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Extremely quiet chamber music - favorite techniques? Condenser Microphones
Old 19th February 2018
  #1
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Extremely quiet chamber music - favorite techniques?

Hello all,

This past fall/winter I did a couple of remote sessions recording extremely quiet contemporary chamber pieces -- not exaggerating here, think program material only 10-15dB higher than noise floor at times.

If anyone has experience with ultra-quiet music like this and has some preferred techniques/mics/placements/post-production treatments that they'd like to share, I'd be curious to continue learning about how best to navigate these challenging situations.

All the mics I currently own are SDC's and I'm wondering especially if renting somewhat quieter large diaphragm condensers would be the way to go for stuff like this in the future? Including the mains, since their noise performance is especially critical in this context?

I don't yet own any SDC figure of 8's but I'm also curious if careful placement, plus possible use of gobos behind the rear lobes (if used as spots) could give an even drier and more isolated sound.

Many thanks in advance for any suggestions.
Luke
Old 19th February 2018
  #2
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Quiet, like late- Morton Feldman quiet? I hope you had a quiet hall (or better, a real recording studio) for this. Challenging to say the least for all components, including chairs, floors and player breathing!! Most places I record in these days would not work for such music....
Old 19th February 2018
  #3
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This is a challenging thing, and I'll be interested to hear what folks have to say. A while back I recorded a contemporary chamber piece that started with the members of the ensemble just breathing together for maybe 30-45 seconds, after which there was a slow buildup of instruments from very quiet levels to, eventually, quite loud passages, before ending very quietly. It was actually a pretty cool work, and the dynamic range was quite effective in the hall, but the effect was tricky to transfer to a recording.

I had the opportunity to record a rehearsal of the piece, and based on that, for the performance, I:

-- Set my overall mic gain about 4-5 dB higher that I normally would have, so that the louder passages peaked at -7 rather than the -12 or so that I usually aim for. I figured this would provide more material to work with in the softer passages.

-- I was using a Faulkner 67/47 array; in post, I ended up boosting the subcardioids about 8dB in the "breathing" section while just bumping the omnis by a couple of dB. That combination gave more "reach" into the ensemble to pick up the inhale/exhale, without bringing in too much more of the ambient room noise. I snuck the faders back down very slowly as the instruments came in, then back up towards the end for the quiet conclusion, but only by a few dB (it wasn't as quiet as the intro).

As far as SDCs vs. LDCs - even if on paper you could eke out a little bit less self-noise from the mics, I suspect that other factors would have a lot more impact on the actual recording. Unless you're in some experimental isolation facility, it's likely that ambient room noise will be louder than the self-noise of the mics so you might as well choose the mics that will help you get the best pickup regardless of diaphragm size.

Depending on the instruments and material involved, it might be a case where using more spot mics could be helpful. Getting up close would give a better S/N ratio on the very quiet parts. That wasn't a possibility at the performance I was recording, but the Faulkner 67/47 did its usual good job of providing useful options after the fact, and the clients (including the composer) were happy with the results in the context of it being a live capture. For an album, more advanced techniques would be advisable!
Old 19th February 2018
  #4
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No actual experiences there and also interested in other engineers opinions but - if the composition is meant to "dive into the ambient noise" it's ok to be reflected in the recording aswell. I think. As long as it's a pleasent noise floor and somewhat similar to what people experienced during concert.
If thrown in a situation like this I would spot a little closer/relay more on spots in the mix.
Old 19th February 2018
  #5
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If using two identical mics very close to each other and recording at two different levels do typical characteristics match well enough to allow some blending in post and can/must small phase differences be compensated?

Can some automatic level control be used (analog preamp gain) ?
Old 19th February 2018
  #6
Gear Head
Last year I edited and mastered a CD for a string quartet playing all contemporary compositions. Repertoire was both minimalist and hypnotic and extremely quiet. I did not do the original recording but in mixing, I needed to raise the gain upwards of 10db for some of the 8 tracks and then ended up raising the combined master fader considerably as well. A little RX noise reduction went a long way in making all of this possible. So, I think whatever happens in the recording sessions, RX may be your life saver in the end.

