sounds, Walters has faced the common challenges for worship of maintaining reasonable stage volume, dealing with a reflective room, and having mix multiple sets of instrumentalists, including four drummers. “Drums are frequently the most distinctive sound on recordings,” he notes, “so well worth our attention to mic up correctly.”

To help offset his very live room and eliminate ringing, Walters first tunes his drums down and, where necessary, dampens the heads with gel. He has permanently mounted a popular kick drum mic, the AKG-D112, in the bass drum and 3-4 inches from the beater head. The D112 is another affordable and very durable large-diaphragm cardioid dynamic mic often used for kick or bass drum. Major considerations that narrow down the field for bass drum mics is a mic’s ability to handle high sound pressure and its response at bass drum frequencies. By installing his D112 inside the drum, rather than placing it each time, Walters has guaranteed that its position never changes, and plus it saves valuable time during Sunday morning setups.

Walters appreciates the convenience and great sound produced by Shure Beta 56a instrument mics that clip directly to the rim of the toms at an angle that allows for couple of inches of “play” for making adjustments. For a realistic snare sound, he relies on a single Shure SM57 placed at the top of the snare five inches over the rim angled towards the center of the head.
“Every mic-ing situation is different and requires some experimentation,” Rich Mace, Technical Services Director, First Baptist Church, Sevierville, TN.

When training his audio volunteers, Walters suggests they personally explore the characteristics of the microphones available. “I tell them to pic a microphone and listen to them with headphones through a portable recorder,” he says. “Listen to how different mics sound in different situations and you’ll have some great experience to apply when you need to mic up an instrument.”

After volunteers have learned about microphone types and their characteristics, Rich Mace, technical services director at First Baptist Church in Sevierville, Tenn., asks them to consider what role the instrument being mic-ed will play in the mix. “Once you understand how the instrument will be used,” he offers, “you can better choose a microphone that will complement or emphasize that sound. That becomes your starting point to ‘build’ a good mix.”

Basics of Mic Placement
Along with having the right microphone for the source you hope to capture, mic placement is critical to getting a good sound. Let’s contemplate another old adage, this one specific to microphone placement, “The best mic position cannot be predicted, it must be found.” That explains why audio professionals frequently start with mics they know in a place that they know has worked in the past. However, it’s important to understand that where the mic is placed in relation to the source and considering other factors on stage is critical to capturing a good sound. An engineer must always be prepared to experiment to some degree with the placement since every situation is different.

“Drums are frequently the most distinctive sound on recordings, so well worth our attention to mic up correctly.” -David Walters, Media Director, Chapel Hill Bible Church, Chapel Hill, NC.
Mace, who has worked with audio for worship for over 30 years, has gained much of his experience working the concert halls, theaters and theme parks in and around Pigeon Forge, Tenn. “Being so close to Nashville and some wonderful venues means that we have many talented musicians, as well as many experienced audio engineers,” he notes.

As a result, Mace describes much of his audio engineering education, including his practical knowledge of mic choice and placement, as a collaboration or “partnership” with his players and peers. “I want all the players to be happy with their sound,” he says, “and working closely with them gives us the best possible result.”

In addition to presenting challenges of mic-ing large ensembles, including horns and orchestral instruments, the three Sunday morning services at First Baptist Church Sevierville reflect three different worship styles: traditional with organ and choir, modern, and blended. Having to cover a wide variety of styles is a frequent challenge for audio engineers in worship environments. According to Mace, attention to proper mic-ing, and especially mic placement with acoustic instruments, is critical to keeping the overall mix in tune with the worship style.

Like many audio veterans, Mace leverages the advantages of Shure SM57s for close mic-ing situations placing them as close as possible and at various angles to the source or “off axis”, for the best sound on electric guitars. But according to Mace, every mic-ing situation is different and requires some experimentation. For his blended service with brass, he uses Shure KSM137 condensers for the trumpets and he recently found that a pair of AKG Perception 200 large diaphragm condensers were the right choice for his for trombone and sax section. The mics were not being used and had remained stored away in the church’s equipment closet until Mace decided to give them a try. “Don’t be afraid to try whatever you have available,” he says. “The result of a different mic and careful placement will often surprise you.”

For a good final mix, it’s important to get it right at the start by listening to the result each time you place a mic.

Mace recently upgraded the church’s drum microphones with an Audix drum pack that includes two D2 mics clipped to toms, a D4 clipped to the floor tom, and an I5 for snare placed above and angled towards the center of the snare head. A D6 bass drum mic was mounted on floor stand just outside the hole of the front head. Mic-ing a kick drum at the hole and just on the outer side of the front head is often considered to be the best placement for a solid, low-end kick drum sound. Here, the level of sub and lows are represented the most, but you need to be careful of “bleed” from the cymbals and snare drum. A microphone placed inside the kick drum will get more punchy and natural sound while reducing the risk of “bleed” from the rest of the kit. Which mic-ing option is best is the one that best fits your worship style. “The Audix drum mics we added were affordable and made a huge difference in the drum sounds for both our worship and recording,” says Mace.

First Baptist Church has also upgraded the grand piano sound for all the services with a a pair of DPA d:vote 4099 mics with the low end mic angled midway down the sounding board and the high end mic pointed straight on and closer to the hammers. “The piano now has a big tone and an overall cleaner sound,” Mace notes. “Plus, this mic-ing reacts well to different players which is always a consideration in worship environments.”

A Common Mistake
Both Walters and Mace agree that an all too common mistake by inexperienced audio engineers is thinking that microphones can be effectively be placed simply by sight. Experts know that they can get close with experience, but proper mic placement requires listening because of all the variables at play, including the player’s style and tone choices that day, changes in location or level of other sources on stage, and other dynamic factors. Microphones are also in a critical spot, being at very start of the audio signal path. For a good final mix, it’s important to get it right at the start by listening to the result each time you place a mic.

Mace credits his collaboration with others with greatly increasing his knowledge and ability to effectively mic instruments. “Everyone has different experience to offer,” he says. “You can learn a lot from other engineers in the worship and entertainment communities. Reach out, do lots of research, listen, and don’t be afraid to try something new. A different mic or a slight change in its placement can make a huge difference in the overall mix and the quality of your worship sound.”

 

Andy McDonough is a freelance writer, photographer, musician, educator and consulting engineer based in Middleton, N.J. Among his favorite topics?the application of technology and music in houses of worship. He welcomes email at andymcd@comcast.net.

The above article, “How to Mic Right” was written by Andy McDonough. The article was excerpted from https://www.churchproduction.com.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”

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