Don’t Judge A Mic By It’s Price
As per my latest post I’ve set out to record every song that I’ve written as a sort of living memorial for my family in case something were to happen to me. But what can I say? I’m still a gear head. I couldn’t just throw up a couple of mics and start tracking. It has to sound good, right? Surely my children will notice the poor off axis response of a certain microphone on these recordings, right? Well probably not, but nevertheless I can’t just record a bunch of terrible sounding stuff. I won’t be able to rest in peace with that.
As my man Joe Gilder over at Home Studio Corner is always preaching, Preproduction is key to an awesome recording. In this case, I wasn’t going to be spending much time on things like arrangement, tempo, or key. These are going to be straight acoustic guitar and vocal recordings of these songs at their original key and tempo, with no further instrumentation. Pretty sparse stuff. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take some planning. First step was to find a great sound for the acoustic guitar. I needed an awesome mic and preamp combination. This required a rule though. Because of where I work, I have access to more gear than I could ever really want and this can get me into trouble. Many, many, MANY weekends have been spent with piles of gear from work in my studio. Patching, repatching, testing, more repatching, trying to find awesome sounds. I have found them, but usually I get lost fiddling with gear, and not doing much actual recording. I didn’t want that to happen this time so I decided that for these recordings I was limited to only equipment that I personally own. Nothing from friends, coworkers, or the company so as to limit my options and force me to get to recording rather than testing gear.
The second rule was that every song has to be done with guitar and vocals recorded simultaneously. I want these songs to sound just as they do when I play them for my wife and kids on the living room floor on one of our terribly exciting saturday nights together.😉
The third rule is that every song has to be recorded as one take. There will be no comping the best of the best from each take. That means that if I make a mistake (as I quite often do) I have to either live with it on the recording, or start over from the beginning.
As you might imagine, rule #2 creates the wonderful problem of isolation from the guitar to the vocals. Mics now have to be selected not only on sound, but on off axis response and rejection. I’ve done a lot of recordings this way but it’s just so much easier when the vox and guitar are completely separate. Ah well, it makes this a bit more interesting.
So I spent the better part of a morning going through every mic (even some highly unlikely candidates like kick drum mics just for the heck of it) I own on my acoustic guitar. I would fiddle with positioning, angle, distance from guitar, etc and then lay down a quick few bars to a click track. I was also singing while playing so that I could check out how the mics would response to the vocal bleed. Went back, A/B’d them and slowly but surely eliminated them one by one. Oddly enough, the mic that I’ve always had as my go to acoustic mic, the one that I choose by default more times than I can remember, did not make the cut on this.
As part of this process, I was also patching each of these mics through my various onboard and outboard preamps, although I didn’t record these signals. I didn’t want to end up with a gazillion takes to sift through of every mic with every pre, and I figured I would be there for the rest of my life just doing that. I just put on my trusty HD650‘s and monitored the feed live to see if I liked it or not.
I’ve done plenty of mic shootouts before, and compared lots of gear using these same methods but there was something different about this process. Knowing that there would be no overdubs, and knowing that these recordings are for the most important people in my life really made me take my time. I was listening more critically than if these were paying clients. I was really picking apart each signal chain like I never had before. It all just seemed so final, and seemed to have such a slim margin for error. I took getting it right on the front end to the extreme and wanted to end up with two signal chains that, when combined, sounded like I wanted a mixed acoustic/vox track to sound. Every time I thought to myself, “Oh that’s still a little tubby, but I could always EQ that out” I would stop myself and back up. Nope, not going to fix that in the mix. We’re going to move the mic, or adjust the pre, or put the mic back on the shelf altogether.
This brought me to the vocal chain. Like a lot of musicians, songwriters, or engineers who often sing out of necessity rather than an overwhelming vocal ability, I’m a bit self conscious about my singing voice. I’ve been blessed with a lot of talents, and singing just isn’t one of them. That makes it particularly challenging to find a vox chain that I really like. Challenging but not impossible. I started putting up mics, patching through pre’s and running down the line much like I did on the guitar tracks. I’ve got some phenomenal vocal mics that sound great on almost any vocalist, but apparently I’m the 1% that they don’t sound good on. As I burned daylight going through mics that ranged in price from less than $300 to more than $3000 I was avoiding one mic in particular. The Rode NTK. I know there are plenty of people who have always sung the praises of this mic, saying how it’s amazing for it’s price, but I was just never one of them. Any time I tried to use it on vox it always came off as kind of sizzly on the tope end, really bringing out sibilance and sounded like what I would call “spitty.” Rode makes good stuff for the price, but this mic just never did it for me. In fact I didn’t even have it out with my other mics. It was sitting packed away in its case in a pile of other pieces that would be traded off or maybe ebayed.
I had run into a problem though. While I had found a couple of mics that my voice was sounding great on like the BLUE Woodpecker, or the Shure KSM 353 I hadn’t found a mic that when combined with my acoustic chain sounded great together. They were all doing funky stuff to the acoustic bleed that didn’t mix well with the straight acoustic track. Countless times I would pick out frequencies that I could easily EQ out and get this thing done, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted it to sound great, and basically finished straight off the track. So as I was beginning to run out of mics, and contemplating abandoning my no EQ insanity, I decided to blow the dust (yes there was literally dust on the case) off my my NTK and fire it up. As you have no doubt guessed, I piped it in, turned it up and there was my sound. What had previously sounded so hyped and sizzly now had just the right presence on the vocal and gave the acoustic bleed a perfect tone for blending with the direct signal.
I left everything set up, marked off my floor for positioning myself in front of the mics, saved my Pro Tools template and called it a day. I’ve gotten through a few songs since then and they’re all turning out great so I’m excited to see this all come together. The lesson, which I’ve been preaching for years, and have just been reminded of is to never judge gear by it’s pricepoint. One of the cheapest mics I own ended up being the perfect mic for my vocal chain on this project. By itself, it probably wouldn’t have made the cut, but it’s just what I need on these tracks. Always pays to experiment and really exhaust all of your options before committing to a signal chain.
Until Next Time
The Bearded Man