In our latest edition of “Tech Talks,” where we sit down with HARMAN industry experts and discuss common AV technology problems, we’re talking about mic placement basics for clubs and other small venues. In this entry, we’re talking with Reimar Fochler, a Technical Sales Support Manager out of HARMAN’s Vienna, Austria office—home of AKG.
Reimar got his start as a live sound engineer back in 1990 and worked in that field professionally until 2003, when he joined AKG as a Product Management Assistant. In addition to his current day job providing technical support for wireless products, he still mixes live sound in his spare time. When I asked him what he did outside work, Reimar said “I am never outside work,” saying that wherever he goes, he’s always looking for opportunities to improve people’s lives with HARMAN technology.
Given his obvious expertise with microphones, I asked Reimar for some tips on how to apply microphones properly in club and other performance environments. His comments were enlightening.
[WR]: I know that proper microphone placement is key to getting the best sound out of an instrument. Where do you start when looking at how to position a mic?
[RF]: Since the sound level on a club stage can be so high, optimal mic placement typically starts with optimal placement of the backplane (guitar amps and drums). It makes no sense, for example, to spend time stressing about mic placement for a saxophone, for example, if the bass amp right next to it spills over with its boomy sound, muddying the clarity of the mic. If you place your backline and your instruments with that in mind, you can go for the acoustically “sweet spot” of your instrument or your speaker cone and place the mic right there.
In smaller venues, it might be better to place the mic close to the sound source in order to isolate the direct signal without much room and ambient noise spill over. A good example would be the overhead mics. Most of the time they are just mounted way too high above the cymbals and the sound engineer wonders why he only can hear the snare drum and a lot of bass guitar in that line, instead of the ride cymbal.
[WR]: You mention mic position relevant to amplifiers, but what about monitor wedges?
[RF]: It’s obvious that stage monitors, as an additional amplified sound source on stage, are the most critical “polluters” of any live stage situation. In smaller clubs, they are often driven quite loud to overcome the room reflections and deliver as much direct signal as possible, which is essential in order for musicians to monitor themselves in the already loud environment. With good mic selection and placement, you are able to minimize the unwanted spill over from the monitor speakers and capture mostly the direct sound from the instrument. Many stage microphones have some form of cardioid polar pattern, which means that they are more sensitive in the front of the mic and less sensitive to the rear and to the sides of their axis. Certain mics, such as hyper-cardiod mics, have polar patterns that allow them to be placed further away from the sound source. These mics have a very narrow pick up pattern, and blend away the noise from all other directions. With a good understanding of polar patterns, you can use the characteristics of different microphones to maximize the clarity of your stage sound.
[WR]: Let’s talk about one of the most complicated instruments to mic—the drums. What would you consider a minimum setup and what is ideal?
[RF]: For a minimum drum setup, you could mic up a drum set with only two mics. In a small club, it might be one for the Kick drum and one overhead mic to capture the snare, toms, HiHat and cymbals. In a different acoustical environment, it might work better to use 2 mics to pick up the whole drum set from overhead.
With a bigger budget, you could mic every single drum and cymbal of the whole set, using the various polar patterns and characteristics of the microphones to isolate and capture each single input signal. This would allow you to better integrate the different parts of the drums into a stereo mix.
Sometimes, though, it might be better to use less microphones on a drum set, rather than “over-equipping” it with every mic you have. One possible result in this scenario would be that you just increase the probability for feedback and unwanted coloration of the sound.
It may be tempting to worry about the right number of microphones, but actually it’s much more important to look at what kind of microphones you use and how you use them, compared to how many you are using.
[WR]: What about other applications, such as vocals or brass or wind instruments?
It depends on the specific application. For micing a vocal group, a common practice is to have two singers singing into one microphone from left and right. If you do this, you should use a vocal mic with a standard cardioid polar pattern. This has a wide front pattern to cover both sides without a large pattern in the back. If each singer get’s a separate mic, than you can use a super—or even better hypercardiod—mic in order to increase your gain-before-feedback ratio.
Head worn microphones for vocalists or clip on mics for instruments might also help the engineer obtain an even sound without level and tonal changes, because the mic always stays in position. Sometimes you have to deal with brass sections on smaller stages and they usually sound already dominant without even a mic attached. If you place a sound reflector (typically a plexi disc) a little distance to the front of the instrument’s bell, you can reduce the sound pressure of the direct sound and easier integrate the amplified sound into your front of house mix.
It is clear that getting proper mic placement is a complicated, application-specific task. We would like to give a big thanks to Reimar for giving us some valuable insight.
What do you feel is the hardest instrument to mic and why? Let us know—and give us your tips on miking them—in the comments.