One Mic? No Problem: Getting the most out of one mic

This article on getting the most out of one mic first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk! PS: you may find affiliate links in this post and I may get a commission if you buy something. 🙂

We all have a dream mic locker. Some of us are even lucky enough to obtain all the mics in it. Some are halfway there, and some are just getting started on the collection, but not everyone has the option of – well – options – when it comes to mics. If that’s you, no problem. You can get a lot of mileage out of just one mic.

Know Your Mic

First step to getting the most out of one mic: know it in and out. We all know every mic has unique characteristics – frequency response, proximity effect (or not), polar pattern(s), signal-to-noise ratio, sensitivity, etc. Experiment and listen carefully to the results you get in various situations and get intimately familiar with your mic specs.

For example, if you’ve got an AKG 414, you’ll note a presence boost at around 2-3 kHz. This means a particularly honky vocal will need some EQ treatment in that area to keep from jumping out and biting people on the ear drum.

Similarly, let’s say you know that same 414 has a switchable polar pattern with an omni setting. This means you have a wealth of options when it comes to capturing room tone or multiple sources – for example 4 vocalists. A mic with only one cardioid pickup pattern would be more limited, but no matter. You just might not be able to track as many sources at once.

Knowing details like this helps you predict a mic’s strengths and weaknesses so you can adjust accordingly with less trial and error.

Know Your Room

Knowing and manipulating the acoustics in the recording space you’re using goes a long way toward knowing how to maximize the use of your one mic. For example, condensers are all pretty sensitive, but there’s a wide range. If your one condenser is super sensitive and your room is not isolated from outdoor crickets, you’ll know to record quiet parts in the day. If your mic is on the less sensitive side, you’ll know you need a deader room since louder sources will contain more of the room (louder sounds = louder reflections).

Being diligent about the environment(s) you’re recording can give your one mic a lot more range. Someone who shall remain nameless (me) once recorded an entire album’s worth of vocals with an AKG D1000E from the 60’s. It sounded great, mostly because I was in the deadest closet in America. Tons of famous vocalists have recorded with a simple SM57, too (Lennon, Tom Waits, Madonna, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel…the list goes on).

Play With Placement

So much of a mic’s performance on a given source depends on placement (and the aforementioned room acoustics). If you’ve got that one condenser that isn’t normally used on something – say a snare – you might want to try experimenting with odd placements to find something creative that you wouldn’t expect.

Plan Ahead

Obviously if you only have one microphone you can’t record an entire drum kit and four piece acoustic band all at once. Well, actually you can. That’s how a lot of early records were cut. With great planning, great preparation and rehearsal, and judicious placement of elements (and room acoustics!), you can capture more than you may think. Many a cool drum track are captured with one mic, for example.

This is admittedly hard, so planning ahead my also just mean simple one-track-at-a-time recording, which still requires some fenagling. For example, if you’re an acoustic singer/songwriter with one mic (and no pickup), do you want to sing the song full out and record the guitar, letting the vocal bleed into that track before you re-cut the vocal? You could if that’s how you play best. Or you could learn to play the track first, sans vocal, to eliminate that weird bleed. You could also create a stereo guitar by recording twice and panning the tracks in the mix. The point is, think ahead just a bit.

One is Often Enough

There is a lot to be said for having a cabinet full of microphone options. But the truth is if that’s not an option, you’re not hamstrung. Choosing one good, versatile condenser may allow you to spend a little more per mic to get an all-around workhorse you can use for almost anything. Just make sure you know a bit about your choice and what you need before you buy.

I have a mic drawer, not a cabinet. It’s a weird collection and most of them are unnecessary. To discuss microphone merits, find me on social media @AaronJTrumm

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