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The Importance of Microphone Placement: An Audio Engineers Guide

Image of a live band on stage  with ideal microphone placement.

Manipulating sound is no easy task, and the effort that goes into making the songs on your Spotify playlist is a complex and highly detailed process. It could be said that the microphone is to the sound mechanic as the cell is to the biologist. Learning the basics of microphone placement is a great step toward becoming familiar with the audio technology industry and learning more about the career of an audio engineering and music production.

Accessories for Aiding Microphone Placement

To make the most of a microphone’s capabilities, specialized accessories are often beneficial and even necessary. Here are five of the most common mic accessories and their uses.

Accessory #1 – Mic Stands & Boom Arms

A mic stand is necessary for standing singers or performers. Many microphone stands also feature a boom arm, which is an attachment that allows the microphone to extend at an angle (instead of straight up) to reach a seated performer such as a pianist.

Accessory #2 – Microphone Clips

Microphone clips hold the mic in place and attach it to the mic stand. For lapel mics, the clip fastens the mic to the performer’s shirt.

Accessory #3 – Shock Mounts

A shock mount, also called an isolation mount, prevents the mic from moving or vibrating. This is especially important for recording sessions in broadcasting studios or voice-over sound studios, which are sensitive to extra movement.

Accessory #4 – Pop & Reflection Filters

A pop filter, also called a pop shield or screen, protects the microphone from extraneous noise. It is named for its ability to block or reduce popping sounds caused by fast-moving air during speech or singing.

A reflection filter is designed to absorb extra sounds, typically those that would reach the back-facing sides of the microphone.

Accessory #5 – Windscreens

A windscreen is similar to a pop or reflection filter in that it blocks the transmission of background noise and breathing sounds. It also protects the microphone from dirt and moisture.

Microphone Placement 101

In concerts and recording sessions, audio engineers are the mic geeks. In an Audio Production and Engineering program, you will learn all the intricacies of microphone science and exactly how to position and manipulate these devices for the best results.

More importantly, you will learn that mic positioning is not a one size fits all when it comes to working with different instruments. Here are three of the most common instruments and how microphone placement affects their sound.

Mic Placement #1 – Piano

Given the size and volume of this instrument, added to the physical characteristics of the performance or recording space, discerning the ideal microphone position can be a challenge. To preserve the piano’s authentic timbre and facilitate a consistent sound for all audience members, several microphones may be necessary. Mic stands and boom arms are often used, and the microphones are typically placed five feet above the ground within a three-foot perimeter of the piano. Ultimately, it is up to you, as the audio engineer, to experiment with the sound in the space provided and formulate the best positioning strategy.

Mic Placement #2 – Vocalist

Vocalists may pose even more of a challenge since there are more variables to deal with, including any physical movements or improvisatory variations in volume, for example. As with any instrument, it is crucial for you, as the audio engineer, to test the microphone and speakers several times before the performance or recording session to prepare the best setup. Vocalists may experiment with stand mics, lapel mics or wireless hand-held mics depending on the performer’s preferences and other factors. Accessories such as shock mounts and pop filters can be used to reduce the transmission of breathing sounds and other background noise.

Mic Placement #3 – Guitar

While electric or bass guitars can be easily connected to the amplifier through a built-in microphone system (Pickups), acoustic guitars are a bit trickier. These instruments require accessories such as clips to fasten the mic to the neck (or fretboard). There are several options for the microphone position, but it is a good idea to avoid placing the microphone directly in front of the sound hole; as intuitive as it may be, this could wash out the acoustic details and nuances. A stand may be utilized to place the microphone further away and accentuate the bass sound. The type of microphone is also an important consideration; at a rock concert, for example, the lead guitarist would likely require a stand, internal pickup or lapel mic to free up their hands.

Using a Vocal Booth

A vocal booth, also called an isolation booth, is a compartment in a recording studio designed especially for solo performers (vocalists as well as instrumentalists). This room is isolated from the rest of the studio to keep extraneous noises from compromising the recording. In most cases, the isolation booth is visible through a glass window from the control room, where audio engineers and producers manage the mixing console and help facilitate the entire recording process. Isolation booths are most commonly used for recording individual tracks, solo performances and voice overs that are used in commercials.

Final Thoughts

This is just one example of the intricacy and specialization of an audio engineer’s career, and the expertise and discernment required to produce the best sound. However, you don’t have to be an expert right away. As with any career, music production and audio engineering is a learning process. There will always be room for growth since audio technology is constantly evolving. With each skill you learn, including the intricate but necessary science of microphone placement, you will become more of an expert in audio production.

Audio Production Program

The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train audio engineers and music producers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the Audio Production and Engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.