Most of us listen to music that is produced via a combination of a lot of different mics, software instruments, overdubs, et cetera. The mix engineer works his fingers to the bone to try to make all that stuff fit together, and in many cases the result is brilliant. In some cases it’s not. When the result isn’t so great, I often wonder how things could have turned out if everything was just left… natural.
It’s always an eye-opener to listen to a one-mic recording. The great thing about it is that there is no bleed, no phase cancellation, and little to no exaggerated frequency peaks due to the ultra-close proximity of a mic to a source. On the downside you can’t really fix mistakes in the typical “studio” fashion and you definitely can’t balance things after the session is over.
Still, if the tune belongs to a genre that lends itself to honesty, a one-mic session has the potential beat the pants off all the fancy tricks of a million isolation booths and a zillion tracks of discrete audio.
A few years ago I bought a stereo ribbon mic from AEA – the R88mkII. This mic has two crossed figure-8 elements, which results in a left/right image in front of the mic and a mirror left/right image (in opposite phase) to the rear. It’s a great tool for drum overheads, general room miking, and, of course, being the solo mic in a one-mic session. For this session, we placed the singer/guitarist/harmonica player front and center in the stereo image and back just far enough to keep the vocal from dominating everything else. The bass was elevated, mostly opposite the singer, but was leaning just a little to one side of the stereo image in order to balance out the fact the the drums had to be slightly to the other side in order to peak around the body of the singer and be heard clearly.
There have been many times when I’ve wished I could get a simple, clean drum sound like this with close mics. But a SM57 3 inches off the top of a snare (or a Beta 52 inside the bass drum) will RARELY be capable of faking a sound like a stereo mic 10 feet away! The other great thing about ribbon mics is that they tend to be dark. As such, there are certain software processors (like the Slate FG-MU Fairchild-style compressor) that can really breathe life into the signal without making things too bright.
Here’s Wayne Harper, Dean Hughes and Scott Thile working the R88!