Miking Up The Band

A basic guide to mic technique for live music

There are a number of challenges with live sound compared to the studio. There are stage monitors that not only feedback, but also cause colouration of the sound. All of the on-stage sound leaks into all of the mics to a varying degree and the mics are also prone to breath popping, hum pick-up, lighting buzzing, handling noise and so on.

First of all a few points to consider that will help to eliminate the main potential problems before you start.:

  • Position  mics close to the source. Doing so increases the sound level at the mic, needing less gain and reduces background noise and leakage. Unidirectional mics, such as cardioid, supercardioid or hypercardioid, help by attenuating off-axis sounds,, their proximity effect boosts the bass up when close, but not the bass of distant sounds.
  • Use DI (direct inject) boxes and instrument pick-ups to eliminate leakage. Or a combination of pick-ups and  mics. On electric guitars use a transformer-isolated direct box and set the ground-lift switch to the position with the least hum.
  • Headworn noise-cancelling mics are worth considering on vocals. Noise-cancelling or differential microphones are designed to cancel out sounds beyond a small distance and provide outstanding gain-before-feedback and isolation. The lips must be touching the foam windscreen, otherwise the voice is cancelled.  
  • Keep mic cables well separated from lighting and power cables. If the cables must cross, do so at right angles to reduce the coupling between them, and separate them vertically.  Routinely check the microphone cables to make sure the shield is connected at both ends.  If hum pickup is severe then check the earth and the cables. Don't run lighting dimmers from the same wallsocket as the mixer.
  • Power all instrument amps and audio gear from the same AC distribution outlets. Run a heavy extension cord from a stage outlet back to the mixing console (or vice versa). This not only prevents hum but also helps to prevent electric guitar “shocks.” These are caused by a ground-potential difference between the electric guitar strings and the sound system mics, giving shocks when both are touched. 
  • It can be worth using  a foam wind-screen on the vocal mics. These suppresses breath pops better than a metal grille screen. and also serve to insulate the guitarist from shocks. They are generally essential on an outdoor stage. 
  • Minature mics are very useful. Nearly all microphone manufacturers offer miniature condenser models often with excellent audio properties. When clipped on musical instruments, they produce a consistent sound, allow the performer to move freely and reduce clutter on stage by eliminating mic stands. Because these mics are very close to the instrument, they have a high sound level. An omni mic can often be used without feedback. Omni mics generally have a wider, smoother response.
  • If you use wireless mics make sure they are set up correctly. If there are dropouts, move the wireless receiver (or remote antennas) closer or to a point with a stronger signal. If distortion occurs, then turn down the gain-trim pot in the microphone.

Mic Techniques For Different Instruments

The following suggestions below are proven techniques but as always, there is no one “right” way to mic an instrument. They are meant to be a starting point so don't  hesitate to experiment and use what feels best.

Vocals

Generally use a cardioid dynamic or condenser mic, maybe with a presence peak around 5 kHz such as the Shure SM58. make sure that the floor monitors are to the rear of the mic to reduce monitor pickup and feedback. Use a 100 Hz low-cut filter and some low-frequency roll-off to reduce pops and to compensate for proximity effect. Not all vocals are best  with a presence peak and some voices really benefit from a smooth sounding condenser or even a ribbon vocal mic The latter is particularly good on hard, or harsh souding voices.

Acoustic guitar 

Consider using a cardioid condenser if possible on guitar, place the mic between the sound hole and 12th fret, a few inches away. Roll off excess bass. Pointing the mic slightly towards the neck will help to capture more detail and towards the sound hole will give a softer, warmer sound although may give too much bottom end. Raising the mic vertically by a few centimetres can help here. Aim the mic downward to pick up less vocal. Other approaches include using a direct box on the guitar pickup or placing a minature mic near the bottom edge of the sound hole. If using the latter then you will need to use EQ to roll off the excess bass.

Electric guitar

Use a cardioid dynamic mic an inch (25mm) or so away from the speaker at a slight angle. Nearer the edge than the centre of  the speaker cone is a good starting point. Too close to the centre tends to pick up unwanted resonances, very near the edge gives a slightly thinner sound.

Electric bass

The usual solution here is to use a DI here. Many bass amps and pre-amps have a DI out for this purpose, if not a DI box can be used. Although this is a popular method, it is worth considering the use of a mic, or at least  providing for one, as they can have certain advantages.