Best of luck!
Peter
Old 19th February 2018
  #7
I feel your pain. What you're trying to do is similar to what we do when we're sampling pianos. Sampling is the most demanding recording WRT noise bar none. We start out by looking for the quietest venue we can find. This is the biggest problem. No hall is ever quiet enough and studios (Even those that think they are dead quiet) are not much better. Modern sampling requires noise floors that are really 80 db below the peak program. I've only found 2 halls and no studios that are quiet enough. We sample at a hall in Quebec that is about 5 hours north of Quebec City on the Saint Lawrence Seaway in the middle of winter so that nobody is around. After finding all the sources of noise in the hall's physical plant, we still loose 15% of the takes to noise. Wood creaks, thermostats, light fixtures, you name it. In studios I bring my own quiet lights.
Beyond that, you then need to start chasing down the noise sources in the electronics. For years we used DPA 4011, 4006, and Neumann TLM50s. However, as systems get better and noise floors of the electronics drop, the self noise of the microphones ended up being the main culprit, louder than the noise floor in the hall and electronics combined. To that end, we have found just about the quietest microphone/preamp combination to be the Merging Horus fed from a Sennheiser MKH800. I regularly see noise floor readings of -90dB from the hall. At that volume, when the players stomach grumbles, it sounds like a train coming into the station....

As always, YMMV,
All the best,
-mark

Last edited by mpdonahue; 19th February 2018 at 10:18 PM..
Old 19th February 2018
  #8
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1. Studio which is as soundproof as possible.

2. Mics with low noise/high output (like Mark said, the Senn 800 is a good choice).

3. Place mics close to instruments.

4. All heating, air conditioning, and any other machines in the vicinity turned off.
Old 19th February 2018
  #9
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i'm in the process of recording all six of gesualdo's libri with an experimental vocal ensemble in different places: sometimes, they walk around while singing or position themselves in the most distant places in the church... - they want to have the option of 'radical choices' during mixdown, so i'm recording quite many tracks:

soundfield/schoeps/neumann/b&k as part of the 'normal setup'; headworn dpa's and sanken with sennheiser wireless systems, schoeps blm on the floor in wide a/b or l/c/r, neumann tlm for spots, neumann digital for more distant mains/ambis in the 'advanced setting'.

in my experience, the self noise of the mic seems to be quite important - but what REALLY helps is using automatic mic mixing: don't laugh! i'm using split outs from the spot mics and i'll doubt i'll be able to get close to the result of this in mixdown! other than that, my most important tool is still the expander...
Old 20th February 2018
  #10
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These situations can really try the best locations and equipment, as the noise floor is likely a combination of the weaknesses of all combined.

Be mindful of your mic-pre's behaviour...a lot of cheaper input attn pots have their gain bunched up in the top 3/4 or 7/8 of their travel, and that's also where the noise becomes apparent.

Digital gain applied later is your best friend here...if you're recording at 24 bit you can apply gain later without the noise penalty. Try to find the preamp's sweet spot.

LED light buzz ( a local hall here has a strong component at 7999 Hz !), air-con rumble, roof expansion/contraction cracks (especially if it's a largely timber construction), mic self-noise and especially traffic noise can all contribute..if possible give yourself early time in the venue without musicians or anyone else around...put on full range headphones and really play around with these parameters and become fully conversant with them.

