From Bob Dylan to Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell to Adele, the sparse intimacy of a singer and their instrument is a powerful way to communicate a song – but capturing that atmosphere in a recording can have its challenges.
Pictures taken during modern studio sessions will often show the artist surrounded by a press conference of expensive, gleaming microphones but you might be surprised how many of the most beautiful and intimate recordings of singer-songwriters were captured using a single microphone.
While it’s possible to track with a dynamic stage microphone, you will get the best results with a quality large-diaphragm condenser microphone or LDC. A good place to start would be the Neumann TLM 103, a fixed pattern cardioid beauty, with a capsule design based on the brand’s best-known mic – the U 87.
Neumann knows its stuff when it comes to classic microphones – the brand’s been around since 1928, manufacturing the world’s first mass-produced condenser mic (the CMV-3), as well as the ever-ubiquitous U 47 and U 67 microphones, both of which can be heard on countless classic recordings.
The TLM 103 was first introduced in 1997, six years after Neumann’s acquisition by Sennheiser, and it’s since set a new mic standard for both vocals and acoustic guitar. Not only because of its wide bump in the midrange frequencies between 6 and 15Khz but also because of its absurdly low noise floor. Coming in at just 7dB-A, the mic leaves room for every little detail – making it perfect to capture an intimate, personal performance.
When it comes to the placement of the mic, things are quite simple when using just one. While there’s no hard-and-fast rule for the perfect placement, putting the mic upside down and raising it to the height of the performer’s ear is a great start. This allows you to capture a sound that’s very similar to what they themselves are hearing, and the inverted positioning also prevents the bottom of the mic getting in the way of the sound waves, for a natural, intimate sound. This really helps with dynamics too.
It’s also important to consider the distance from the microphone. While from an audience’s point of view a singer-songwriter can sound great from across the room, in order to capture all the detail of the performance our best bet is to come in closer. Around two feet, or 60 cm, is a good place to start, but also consider dynamics – a quiet performance with nuanced fingerpicking will allow you to get far closer than a full-voiced singer strumming with a pick. Like many LDCs, with the TLM 103, there’s a boost to the bass frequencies from sound sources very close to the mic. This can be used to your advantage, but err on the side of caution if the performer wants to get loud – you may end up with excessive low-end.
As you search for where to place the mic, make sure the musician is sitting comfortably and up straight, and that they keep on playing. Not only will this let you monitor for any sonic sweet spots, but it’ll also ensure that they get loosened up and used to the space. The final step is to ensure that the balance is right between the vocals and guitar – adjust the angle of the microphone to blend between the singer and their six-string. If the mic is a little off-axis to the guitar, thanks to the TLM 103’s cardioid pattern, there won’t be any detail lost. Instead, the guitar will take on a mellow and supportive tone, and vocals will cut through thanks to the mic’s broad presence boost.
All you have to do next is press record!
To learn more about recording a singer-songwriter, why not dive into Neumannn’s three-part video series on this very topic. Or, if you want to make like Dylan, renounce your folk roots and suddenly go electric there’s also a three-part series on getting a great mic’d-up electric guitar sound at home.
Neumann started its Home Studio Academy back in 2016, teaching how to use different microphones and recording techniques to get great sound at home. The Home Studio Academy videos don’t just tell you what mic to use and where to place it, but instead, they take an in-depth look at how microphones actually work. Once you understand that, getting a good sound is much easier than you’d think.
Find out more about Neuman Home Studio over at neumann.com.