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Admit it - do you always raise the microphone up and point it down?

Admit it - do you always raise the microphone up and point it down?

Are you guilty of recording cliches? Do you do things because you've seen other people doing it like that? Or do you decide for yourself what's best?

by David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass

Watch someone setting up a microphone for an instrument (other than a singer). They will raise the boom to higher than head height, then point the microphone down at the instrument.

OK, lets examine the logic in this. Perhaps...

  • Evolution was wrong, and we should have had extensible ears on stalks to get a higher perspective.
  • Instruments offer a better sound quality in the upwards direction where no-one is going to hear it. Their designers designed them this way.
  • Sound rises. To have the mic too low risks not capturing all of it.
  • Microphones were not designed to be used with the diaphragm vertical. It needs to be angled down so that it sags a little and becomes differently responsive to the sound field.
  • Setting a mic stand vertical is too safe and sensible. It is better to work 'on the edge' and set the stand so it risks falling over.

Honestly, it isn't hard to get as cynical as this if you just practice a little every day ;-)

I am very much in favor of people placing mics as they feel is best, but I can't help getting the feeling that they do this because that's what they have seen, and then of course perpetuate the myth.

Let's start from first principles. The average distance from the ground of the human ear is somewhere around 160-170 centimeters, give or take. Acoustic instruments have without exception been designed to sound good to the human ear, so why ever place the mic higher than that?

Then consider that people most often enjoy music from a seated position, so the height of the ear falls to around 140 cm. (4 feet 6 inches for the metrically challenged), so there is a good case to make that a mic should never be placed higher than this.

Try it! I guarantee that the mic will look ridiculously low. But that's where people listen from, so could all those people be wrong?

Yes, that's it! What we really need is to bring listening into line with microphone technique and give people a box to stand on so they can 'listen down' on an instrument the same way that mics do!

So next time you set a mic on an acoustic instrument, ask yourself whether you are aping microphone technique you have seen elsewhere? Or have you thought for yourself? More important...

Have you experimented for yourself?

By David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass
Monday March 29, 2010

Readers' comments on this article...

Devon, Vienna, Austria
Monday October 31, 2011

To John and Anthony, boom mics on a film or video set are pointed downward from overhead not for any sonic advantage, but simply to keep the mic out of frame. So there is one good reason for doing it even though it may not be the first choice sonically. Drum overheads are up high enough not to get bashed by a stick, and it is the best vantage to get the whole kit most evenly. Vocals should be recorded from slightly above ( just a few inches) but pointed downward at the mouth, NOT to force the singer in the correct position (shelter Studios) but originally to let the wind blasts shoot below the mic instead of into the grill causing "pops" and other problems. A windscreen stops the pops of course, but in exchange for a tiny shade of high end air. Though sometimes a windsceen is used to intentionally subtract a bit up there, so nothings a no no. Still, that slight angle from just above the mouth has an added advantage of keeping the nasal sinus sound to a minimum and also aims a bit more toward the body where there is some useful resonance. Interestingly I got a better snare sound miking from the side, but toms (and snare for many) are miked from above to get the drum tone at a close distance. However distance miking may sound indeed better at ear level. We all (except for drummers) hear the kit from the front and not from overhead. So, some are exceptions to the rule, some have sonic and mechanichal advantages (singers) and some just plain gotta be out of the way, dammning the sonic implications. So a rule is a good start, and the artist in you should know when they need to be broken.
John, Texas, USA
Tuesday February 22, 2011

Actualy, there is a logic for raising the mic and pointing it downwards. I have worked in many auditoriums where ignorant HVAC contractors have placed vents over or near the stage. A cardoid mic pointed down, while the stand is raised can help to reduce the vent noises to a degree. Of coarse you need to use good noise reduction software in post.
Nurredin, Las Vegas, USA
Tuesday February 22, 2011

I do the opposite. I lower it and point it up! Am I wrong? it works for me!
Girlfish
Wednesday May 12, 2010

The same thing happens with the piano, people place the mics inside the piano, next to the strings. I don't get it, that doesn't sound natural. The mic should go a little bit far from it, I want to listen to the pianist fingers and feet, that's the real sound. I've tried it, nothing beats the natural takes and placing the mic always as it is a person works.
Shelter Studios, Schaffhausen, Switzerland
Wednesday April 14, 2010

The original reason for applying this technique was to force a singer to hold their head in such a way as to allow a relaxed and optimum operation of the Larynx. Of course most "experts" have misunderstood the intent, attributing it to reflections, moon phases etc. The reason for boom mics on film and video sets is that it is aesthetically displeasing to have a microphone in view on the film and usually difficult to account for i.e. in the middle of films like Gladiator. The boom operator will always take dialogue from above since that delivers the best results for the centre channel delivery in the cinema and prevents the actors and film crew from treading on the mic. Rarely the mic will be placed below the shot but that is not the norm.
Anthony Linden Jones, Kurrajong, Nsw, Australia
Monday April 05, 2010

I think (John) the intention is to capture the same sound that arrives at your ears, and there is a lot of validity to that. However, if we take this to be a new formulaic approach to replace an old formulaic approach the results won't always be perfect. As John articulates, there will be circumstances where a better sound might be arrived at from a higher mic position. The best place to put the microphone in any recording situation is where it sounds good to your ear. You can't hope to pick up a good sound with the mic in a 'bad' place, but what sounds good or bad depends on the instrument/voice, the player, the style, and personal taste.
John, Portsmouth, Va, U.s.a.
Monday March 29, 2010

In spaces of less than acoustic perfection, aiming the mic down helps to reduce outside noise on the recording (providing the floor is not acousticaly reflective). Have you ever seen a mic boom in a video studio. The unidirectional mic is held over the actor to prevent noise from outside the microphones pick up radius. A listener doesn't really need to be in line with the mic. The listener will never even see the mic. Speaker placement would be logical in line with the listener's ears. If you place the mic up side down, the music will not be upside down. Ultimately, mic placement depends on the proximity to floor and ceiling and walls, the instrument, and the musician.