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Microphones Schmikrofons

If the effort to perfect it might spoil it, don’t worry about the mic.

I was lucky to have my first internship at a studio that lived up to its name. Salmugundi — an anachronistic word classically used to describe salad (also a recording studio in Northfield, MN) — means “a great assortment of things, a hodgepodge, a wide range of flavors and colors and textures.” It was at Salmagundi Recording Studio that resident antiquer Steve McKinstry first exposed me to a wide variety of vintage tube microphones and other boutique-y recording gear long before the gear sluts put them back in vogue. For years, the right mic meant everything to me.

These days, I’m primarily a mixing engineer and I have to deal with whatever is thrown at me. It’s common for tracks to all be cut through one nice preamp and one nice mic — except for the drums, which were cut using a handful of mics at the rehearsal space through the Mackie mixer. In these conditions, the most thoughtful arrangers and engineers can achieve a recording with plenty of depth, tonal variety, or tonal harmony. And I’ve found that’s typically not what happens. Through the “one great signal chain” of the average self-recordist, every track has a similar spectral color contributed by the hardware, even if it’s a U47 and a 1073, and the sound of the same (small) room. As a mixer, I have to tonally and spacially individuate these tracks to create depth, clarity, and impact.

For better or for worse, I’d argue this process creates the sound of the majority of recordings today. The average producer — be he indie, major, or bedroom — uses a methodology involving his best microphone (or two) on every track. Why, some platinum producers I hear intentionally use the same mic on everything (shhh, Brendan O’Brien is rumored to have used SM57s all around a drum kit, even for the cymbals).

With the recent profusion of high-performance microphones in the several-hundred-dollar range, a complement of excellent mics is more within reach than ever.

Yet, at times, I use such intricate chains of plug-ins to carve out a particular sound, microphone nuances are rendered irrelevant. I use plug-ins to restore punch, add attack, simulate tube-y and tape-y textures, saturation and harmonics of many stripes. A plug-in can’t yet change what was actually captured, but they can transform a weak or tactless recording into something effective; of course, so can good outboard gear. Contemporary music listeners are much more open, forgiving, and accepting of a wide variety of sonic palettes, rightly putting vibe and creativity above fidelity. Personally, I like to have my Hz and eat them, too. Go ahead, artists, fashion your strange potions at home. I will use whatever tools necessary (CLA76!) to chew up your tracks and regurgitate them into something more impacting than you knew possible.

But even in the case of tracks cut through great gear at great studios, I sometimes have to carve the sh*t out of it to get the sound I’m looking for or the sound the band wants, but didn’t capture.

Then there are the experiences that tell me all the great microphones and the time it takes to mate them to the right instrument, placing them advantageously, correcting the phase, and the cost of working in such facilities that offer and maintain them is entirely worth it. Such was my experience at Odds On Studios in Las Vegas, for example [see Alex’s “Facility Review” in our November 2009 issue — Ed.]. My Odds On rough mixes with almost no EQ are closer to what they need to be than some recordings I’ve persistently wrestled in my mix studio. I raise my fader to those self-recordists and engineers who take the time to research and purchase the best gear they can and to study methods to realize a vision or experiment their way into happy accidents.

If I’m tracking, the right mic still means everything to me. There are plenty of recordings that aren’t sonically ideal, that are sure great, that I’m sure glad exist. Us finicky engineers should remind ourselves it might never be perfect. So if the effort to perfect it might spoil it, don’t worry about the mic. Make salad in the mix.

Alex Oana is an award-winning engineer/producer in Los