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Microphones and perspective

One of the first things a sound engineer should realize about microphones is that they always have to be placed closer to the sound source than you would normally choose to listen from. So although you could listen comfortably to a piano from a distance anywhere between about four to twenty meters, the microphone should be...

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One of the first things a sound engineer should realize about microphones is that they always have to be placed closer to the sound source than you would normally choose to listen from. So although you could listen comfortably to a piano from a distance anywhere between about four to twenty meters, the microphone should be anywhere from half a meter up to around three meters maximum away from the instrument, for a natural sound that actually sounds like the piano.

This applies to any instrument. The consequence of placing the microphone further away is that it will pick up too much reverberation from the room. The brain manages to filter this out when listening live, but somehow cannot do this when listening to a recording.

But then there is a problem when recording a group of acoustic instruments, such as a jazz band, a choir or an orchestra. From the natural listening position the balance, without amplification, sounds fine. But if you try to cover the whole orchestra with a basic stereo pair of microphones, then because the microphones are much closer to the front rows of instruments than the back, then the instruments at the rear will sound very far away.

From a natural listening position, the back rows are not all that much further in comparison, so it doesn't make nearly so much difference.

The first solution to this is to bring the stereo pair even closer, but raise them in height. Now, from a vantage point of three to four meters above the orchestra, the microphones won't be all that much further away from the rear rows than from the front rows. You have to picture this in your head, and for preference try it out. It really does work.

The downside of this is that with string instruments, particularly violins, their best sound projects horizontally towards the natural audience position. The microphones, now listening from above, pick up a harsher, more scratchy sound. It is still however a worthwhile compromise.

This is only one solution. There is another, which is to mic up the rear instruments independently. Now, the stereo pair can be the main pickup for the entire orchestra, and the rear microphones brought up in level just enough to bring 'presence' to the back rows. This has to be done with care, and certainly not overdone, but it works.

It's just a shame that microphones can't be more like the human ear.

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By David Mellor Monday July 10, 2006
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