What microphone(s) do I want?
April 27, 2021 12:47 AM   Subscribe

What is the best affordable omnidirectional microphone for recording? And is that even what I want?

I have always been tremendously confused by microphones and things like XLR and phantom power and directional vs omnidirectional. I currently have a Zoom H6 and it's great. The built-in mics work beautifully. I'm looking to expand its capability with the addition of a couple more mics to get a better stereo image - this is for simple rehearsal room recordings of a small guitar-bass-drums band. What would be the best affordable mic for this application? I'm assuming that I need two. Many thanks
posted by srednivashtar to Technology (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you put one microphone per instrument, I'd thought you'd want a DIRECTIONAL microphone so it doesn't pick up other sounds. Seems your H6 supports up to 4 other microphones.

Advice given by producelikeapro.com was

Dynamic mics such as Shure SM57 for loud instruments (electric guitar or bass, drums...)

Condenser mics for vocals, acoustic instruments (may need phantom power or separate power supply). Condenser mics are largely divided between large diaphragm vs small diaphragm. Small diaphragm recommendation was Audio Technica AT2021

Ribbon microphones for instruments with high notes like horns, which I guess doesn't apply to you.

Both Shure SM57 and AT 2021 can be found for $100 or less if you shop around.
posted by kschang at 2:45 AM on April 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Quick, easy, good solution: two SM57s, one each for guitar and bass, pointed straight at the amps from about a foot away, and experiment with placement of the Zoom H6 until you find a location that makes the kit sound OK. Don't overthink it - if it sounds good to you, that's enough.

If you want to go a bit deeper with recording techniques (which mic to use and where to place it) for the guitar/bass, you can read this article from Sound on Sound. The tl;dr is that even though it's an old, cheap design, the SM57 is still by far the best bang-for-buck option, and is used in top-end professional studios all over the world.

Miking a drum kit "properly" is outside your scope and I wouldn't bother.
posted by spielzebub at 4:53 AM on April 27, 2021 [5 favorites]

Omnidirectional mics are not typically used for stereo recording, partially due to the historic need for stereo sound needing to work on mono systems too (AM radio was almost entirely mono and FM would switch to mono in the case of a weak signal). If you don't need to ever worry about your recording being listened to on a mono system (which it doesn't sound like you do), there is an obvious option that you could consider called spaced omni or AB. You simply place two omni mics some distance apart (the exact distance varies with the space and personal taste) and hard pan them left and right. This can sound very good but can also be unforgiving of casual placement. As the first link mentions, you get a lot more of the room sound with this technique, which is great if you're in a nice acoustically designed room but not so nice if it's a random rehearsal room.

You can also get phase weirdness from the sound hitting the wall behind the mic, bouncing back, and hitting the mic again. Keep in mind that sound is a wave, oscillating up and down. As it travels from the source to the mic, it'll hit the mic at a certain point in that phase. It'll continue oscillating as it passes the mic, hits the wall(s) behind it and then bounces back, hitting the mic again. This can lead to the sum total having phase cancelation when the different sound waves are combined together, sounding somewhere between weird and bad.

In short, it can sound great in the right room with the right placement (and not needing mono compatibility) but probably isn't what you're looking for.

There is also a technique called Jecklin disk that uses two omni mics that I would not recommend for casual recordists.

The most common stereo pattern is XY, which is what the default of your Zoom uses. It's mono compatible and rejects much of the sound from behind the mics, so it's more forgiving. It's definitely what I'd recommend for quick and dirty rehearsal room recordings.

I'm looking to expand its capability with the addition of a couple more mics to get a better stereo image

What is missing from the sound you're getting that you don't like? Bass is almost always placed in the center(ish) of the soundfield. Are there two guitars and you want to make them sound further apart from each other than the room allows?

If so, I'd get a pair of Shure SM-57s (assuming electric guitars) for the amps. Start by figuring out where the drums should/need to be in the room. To place the XY pair on the Zoom, plug one ear and walk around as the drummer plays to find the best spot. Put the Zoom there facing the drums head-on. Put the bass amp as close to the drums is as reasonable. (You can also run a direct output from the bass amp if it has it to an input on the Zoom. Then put a SM-57 on each guitar amp. On mixdown you can put those amps further in the left and right panning zones to widen the stereo sound.

If there's an acoustic guitar, if it has a pickup, I'd tend to go with just using that in a rehearsal situation but there's a lot of decent cheap small diaphragm condenser mics on the market these days that would be fine for it. Most of them come from the same Chinese factories with different names and branding on them - Marshall being the canonical example - the biggest problem being that they don't have great quality control and don't use top-notch electronics like a $1500 Neumann. For your purposes, unless you get a major dud, you should be fine. If you want something nicer, my favorite stage small diaphragm condenser is the Sennheiser E865. It's marketed as a vocal mic but I've used it on almost every acoustic instrument out there and it sounds great for the money.

