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How to Record – Lesson 3: Microphone Basics

Hi, it’s Warren Huart. Hope you’re doing marvelously well, and today we’re going to talk about — in lesson three, we’re going to talk about microphone basics.

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Okay, so there are many microphones that you can use in a recording studio. I’m going to touch upon the most — three most basic microphones. Now, there are more than that. There’s also boundary mics, or PZMs, which you can use by placing on a surface, and they pick up vibrations, and I do use them ever so occasionally, but we’re going to be talking about the three basic types that we use.

And then there’s also some crazy ones like carbon microphones, and all kinds of weird stuff which — very early microphones, which maybe if you’re a vintage microphone collector, you might have one or two of, but the ones we’re going to talk about, the three basic ones, are dynamic microphones, condenser microphones, and ribbon microphones. I think that’s probably the order you’ll use them in.

Okay, so let’s go for a good old favorite. I’m going to reach over here and pick up an SM57. Now, an SM57 is a dynamic microphone. It’s made by Shure. It’s probably – we can have a big discussion about this — it’s probably the most used microphone in the world. When I lived in England, we used it on a snare drum, and we used it on a guitar amp. We used it on both snare top and bottom, believe it or not.

You can put a condenser on the bottom as well, but I used it on the top and the bottom, on all guitar amps, and I know occasionally people put them on toms, and I even know people who sing through them, but as a snare top microphone, you put that on something like a Ludwig Supraphonic and you use a 1073 mic pre, and you’re probably going to have the sound of Rock and Roll.

Same thing, this on a guitar amp through a 1073 and something like an 1176 compressor, that will give you most — that will sound like the guitar amp that you’re used to hearing. The most classic 60’s — late 60’s and definitely 70’s Rock and Roll recording was almost definitely done with a 57, a 1073, and an 1176.

So this — and it’s around about $100 or so. So very inexpensive microphone. If you only had $100 to spend on a microphone, to be frank, I’d probably buy this microphone. But I’m not advertising the microphone, I’m just telling you, this is the dynamic that I use almost every single day on almost everything. It’s a great microphone. At the moment, I have one on my guitar amp, and I have one on the top and bottom of my snare in the other room.

Very simple microphone. They can have different switchable patterns, this one doesn’t. It’s just set to cardioid. Cardioid is heart, so it’s a heart shaped pattern. There are dynamic microphones, especially for live use, that have hyper cardioid and super cardioid. Now, what hyper cardioid means is that it’s a tighter heart shaped pattern around the microphone like this.

So this will pick up, you know, generically in this kind of area. A hyper might be tighter still, and then of course, a super would be super, super tight around it. You know, and the reason why you would use a hyper or a super cardioid response would be for live in a situation where maybe there’s a vocalist, and all around them in like, percussion, cymbals particularly, whatever. High pitched guitars or whatever that might be bleeding into the microphone, so you’re going to want a hyper cardioid or a super cardioid response, so it means the vocalist will have to stay relatively close to it. They get back here on a hyper or a cardioid — a super cardioid, they’ll probably lose a lot of signal.

But, for cardioid, you’re probably good around this kind of area. Anywhere from like, a foot-ish, like ten inches back to here, you should get a relatively even — of course, like all microphones, if you get really, really close, you’ll get a much greater bass response, and it’ll sound like this. So you know, if you are using this on a vocalist, put a pop screen on there, like an inch or two in front, and that will control — you know, get them some control, and it won’t push too forward on the microphone.

Anyway, SM57, great dynamic mic, relatively inexpensive, good for everything.

Okay, so let’s move next to a Lewitt condenser. As many of you may know, I like Lewitt microphones. I’ve used them on a lot of different recordings, because frankly, they’re relatively inexpensive, but they perform just like my more expensive microphones. So I have a few. This particular one here is called an LCT-940. I like this. It’s a $1500ish microphone I believe. It has a tube in it, obviously, you can see the tube glowing, and I also like it because the power supply allows you to switch from a tube to FET setting. So quite often, if I’m doing a recording really quickly, which often I do, I can record the lead vocal on the tube, and then go away to the FET setting and get a much harder sound and do my backgrounds, and it helps separate my backgrounds and my lead vocals apart from each other.

So a condenser microphone, well what — a condenser microphone, basically has a lot more expanded frequency response. A regular dynamic microphone, like the SM57, has a bit of a presence lift in the sort of 3-5kHz area, which is really nice on guitar, really nice on snare drums, gives you the snap and the grit of the guitar.

