Microphones Don't Have Brains

2011 Jan 05, 2011

When it comes to capturing a great recording we have to remember one very important thing, microphones are not like our ears…they do not have brains attached to them. As simple as that sounds, it’s quite profound, and crucial to understanding proper mic technique when in the studio. Let me explain…


Via Allan Ajifo Flickr

Our Ears Can Focus

When you listen to a drum kit or a guitar amp in real space, it is because the sound generated from those instruments flies through the air and hits your ear drums, causing vibrations that our brains understand as sound. But there’s more going on than that. Our ears have a brain attached to them that allows us to focus our hearing on a certain element of the frequency spectrum. We can tune out distracting sounds and zero in on what we “want” to hear.

Even in a room with horrible acoustics, we can set up a drum kit, have a player go to town and we can hear the entire kit: snare, kick, toms, cymbals, etc. We hear it all. Why? Because we expect it, we see it in front of us. We know what we are supposed to hear so we can pick all the right sounds out. Microphones cannot do that.

Microphones Are Way Simpler

Without the ability to focus in on sounds like our ears, microphones simply capture any and all sound waves hitting them and that’s it. They capture what they “hear” without any fuss. It’s so simple really that whatever sound or frequency is loudest (i.e. closest) to the mic is what will likely be featured in the recording.

This being said, we can take the simplicity and lack of intelligence of a microphone and use it to our advantage. We do this by using proper mic placement. No magic behind this, you simply place a microphone where you believe it will pick up the sound you desire. If it doesn’t translate well into a recording, then you need to move the microphone and try again. Remember, YOU can hear the snare the way you want, but the mic can’t until it’s placed in the right position. Keep adjusting until you find that sweet spot and the mic “hears” what you and your lovely brain hear.

It’s All Smoke And Mirrors

If you are grasping this concept then you can start to see why many people find a need to use multiple microphones on a given source to capture all aspects of that sound, even when we only need our one set of ears to do the same thing. That’s the beauty of audio recording, it’s all smoke and mirrors. It doesn’t matter how many mics (or how few) you use  or where you use them, because no one is going to see what you actually did in the studio. All your music is going to be judged on is how it sounds to the listener. How the sound waves hit THEIR ears and translate into a real image of musicians playing their butts off!

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