A standard for guitar amps, snare drums, even
vocals, this is the mic you see in every club.
If you’re recording acoustic string instruments, a condenser mic is a great choice.
Most professionally recorded vocals are also
done with condenser microphones. These
have either a solid-state or tube preamp built
in to bring the extremely tiny voltage from
the capsule up to “mic level,” but condensers still need a mic preamp to bring the level
up to where it can be recorded. They’re typically brighter and more detailed sounding
than a dynamic mic like the SM57. Solid-state
condensers in the $300 range have flooded
the market in recent years, and many sound
amazing. AKG, Audio-Technica, and Rode
make superior, cost-effective condenser
mics. Make sure that your interface provides
phantom power (labeled 48V) to power the
microphone if it can’t be battery powered. If
you use a tube mic, you must use its accompanying power supply to power the tube. Do
not apply phantom power to a tube mic.
Ribbon mics have come back into favor; they
tend to hear much like our ears do. Recently,
several ribbon mics costing under $200 have
appeared that rival mics costing five times
that. Great for vocals, horns, room mics, and
amp cabinets, they deliver an un-hyped natural sound. Most ribbons have lower output
than dynamic or condenser microphones, so
make sure that your mic preamp can provide
enough clean gain to get an appropriate level
into the recorder.
Having a good variety of microphones is a
luxury, not a necessity. Having one microphone is like having one guitar. You can use
it for everything, but it’s not as much fun.
Having a lot of different mics is like having
a lot of guitars. You may not use all of them
every time you record, but having a variety is
a very good thing.
Which interface you use will in part be determined by which software platform you use to
record. Digidesign’s Pro Tools requires you to
use one of their approved interfaces to run
the software, as it acts as the copy-protection
dongle. At this point, most other interfaces
will work with most other software, but make
sure that they’re compatible with both your
computer and recording software. This info is
available on the manufacturer’s websites and
from knowledgeable sales personnel.
Most audio interfaces come with solid-state
mic preamps. Having an additional tube
mic preamp will give you another choice of
sound. Like a good tube guitar amp, tube
mic preamps can add even-order harmonics
to your mic signal and can even be intentionally overdriven to add a little grit if desired.
The humble SM57 takes on a whole new life
when plugged into a good tube preamp.
Even an inexpensive one can bring a new
quality to a mic’d sound. Remember that
if you’re using a separate mic preamp, you
must now plug its output into the line level
input of your recording interface to properly
match levels to your recorder.
In these days of recording into a computer,
it’s not uncommon to record without a mixing
board. Audio interfaces provide the analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog (A/D and D/A)
converter and connections for your microphones and line level sources. The software
provides a virtual mixing board for playback
and monitoring only.
Real life can exceed the dynamic range of
recording equipment. When recording digitally, it’s essential to keep the level below
zero DBFS (dB Full Scale) or you’ll create
unmusical noise. Some newer interfaces
provide some kind of level limiter to make it
easier to stay below zero. However, to really
bring the sound of your instrument front
and center, you need a compressor/limiter.
(For more on this see “The Truth about
Compressor and Limiters,” PG May ‘09). Not
only can this be used to keep your levels