Nice condenser microphones like this are a lot flatter frequency response, so they’ll have a little better lows, and they’ll have a little nice — more extended high frequency range, and frankly, they’ll be a lot more even, where an SM57 tends to roll off on the super lows, then boost up on the 3-5kHz, and then come down again, this is a lot more even around all of those areas, so a lot more detailed, a lot more truer to the sound source.

Condensers are traditionally the better choice for lead vocals. Not always, because sometimes, your singer might lack a little bit in the 3-5kHz range, and maybe you’re some rock and roll singer who’s not used to standing in a microphone, will prefer using a cardioid microphone and holding it and singing it, but I will say, those things are a little bit more exceptional. Most of the time, you’re going to be singing on a condenser.

And any sort of $300 up condenser, there’s a lot of choices. Lewitt have a lot of choices, and there’s a lot of other choices of condensers, but I think a $300 condenser is a much better choice than a $100 dynamic for lead vocals.

Okay, so let’s get our power supply here for the Lewitt. As you know, this microphone we were just talking about is a tube microphone, and just to step out for a second, and just say, look, you can move from the tube to the FET here. So this is why it has a power supply, because it needs to drive the tube. So there’s the FET setting, and you can basically mix between tube and FET like that. FET all around here. Tube all the way over there. Anyway, let’s just leave it on tube.

So this in the middle here, see, it says directivity, is basically our polar patterns is set to cardioid. It defaults to cardioid. If I move all the way over here, I’ve got a figure-of-eight setting. Now, a figure-of-eight setting is basically the microphone is picking up from the front and the back of the microphone. This was particularly popular with The Beatles when you look at a microphone like a U48, because a U48 had a cardioid setting and a figure-of-eight setting, and it allowed, you know, John to sing on one side, and Paul to sing on the other.

So figure-of-eight setting is quite nice for that. It’s also good in other situations. I know sometimes, people put a figure-of-eight across an acoustic guitar, so they kind of pick up a bit more of the acoustic guitar. I personally don’t use that very often, but you can experiment with figure-of-eights.

Okay, so the next setting, here you can blend between this and the next setting. The next setting is a tighter polar pattern, allowing us probably something closer to a hyper cardioid, so it’ll be a little closer to the microphone. So basically, the polar pattern is tighter around it. Then next, here, we’re back to the cardioid. Then we’re moving away from the cardioid, opening it up a little bit until we get to omni. That — an omni setting basically picks up everything circular around a microphone.

So if you typically have got a condenser microphone that has four polar patterns, it’s going to give you an omni setting, which means you can put it in the middle of the room and just pick up the whole of the band rehearsing, a cardioid setting, which is great for vocalists, allows them to sort of move their head around a little bit, when they’re singing, because it’s on a cardioid. A hyper cardioid, where maybe you’re trying to use a condenser in a situation where you don’t want to pick up a lot of bleed from around it, you would go to a hyper cardioid, and then lastly, a figure-of-eight, where you’d want to record in front and behind the microphone, so maybe you had two singers singing live, or one was singing on this side, and another guy or girl was singing on the other side.

So that’s your figure-of-eight setting. Singer singing here, and a singer singing on the other side. Omni to pick up the whole room, great for live recordings, great for ambience mics on drums, cardioid, great for vocalists in normal situations, and hyper cardioid where you’re concerned about bleed from other instruments, when you’re maybe trying to record a vocalist or an acoustic guitar or something.

Okay, so lastly, let’s talk about ribbon microphones. Now, here we have a Sontronics microphone. They’re a relatively inexpensive ribbon microphone. They’re an English design. I’m a big fan of this. I use this particular microphone, the Deltron a lot on Aerosmith’s last record for guitar sounds, so I’m very familiar with it.

And ribbons are — they don’t have the high, high, super high frequency response of a nice condenser like the Lewitt there, however, they have a smooth sound, so they tend to sort of roll off on the super, super highs, but what a lot of people like about them, and what I like about ribbon microphones, is they’re not brittle sounding. They tend to have a smooth top end. Maybe not as extended, but what you do hear in the top end is very, very smooth.

The reason why I use this particular microphone a lot on Joe’s tone is because Joe likes really, really bright guitar sounds. So what I did is I pulled back a ribbon a few feet, and another reason for pulling back a ribbon a couple of feet from the speaker is because they don’t necessarily respond as well for really, really high sound pressure levels. So if you are dealing with a guitar player that’s maybe running a 4×12, at max, I wouldn’t put it right on the cone. The ribbons can tend to distort a little bit.