Sure Rx can work miracles, and there may not be much you can do at source to remove noise...but such experimentation will give priceless insights into the interactive nature of their contributions. These can inform mic placements, use of LF filtering at source and so on,

Recording a very quiet piano under the lid in these conditions can be an ear-opener, as the lid can funnel in and concentrate a lot of outside noise..as well as making you all too aware of the 'mechanical' nature of the instrument (pedals, dampers etc) !
Old 20th February 2018
  #11
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Put em all in a big car
They have good iso
That’s what I did for location VO
Old 20th February 2018
  #12
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This is non-standard music, so standard techniques might not work. I think I'd go for additional spots *very* close to each instrument. MKHs are very quiet. Maybe even clip-on solutions like DPA or CCM with instrument mounts.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Schoeller View Post
If using two identical mics very close to each other and recording at two different levels do typical characteristics match well enough to allow some blending in post and can/must small phase differences be compensated?
Can some automatic level control be used (analog preamp gain) ?
Why would you do that? You can simply ride the gain reading the score. That way you can react much better than any automatic control because you can pre-react.

Two mics next to each other isn't a bad idea, using different patterns. Look into Straus Packet theory, MKH 800 Twin, and the Schoeps Polarflex system.
Old 20th February 2018
  #13
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Thanks everyone for your thoughts! Glad this is of interest to others as well. In response to a few specific things:

Quote:
Originally Posted by philper View Post
Quiet, like late- Morton Feldman quiet? I hope you had a quiet hall (or better, a real recording studio) for this. Challenging to say the least for all components, including chairs, floors and player breathing!! Most places I record in these days would not work for such music....
Yes, actually even quieter than much Feldman -- there is an emphasis on extended techniques, very nuanced and sparse with long spaces in the instrumental phrasing where the background noise of course becomes more noticeable.

Quote:
Originally Posted by DCtoDaylight View Post
As far as SDCs vs. LDCs - even if on paper you could eke out a little bit less self-noise from the mics, I suspect that other factors would have a lot more impact on the actual recording. Unless you're in some experimental isolation facility, it's likely that ambient room noise will be louder than the self-noise of the mics so you might as well choose the mics that will help you get the best pickup regardless of diaphragm size.
Very good point, thank you. In my similar situation I was able to use spots on each instrumentalist in addition to the main pair, so that helped quite a bit. In my case I am beginning to bump up against more fundamental physical limitations of the whole situation, as Mark Donahue was pointing out in his post.

Quote:
Originally Posted by mpdonahue View Post
I feel your pain. What you're trying to do is similar to what we do when we're sampling pianos. Sampling is the most demanding recording WRT noise bar none. We start out by looking for the quietest venue we can find. This is the biggest problem. No hall is ever quiet enough and studios (Even those that think they are dead quiet) are not much better. Modern sampling requires noise floors that are really 80 db below the peak program. I've only found 2 halls and no studios that are quiet enough. We sample at a hall in Quebec that is about 5 hours north of Quebec City on the Saint Lawrence Seaway in the middle of winter so that nobody is around. After finding all the sources of noise in the hall's physical plant, we still loose 15% of the takes to noise. Wood creaks, thermostats, light fixtures, you name it. In studios I bring my own quiet lights.
Beyond that, you then need to start chasing down the noise sources in the electronics. For years we used DPA 4011, 4006, and Neumann TLM50s. However, as systems get better and noise floors of the electronics drop, the self noise of the microphones ended up being the main culprit, louder than the noise floor in the hall and electronics combined. To that end, we have found just about the quietest microphone/preamp combination to be the Merging Horus fed from a Sennheiser MKH800. I regularly see noise floor readings of -90dB from the hall. At that volume, when the players stomach grumbles, it sounds like a train coming into the station....
Mark, thank you as always for your input! Very much appreciated. While I don't envy the logistics you must encounter running these dedicated sampling sessions, it is reassuring to an aspiring engineer to hear tales of similar acoustic woes from someone of your level.

Quote:
Originally Posted by studer58 View Post
Be mindful of your mic-pre's behaviour...a lot of cheaper input attn pots have their gain bunched up in the top 3/4 or 7/8 of their travel, and that's also where the noise becomes apparent.

Digital gain applied later is your best friend here...if you're recording at 24 bit you can apply gain later without the noise penalty. Try to find the preamp's sweet spot.

