microphone tips phantom power and placement advice
recording music, sound effects, broadcast, CDs.

Michael Oster
F7 Sound and Vision's Michael Oster has been recording the sounds around him since the 1970s, beginning on cassette and continuing all the way up to include 24 bit portable laptop based systems....


Microphone close to a sound source

sound source image

sound source image


The same microphone farther away gives a different sonic perspective.

Don't forget about altitude when trying different mic placements.

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(these simple tips can save you money and open up new recording possibilities)

Add new life to your old microphone!

Tired of your regular microphone and looking to drop some of your hard earned cash on a new one? Before you do, you might want to consider doing something very simple that will give your old mic a new life.

Most people tend to use the same microphones in the same way. That is, they'll mic a guitar amp, snare drum, or vocal, or whatever, the same way with the same microphone (for example, it's pretty common to see an SM 57 less that one inch from and facing a speaker, slightly off axis). Doing that will give them the "same sound" of course and over time that "same sound" might just get a little old.

At first, it might look like the best solution is to purchase a new and different microphone (or preamp). That is one option. But before locking that old gem in the closet and darting down to the music store, try this: move your microphone. What? Yes, move your microphone.

Here's what I mean. Get a sound source going. Something through a speaker or have a friend play an instrument. Set up your "old" microphone. It doesn't matter what mic it is. Just set it up like you always have before. Listen. Should sound just like your old mic always has, right? Good. Now, move the microphone. Just a couple of feet will do. Remember that you're working in 3 dimensions so don't forget about altitude. You might have to adjust your gain a bit to keep the same relative volume you had when you started. Move it some more. Make sure to listen each time you move your microphone and it's probably a good idea to record while you're doing this experiment. Notice any changes in the character of the sound? Hear any different shades of frequencies or changes in sonic perspective? You should.

Spend a little time doing this with all of your microphones. It doesn't matter if they are dynamic, condenser, cardioid, omni, or whatever. It doesn't matter if you're using a microphone that's "intended" to be a vocal, drum, or ambient mic. Use it for what it's not intended to do (just be careful with ribbons). What's even more dramatic is when you start mixing tracks recorded with the mic in different positions. This is where the "perspective" of the sounds really shine. And it can all be from one microphone.

Now, before the mic manufacturers get pissed at me, let me state that I'm not saying to never buy new microphones (or preamps). What I am saying is that sometimes we all will try to solve a problem by "throwing money" at it. And sometimes, that's not the best solution. By the way, I happen to lust after microphones and pro audio equipment as much as or more than any recording engineer, so, I have to follow my own advice too.

Bottom line: If you get one thing from this, it's that a single microphone can have many different personalities depending on where it is in relation to a sound source.

microphone placement image

On this page:

Microphone Placement
- distance changes character

Phantom Power
- is your mic in danger?

Use your ears
- to get the right sound

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Will phantom power kill my microphone? Probably not, but...

What is phantom power: A DC electrical current (usually 48v) sent down an XLR line from a mixer or preamplifier to a microphone. Phantom power is "invisible" to the audio signal also traveling on the cable (unless there's a problem with the cable or the mixer/preamp).

Why do we need it: Some micropones require external power in order to work. Almost all of the time it's condenser mics, with a few exceptions. Blue Microphones "Ball" is a dynamic mic that needs phantom power for its internal electronics, Royer makes a ribbon microphone that needs to be phantom powered, and Audio Technica makes a tube microphone that runs on phantom power. Also, some PZMs (pressure zone or boundary microphones) need phantom power (some only take batteries).

What if: you've got a mixer that only sends phantom power "globally" or in multiple channel "banks" at one time and you're running several different kinds of microphones - some that need phantom power and some that don't. "Will I harm my microphones by sending them phantom power if they don't need it?" Probably not. Dynamic microphones usually "ignore" phantom power and most people don't own ribbon mics (but this is changing). Almost always, you DON'T want to send phantom power to a ribbon microphone (unless that specific model requires it). When in doubt, use a seprate preamplifier to "isolate" your microphone from the ones being sent "global" power. The "isolated" preamp will then feed a line input of the mixer.

Be careful: with phantom power on all microphones! You should wait to turn on phantom power until after you've plugged in your microphones. When you're done recording, leave your mics plugged in, turn off the phantom power and wait at least a minute before unplugging your microphones.

Put your microphone where your ear is!

Ever wonder why what you recorded doesn't sound like what you heard? This happens to a lot of people. They hear something, lets say a guitar, and it sounds great. So, they take their microphone and put it in front of the instrument just like they've seen or read, or had their friend tell them to do. But something has changed because it doesn't sound as great through the monitors (or headphones) as it did earlier.

Time to get another microphone or preamp, right? Not so fast. I've got a question for you. Where is the microphone compared to where your ear was when you first heard that "great" guitar sound? Could be that when you heard that "great" guitar, you were standing 4 feet in front of the person playing the instrument. Then, you placed your microphone about a foot in front of the instrument, facing the soundhole, but slightly off-axis, or whatever. Plus, your ear was about 6 feet from the floor and you've set your mic up about 3 feet from the floor. It can make a huge difference in the way your recorded guitar sounds compared to the guitar you were hearing earlier.

So, try this: put your microphone where your ear was when you heard that great sound. You should be getting a similar perspective now. This will work with any sound source, I just used a guitar as an example.

Here's another quick example: you're playing some music through headphones and the headphones are on a table about 4 feet away from you. It sounds cool and might make a good intro to a song. If you try to record that sound by putting a microphone right in front of those headphones, I guarantee that it will sound different than what your ears were picking up from 4 feet away. Again, to get the best representation of what you were hearing that inspired you, put the microphone where your ear was. Then tweak the position of the microphone as needed.

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