June 20, 2022
Typical recording setups are complex these days – even solo performers often find themselves surrounded by mics or doing overdub after overdub. But many of the best acoustic recordings were done simply, using old school technique and an abundance of performance talent and skill.
It’s handy to know that can be done, because sometimes you only have one mic available – even if there’s a guitar and singer or multiple players. Here, we’ll go over recording an acoustic set using just one microphone.
Here’s the only caveat to the idea that you can capture a great recording with one mic – it’s got to be the right mic. Fortunately, there are tons of options, but to get the best result, that one mic should probably be a large diaphragm condenser or a ribbon mic with a wide enough pickup pattern to capture what you need to. A cardioid or super-cardioid pattern is great for a single player/singer, and a figure 8 or omni-directional pickup is best if there’s more than one performer.
Since you won’t be capturing separate sources that you can mix to taste later, the only way you can create a mix is with strategic mic placement. This means both vertical and horizontal distance and angle of the mic. You’ll want to have the player play (and sing if they do that) while you monitor how changes affect the mix.
For example, think about the most likely scenario – one singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. This setup is typically accomplished using a large diaphragm condenser placed about two feet in front of the singer, about their ear height. Little things matter here, though. For example, it’s smart to start with the mic upside down – so that the body is on top. This keeps the body out of the way of sound from the guitar. It’s common to tilt the mic down just a bit – maybe 30 degrees – to capture a hair more guitar. Most likely, you want to prioritize the vocal here, and slight shifts in angle or vertical height can make enough difference. Listen for other factors like boominess in the guitar or whether you have enough detail from the picking. For subtle players, you may want to move the mic closer in general, whereas loud player/singers might need a bit of distance.
For groups, think ahead about the group itself. Take a barbershop quartet for example. Possibly the best way to capture them would be to have them stand in a circle around a condenser or ribbon with an omni-directional pickup pattern. This gives everyone ample opportunity to get heard, and preserves good sight lines for communication.
You can have singers step back or forward slightly to influence the balance. Remember to spend time finding a great mix in the room before you start recording. Singers or players in an arrangement like this can also rehearse subtle forward moves to emphasize solos, or backwards moves to keep balance in louder sections.
It’s never a bad idea to consider the acoustics in your recording space – even with hundreds of mics and overdubs. The space is the number one influencing factor in what kind of recording you capture. That’s especially so when you’re down to one mic. As a rule of thumb, your solo performer or ensemble needs to sound good in the room as you just stand there and listen.
It’s wise to manipulate the room acoustics with baffles and other treatment to get things sounding great even before you set up a mic. You can further manipulate as you listen on monitors. One thing to remember: You may not want to capture as much ambient room tone as the natural room provides, since you can’t take it out later. On the other hand, if the room sounds great, you may not want to deaden it too much and take the life and spontaneity out of the performance. Use your ears and work at it until it sounds great.
Some may not think of a stereo mic as truly one mic – after all they capture two channels of audio – but a single stereo mic may be just what the doctor ordered. Plenty of acoustic ensembles from string quartets to bluegrass bands are captured this way. All the same guidelines apply – manipulate acoustics, arrange players, tweak the mic placement, and listen carefully.
Even for a solo performer, a single stereo mic might be desirable, although you’ll want to place a singer such that you can capture a good, centered vocal performance.
You may even go far as to try a dummy head microphone. These mics are shaped like a human head and capture stereo signal. The influence of the head’s shape can make an incredibly lifelike binaural recording, especially suited for headphone listening. This may be the most sophisticated and modern approach to the one mic technique.
Once upon a time, a lone mic was used to record everything from spoken word to full-on early rock-n-roll bands. Mix strategy was all about placement, performance, and listening, and everyone involved had to be on their game to get it right. That strategy may not always work now, but in some cases, it’s exactly what you need to capture the most authentic performance possible. In any case, it’s worth a try.
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