...... <shortened>

Sure Rx can work miracles, and there may not be much you can do at source to remove noise...but such experimentation will give priceless insights into the interactive nature of their contributions. These can inform mic placements, use of LF filtering at source and so on,
Agreed -- in my situation, a Grace m108 was used for preamp + conversion, so that was not the weak link in terms of noise. And recording at 24/96 did indeed allow quite a bit of flexibility in post, both in terms of gain and quite a good deal of RX processing. As you point out, it definitely taught me some valuable lessons about mic placements to try next time in such a situation though!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rolo 46 View Post
Put em all in a big car
They have good iso
That’s what I did for location VO
Hah! What a great mental image. I'm picturing something like the exact opposite of that Stockhausen "helicopter string quartet". Given that the instrumentation was piano, violin, clarinet, guitar, cello -- I would have needed a rather enormous vehicle however.
Old 20th February 2018
  #14
RPC
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I'm assuming that when you say "sessions" you mean "not live." As has been pointed out, the first item is to find a quiet (enough) space. The quietest room I've ever been in that is big enough to have actual acoustics is the scoring stage at Skywalker Ranch. It's actually pretty eerie being an a space that size that's quiet enough that you can hear the blood pulsing in your ears! It might be a budget-buster, though...
Second item is to find microphones with extremely low noise. Sennheiser MKH800 has been mentioned; another I've used when I needed extremely low noise is the AKG C414XLS. Obviously you'll have to compromise between lowest noise and the other aspects of the sound that appeal to you.
The rest of the recording chain is important as well. I use a Metric Halo ULN-8, very transparent and extremely quiet.
Lastly, is it part of the atmosphere of the music that it's being played by actual living human beings? After all, they breathe and clothes rustle, chairs can squeak (and you can hear performers moving on them even when they don't), instruments emit extraneous noises. Your life will be eased considerably if the composer and performers consider some of those noises as part of "the natural charm of an actual performance!"
Old 20th February 2018
  #15
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My goto mic for quiet sources is the mkh800 (twin or not).
It also has a rather healthy output, so preamp noise is not a very big issue.

I have done some very quiet contemporary, or i recall a clavichord recording that was extremely quiet. Or recording parts/samples for tapes/electronics/composition.
Old 21st February 2018
  #16
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I recorded the King of Denmark by Morton Feldman. It is an extremely quiet piece king of enmark music - Google Search.

I did it for Garry Kvistad Garry Kvistad BIography | Woodstock Wind Chimes when he was a student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. I used two Neumann M-50 microphones as a coincident pair. The performance was done in the lounge of the concert hall due to the setup time required. Except for a persistent AC fan noise it was dead quiet even with 100+ people in attendance - the piece and the performer were that mesmerizing. It is one of my favorite pieces to record and was extremely well done by the performer. This was still in the days of tape and it was recorded on an Ampex AG440B-2 with with a Lang modified Stereo Altec Preamp (based on two Model 1567A mono preamps). Pretty amazing sound for the day . FWIW

Last edited by Thomas W. Bethe; 22nd February 2018 at 04:55 PM.. Reason: Spelling
Old 22nd February 2018
  #17
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Sounds like a great experience Tom, thanks for sharing! I love Feldman, and as a percussionist myself, it would be a dream to record this piece one day.

A general question for everyone who has responded thus far:

What are some changes you typically make in your mic placements when recording extremely quiet material? Besides putting them closer, obviously.

