In a way, this week’s episode on TPS had very little to do with pedals, amps, or guitars. Rather, the gear item and topic of choice was one that is ever-present in any live gig scenario or studio set-up: the humble microphone. Simply put, it’s one thing to create your signature guitar and gear sound through an amplifier but quite another to capture it for either projection in a mix or recording.
While Dan & Mick underscored that this subject has been described countless times in print, the way it was covered on TPS was entirely innovative. Through the magic of video editing they demoed and compared different mic types and positions in real time so you could actually hear the resulting variations on sound. Since most guitarists—myself included—rely on the talent behind the mixing board to navigate issues like mic placement, the episode on TPS is a must watch for personal enrichment and awareness. Beyond this, however, Dan & Mick’s fresh perspective on the topic provided some simple directives for approaching mic placement as yet another tier in your set-up for creative expression and inspiration.
For all the insights offered up in the episode, there are at least three overarching lessons that can be applied in any live or recording situation where microphones are in play.
Establishing a Minimal Mic Arsenal
While there are a select few among us who carefully curated complete collections of microphones, most guitarists are likely to own about as many mics as they do tuners: one, maybe two if you count the freebie app on your smartphone. As Dan noted, however, mic choice matters: “it can be the difference between having a great sound at a gig and a rubbish sound at a gig,” to which Mick responded, “and even more so for recording.” So where to start?
Few microphones are as ubiquitous, versatile, and sonically reliable as the Shure SM57 Cardoid Dynamic Microphone or Sennheiser e906 Dynamic Supercardoid Microphone. The Sennheiser e906 is a common fixture in the live recording set-up on TPS for a few reasons. As Mick summed up, “we like them because they’re flat, they don’t stick out a lot, and they sound good. But for that you could substitute a Shure SM57, which is used the world over.” Simply put, if you’re going in on a single mic, you can’t go wrong with either of these. From here, as Dan & Mick commented, it’s a matter of getting to know how to use the gear you’ve got. For mics, this means being attentive to their location in the room and place in the mix.
Mic Positioning in Front of the Amp
As Dan & Mic demonstrated, regardless of the type or quality of the mic you’re using a large part of the sound it captures is determined by the relative position of the mic to the amp. This also means being aware of the obvious: the center of the cabinet is not necessarily where you’ll find the center of the speaker cone. As Mick demonstrated, in the case of the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, the speaker is offset so a dead-center position on the cabinet is in fact almost off the cone entirely. Know your gear, mic accordingly!
As Mick commented, “If you’ve got your mic positioned right up against the speaker grill, it’s getting a very direct signal.” Yet even here there is room for experimentation and expression. As is commonly known, positioning the mic at different locations across the front of the grill relative to the center of the cone also a way of capturing different tonal contours of the amplified sound. (For a sampling of this live using the Sennheiser e906, click to 17:10 in the episode). While all of the sounds across the grill will share the common denominator of directness, they will also have notable differences in the way they capture clean and gain sounds, so spend some time experimenting with what position fits your gear and ear.
That Sound That’s Not Gear At All: Room Acoustics
As was the case above, the distance away from the speaker opens up a whole new set of sonic options. (For a demonstration of this using the Sennheiser e906, click to 27:49 in the episode). This aspect of mic placement forces you to consider what it means to the hear the whole amp in a real space. When the mic is placed at variable distances from the amp, Dan remarked that “This is where we pick up room sound; this is where we add that room depth.”
In the same way that experimenting with different mics and positions of mics results in variations on sound, so does hearing the way different environments respond and react to the sound of your setup due to their size, space, and in-room reflective obstacles. At this point, considering mixing a distant room mic in with one positioned up close to the grill can add the unique flavor of the space. In short, as Mick commented, “it can add a sense of realism [to the sound].” (For a demonstration of mixed mics, click to 39:58).
In the end, while there are certain best practices for using a mic with a guitar amp, as Mick noted “It really depends on style of music...there’s no right way [to mic an amp], all there is is knowing what makes the differences relevant to your style of music.” Closer mics will generally retain tight and punchy sound (a la, rocky gain), whereas more distant mics will allow for more space and ambience (think, the TPS favorite genre “jazz-blues”).
Regardless of your musical tastes, mic needs, and budget head over to Riff City’s pro-audio section and find the right fit for your live or studio needs.
TPS Episode Rig Rundown:
Guitars: Dan: 1963 Closet Classic Fender Telecaster (ca. 2000). Mick: Collings 290 DC S.
Amps: Fender Hot Rod Deluxe.Shure SM57 Cardoid Dynamic Microphone.