***I originally wrote this article for D’Addario’s Orchestral Behind The Bridge blog. Please click here to view the original article.***
There are essentially three types of microphones: dynamic, condenser and ribbon. In my opinion, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong type to use depending on the sound you’re trying to achieve, but there are some best use scenarios for which each microphone type is better suited.
Dynamic microphones are more ruggedly designed which is why they tend to be heavier in weight. Electricity is generated within the microphone when sound waves cause the thin metallic diaphragm and attached wire coil to move inside of the permanent magnet that surrounds the wire coil in its magnetic field (see Figure 1). Electricity from the power company is generated in a similar way (minus the sound waves). Since the dynamic mic has its own electricity source, I don’t have to turn on my audio interface’s phantom power switch which would allow voltage to be sent through a microphone cable to operate the microphone. Because the inner components of the dynamic mic are heavier in comparison to others, this microphone type has limited high frequency response which would be a disadvantage for higher pitched instruments. The cello’s fundamental and harmonic sound wave frequencies fall within the audio spectrum range of the dynamic microphone, so I wouldn’t have a problem using one if I’m playing on cello. The most common uses of dynamic mics are for guitars, snare drums, sound reinforcement, and voiceovers.
Condenser microphones are my personal preference for everything I do from recordings to small performances where I set up my own PA system. This type of microphone has the widest frequency range which makes it a good option for recording acoustic instruments, string sections, cymbals, and vocals. Condensers use two electrically charged plates instead of moving a wire coil through a magnet. This means that they can respond faster to sound waves than a dynamic mic, have better high frequency response, and can capture the quick attack of certain instruments such as drums. I do have to make sure that my phantom power switch on my audio interface is always turned on when recording or miking with a condenser mic or no input audio signal will register.
Ribbon microphones are the most fragile and have a relatively weaker output signal even though they can sound great when used properly. Instead of using a heavy wire coil like the dynamic mic, ribbon microphones use an extremely thin sliver of metal foil as a diaphragm. As a result of this design, you will get a fabulous high frequency response because the thin foil will move very quickly in response to acoustic sound. This thin foil design is also the reason why the output signal for any audio input level will be weaker than with the other types of microphones. In my opinion, this type of microphone shouldn’t be used in a manner where a sudden blast of air from an instrument or vocal could damage the thin and fragile foil ribbon. A ribbon mic may be a good option for an instrument that sounds brash when recorded using other microphones such as a piano or violin.
After deciding which microphone you want to buy or use, it’s always a good idea to learn how to properly place it for your recording or live show. Below are the ‘Five Secrets of Mic Placement’ from the renowned audio engineer Bobby Owsinski. I came across this list some time ago and refer back to it often:
- Stand in front of the instrument being played and listen. Listen for tonal balance and how the room responds to it.
- Use your hands and ears to simulate various microphone pickup patterns. See diagram below – the pickup pattern should be stamped somewhere on your microphone. When you find the spot that sounds the best, that’s where you want to place the mic as a starting point.
- For omni placement, cover one ear and listen with the other.
- For cardioid placement, cover one ear and cup your hand behind the other to listen.
- For “stereo” placement or a stereo pair, cup your hands behind both ears and listen. One common way to record in stereo is to place 2 cardioid microphones at a 90 degree angle pointing in the direction of your instrument. You can also use this listening technique for a built-in stereo pair of microphones on a device such as the Zoom H4n.Figure 3.
- You can’t place a mic by sight.
- Try changing mic position instead of changing EQ.
- Give a mic some distance. Distance creates depth. When recording, I will sometimes double mic my cello with one right at the bridge for clarity of sound and the other a feet away to capture the depth of the room. In my previous article, I mentioned that I had to set up an aggregate device to be able to record myself using my 2 different types of microphones. My mini condenser mic that has to be connected to the audio interface is the one that I position right by the bridge of my cello because it doesn’t pick up sound very well at far distances. My USB Apogee MiC is the one that I place approximately 1-2 feet directly in front of me so that I can capture the sound waves after they’ve had a chance to blossom a little bit.
Please note that neither myself nor D’Addario is a definitive authority on this topic. This is meant to be an informational article for those who are novices in this area.
***This post originally appeared on the D’Addario Orchestral Behind The Bridge blog where I am a guest contributor. ***
When I first started recording myself on cello, my only intention at the time was to use those recordings to book gigs and to find work. I honestly never had any pipe dreams about becoming a mainstream recording artist since I was pretty much using myself as my own musician guinea pig while I learned the basics of audio engineering.
Here is the list of equipment that I currently use in my semi-professional setup at home to record and edit my cello recordings. Each piece of hardware is numbered in the picture below:
- An iMac with the Logic Pro X DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software installed.
- A Behringer X1204USB audio interface with a preamp built into each of the 4 microphone input channels. (A preamp is simply an electronic amplifier that prepares the small input signal from a microphone for further amplification and processing. A preamp can also be a standalone unit separate from an audio interface.)Connection type: USB cable to the computer.
- A CAD C9 mini condenser microphone.Connection type: standard XLR 3-pin cable from the microphone to the audio interface.
- An Apogee USB MiC condenser microphone that has the preamp built into the body of the microphone.Connection type: USB cable directly into computer.
- 2 Yamaha HS8 studio monitors (speakers) which play back a flat audio signal so that I can hear exactly what my playing sounds like.Connection type: ¼” balanced speaker cable from speaker to the audio interface.
Below is a diagram of my audio interface with each of the attached cables labeled for reference:
- This is the microphone cable. The other end is connected to my C9 mini condenser mic.