For example, on the recording I mentioned in my original post, I ended up getting a bit more breath and embrasure noise from my clarinet spot than I would have liked even after making a couple changes. Much of it had to do with the player's technique which made it a little harder to mitigate with placement changes. We were on a tight schedule and unfortunately there was not time to fine-tune further... I will definitely be on the lookout for this pitfall in the future after all the RX work it entailed.
Old 22nd February 2018
  #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by lukedamrosch View Post
What are some changes you typically make in your mic placements when recording extremely quiet material? Besides putting them closer, obviously.
swap mics for models with even lower noise (if possible at all) - same with preamps (less of an issue as stated by others before) - match analog output levels of preamps and inputs of converters (if you're not already using combined preamps/converters)

or: use of digital mics (to get around all those issues at the same time)!

or: use blm's
Old 22nd February 2018
  #19
RPC
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Quote:
Originally Posted by lukedamrosch View Post
A general question for everyone who has responded thus far:

What are some changes you typically make in your mic placements when recording extremely quiet material? Besides putting them closer, obviously.
Not placement, but I'll typically use large(er) diaphragm microphones in this situation than usual. The Brownian motion of the air particles needs to be averaged over a pretty big area to get the noise down.
Old 22nd February 2018
  #20
Thumbs up

Get closer.

It's all about finding the direct v indirect v noise balance. If it's super soft, you will need to go in.
Old 22nd February 2018
  #21
Oh, and to address your comments about the clarinet!: change your microphone patterns, microphone types, and use good preamps. If getting close makes the tone too bright for you, use a darker mic. If getting close change the perspective you want too much, use a more directional mic, perhaps one that is bright on-axis.
Old 1st March 2018
  #22
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Thanks for these thoughts, Christian.

On that particular occasion, the reverse was actually true -- I ended up using an omni spot for the clarinet because I was not happy with the sound from any of my directional mics. I'm wondering if the breath and embrasure noise issue might be mitigated another time by using an LDC or even a ribbon, but it's just speculation since I currently own only small diaphragm condensers.

Just out of curiosity, if anyone would care to respond to one of my earlier questions, I'd love to hear some opinions:

"Are there any changes you typically make in your mic placements when recording extremely quiet material? Besides putting them closer, obviously."

For example, the above issue with breath noise will certainly be in the back of my mind influencing placement next time I do something very quiet and up-close like this with a wind instrument.
Old 1st March 2018
  #23
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Probably the main requirement for success is to get to a church out in the country. A place that is in the middle of nowhere. Hopefully there it will be quiet.

Then work the session with some mics close and some mics far. Blend the two to achieve a professional balance and definitely include the room.

Most urban areas worldwide are too noisy for your pursuit.
Old 1st March 2018
  #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Plush View Post
Probably the main requirement for success is to get to a church out in the country. A place that is in the middle of nowhere. Hopefully there it will be quiet.

Then work the session with some mics close and some mics far. Blend the two to achieve a professional balance and definitely include the room.

Most urban areas worldwide are too noisy for your pursuit.
Thanks for this!

The recording was set up in a basement studio at Wesleyan University's music building in CT. The musicians were doing the recording as part of a tour so I did not have control over the venue. Very quiet surroundings, but I was surprised how much the temperature changes (it was winter) caused cracking and popping noises from the walls and ceilings. These would have been totally imperceptible under normal conditions, but became a tedious problem to remove in RX.

Another time, a stone structure, provided it is not grossly reverberant, will be my first choice for this sort of thing!
Old 1st March 2018
  #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by lukedamrosch View Post
Just out of curiosity, if anyone would care to respond to one of my earlier questions, I'd love to hear some opinions:

"Are there any changes you typically make in your mic placements when recording extremely quiet material? Besides putting them closer, obviously."
did you try using a boundary layer mic (or any sdc with a cardioid pattern on a large/hard surface close to the source?

those additional 3db of sound pressure level can make a difference and the proximity of the mic to the surface changes pattern and low end pickup quite a lot - i've been putting both real blm's and 'fake' ones (cardioid sdc') on books (!) close to very soft instruments/singers/actors with great success...
Old 1st March 2018
  #26
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Quote:
Originally Posted by deedeeyeah View Post
did you try using a boundary layer mic (or any sdc with a cardioid pattern on a large/hard surface close to the source?
Very good point -- I did not, but in retrospect I think this is the #1 thing I'd like to try next time I'm in a similar situation. The biggest disappointment was the amount of noise in my main pair because of their much greater distance with such extremely quiet material. I had the ensemble set up in a fairly typical semi-circular way and recorded the perspective performance style, so I ended up using the mains quite low in the mix just to provide air and some stereo image, relying more heavily on the spots for cleaner level.

