Modern Alternatives to Classic Miking Techniques

March 27, 2012

There’s nothing wrong with the classic amp-miking technique of sticking a Shure SM57 right up against a speaker cone. After all, there have probably been more than a bazillion astounding guitar tones captured with that setup. It’s simple. It works. And no one is going to call you an anarchistic freakazoid for employing conventional wisdom.

But, one day, you might start tracking guitars with your “safe” miking methods and find you’re drifting off into the hellish nightmare that is creative boredom. You’re hating everything you hear. You’re uninspired. You’re pitiful. In fact, you hate the very ground on which you tread because it won’t open up and swallow your complacent, unoriginal, and ordinary ass in one big gulp.

Well, um, if that’s what’s going on, you may need to drop-kick conventional studio wisdom, and surrender to the unknown. The act of fearlessly abandoning established techniques in favor of experimentation can revitalize your passion—or at least pull you out of an artistic malaise—and drive you to discover new sounds. And all you have to do is try to not do what you usually do. If you’re committed to breaking with the norm, but aren’t yet confident about taking the leap, here are some wacky approaches to get you started. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to try even weirder methods until your wonderfully unconventional guitar tones jump out of playback systems, grab listeners roughly by the earlobes, and shake them into submission to your genius.

Cool Stereo Ambiences

 Korg CM-100L
Nearly everyone has heard about guitar amps being placed in reverberant spaces such as garages, stairwells, and showers to get unique “room” sounds—but here’s an adaptation of that technique that lets you also record the dry sound of your amp and create cool stereo images in the bargain. You’ll just need an amplifier with a second speaker output and a second speaker cab.

The first thing you’ll need to do is decide on a reverberant space. In addition to the ones already mentioned, you could use any room with an interesting ambience, be it large or small, though typically spaces with some combination of bare walls, an uncovered floor, and either very high or very low ceilings produce the most dramatic results. Roomy fireplaces, concrete-walled basements, and even large containers of various sorts are also excellent choices.

Once you have your space, place the extension cabinet inside it, and keep your amp in a separate, preferably non-reverberant space (you may need a long speaker cable to accomplish this). Then record the amp in whatever way you prefer—though placing a dynamic microphone such as a Shure SM57 or a Sennheiser MD421 tight up on the cone is probably the best approach, as the idea is to get as dry and present a sound as possible.

After you have a tone that pleases you, experiment with placing a microphone in the room with the extension cab. The sky’s the limit when it come to microphone choices here, as you aren’t looking for great guitar tone—you are looking to record the sound of the space, and that may mean placing a condenser, ribbon, dynamic, or even PZM microphone of any quality, from highly directional to omnidirectional, anywhere in that space. Have fun, get crazy, and try everything that springs to mind.

Now, record the amp and the extension cab onto separate tracks, and then experiment with panning the recorded tracks in various ways. For example, try panning them hard right and left and see what that sounds like. Then try keeping the extension cab track hard right or left, but move the dry track closer to the center to give it a bit more oomph. Then try panning them at nine ‘oclock and three o’clock, or even both straight down the middle. And as you are doing that, also experiment with the relative levels—from just a touch of ambience to full-on emersion. Who knows, maybe just the ambient sound will work best in your mix? Be fearless! —BC

Embrace Crap

One way to force yourself into seeking vastly different guitar tones is to limit yourself to dreadful or inappropriate tools. A great microphone, for example, can capture awesome sounds without breaking a sweat. But a $19 karaoke mic purchased at Toys “R” Us is likely going to give you nothing but trouble—that is, until you find the soiled beauty within its fractured frequency range.

 Audio-Technica U851
One of my favorite hunting grounds for cheapo mics is Radio Shack. Some of my recent favorites (or, more aptly, “sonic trouble makers”) include the $9.99 Sony FV100 omnidirectional dynamic (great for capturing searing mids and bright, articulate room tones), the $14.99 Sony ECM-F8 omnidirectional boundary mic (made for recording lectures and teleconferences, it’s tinny and overloads real easy, but produces massively aggro tones when used to track raging amps), and the $17.99 Emerson M193 headset condenser mic (I just drop the entire headset into the rear of an open-back combo, mic the front of the cabinet with a decent condenser from a distance of five feet, and blend the two very different mics to taste).

