Study Hall

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Coffee Beans & Mic Techniques

We can't confine ourselves to the self-imposed limitations inherent in viewing one technique as "right" and all others as "wrong"

So I’m standing in the kitchenette at Imperative Studios, my hair still wet from the shower taken in the ladies’ bathroom, when in comes one of the studio interns – a really good kid at heart, but heavily steeped in the “overconfidence” of youth.

He catches me retrieving my container of coffee beans from the freezer. A half-smile crosses his face as he declares with an air of absolute authority, “You know, coffee beans shouldn’t be put in the freezer.”

Eyebrows arched, I reply, “And how do you know this?”

“My buddy works at Starbucks and I read his employee manual, and they say you’re not supposed to freeze coffee beans” came his answer.

(The next thought flashing through my head included images of my foot, his rear end, and the nearest hospital.)

Never mind that I buy three-pound bags of beans from Costco, and when I store them in the cupboard, the flavor of the coffee is in serious decline by the time I get about halfway through the bag. When stored in the freezer, however, the beans retain their flavor.

Yet according to a recording studio intern, my method of storing coffee beans is completely invalid in the face of Starbucks’ authority. 

In his limited (to this point) worldview, there’s only one right way and all others are wrong. He’s yet to learn that the desired result determines the method employed.

I’ve frequently seen this same perspective regarding microphone technique. Everyone agrees with the idea that you point the mic at what you want it to pick up, and additional isolation can be achieved by positioning the mic as close to the source as possible.

But beyond this basis, there’s another side to the coin: pointing the mic away from what you don’t want.  This perspective applies both for using a particular polar pattern to eliminate undesired pickup or miking unconventionally to find a desired sound.

Take drum miking. Snare bleed in the hi-hat mic can blur the snare in the mix, especially for those drummers who know how to play the brass sweetly.

Some time ago, I picked up the method of turning a small diaphragm cardioid condenser nearly horizontal above the hi-hat and pointing it away from the snare.  Having the snare in the “nulling area” of the mic’s polar pattern is very effective in reducing bleed.

But the million dollar question: how many drummers or techs then try to “fix” my positioning of the mic? Too many to count. Having the mic positioned this way is just “wrong” –  they’re firmly convinced that it’s supposed to point directly at the hi-hat.

A young band I regularly worked with in the past had a guitarist using a Line 6 Spider guitar amp. (I know, I know… don’t say it.)  I’d already resigned myself to the sound we were getting with a (Shure) SM57 and heavy EQ on the console. 

Then one day I walked in via backstage during a rehearsal and immediately thought that he’d gotten a new amp. But surprise of surprises, it was still the Spider! 

The only difference was that the house assistant, not knowing the “right” way to mic a guitar amp, put the SM57 smack dab in the middle of the cabinet, pointed at nothing more than the cabinet baffle, inches from the nearest driver.

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The assistant, having yet to be tainted with the ideas of center, edge, on-axis and off-axis miking techniques, just intuitively stuck the mic in front of the cabinet with no thought as to “proper” and it sounded great! 

I swallowed my pride and learned something.

Then there was the Saturday of doing a parking lot youth gig with four bands throughout the afternoon. I kept it simple on this, choosing for drums to just use mics on kick and snare, along with a pair of overheads for the complete kit. 

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