Another time, I'd love to try a pair of boundary mics as my mains and place them either much closer or possibly even with the performers in a circle around them in the center...

For really quiet sources, I might worry that the performers' feet would make very noticeable and irritating intrusions... have you experienced this using BLM's on quiet sources? I might try, as some people here have suggested, placing them on a piece of thin sorbothane to decouple from the floor.
Old 1st March 2018
  #27
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Quote:
Originally Posted by lukedamrosch View Post
Very good point -- I did not, but in retrospect I think this is the #1 thing I'd like to try next time I'm in a similar situation. The biggest disappointment was the amount of noise in my main pair because of their much greater distance with such extremely quiet material. I had the ensemble set up in a fairly typical semi-circular way and recorded the perspective performance style, so I ended up using the mains quite low in the mix just to provide air and some stereo image, relying more heavily on the spots for cleaner level.

Another time, I'd love to try a pair of boundary mics as my mains and place them either much closer or possibly even with the performers in a circle around them in the center...

For really quiet sources, I might worry that the performers' feet would make very noticeable and irritating intrusions... have you experienced this using BLM's on quiet sources? I might try, as some people here have suggested, placing them on a piece of thin sorbothane to decouple from the floor.
i've never used blm's for main mics exept once (or twice)...

...but i'm using them right now as spots on an 'experimental renaissance ensemble': my trick is to put them not on a floor but in a more appropriate/normal position off the floor: a large book is enough to work as a boundary - looks silly but works! to fix both book and mic is the most difficult part! (music stands are easier)

regarding main mics with soft ensembles: i switch to the mics with the least self noise (tlm103 or km184digital in my case) in ortf and go closer than i usually would - so it's more about function than sound.

also, i use a few compressors (!) to record hotter levels (amek cib, grace m103) - i split signals before the compressors and record both signals; mostly on soloists (and let them decide whether or not to use the compressed signals).

i guess it's the combination of these factors that help me to achieve hotter signals/less noise - and my quantec takes care of the lack of room/ambient sound...
Old 2nd March 2018
  #28
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Commenting basically as bookmark; I've been working in studio with a fingerpicking guitarist who is extremely quiet, I regularly think my gain notes must be wrong. Very distant outside noise sources will show up, along with general ambient air motion. I recently changed to using MKH series mics for this capture, and noise has improved greatly. I'm making a guess that the polar patterns with respect to frequency are improved over the previous setup, so corrections in post are much more effective as well.

Possibly not in the OP's case, but in mine (pop music with vocal) it's proving useful to capture wild sound and use RX5 offline for noise reduction in very specific frequency bands.
Old 2nd March 2018
  #29
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I had a good friend who was a finger picking guitar player. He was also fancied himself a Techie. He called me up and asked me to come over since everything he tried to record was really distant and soft. I went over and noticed he had an AT 4060 LDC and a Great River mic preamp so he should be getting the best sound. When I looked at the microphone I could already tell what was wrong. He was using it in a cardioid pattern and had the back of the microphone towards him. I asked him why and he said "so I can see the pad and roll off switches, does it make a difference? Oh well a little knowledge is sometimes not a good thing. I turned the mic around and he was ecstatic at the difference it made. Sometimes the simplest things make the biggest differences...Case closed...
Old 2nd March 2018
  #30
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Thomas W. Bethe View Post
When I looked at the microphone I could already tell what was wrong. He was using it in a cardioid pattern and had the back of the microphone towards him. I asked him why and he said "so I can see the pad and roll off switches, does it make a difference?


At least he wasn't using it as an end-address mic. I've seen that done too, with more or less the same result as your friend.
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