One of these is sound; often a bass player will have a particular sound that is produced  by the bass amp/speaker combination and some if not all of this is lost via a DI. The other is practicability; if there are a number of bands at a gig it can be quicker and easier to pop a mic in front of the bass cab than trying to sort a DI. Quite often direct outs on bass rigs will cause hum and noise even though they are not supposed to and being able to resort to a mic can save precious time when setting up a band.

Use a mic with a suitable bass response, usually  a large diaphragm dynamic mic, or a flat response condenser. Place the mic at a slight angle close to the speaker as with the guitar. If the bass cab uses multiple speakers the best low end response is in the middle of them.

Acoustic bass 

A flat-response cardioid can be used a few inches in front, level with the bridge.  Alternatively, wrap a cardioid dynamic mic in foam and stuff it in the tailpiece aiming upward. You will need to use an EQ cut around 6-700 Hz and give a little low end boost, depending on the mic used. Another option is to tape a miniture mic near an f-hole and then use some low end cut to roll off excess bass.

Fiddle/violin

The ideal is usually a minature omni mic. Use a small piece of foam around the cable just behind the mic head and then stuff the foam into the tailpiece. Adjust  the mic head so that it floats between the tailpiece and bridge. Another  position is to clip it by the F hole, although this usually means more EQ on the desk. If a suitable minature mic is not available then use a cardioid dynamic or condenser mic on a boom stand about 6 inches over the bridge.

Mandolin, bouzouki, dobro, lap dulcimer

Flat-response cardioid dynamic or condenser about 6 to 8 inches (150-200mm) away from a sound hole is often the best option. 

Banjo

A flat-response condenser or dynamic mic 6 inches from the drum head, either centered or near the edge. Alternatively clip a minature mic on to the bridge or tape it to the drum head about 2 inches in from the rim.

Saxophone

There are two directions to go with the saxophone. Usually with live work a dynamic, condenser or ribbon mic on a stand and angled down toward the bell is the way to go. This allows the player to use the mic creatively, adjusting their volume and tone with the position of their instrument..

The other option is to use a mic mounted on the instrument. One way is to use a shock-mounted cardioid on the instrument bell. The other is to use a minature omni or cardioid condenser mic clipped to top of bell, adjusted to pick up the sound from the tone holes a as well as the bell. The disadvantage here is the lack of dynamic expression available to the player and often the requirement of a compressor/ limiter to handle loud peaks. 

Brass instruments

Use either a cardioid condenser or dynamic, or a ribbon mic about 8 inches (200mm) or so from the bell. Note that some ribbon mics may not handle the sound pressure levels from some brass instruments.

Woodwind instruments

Use a flat-response cardioid condenser placed 8 inches from the side – not in the bell.

Flute

Some flutes have a built in pick-up which are very effective. If not use a cardioid mic near mouthpiece, and preferably use a foam pop filter. A  minature omni can be clipped or taped between the mouth-piece and tone holes, about 1.5 inches  from the mouthpiece.

Harmonica

A cardioid dynamic mic used very close or often handheld.

Xylophone or marimba

Use a pair of flat-response condensers, about 18 inches (450mm)above the instrument and a couple of feet apart

Accordion, concertina

Place a cardioid mic about 8 inches (200mm) from the tone holes on the piano-keyboard side. A minature omni mic can taped near tone holes on the opposite moving side.

Grand piano

Quite often it can be sufficient to tape a minature omni mic or a boundary mic to the underside of the raised lid in the middle. If you want stereo then raise or remove the lid and use two flat condenser mics, one over the bass strings and one over the treble strings. These should be 8 inches over the bass and treble strings, about 8 inches horizontally from the hammers, aiming at them. Alternatively put the bass mic about 2 feet nearer the tail, aiming at the sound board. If you need more isolation, then close the lid and adjust the  EQ to cut around 125 Hz to 300 Hz and remove the tubby coloration.

Upright piano

Use a pair cardioid mics facing the sound board, a few inches away, dividing the piano in thirds.

Synths, drum machines, etc.

Use a DI box

Leslie organ speaker

Use a cardioid dynamic mic with a presence peak a few inches from the top louvres and  another mic on the lower bass speaker.

Bongos or congas

Place a cardioid dynamic near each drum head.

Other percussion

Use a flat condenser or dynamic mic about 1 foot away.

Miking The Drum Kit

This has it's own page here


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