FEATURE/ADVICE: Sound Reasoning Part 3 – choosing microphones for jazz recording

Large diaphram condenser mics are great for recording double bass

Mark Wingfield is a mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio. He has three DownBeat Masterpiece albums under his belt, a Jazzwise Best Release Of The Year, and over 300 rave reviews from around the world for albums he has worked on. In this series of articles Mark gives advice on how to avoid common mistakes made in the recording studio which will hold back your album from sounding great. This is the third part of his special advice series for LondonJazz News. Sound Reasoning Part 1 – the set-up, and Part 2 – monitoring levels and listening, are here.

Choosing microphones for jazz recording

Using the wrong mics is a problem I hear a lot in mixes. Choosing the right mic for the right instrument can make the difference between a great sounding jazz record and one which struggles to sound professionally produced. Some basic knowledge of mics is useful because recording on a budget often means using a small studio which doesn’t specialise in jazz. Your recording engineer may not know that recording jazz requires a different microphone choice.

The most common problem, one I’ve seen again and again, is incorrect drum miking. In jazz we want to hear what’s happening on the ride cymbal, because it is often key to the rhythmic interplay in the piece. The standard overhead mic technique for rock music is unlikely to get the kind of detail on the cymbals you need for jazz. Or consider piano. In rock, the piano often needs to cut through walls of guitars and pounding drums. So you might mike the piano so that the upper mids were prominent and not be concerned about the low end or tonal nuances of quieter notes. In jazz you need the full depth, width and dynamic range of the piano and this requires a different approach.

I’m not going to go into details on how to mike different instruments, but rather give you an overview of types of microphone. Listening in the control room during setup, knowing the kind of changes you can the ask the engineer for, can help immensely if you are not getting the piano or drum sound you want.

The main thing to remember is to use your ears and ask two things: Can I hear all the detail I need to hear on a given instrument when they are playing very quietly? Can I hear all the detail from every instrument when the whole band is playing? Concentrate particularly on things like intricate ride cymbal patterns, detailed snare work, quieter kick drum work and details in acoustic bass playing.  Those are the most easily lost sounds once the band is playing together.

Next concentrate on tone. Does the sax or trumpet have the tone you are after? If  the player has a breathy style, can you hear the breathiness clearly? If they have a sweet soprano tone or an aggressive tenor tone are these coming across at their best? Does the piano have enough low end? Does it sound too mellow or too cutting? Can you hear the woody tone of the bass? Does the kick drum sound dull, or too boomy? Does the instrument I’m listening to sound as good as my favourite records?

If anything doesn’t sound right, ask your engineer to change the mic or adjust the positioning until it sounds they way you think it should. Understanding something about the kinds of mics and positioning can be helpful  but listening critically is the main thing.

Now on to the microphones

You don’t need a £2000 mic. Of course really cheap mics are unlikely to give you a great sound. But the choice of mic type and positioning are more important than how much they cost. A £300-400 mic if well chosen and well positioned, can sound far better than a poorly chosen and badly positioned £2000-3000 mic.

If your engineer doesn’t have much experience with jazz, they may choose mics which are less than ideal for achieving the big, warm, detailed sound you probably want. Again, the mic choice for recording rock music is often very different from those chosen for jazz. The same is true for how you position the mics. With rock you are looking for a mic which will produce impact and cut through a wall of guitars. Fine details are not the priority. In jazz you are looking for mics which can accurately represent every nuance which is being played even at very low volumes, and mics which can reproduce the fine textures of acoustic instruments. In rock music the object is often almost the opposite, you often want maximum impact within a restricted frequency range.

Types of microphone

Condenser mics

Condenser mics are particularly good at capturing detail and high frequencies. There are two types of condenser microphone.  Large and small diaphragm condensers.  Large diaphragm condensers are also good at capturing the low end of an instrument. For this reason large diaphragm condensers are great for many things, notably vocals, sax, trumpet, piano and acoustic bass.

Small diaphragm condensers don’t capture the low end as well, but they are good at capturing high frequency detail.  So these mics are great for overheads on drums and in particular recording ride cymbals.  They are also great for capturing detailed snare work.

Many engineers used to recording rock and pop reflexively put a dynamic mic known as an SM57 as the stop snare mic.  Although this mic is great if you want a punchy rock snare sound, it’s often not the best choice for capturing the intricate snare work common in jazz.  On raw jazz recordings where an SM57 or similar dynamic mic has been used as the snare mic it’s always immediately obvious because there’s a lack of detail when the player starts to do something quiet or more intricate.  It’s even more of a problem during the busier parts of the tune when it can be a real struggle to hear what’s happening with rolls and drags on the snare.  Of course your mixing engineer can bring out these details by adding EQ and perhaps compression.  However applying processing to transform the snare sound can’t achieve the quality you get from using the right mic.

