What is ‘mic technique,’ and why does it matter?
As a concept, mic technique consists of four major factors including mic level, proximity, voice level, and mic angle. While these elements apply broadly to microphone recording, your management of them will vary depending on your specific mic setup, voice, and environment.
Mic technique matters because what’s heard in your recording has more to do with your approach than your equipment.
Good mic technique can help you avoid harsh sibilance, plosives or “p-pops”, overdrive/clipping, and roominess. Ignoring it can mean succumbing to all those pitfalls, which makes for a less enjoyable listening experience and ultimately fewer listeners.
Let’s look at the four elements mentioned above – mic level, proximity, voice level, and mic angle – to see what problems they fix, how they work together and how we can use them to deliver higher quality sound.
The first step in the process is getting your mic level set. You can easily end up with poor audio quality if the input level of your microphone isn’t set correctly – too little gain and you may introduce hiss as you try to turn it up later, too much gain and you may overdrive or clip your recording.
To set a healthy level, speak into your mic as you will be during recording and adjust the gain or input until you see peaks on your meter in the -10dB range. This should keep you out of the clipping danger zone, while still affording you a clean capture that can be turned up later if necessary.
The closer you are to a microphone the more low-frequency information it will pick up, meaning a more “upfront” or “full” sound. The further away you get, the less low-frequency information and the more reverb/echo the mic will hear, meaning a more distant or “roomy” sound.
This is how our brains interpret sound in the real world – the sound of “closeness” includes lots of low-end frequency information, and the sound of “distance” is in part the sound of diminished low end.
When you combine distance from your mic with an enclosed room, things begin to sound echoey and less intimate, problems that are difficult or impossible to solve after the recording is done.
Mics need you close. Four finger-widths from the microphone capsule is a good place to start, but different mics have different levels of sensitivity, so try different approaches and use your ears. You want the tone of your voice to sound full and present like it would in conversation.
The next consideration is the level of your voice, which will dictate sound pressure level (SPL) going into a mic. How loud you talk determines the SPL, which in excess may cause overdrive or clipping.
How much perceptible reverb ends up on the recording also depends in part on your voice level – a louder voice will produce a louder reflection off the wall or floor. In a multi-mic setup, louder speech may bleed into additional microphones and cause headaches in the editing or mixing phase.
Speaking at a consistent level is crucial for a balanced recording. Avoid extremes – don’t expect your mic to respond the same way to a whisper as it does to a shout.
If you are a more dynamic speaker, backing off the mic a bit when you get loud will help disperse sound pressure preventing clipping and plosives. Leaning in a bit closer if you’re speaking in a hushed voice will concentrate sound pressure on the mic, helping your listeners understand what’s being said even in quiet moments.
If you’re not talking, back away from the mic. It will help listeners focus if you’re not breathing into it during someone else’s turn to speak.
It can be helpful to experiment with mic angle in relation to your mouth. This is what is meant by “on-axis” and “off-axis” recording.
On-axis essentially means a setup where the mic is pointing straight at your mouth. This will typically result in the brightest recording, meaning more high-frequency content. If your mic is less sensitive to high frequencies, this may provide you with the greatest clarity.
If your mic is more sensitive to highs, you may feel that the recording is harsh or overly sibilant. Plosives may be a more frequent hazard on-axis, as they tend to have a high SPL.
Off-axis recording is one solution to high-frequency harshness. From its on-axis position, twist the microphone slightly to the side and try another test. Aimed indirectly at your mouth, the microphone should now be less sensitive to high frequencies.
If you still hear plosives, shift the microphone laterally so that it is no longer directly in front of your mouth. You should now be speaking “past” the capsule rather than directly into it, which should mitigate plosive pops.
You got this
As with any skill, mic technique takes practice. The more you work at it, the more it will become second nature. Keep working, you’ll get there, and we will all hear the difference.
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