Single microphone recording method: experience & tips.
If you’re looking for an unusual way to record your acoustic band and keep yourself and your audience engaged in that awesome music you produce, I highly recommend looking at single microphone recording method to capture a song or even entire new album of yours.
I once did and had an awesome experience. Thus I’d love to share some very useful tips on single microphone recording technique in case you decide to take the challenge, as well as tell you my own story on capturing a group of musicians playing at once into one single stereo microphone – Rode NT4.
As you may already guessed I’m not suggesting to use same mic to track every instrument one by one. I’m talking the glorious, but forgotten technique of using one stereo or two mono microphones to record whole band playing at once.
In fact Bluegrass bands are famous to use figure of eight or omni-directional microphones to record or reinforce their performances to this day… In mono, which is not what we’re at here. We shall do a single mic recording of an ensemble in stereo!
I encourage you to try it out, because things you’ll learn not only will bring your band to the next level of performance, but also lift your personal skills as recording / mixing engineer. You’ll have lot’s of fun in the process as well. And since fun is a kind of energy, you can be sure it’ll transfer very nicely into your recordings!
FIRST CHANCE TO TRY OUT SINGLE MIC RECORDING TECHNIQUE
Few years ago I did my first session utilizing this single mic recording technique to capture the whole band and I have never looked at the recording and mixing processes the same ever since. It was mind opening equally for me and the band, who agreed to undergo such an adventure together.
My friend and leader of a band formerly called “Home Jazz Five” Mindaugas Bikauskas asked me if I was interested in recording their entire album. Because I was already tired of recording mediocre bands building their music on eternal overdubbing, I promised I’d agree if whey sign off on my conditions:
- They must be recorded playing all together at once.
- No overdubbing of single instruments is allowed.
- There will be no whining trough tedious process of pushing and pulling band members around to get the right balance between instruments and achieve perfect stereo image.
- Performance will be captured using a single microphone recording method i.e. with only one XY stereo microphone, which happened to be Rode NT4.
- They’ll need to polish their parts beforehand to avoid stress during recording process as well as not to screw up the perfect take with a one wrong phrase at the end of a piece.
Because Mindaugas was and is a crazy adventurer, he agreed. After some management of time and practice we went to a heating-less and WC-less cabin in the woods. My friend claimed it had nice acoustics. Being able to take a comfortable dump vs. good acoustics… Obvious choice isn’t it?
SETTING UP GEAR, INSTRUMENTS AND “LIVE ROOM”
As single microphone recording method is minimalist gear-wise, it took me only few minutes to setup. I put the Rode NT4 on a stand in the middle of “live room” and ran two cables to the attic where I established my “control room” with intention being to concentrate on what I hear, instead of what I see as well as get maximum isolation from the band. Both cables were plugged into RME Babyface which was attached to my MacBook running Reaper 4.
Musicians arranged themselves and their instruments in the “live room” on the ground floor. I did my best to use every free lying piece of soft material to dampen the room, reduce reflections from windows and reduce the size of “live room” by separating the kitchen corner.
MIXING LIVE PEOPLE
The hard, fun and most interesting work began as I started positioning the musicians and their instruments to achieve a balanced stereo image as well as dynamic ratios between instruments with one of the main tasks being not to bury natural tone of the instruments.
Contents of the band:
- Vocalist who also played an acoustic guitar in all pieces.
- Double-bassist who also played a tuba in some tunes.
- Trumpet player who also played some violin.
- Tenor and alto saxophonist.
- Clarinet player who may also have carried a soprano sax.
It was very tricky to get the vocals sound clear and most in front, at the same time not let the gipsy guitar overpower the vocals and the double-bass – being the quietest instrument – to stay clear enough and have some definition and attack.
I also needed all three of them in the center of the Rode NT4 mic’s stereo field. The mic was positioned about a meter in front of lead singers forehead. Double-bass player needed to be right next to the lead singer standing on a chair, just to keep the double-bass as close to the mic as possible without physically obscuring the lead vocalist and his guitar.
Speaking of solo instruments, it was a challenge to not let the trumpet and saxophone make the album all about them. So they needed to be pushed back same as tuba when it was substituting for the double-bass. This way I was able to maintain a nice balance at the expense of little added reverberation.
Musicians needed to turn themselves at certain angles to further enhance or decrease volume and special tone of their instruments.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS FEW TAKES LATER
After few initial takes, once I was happy with the balance I remember all the band members listening to the recording and the sax player, who was the most professionally trained musician of the bunch saying something like:
“Once I heard we’ll be captured using some obsolete single microphone recording technique, I thought this will be waste of time, but this is going to be really cool…” In fact all the guys were of the same opinion.
