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Microphones don't matter

David Mellor argues that knowing how to position a microphone can make a far bigger difference to the quality of your work than which microphone you choose.


Two days ago I was fortunate enough to address the British Sound Recording Association at their annual conference, this year taking place in sunny Bournemouth, England.

Although I certainly knew of the activities of the BSRA beforehand, I hadn't met them before, so I wasn't sure what I should talk about.

I decided therefore to talk about what I know best - helping people learn how to do audio better. That's the work I do with Audio Masterclass.

Having made that decision, I sat down and thought hard about what it is that makes the most difference to the quality of a recording, from a sound engineer's point of view (which rules out the music, performer and often choice of instrument, sometimes the choice of recording acoustics too).

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Over the course of my career I have listened to literally thousands of pieces of student work, so I am very well placed to know the difference between a good piece of work, and one that for one reason or another doesn't quite make it.

Defining 'good' would be an interesting point.

I see 'good', in the context of a recording, as being one of the following...

  • Being a marketable product and therefore demonstrating professionalism
  • Expressing musicianship effectively
  • Achieving personal satisfaction for the creator

There is one thing that most often makes the difference between a good and a not-so-good recording...

And that is not paying enough attention to the things that really matter. The corollary of this is paying too much attention to things that matter less.

I find that many budding recordists pay a lot of attention to things that don't make a great deal of difference to the quality of their recordings.

One of these is the choice of microphone preamplifier. If a preamp has a wide enough frequency response, low enough distortion and noise, then you can make a good recording with it, 'good' being defined above.

Another is the choice of microphone. And I would go so far as to say the same thing... if your microphone has a wide enough frequency response, low enough distortion and noise, then you can make a good recording.

Now this is where experienced engineers get out their big guns and try to shoot me down in flames.

Before they do however I will say that anyone who works with microphones and preamps every day will gradually learn about the differences between different models. Eventually, after some years of experience, they will seem as different as proverbial chalk and cheese. And an experienced engineer can use these differences to paint a sonic picture of exceptional quality, or 'goodness'.

(Oddly enough, the professional may achieve less personal satisfaction because he or she will always be striving for better, but that's a more complex issue that I will leave aside for now.)

But for anyone who is new, or quite new, to recording, then what is vastly more important than choice of microphone or preamp is how the microphone is used.

Learning how to position a microphone effectively for a particular voice, instrument, or ensemble of voices or instruments, is a combination of art and science, and there is no doubt whatsoever that the more experience you get, the better your recordings will be.

If, for example, an instrument that you are recording doesn't sound quite right through your monitors, would you first consider changing the microphone? Or moving the microphone that is set up already to a better position?

An experienced engineer would know if a change of microphone was necessary. A new starter however will find very much more benefit in spending time optimizing the microphone's position in relation to the instrument and room.

So, let the heavens fall in on me if they may, I am going to say categorically that microphones don't matter. Not in the beginning anyway.

Microphones need to be of professional quality (no faults, wide frequency response, low distortion and noise), but once you have that in place, it's how you use them that will be the greatest determining factor in the quality of your recordings.

Oh by the way... I am very happy to see reasoned disagreement in the comments section below, but please take care to read the whole of the article first.

P.S. Tomorrow I'll be telling you why microphones do matter!

By David Mellor Monday May 17, 2010