The fun here is that you can’t employ these super-low-budget microphones in conventional mic positions, because they really sound quite atrocious. The trick is figuring out where to place the mic in the room where it can deliver a unique or interesting sound. I’ve clipped these puppies to guitar cables while walking around the amp, hung them from ceiling lamps, gaffer’s taped them inside a porcelain bathtub, wrapped them in dish towels and stuffed them against the backs of speakers, and closed them off in closets. Obviously, not every method reaped brilliant results, but I learned something with every attempt, and, eventually, I’d stumble onto an approach that blew my mind (in a good way). —MM

Making Contact

Sometimes, you can abandon mic positioning all together, and try attaching one or more contact microphones right to your electric guitar. Just a few of the many inexpensive options available are the Korg CM- 100L ($12 street), the Cold Gold Basic ($32 direct), the AXL PG-801 ($14 street), and the Barcus-Berry BBPCP ($20 street). Costlier but higher-quality options include B-Band’s UKKO series of contact mics designed for use with various drums ($99 street).

 B-Band UKKO
Try attaching the mic to the body, headstock, or pick guard of your instrument—anyplace it will fit without interfering with your playing. Then record the sound either as is, or processed in some way, and try blending it with your amplified sound. Typically, the contact mic sound will be thin and “plucky,” and by mixing in just the right amount—particularly to heavily distorted tones— it can add or restore articulation, and increase the presence of the sound in a mix without increasing the volume. Of course, creative use of compression, equalization, “exciters,” reverb, delay, and panning can increase the effect dramatically and lead to myriad possibilities. —BC

Go Long

You know, there’s no law that forces anyone to mic a guitar cabinet right up on the speaker. You won’t get arrested for moving that mic back off the speaker at a number of distances. This isn’t exactly a radical technique, as recording engineers have utilized ambient miking forever. But they often use the “distance” mic in tandem with a close mic in order to ensure the impact and articulation of the guitar tone is captured. However, consider dumping the security of the close mic, and just go with the room mic. I’ve experimented with mics placed as close as a foot away from the amp, and as far away as 20 feet or more. I’ve auditioned several different mics in these positions— condensers, ribbons, dynamics, and PZMs mounted on pieces of plywood. I’ve put the mics next to windows, walls, tables, pillows, and couches to determine the effects of dry and reflective surfaces on the room tone. I think I’ve been trying to emulate the euphoric rush of a screaming loud guitar pummeling you at an arena concert, but without the volume or the arena. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I have found some very cool “open” sounds by letting the amp resonate in the room. —MM

Go Outside

 Sennheiser MD421
Former Be Bop Deluxe guitarist Bill Nelson is one of my heroes, so when he told me he once recorded a song outside in a courtyard, I was intrigued. It’s a bit hard to pull off if you have cranky neighbors, so I decided to not to push my luck with loud, blaring overdriven tones. Instead, I set a small combo to a clean sound, and placed the amp on the stone surface in my backyard. Then, I placed an AKG C414 condenser about 15 feet away, under a tree in a raised patch of the garden. As luck would have it, I didn’t get a clean sound at all. The wind and leaves rustling was almost as loud as the amp. For whatever reason, I was too lazy to move the mic closer to the amp, and too chicken to crank up the amp volume. So I kept the “nature” track until I had a psychedelic moment of truth, and decided to add a phaser to the wind-and-leaves-andguitar blend. I overdubbed a less
 Royer R-121
environmentally challenged guitar part in my studio, and then faded in the whack track ever so slightly. I was rewarded with a twisted texture that made a relatively mundane rhythm-guitar line really strange and foreboding. Sometimes a really dumb idea can find its way into your production and transform itself into a snippet of genius. Don’t forget that. Ever. —MM

Cylindrical Sonics

 Sony ECM-F8
In a real moment of inspired stupidity, I taped three gift-wrap paper rolls together end-toend (after the nice paper was removed, of course, just leaving the naked cardboard roll), and stuck a slim Royer R-121 ribbon mic inside one end of the roll. I completely covered a small combo amp with a couple of thick blankets, and then I gaffer’s taped the other end of the long paper roll to the front of the speaker grille. The whole thing rather looked like a headless, legless armadillo with a very long tail. I played around with overdriven, saturated, and clean guitar tones to see which sound worked best, and I discovered I liked the cleaner tones, because they sounded a bit hollow and spooky. The overdriven tones tended to blast away any strangeness. Total time to construct the “tiny tunnel of sound” was about ten minutes, but I caught heat for not replacing the gift wrap nicely on the barren paper rolls—proof that there are risks to experimentation. — M M

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