Mic Placement 101: How to Get a Great Sound
Whether you’re new to recording or a seasoned engineer, discover the best practices for mic placement and microphone placement techniques to help your recordings sound clear and professional.
Mic placement techniques
Most of you reading this may be recording at home. We're using a well-appointed home studio for this article, one operated by my dear friend James Crawford.
Here’s a picture of me in his control room, to show you the kind of vibe we’re dealing with.
Yes, that’s a Trident console behind me:
James is a quiet legend in Brooklyn Front-of House sound. In addition to running a huge rehearsal studio in New York City—working daily with bands like LCD Soundsystem—he’s gone out on the road with rock legends like Marky Ramone. But his recording chops are just as serious: having learned at the feet of Stevie Wonder’s recording engineer, Crawford gets great sounds out of his attic studio. Indeed, when I need to record drums on my own projects, he’s the one I call.
Salmon's Run, Episode 2
In that selection, drums and guitars were recorded at his place, and played by yours truly. No samples were used in the mixing of that project.
James took me through his typical recording practices for his home studio. I’ll describe the positioning and show you pictures. All of these setups represent standard practices adapted for a particular room. Keep in mind, you’ll need to change these positions for your own situation. These are starting points.
How to mic kick drum
Mic placement for drums begins with the kick drum. Many engineers like to record their kick drums with two mics—one “kick in” and one “kick out.” “Kick in” gives you your attack, and “kick out” gives you your body.
The photo below shows “kick out,” and you can see that the name is apropos: the mic is placed outside the kick drum, a little to the right.
The distance and angle is something you’ll have to play with, keeping things like tone and phase in mind. James is using a large diaphragm condenser mic here.
For “kick in,” James simply places a dynamic mic inside the kick drum, like so:
Here’s the mic—an Audix D6 dynamic—inside the kick, resting on a comfy pillow:
You can see now why it’s called “kick in.”
The blend of these two mics gets you your overall sound, and as you can hear in the recording above from 2018, it’s pretty good.
In bigger studios, people often use sub-kicks or kick tunnels to reinforce low end as well, but James doesn’t do this in his space.
How to mic snare
When mic’ing a snare drum, we’ll be using two mics. Both are Shure SM57s, a classic choice in the dynamic department. One is pointed at the snare’s top, while the other mics the underside to catch fizz off the snare wires. The top mic captures the body and attack. The bottom gives you that tizzy snare sound.
The bottom mic may be out of phase with the top mic depending on the angle—so be sure to try flipping the polarity on the bottom mic. Whichever setting gives you a fuller snare sound is the one you want to go with.
You can see the mic is angled toward the center of the snare drum. That’s how James likes it, but this is personal preference: pointing it towards the center gives you more body and punch, while aiming at the rim gives you more ring.
How to mic toms
There’s many ways to mic toms, but in a common home studio setup, James recommends keeping two things in mind: phase relationships, and rejection of the other instruments. He likes to angle the tom mics, like so:
How to mic hi-hats
James uses a similar rejection method for the hi-hat. The mic mirrors the angle and directionality of the snare—which helps with the phase relationships—but is placed in a way that it stays clear from the cymbals.
Overhead drum mic placement
Small-diaphragm condensers, large diaphragm condensers, and ribbon mics are common choices for overheads. Ideally, you’d want a matched pair—two mics of the same make and model, spec’d to be as identical as possible. James is using two large diaphragm condensers in his set up.
I’m going to show you three overhead techniques. The first is a spaced pair, which James prefers for his room:
The reason behind the name should be self-evident—though sometimes people call it “A-B”. It's a spaced pair of microphones, one favoring each side of the kit.
This is a good technique for capturing a recording that really favors the cymbals, but in my experience, isn’t the best if you want to rely on your overheads as your overall drum picture, as it can sound unnaturally wide.
Note that this is a modified take on the spaced pair. Usually, we’d use omnidirectional capsules facing the kit, rather than mic'ing the cymbals at a right angle. This configuration happens to sound better in this room—remember, you always have to tweak things by ear!
The next stereo overhead technique I’ll show you is called ORTF mic placement, and it looks like this:
ORTF is a near-coincident pair of cardioid microphones, meaning the mics are close to each other, though not touching. They’re angled at about 110 degrees.
