The Studio Detox: Pick Only Two Microphones

2015 Jan 12, 2015

Admit it, you have an obsession with microphones. We all do.

The most important tool for the recording engineer, microphones hold much mysterious power over us. So much so that we think if we could only get a newer, “better” mic we’d be able to get pro recordings. Just like the magazine promised us!

The truth is, you only need two mics to handle 95% of any recording situation.


Via Håkan Dahlström Flickr

Cleaning Out The Mic Locker

Two microphones?! Has Graham lost his mind?

Potentially. The reality is you only need one good microphone to record an entire band. And by good, I mean your run of the mill $100 condenser.

But I know people don’t believe me when I say you only need one, so I’m being generous and suggesting you own (or reduce down to) two mics.

If you’re anything like me, you might have collected a few mics over the years. It starts with one, then you add another, and then maybe you pick up a handful more so you can track drums, and so on.

Now, when you get ready to record your band or an artist you have this mini mic locker and you’re not sure which mic to use on what. If you’re anything like me  you’ll ask questions like these:

“Should I use a dynamic on her voice?”

“What about a small vs large diaphragm?”

“Oh, forget it. I’ll just use my most expensive mic on everything! The more expensive the mic the better the sound right?!

We Don’t Know Our Mics Well

The problem with having a handful of mics is that you never really know their full potential, nor do you know where they are best suited.

Plus if you keep trying different mics in different roles each time it’s hard to know what made the difference in your latest recording session. Was it the artist? The mic? The placement? The preamp?

In the end we simply don’t know our mics intimately. They are more of a loose acquaintance than a close friend.

That’s certainly the case for me.

One solution would be to do a ton of recording sessions and tests, experimenting with each mic you own and use a wide variety of instruments, singers, and musical genres to be able to discern the strengths and weaknesses of each mic you own.

But let’s be real, you don’t have time for that.

To be honest, I don’t even have time for that kinda mess.

The Simple Two Mic Solution

Instead we can use what I’m calling the Two Mic Solution. Simply pick two mics that complement each other well and call it a day.

What do I mean by complement each other?

I mean two mics that handle sound differently, that have obvious tonal differences. In other words: mics with two distinct flavors.

The simplest (and most affordable) way to achieve this is is to have one standard large diaphragm condenser and one dynamic. Think your typical $100 studio mic that you likely already own and then a Shure SM57 (also $100) or equivalent.

The logic goes like this. Most condenser mics made these days are transparent and have a bit of an upper mid range boost. They have that “air” quality to them. Which can sound nice in a lot of situations.

Think male vocals, acoustic guitar, drum overheads, outside kick drums, etc.

Your standard dynamic microphone (say the aforementioned SM57) tends to absorb many of those high frequencies and give you a more mid rangy tone.

This can be great for overdriven guitar amps, very bright female vocals, percussion, even aggressive rock or rap vocals.

By owning both mics you can cover just about any tonal situation that comes your way.

How To Implement This Two Mic Approach

Here is how I would implement this approach.

Label one of your mics the primary mic. The one you will typically start with. This will be your baseline, or “control” if you are more of a science lab person.

When it’s time to record something (say a vocal) you would always grab your primary mic (in this case let’s assume the large diaphragm condenser), record a little and see what it sounds like.

If it sounds great, then you’re done!

If it sounds a bit off, then you can adjust the mic placement since that is your first line of EQ.

If after a few tweaks of the mic, things still aren’t sounding good (vocal is to harsh let’s say) then it’s time to swap things out for your secondary mic (in our case the dynamic).

Record a little through the secondary mic, listen back, and see if it’s a better match for the vocalist. If it is, then you’re done!

If you’re unsure, you can always compare it to your previous test recording of the primary mic. Notice the differences and discern which sounds better to you and why.

95% of the time one of your two mics will get your sound nailed, especially with some simple mic placement adjustments.

In the event that you’re close but just not quite there, some simple EQ in your DAW will finish the job. Hey that’s what it’s there for anyway.

I Object To This Nonsense

I’m sure there are some people who think that deciding ahead of time to only use two microphones (and two specific ones at that) is a very narrow and limiting approach. And I would agree!

Limitations are the secret to making better music (and more music) in your studio.

In 95% of any recording session you have, two mics is all you’ll need since you likely are overdubbing one band member at a time. Few of us have the space necessary to track a full band live, and that’s OK.

In the 5% chance that you want to record multi-track drums you can definitely grab more mics and go for it. I sure do when it’s appropriate.

But don’t count out the fact that you can get a great drum sound with only two mics. Use the Recordman method or a simple mono overhead and kick combo.

Or even one mic if you’re a crazy person like me. Oh, and here’s another one mic approach.

And just to be clear, I’m doing this myself this year.

The last handful of tracking sessions I did, I found myself using a Rode Nt1a on 90% of the tracks. And the other 10% of the time? You guessed it, an SM57. Interesting.

Your Studio Detox Challenge Action Step

So what about you? Are you going to take this Studio Detox challenge?

What two mics are you going to use, and why?

If you only own one microphone currently, is there a secondary mic you could save up and buy that would compliment your current mic?

Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

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