An electric guitarist is sitting in a studio, ready to start a session. They have tweaked their amp to get a sound they like. You want to record that same sound.
Typically, you might stick an SM57 or a ribbon mic near the amp’s speaker. But let’s consider a different method: put a microphone where it picks up the same sound that the guitarist is hearing.
As a starting point, it makes sense to place a mic near the player’s ears. After all, the sound there is what the musician wants to hear. You might use an LDC with a flat, extended frequency response to accurately record the spectrum at that point.
If you mount the mic near the guitarist where the live sound is good, the recording probably will sound muddy and distant when played over monitor speakers. You’ll hear more room ambience over monitors than the musician hears live. That’s because we hear room reverb binaurally, all around us. But during playback of a mono recording, all that reverb comes from a single point and so is more audible relative to the direct sound of the instrument.
If you position a mic at the musician’s ears, the direct-to-reverb ratio is low, giving a distant sound over the studio monitors.Closer miking compensates for this effect by increasing the ratio of direct sound to reverberant sound.
So you place the mic closer, between the player’s head and the amp. You want to capture the same direct/reverb ratio in the recording that the player hears live.
For example if the amp is 4 feet from the guitarist, the mic could go about 18 inches from the amp. Keep the mic on the straight line between the player and the amp (Figure 1.) This might place the mic off-axis of the speaker, but that’s where the musician has tweaked the amp to hear the desired tone.
For more realism, you could use two mics and record in stereo. You’ll hear some spacearound the amp, much as the guitarist does.
I have used this method and it really works. The first time I tried it, the guitarist and I were stunned by how well the playback sounded like what the guitarist heard from theiramp. “That’s my sound!” they yelled.
And that is the goal. The musician is likely to be thrilled because you can record the same tone that they worked so hard to achieve.
So, start with one or two mics near the player’s ears, then move the mics closer to the guitar amp, along the straight line between the player and amp. Locating the mic about 1/3 the listener’s distance to the amp works well (Figure 1).
What if you hear too much leakage from other instruments? You could do a solo overdub. Or record the musician’s-perspective mic on one track, and simultaneously record a close mic or a direct feed on a second track. Then use the first track only as a reference. EQ the second track to match the reference, and use only the second track in the mix.
This technique works with other instruments too. You could stereo-mike a drum kit with two LDCs on either side of the drummer’s head. Your recording will have the same balance that the drummer hears as they play. (That may or may not work in the final mix).
Similarly, you might record an acoustic guitar with a mic near the player’s right ear, aiming down at the bridge. You’ll get a natural, realistic sound. Same for a piano, sax, or fiddle… you get the idea.
Of course, if the player doesn’t like what they hear live from their instrument, you might be able to improve on that by using other mic positions.
So, I suggest that we rethink our standard mic techniques and occasionally try a musician’s perspective approach instead. Like any technique, it needs to be evaluated in context with the whole mix. But you — or your musician clients — might be delighted with the sonic effect this method provides.
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Bruce Bartlett is a recording engineer, audio journalist, and microphone engineer (www.bartlettaudio.com). His latest books are “Practical Recording Techniques 7th edition” and “Recording Music On Location 2nd edition”.