- These are the balanced jack ends of the speaker cables. The other ends connect to the speakers.
- This is the USB cable that runs directly to my computer.
- This is the power supply cable for the interface.
I like using Logic Pro as my DAW even though Pro Tools is the industry standard for professional recording studios. Logic Pro is less expensive to own and already came bundled with sound samples and preset software instruments that I knew I was going to need down the road when I started composing my own music. I also like Logic’s instrument specific sound enhancements that are included with the software as presets in the instrument library (see pic). I can very quickly apply these pre-defined settings to my cello recordings as a starting point for my editing process.
I use my Behringer audio interface to connect most of the hardware to my computer via USB port so that these devices can all be seen by the Logic Pro DAW. The speaker cables connect the monitors to my interface, then a microphone cable connects my C9 mini condenser mic to the same interface. If I only want to record using my Apogee MiC, then I won’t need the audio interface until I’m ready to edit the audio file. The reason for this is that the Apogee MiC connects directly to the computer through a USB port, and even has a built in pre-amp by way of the ‘Gain’ dial located on the body of the microphone. This ‘Gain’ functionality replaces that important job of traditional preamp hardware.
Things become a little more complex when I use both the C9 mic and Apogee MiC at the same time since Logic Pro is incapable of recognizing 2 different microphone types (USB & interface) in a single recording session. (Why would I need 2 mics at once? We’ll discuss optimal microphone selection and placement next time.) I had to create an ‘Aggregate Device’ in my computer’s system settings that combined both the C9 and MiC microphones into one input device. Logic Pro was then able to recognize and accept the configuration.
What makes my recording setup less than professional is the interface that I’m currently using. Eventually, I will need to upgrade this audio interface if I want to be taken seriously in the music world. I have considered just buying a better microphone while keeping my mid-grade Behringer, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter how expensive a microphone you buy. You will not be able to perfect the quality of recordings beyond the limitations of the preamp and audio interface that the microphone is connected to. Even though I can use sound enhancement plugins within Logic Pro that do magnificent wonders to an audio file, they can’t compensate for the added benefits of using a professional grade interface to make the raw recording in the first place.
**This post first appeared on D’Addario’s Behind The Bridge blog where I am a guest contributor.
At some point, most musicians and music majors will find themselves at the cross roads of trying to figure out how to parlay a music talent or degree into a career that actually pays the bills. When I finally committed to staying in the music industry, I started giving private music lessons and marketing myself to event planners and booking agents in an effort to generate some steady income. I found that one of the best personal marketing tools, other than a winning personality, was a good quality recording that vouched for the education and experience listed on my resume.
I learned very quickly that I needed to treat my musical endeavors like a business and figure out ways to make inexpensive recordings to e-mail or upload to a central website that potential clients could easily access. My first low-budget home recording setup was a desktop microphone connected to a PC. After my PC conked out I decided to get an iMac, which was the recommendation of the Pro Audio professionals with whom I consulted. At the time, I taught piano and cello lessons in the studios at the back of a music store, so I had access to a ‘Not-For-Resale’ copy of some recording software. I used that software along with my built-in iMac microphone to record myself until I was able to save up enough money to buy a proper condenser microphone.
That is how I got started. Over the years, I’ve been able to put together a more advanced recording setup at home, but we all have to begin the process somewhere. Below are a few ways for you to do your own recordings if you ever find that you need or want to go down that path:
- Sound Recorder. This is an inexpensive way to make a recording if you need something quick and aren’t necessarily looking for optimal studio grade quality. If you have Windows, then you can access Sound Recorder through the programs or apps menu depending on which version of the operating system you’re running (it’s now an app in Windows 10). I recommend hooking up an external microphone to your computer to use in tandem with this software so that you can adjust its location relative to your sound source. You may also want to convert the resulting audio file into mp3 format for compatibility with a wider range of music players. You can download free mp3 conversion software from the internet if you don’t already have a tool at your disposal.
- QuickTime Player. This is also an inexpensive and quick way to do an audio recording. I still recommend having an external microphone connected to your computer to improve the sound quality and volume. When you open QuickTime Player, you can navigate to File > New Audio Recording. You will want to click the down arrow next to the record button to select the correct input microphone device.
- Personal Recorders. A personal recorder can be a slightly more expensive option, but you don’t have to break the bank to get amazing sound quality. I really like the Zoom H4n personal recorder, and there are others out there in the market with similar functionality to choose from. The Zoom is compact and comes with 2 built-in condenser microphones that let you record anywhere in stereo. It’s very versatile in that you can just do a simple, straight-forward mp3 recording or record the full, majestic ambience of your live performance. You will definitely have to study the user’s manual to be able to take full advantage of all the advanced features, but the sound quality in the end makes it all worth it.
- Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software.There is software that you can buy to assist you with recording yourself as well as composing a complete song around your recordings. For the most part, this software replaces the need for a traditional recording studio. GarageBand is a virtually free software package that came pre-installed on my iMac and is available for the iOS mobile operating system for those who like to record on the go. My preferred setup is a DAW connected to a mic through an external pre-amp/audio interface, but I’ve been able to get some great recordings with GarageBand using a USB connected microphone.
Options 3 and 4 will give you better sounding recordings because they record in stereo, can handle a higher input signal, and allow for a more complex microphone configuration to create a more polished sound. Please note that neither myself nor D’Addario is the definitive authority on audio recording, but hopefully this article may serve as an informational directory for novices in the practice.