Listening is the most important aspect of sound engineering. It is the beginning and the end of all sound-related things, for all things we do should favour listening.
Something that always keeps on surprising me is the reality that engineers often do not know what to listen for (maybe I will write something about that in future).
Q: Why is this relevant to microphones?
A: Because the proof is in the pudding!
Once you finally sit down and started to listen (after you have selected a mic correctly and have placed it well – we will speak about that in the next article), what you hear (the pudding) should prove that your efforts are well rewarded.
This is not as straight forward as it sounds as in most cases, what you will hear is unprocessed and not within the context of the mix in which it needs to fit. The challenge is to assess whether a sound will work simply by judging it at “face” value: before you do your magic and place it in the song.
At this point of the process mistakes can be made. For example, one of several common listening mistakes made, is the thinking that something sounds great just because it is “bright” or “warm” or “warm & bright”.
Even tough warmth and brightness is great, the question is how is the microphone/placement combo achieves that.
– Is it warm and bright simply because the frequency response of the microphone cuts a big chunk of mids?
– How does what you hear compare to what the source sounds like acoustically?
– Is it bright only on a small portion of the high end?
– Does it have presence?
– Will you need to fight its tone in the mix? Or will it fit in the mix?
– If the microphone gets you 75% there, will you hit 100% (or close to it) with eq? Or once you start to eq it, will you discover that the departing tone actually did not work so well? (For instance, a vocal that is really smooth and warm that lacks clarity, but is also sibilant – adding brightness will only compound the sibilance problem).
A tonic tone (or music to my ears) is a relatively neutral tone or a tone that will allow the engineer to do much once it is processed, both for his (or better his client’s) liking and for the mix.
Next time you listen to a microphone, remember that the sound you are hearing (most probably) is only one of several sounds that need to fit together. The more difficult it is to handle sonically, the more difficult (i.e. time consuming) it will be to make it fit into the context of your production.
Look for (or listen for) a microphone that offers a great “balanced” sound, one that preserves the natural tone of a source and delivers clarity. These 2 qualities together are always a precious prize. Clarity does not only rest on the presence of high-end frequencies in the tone, it is achieved by several factors. The more you achieve it without eq, the better, because then that sound will naturally stand out and fit in.
Next week we will talk about a “piece of sky”, finding the sweet spot when you position a microphone.