And after the album was released, Remigijus (the sax player) asked me if I could record his big band, based on the same single microphone recording method. Now that’s a compliment!
POST TOOLS AND PROCESSES
Biggest downside of single microphone recording technique is that everyone must do their best in the recording process, because very little can be done afterwards. There is no ITB mixing stage as we know it. Most you can do is some cleaning up and mastering.
For cleaning up I used iZotope RX. It involved only basic spectral editing, filtering and removal of unintentional noises made by performers.
For final touches and mastering I chose iZotope Ozone 4 Advanced. Because of the positioning all tracks containing tuba as bass instrument needed +6dB to +12dB low frequency shelving. Some tracks needed stereo balance adjustments and other bit of MS processing be it EQ or dynamics.
10 STEP CHECKLIST to smooth out your first single microphone recording session:
- Make sure all musicians are on board with this. Finding the right balance will take lots of time, thus everyone needs to be super helpful and friendly.
- Make sure all musicians understand they need to practice the heck out their parts as there will be no overdubbing. And stopping at the end of the last chorus because someone hit the wrong note can be really stressful for everyone.
- The only editing cheat you can have in post-production of a single microphone recording is to compile a song out of different takes to have the best result.
- You need to decide whether you will take advantage of your recording location’s acoustics, or you will need to dampen it and add some artificial reverberation in post. If you decide to go with the firs option, make sure location sounds good enough to add to your music and not subtract from it or even worse – induce problems like resonances or uncontrollable reverb tails etc. If you go with dampening – dampen the shit out of that room.
- Make sure there are no unintentional sounds. Listen for hums, buzzes, whistling, planes, rattling and everything that’s not music. Make sure to make ’em disappear before recording process starts.
- Be sure to put soft materials under the feet of musicians and remove their shoes, because they’ll do their best to ruin their album with stomping the 1, 2, 3, 4 out and no HPF will help you.
- Make sure you arrange your “control room” somewhere out of audiovisual band’s reach. You need to hear EVERYTHING and seeing the ensemble will only distract you.
- Use headphones and not speakers for monitoring purposes, because you need every detail to be heard and speakers won’t give you that. Closed-back design headphones are perfect for this task.
- Do everything you can think of to achieve a perfect initial L / R and volume balance. It’s nearly impossible to correct an instrument dominating one channel way too much in the post-processing. Lift, turn, bend your performers; use isolation walls or hang carpets to reduce volume of their instruments; make musicians change positions during the songs to get what you want. Improvise and be creative all the time to achieve what you want.
- If you’re not quite sure if you’re happy with the result, go and correct your arrangement, because if you won’t do it now, you won’t be able to do it at all.
- Without doubt one mic recording method can give you the most natural sounding result if performed right. As you can see, there are lot’s of thing you need to take care of before hitting “record” button. But at the end of the day your hard work will pay off.
- If your band is on the acoustic side of music, you will benefit recording it with a single mic much more than you would capturing it the usual way. Fun, natural energy, increased level of performance, ambience, hyper-realistic stereo image are only few advantages you’ll have.
- Although the production itself might seem time hungry, but think of it this way: you would spend hours on multi-miking your ensemble anyway, not to mention overdubs and endless days of mixing. Capturing and finalizing a well prepared band’s entire album using a single mic recording technique can take just few days.
- Of course we don’t count the time musicians put in to polish their parts. But it’s their business as performers and not ours as recording an mixing engineers. And we all know that there’s a bad habit of learning to play during recording sessions wandering around, don’t we? Responsibility of band members themselves to not screw up a perfect take makes single microphone recording method so effective.
- All in all recording a band using this approach is a must for every recording, mixing or mastering engineer as well as musicians themselves. The process is totally mind opening and you will most definitely learn so much doing it. Not to mention all the fun you’ll have and energy you’ll print into your final product.
That’s it on my first single microphone recording session. Have you ever done it? Would you dare to do it? Let me know either way. If you have questions or comments regarding the process – drop a comment and I’ll get back to you ASAP. Also I’d love to hear your single microphone recordings! Cheers!
Oh, and I invite you to listen to the final result of this single microphone recording adventure – behold the album “Home” by “Home Jazz Five”.
Also feel free to take a look at all the fun, than was captured on tape thanks to my friend and colleague Andrius.
And if you’re looking to open your mind as a mixing engineer even further, you may like my article on “10 odd audio mixing tips to drastically improve your mixing skills“!