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Using ‘Color’ Microphones Instead of EQ

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This post is going to focus on how to achieve a variety of tones by setting up specifically chosen ‘color’ microphones in your studio.

The key to quality audio is sometimes given the unimaginative name of ‘the good rule’. This essentially amounts to: good instruments > good microphones and preamps > good recording hardware = a good sound. Also known as ‘trash-in, trash-out’, it’s critical that the earlier things are in the signal chain the more important it is that they sound right. Digital does a great job of documenting what you feed it, whether it sounds great or awful. It isn’t the least bit flattering. From a purist perspective, your audio will almost always sound better if you can get the sound you want without compression or EQ – just by mic placement, instrument choice, and other such recording-chain choices.

One secret of those who either own their own studios or have time to set up shop in a studio for a project is to have carefully chosen ‘color’ microphones scattered around the rooms. By mixing in these microphones to the main mic on a subject, one can achieve a wild variety of sounds without having to grab an EQ. Hard drive space is cheap and most DAWs offer more tracks than the average pop producer will ever use so, if you have the time and the mic locker – why not? It’ll seem awkward at first but you’ll love the flexibility it offers and the purity of the sonic palette.

Fattening it Up

To add a fattening mic to a room, have someone play a midrange-heavy instrument like a guitar (or play one over a speaker) and move your ear around the room. Find a spot where it sounds the fullest (but preferably not boomy – just as round as possible). You will probably find the roundest sounds will happen near the floor. Grab a warm mic (cardioid, bidirectional, or omni depends on what you want from it – one cool trick is to use a very directional mic and focus it right at the performance). One should also be aware of potential phase issues, so have the mic far enough away to avoid major phasing problems. Throw up your preferred mic for the instrument and try mixing the two. Hopefully adding the fattening mic will fatten the sound. If it doesn’t, flip the phase. If phase flipping doesn’t help, there may be a phase issue and you should try a different position. For an even fatter sound, pan the color mic a bit off of the main mic.

Thinning it Out

Thinning with a mic is a bit trickier than fattening. In general, one can always choose a thinner close mic. But, it can be interesting to choose a microphone placement that is intentionally out of phase with your main mic. Again, move your ear around the room and find the thinnest spot (or the most similar sounding spot if you’re going for a really out of phase sound) relative to the performance location. Combine the two tracks and listen for spots where problem frequencies get canceled out when the two mics comb filter each other.

Trashing it Up

Don’t throw out your damaged mics (unless they will hurt something else in the signal path, of course)! Use broken stuff as weird spot mics to add rattle, farting, or other lo-fi qualities. Try taping a toilet paper tube around them to add directionality and midrange honk. Tape a lapel mic somewhere it isn’t supposed to be like inside a snare drum or in a can filled with dimes placed right next to the kick drum.

One of the fun things about using color mics such as this is that they don’t necessarily have to sound ‘good’ on their own. If you get in the habit of tracking with multiple mics, you’ll have more fun when it’s time to mix. If you DO have to use EQ to accomplish what you want, EQing the color mics instead of the close mic will maintain the purity of the bulk of the signal.

Plus, having massive sessions with hundreds of tracks looks impressive. Am I right?