Though simple, single mic setups can still offer artists a range of straightforward options to improve and tailor their live streaming sound.
The tips/advice below are meant as a set of principles, not hard and fast rules, for you to employ as you see fit, to tailor the sound of your live streaming shows. And although they do apply to built-in mics too, it goes without saying, external mics will offer greater freedom to create.
MOTOWN & MOTELS
Recorded live, via one microphone, straight to vinyl master, the original Motown recordings offer a wealth of simple techniques to make the most of the seemingly inflexible setup.
Drums were placed at the back of the room, furthest away from the mic, as they were the loudest instrument; this, in turn, gave rise to the iconic roomy, boomy, and much loved, Motown drum sound. The bass was most often placed nearest the mic, as it was quietest instrument; and, in doing so, the equally iconic dry and up-front Motown bass sound was born.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” offers a host of lessons for independent artists looking to craft and shape their live streaming sound. Recorded in Motel rooms while on tour, reverb effects were achieved by having the musician or singer stand at the back of the room away from the microphone; thereby using the room’s own natural ambience.
MIXING IN THE ROOM
In its most basic form, mixing is the act of making some instruments/voices louder, while making others quieter. And although there is a little more to it than that, many top mix engineers will still do the majority of their work “on the board”, working the faders.
Recording live to a single mic, requires us to “mix in the room”. Volume control can be achieved in one of two or three ways.
Musicians can vary the volume by way of their own performance. In theory, at least, this should be natural and intuitive for musicians who are used to playing live alongside other musicians. And although playing softer will also result in a change of timbre, controlling volume by performance should allow the music to rise and fall with the musical and emotional needs of the track.
*Performance also offers you the opportunity to control dynamics. More dynamic instruments feel closer/bigger in the mix, less dynamic feel further away/smaller. By tailoring your playing style, you’ll be able to enhance the sense of depth and focus for your listeners.
Many instruments allow you to mute/muffle their sound by way of mechanical device and/or playing technique. Muted instruments tend to sound tonally different from their unmuted state, and this may or may not be desirable, depending on the demands of the piece of music. It does, nevertheless offer a simple method of controlling volume.
Considering the position of performers in the room, relative to that of the microphone offers a method to control volume without compromising the timbre/tone of the instrument. And can be approached in one of two ways:
i) Louder instruments can be placed further away (creating a “flat/even” mix)
ii) Featured instruments can be placed nearer (creating a “focused” mix)
4. Mic Proximity
Just as controlling volume by performance and muting, comes with consequences, so does controlling volume by position relative to that of the microphone. For the purposes of this article, we can concern ourselves with two aspects of mic proximity:
i) The Sound of the Room
“The sound of the room” refers to the ambient sound within the room and how perceptible it is on a recording. In simple terms, the closer to the mic, the less “room sound”, the further away, the more. It is this phenomenon that accounts for the roomy, boomy Motown drums and the Nebraska reverb. Placing the performer further away from the mic does not just result in a reduction in volume, it also results in an increase of “reverb” (perceived space/distance). This may or may not be desirable, depending on the musical and emotional intentions of your music.
Typically the closer a sound to the mic, the more bass frequencies are picked up. This is most apparent when you “cup” the mic with your hands, a useful trick when attempting an impression of Darth Vader. Conversely, the further away, the less bass will be picked up.
Once again we can draw inspiration from the original Motown recordings, where the bass was placed close to the mic. And you may too decide that bassy instruments should be placed nearer the mic.
Of course, this also offers a basic method to EQ your mix. If a second instrument, perhaps a large bodied acoustic guitar, is producing a lot of low frequencies and masking/muddying the bass, you could consider moving the acoustic further away from the mic.
*It is worth noting that instruments/voices that occupy a fuller frequency range, feel “taller” in the mix. Placing backing vocals further away from mic will earn you a double-whammy. Not only will you make the backing vocals a little quieter, you’ll also sit them further back in the mix (by means of more “room sound” and less “bass”).
**It is also worth noting that different mics have different proximity effect characteristics and pick up certain frequency ranges more than others.
Microphone pick-up is also central to how a microphone will behave relative to the sounds around it. Directionality (see “Live Streaming: Tips and Advice”) and pick-up range are two factors to be considered. Microphones built into phones/webcams will have wide directionality and generous pick-up ranges. If you opt for an external mic, you want to make sure you have a mic capable of capturing your whole live streaming setup.
Remember, there are no hard and fast rules, just principles. Having your lead singer sit away from the mic may result in a ghostly, haunting sound, both moving and beautiful (whether your lead singer’s ego will allow for it, of course, is another question).