Let’s set the scene. You’ve spent the last few weeks researching and ordering the equipment you need to start up the podcast you’ve been planning for months – boxes on boxes of headphones, interfaces, boom arms, and microphones lay waiting to be used. The setup should be the simplest part, right? Unfortunately, there is a whole new set of problems that arise in deciding where to place it all.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is a hurdle that every budding podcaster will inevitably face at some point – and for good reason. Equipment placement is a very important, yet often overlooked factor in any recording setup.
Today we will be exploring the heart of the setup, the microphone. Where you choose to place your microphone will affect both recording and production, meaning that it is crucial you decide where works best for you right off the bat. Good mic placement will save you many a headache down the line, so read on to find out why it is such a key factor and the ways in which you can determine what placement is best for you.
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What is Mic Placement?
Before we dive into this fascinating topic, let’s first answer the fundamental question of why singers and podcasters hold microphones so close to their mouths.
A microphone in close proximity to its subject will emphasize the bass frequencies and produce a warmer, more intimate tone. Having the microphone closer to the singer or podcaster will also amplify their voice and relatively speaking lower the volume of any background noise.
Microphone frequency response changes depending on how near or far you place it from the subject. This is similar in principle to hearing someone shout from far away; their voice is distant and hard to make out. Some sound waves travel further than others, meaning vocal sound characteristics vary depending on the distance.
Placement, therefore, plays a key role in recording and subsequent production quality. A microphone recording vocals from across the room will be much quieter and noisier than one in close proximity, meaning when it comes to producing your podcast, much more effort will go into bringing the recorded vocals to a level that is clear and sculpting a present and pleasing tone.
It is for these reasons that you will want to put careful thought into where you place your microphone. It can make the difference between an amateur sounding podcast, and a professional one.
Proximity Effect and Sound Characteristics
To understand how tone varies based on placement, you must first understand the proximity effect. The closer to a microphone you get, the louder the bass frequencies will become. Microphones that utilize pressure-gradients (meaning the diaphragm moves according to the pressure difference in front and back sides) are greatly susceptible to the proximity effect.
This may be a benefit or a hindrance depending on your situation. If the microphone sounds nasally by nature, standing closer to the source will fatten the sound – balancing the low and high-end frequency content. If the speaker has a deep booming voice, however, it may be necessary to record at a greater distance, evening the frequency in the opposite direction.
Ribbon microphones typically feature a bi-directional (figure 8) pickup pattern. As the microphone is sensitive to signal from both the front and back, they feature a more pronounced proximity effect. This means that extra care must be taken into account regarding the low-end content when placing a ribbon mic.
Placing a microphone on axis with the vocalist (parallel to the mouth) will give the most natural tone, however, a tilt upward or downward may help balance the tone. A microphone tilted down will bring out the high-end, and tilting it up will have the opposite effect. By understanding your mics frequency response as well as your own vocal characteristics, adjustments to placement can be used to your advantage.
Tips and Tricks
Now you have an overview of the technicalities of microphone placement, let’s run over some tips and tricks for perfecting your setup.
One rule of thumb for recording is that a microphone should be placed 6 inches away from the speaker. 6 inches is close enough that the vocals will be clear and present, without being too close that it is overpowering, or exhibits too much of a proximity effect.
If you find that your vocals are sounding nasal, then bring the microphone closer to the speaker. You will want to place a pop filter in between the speaker and the mic to reduce plosives, and levels will need to be turned down in anticipation of a louder mic signal.
If you haven’t got a pop filter to hand and are concerned about plosives ruining audio quality, then the microphone can be placed off-axis with the speaker. By tilting the microphone away slightly, you are shielding the diaphragm from any loud sounds produced by p’s and b’s. It is worth noting that an off-axis microphone will color the sound in different ways. To account for this, you should take the time to study the new tone, and move closer or further, or tilt accordingly.
Experimenting with Placement
While these are just a few tips and tricks to get you started, it will be down to your judgment as to what sounds right, and what adjustments need making. Factors such as space, or room noise (or any other noise) will impact your microphone placement decision.
Having a clear vision of the desired tone in mind is your greatest asset when experimenting with placement. It is important you take the time to adjust the microphone placement and listen to the results. By comparing recordings to the tone you are after, you will very quickly come to understand how to achieve that perfect tone.
Another factor that will require experimentation is the microphone characteristic. Each microphone has a different sensitivity, frequency response, and polar pattern, all of which will color your tone in different ways. For example, it is common knowledge that ribbon microphones have a high-end roll-off resulting in a warmer and darker tone. Condensers, on the other hand, place an emphasis on the highs, meaning they may very quickly become harsh-sounding.
Getting to know your gear will help you understand how to get the most out of it. By taking the time to learn what you are working with through practical experimentation, you will see a marked improvement in setup efficiency and audio quality.
Placement is an art in and of itself. There’s a good reason why professionals take time and care in tweaking settings and placements before recordings – each adjustment makes a huge impact on the tone and color. This is a quick overview of how placement can affect a vocal take, and by now you should be well on your way to crafting your own signature sound.
We mentioned briefly other external factors that may influence microphone placements, and while we don’t have time to cover all these topics in this article, we have many more covering everything you need to know going forward.
For all things room acoustics, we suggest ‘Room Acoustics for Podcasting: The Ultimate Guide’, and ‘What is Room Tone and Why is it Important?’.
If you’ve already figured out exactly where it is you want your microphone to get the best tone, and are looking to find out what you can do next, check out ‘The Best Equalizer Settings for Podcasts’.