These particular ribbon microphones have a little bit more — you know, have a little bit higher sound pressure levels than the older ribbon microphones, like the RCAs and stuff like that, but even then, I wouldn’t put it right up against the cone. So what I was doing is I was pulling it back here.

Now, another characteristic of a ribbon microphone is they are in figure-of-eight at all times, which basically means they do pick up from the front and the back. Now, on an electric guitar, when you’ve got an electric guitar like this blasting away with a speaker here, you are barely going to pick up anything from the ambience behind, it’s mainly going to be the front stuff, but what you do pick up from behind can be quite tasty. So what I quite often do is I’ll put a ribbon back, and then I’ll put a 57 on close, and I’ll blend. Maybe come back a few feet and get some of the ambience of the room with a direct sound, get a kind of more balanced sound, and then put the 57 on.

So once again, ribbon microphones don’t have the same sound pressure levels, although ones like this have higher sound pressure level, they can basically take a lot more signal than you know, the older RCAs, but I wouldn’t put them right on a cone. They’re very smooth on the top end, so if you’re in a really, really brittle live room and you’re trying to get a really nice drum sound, but the cymbals are just searing all over the place, bring out your ribbons. I’ve used a pair of ribbons on overheads many times in very bright sounding rooms.

I was in a room in New York once, I don’t remember what it was called. A few years ago, and the room was small, and it was glass, and it was bright, and it was ear piercing, and I just put a pair of ribbons on the overheads, and they just pulled up and sounded like normal, warm overheads, because the ribbons were doing all of the work for me.

I’m very, very into the idea of using the right microphone in the right place, and doing the right job with a nice mic pre, not having to engage the EQ unless I’m stuck. You know, Neve always called — Rupert Neve always called EQ “correctional EQ.” What he means is he used the EQ and put the EQ on the consoles purely and simply to do what you couldn’t do by using the right microphone on the right instrument.

So you know, if you can, and you do have enough of a budget, get the 57 first, get something like a dynamic, then move to an inexpensive, like the Lewitt, a 550, or one of those kind of condensers at the 300-400 mark, and then get something like this lastly, and I think between those three microphones, you should have all the options you need in the right situations, and that will save you a lot of work in your DAW EQing stuff, you know, taking a — say, a dynamic and trying to extend the top end and make the vocal more airy and stuff like that. It’s difficult to do that when the microphone isn’t picking up in the first place.

And then, you know, think about using a condenser, obviously on vocals and acoustic instruments, especially guitar — acoustic guitars, because they have that lovely sparkle on the top, and then ribbons for super, super bright stuff that you want to dull down a bit. You know, a great — they’re also great on vocals. And again, if you only had one condenser and you were singing for the lead vocals, go to the ribbon for the backgrounds, and you’ll be surprised. It’ll just separate them enough, because if you’ve got the same singer on both microphones, it’ll do the work for you.

So anyway, that’s the three basic types of microphones. Like I said, there are also PZMs, boundary mics, as they’re called often. They tend to go on flat surfaces. I’ve used them on rooms on the walls. I also know an old hi-hat trick where we put a guitar cab up against the hi-hat and put a PZM on it. That’s kind of nice as well, but in general, these three are the most used ones in 99% of situations, I never move from these three particular types of microphones.

Obviously, there’s lavalier microphones, lapel microphones if you’re recording voice overs, etcetera, but really, this is the area that you’re staying for most of your time, and if anything, I would start off with like, the $100 dynamic, then move into a $300-400 condenser, and then a ribbon mic, and that will get all your basics, and then probably fourth, once you’ve got those three microphones, then think about getting a more expensive condenser.

But you know, in the $300-400 condenser range, you probably will not have to buy — you’ll probably be able to use that for the rest of your life, because that could be good for pretty much anything. I still use $300-400 condenser microphones in every day — I use them on acoustic guitars, I use them on hi-hats, I use them on overheads, so you know, when you buy the right quality microphone, you’ll find that you’ll have it for your whole career, and you’ll just keep adding to it.

Okay, wonderful! As ever, please leave questions and comments below. Love talking microphones. There’s obviously many, many different types of microphones out there. There’s also different manufacturers and different price points. I’d love to know your experiences and know what you prefer, and what you like to use, and obviously, ask me questions about how I use microphones and where I record with them, etcetera. I’d love to talk to you about it, and thank you ever so much for watching!

Warren Huart

Warren Huart

Warren Huart is an English record producer/musician/composer and recording engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Learn more at

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