Note that this technique is commonly used with small diaphragm condensers, which often resemble pencil mics. When I asked James to put up SDCs for a more traditional picture, he said, “do you want me to show you what looks good in a picture, or what sounds right for this room?”
Again: your ears must be the judge of what sounds best!
Now here’s ORTF’s cousin, the coincident pair more commonly known as X/Y:
In the X/Y configuration, two directional (i.e., cardioid) mics are placed with their capsules as close to each other as possible at 90 degree angles, resulting in a naturalistic stereo image of the whole set. I often find it less wide than ORTF, but with better snare cohesion.
This technique is more commonly accomplished with small-diagram condenser mics—but again, the LDCs sound better in this room.
How to mic guitars and bass
Dynamic and ribbon mics are commonly used on the cabinets of electric guitars, and here are some common setups.
This first example is a ribbon microphone on a guitar cab.
Next, we have a dynamic microphone placed in front of a guitar cab.
And lastly, we have a dynamic mic placed off-axis on a guitar cab.
Notice the difference between the last two pictures. Here matters of on-axis and off-axis come into play. On-axis will sound more focused and brighter, but off-axis might be less harsh.
It’s also not uncommon to use multiple microphones on guitar cabinets.
Here a Shure SM57 is right up on the grill (very common), while the ribbon mic (a Cascade Fathead) sits about a foot back. Blending these two mics will give you a combination of point and focus from the 57, and overall body from the ribbon. Again, flip the phase on one of the mics and use whichever combination you think sounds best for the song.
This video from Brian Fisher below gives an overview of mic placement for acoustic guitar as well as vocals at home.
How to mic vocals (singing)
Unless you’re using a dynamic mic like a Shure SM7B when mic'ing a singer, the room is really going to matter when handling mic placement for vocals—I can’t stress that enough. All those tests I told you to conduct when judging a room really come into play here, so make sure you do those!
The most common arrangement these days for pop-style vocals is some kind of large diaphragm condenser, with this style of mic'ing:
Forgive the unkempt beard: I have a small child and I rarely leave the house. On a more practical note, let's observe again the difference between addressing the mic on axis (singing straight into the capsule).
You can see how I’m facing the capsule (plainly visible through the mesh) at an angle. I’m exaggerating for the picture, but this is the general idea: addressing the mic on axis will sound more focused, more crisp and sharp. Going off axis usually sounds a bit duller, but it will mitigate harsh sibilants to a large degree.
I often ask a singer to hiss like a snake straight into the microphone, and then ask them to gradually cheat the angle out to one direction until it’s less harsh, but not overly dull. Then, I ask them to say something sibilant, like “say something sibilant.” That will tell me if the sound has struck the right balance.
In general, place the mic anywhere from three fingers to a foot away from the singer. Remember, the closer they are, the bassier it’ll sound. The farther away the singer is, the thinner it will be, and the more room you’ll capture.
And unless your singer has impeccable mic technique, you should use a pop filter, like so:
How to mic vocals (spoken)
Remember what I said up top: the room is really going to matter—unless you’re using a dynamic unit like the Shure SM7B, which is my number one favorite mic for podcasting. For the spoken word, nothing will take the room out of the equation like this mic.
Note that when I say “take the room out,” I’m not referring to machine noise or the sound of air conditioning. I’m talking about things like room reflections, which can absolutely color the sound.
Note that on the Shure microphone, I’m really up on the capsule: you can do that with this mic, as the mic is housed in its own windscreen.
The other kind of podcasting mic you’ll find is the electret condenser of USB microphones, like the Blue Yeti.
With USB mics, the first thing I recommend is treating your room. They will pick up a ton of the room’s character. I also recommend using a pop filter, getting about three to four fingers away from the mic, and speaking off axis into it, as demonstrated in one of the pictures above.
Get started with mic placement
Would you believe that was over 3000 words? They flew right by, didn’t they? You’d think that after a novella’s worth of prose we’d have everything covered—but we don’t! There’s a lot more to say mic’ing drums, let alone the instruments we didn’t cover.
That’s why the concepts I provided are more important than the setups. Proximity effect. Rejection through polar patterns. On-axis vs. off-axis mic'ing. Complementing the instrument/player. Keeping the room in mind. Phase relationships. All of these matter so much in the recording process. Get a handle on these techniques, and you’ll be well on your way.