In contrast a good small diaphragm condenser mic (as long as you choose one which can handle the loud volume of a snare drum) can better capture the detail and dynamics of complex snare work as well as the tone of the snare drum.  Mic choice on the snare does depend on the player’s style and taste, and for some jazz players a dynamic mic on the snare can also work well.  But my advice is to always try a condenser mic as well, compare the two and see which sounds best.

Dynamic mics

Dynamic mics are also good for many purposes.  They don’t feed back as much as condensers so they are great for live work.  They are an ideal choice for miking toms and kick drum.  They can also be good on electric guitars, though condensers and ribbons can also work well here. Dynamic mics don’t tend to represent details in the high frequencies as well as condenser mics and to my ears they are often not as good at capturing the subtle rich tones of acoustic instruments.  For this reason dynamic mics are rarely used for recording things like piano, acoustic bass, sax, trumpet or drum overheads. Dynamic mics can deal with very high volumes and air movement (such as kick drums) however, where most condensers would not cope.  Dynamic mics are also good at producing a tight, impactful, punchy sound, which is why they are often used in rock music.

In a jazz studio recording, dynamic mics are generally only used on the toms and kick drum, and perhaps electric guitar.    Although there can be exceptions to any rule, if your engineer is using a dynamic mic or a ribbon mic on anything else, it’s really worth asking them to try a condenser mic instead.  Unless your engineer has a track record of engineering great sounding jazz recordings, my advice is to make sure they follow these rules.

Ribbon mics

Ribbons have been very trendy in recent years and I think are often used inappropriately.  Ribbons can sound great, but you need to be wary. Their sound can vary hugely.  There are ribbons that sound amongst the best mics I’ve heard.  And there are others which sound amongst the worst.  And all of them have been expensive ones from big name brands.  So use ribbons with caution.  Unless you are absolutely sure it’s right for the instrument in the context of the mix, it’s always safer to choose something else.

Some ribbons perform poorly at high frequencies and you can end up with a muddy, dull sound. Some people talk about these mics as “dark” or “warm” but they can simply mean the mic isn’t good at capturing high frequencies.  Some modern ribbons can represent the high frequencies well, but “vintage” ribbon mics or new ribbons modelled on old designs are often incapable of producing high frequencies adequately. This means you will be recording only part of your sound and you’ll never be able to recover what’s missing if you later decide you want it in the mix.

An example is using ribbons as overhead mics on drums or on a sax player who has a breathy tone.  Many ribbon mics will not reproduce the top end detail needed.  I have received many recordings to mix where ribbons were used as overheads on the drums and typically it is very difficult to hear the detail of intricate ride cymbal work, especially in a busy track.  If these frequencies are missing, there’s really no way to bring them back using EQ or anything else.  As always, use your ears when setting up the mics.

Context is also important. Some ribbon mics can produce a very nice velvety mid range and low end even if they don’t represent the high frequencies as well.  So in a sparse intimate ballad, a ribbon might sound great on sax or trumpet.  However in an up tempo track where there’s a lot of busy playing, it’s the high frequencies which help our ear pick out the details of each instrument.  In this situation, a ribbon mic might mean the sax or trumpet gets swallowed up by the other instruments in a way that wouldn’t happen with a condenser mic.

A common technique to get around this is to use two mics on any instrument where you want to use a ribbon mic.  You place the ribbon mic and a condenser mic right next to each other and record them on separate tracks.  DDuring the mix you can choose the ribbon for a slow track and the condenser for faster tracks.

TIP: If you can set the two mics up so that the diaphragms of the two mics are lined up to exactly the same distance from the instrument, you can use them both together in the mix.  This can be used as a kind of “natural EQ” because the sound will change as you change the balance between the two mics in the mix.  However, if you can’t be sure of aligning the diaphragms, you are unlikely to be able to use them both together in a mix because of phase misalignment.

Ribbons can have a very nice “velvety” midrange and smooth deep low end and can also sometimes tame potentially harsh sounding instruments.  So if you have time to experiment, it might be worth trying one, but if you are under time pressure or are not 100% sure you are getting the right sound from a ribbon, choose a condenser instead

In the next article we look at how to place microphones and how to deal with leakage.

Mark Wingfield
Mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio

Categories: Features/Interviews

3 replies »

Leave a Reply