If there's vocals, the iconic live sound mic is the Shure SM-58 (which is the same mic as the 57 but with more foam and a different shaped head, which has a slight effect on the sound). It's not the best mic out there for vocals but it's solid and inexpensive. The afore mentioned E865 makes a nice step-up from them. Some of the Audix dynamic mics are cheaper and work better than the 58 on some vocals.
posted by Candleman at 4:57 AM on April 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

If you're looking to capture a stereo recording of the band as a whole, you'll want two mics. Here's an article on the 5 common mic placements & techniques for stereo recording. (It refers to recording single instruments, but the principles are the same, you just need to place the mics in a location that captures the entire band.)

The wrinkle, as you can see from the article, is that different techniques require different mic polar patterns. (Your Zoom's built in mics are in the "X/Y" configuration, btw.) So if you want to experiment you'll want a multi-pattern mic. The Audio-Technica 2050 seems to get pretty high marks as an affordable multi-pattern, but there are cheaper ones out there.

Whether any given pair of mics and micing technique will give you better stereo imaging than your Zoom is impossible to predict - it all depends on the placement of the band members and the mics and the size & reverberant characteristics of the room. If you haven't done this already I would get one of the mounting adapters that lets you attach the Zoom to a mic stand and go to town experimenting with placing the Zoom in different locations and different heights.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:03 AM on April 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

Ribbon microphones for instruments with high notes like horns, which I guess doesn't apply to you.

Ribbon mics are a more sensitive version of dynamic mics; they're not specifically for higher frequencies (and most brass instruments aren't all that high). They are more sensitive to subtle detail on sounds (particularly transients) than traditional dynamic mics but have less high frequency detail than a condenser. They can be damaged by bursts of air so you would not use them close to a horn. They're also more likely to be damaged from a drop than traditional dynamic mics or condensers so they're less likely to be used in a situation where they're moved back and forth all the time. They tend to have a figure-8(ish) pattern due to the physics of how they work so they pick up room noise more than the standard cardioid pattern and can have the phase issues if placed too close to the wall that I mentioned with omni mics.
posted by Candleman at 5:07 AM on April 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

SM57s are great mics, but not for bass. I'm a bass player, and I will kick anyone in the crotch if they try to mic my amp with an SM57. You also definitely don't want ribbon mics for this situation.

There's good advice here, but a lot of it is total overkill for what you're looking to do (i.e. "simple rehearsal space recordings" with a better stereo image than what the Zoom provides). Just get two cardioid pattern condenser mics (Audio Technica has a bunch of inexpensive ones that sound good) and experiment with placement.
posted by jonathanhughes at 6:34 AM on April 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Without seeing the room you're recording in, the issue might be the recording space and/or where you are placing your stereo recorder. I can imagine scenarios where the room is so small and the band is so loud that the sound just mashes together before it reaches the microphones.

You might want to try standing in different places around the room while your band plays and seeing where you hear the best stereo image in your ears, and then put the recorder there.
posted by wondermouse at 8:08 AM on April 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

While you certainly can use external microphones with the H6, both the stereo microphones that it comes with are pretty decent. If you're after a better- (or at least different-) sounding stereo image, have you experimented much with the MS microphone? You can put the H6 into "MS-RAW" mode where it records the middle and side signals separately, and then adjust the relative levels when you play it back to vary the width of the stereo image.

(That said, the H6 is great fun if you do want to experiment with different microphone setups, since you can record 6 separate inputs at the same time and combine to taste afterwards - especially if you've got the XLR input plugin!)
posted by offog at 8:24 AM on April 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm just gonna re-iterate what wondermouse said: the most important thing in recording live sessions is actually being not too loud in a room that is not tiny and does not have hard walls. You're gonna sound better playing at a moderate volume in a medium/large room with some sound dampening (sloped ceilings are a bonus).

I agree with most everyone's mic suggestions. If you have the budget, renting electronic drum mesh heads or an electronic drum kit will make the set-up time much faster if that's an issue, and make it easier to not play too loud in general.

There's also another product to consider renting: Zoom LiveTrak recorders are PA mixers that are designed to also capture live band demos in multitrack. They are good for this particular kinda thing. (Actually similar to the H6 recorder in a way but more oriented specifically to live band projects).
posted by ovvl at 9:43 AM on April 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

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