Answering the Eternal Question: What mics should we get?
When the time comes to mic the front ensemble, there are a ton of options out there as to what mics are the best fit for your particular ensemble. Some microphones are cheap, some expensive, and almost all of them are within reach thanks to the internet. So the question is, "what microphones should I buy that help my front ensemble instruments sound great, but also remain convenient and durable enough to use out on the field"?
To begin let's talk briefly about the two main types of microphones out there: Dynamic and Condenser microphones. These two microphones both sound great underneath a keyboard instrument but here are some quick broad bullet points illustrating their differences:
Condenser microphones are a touch more sensitive, so they are best used on the quieter sources.
Dynamic microphones are more durable than condenser microphones.
As a whole dynamic mics are less expensive, but some great condenser mics can be found for around the same price as some great dynamic mics.
Condenser mics can come in “pencil” size (see small diaphragm condenser), making them more appropriate for tight spaces/ more concealment .
When talking about the differences between dynamic and condenser mics, it’s also important to talk about Phantom Power. Phantom power is power that is sent out from the mixer through the XLR cable and gives power to the unit the XLR is plugged into, in this case a microphone. Thanks to the way dynamic mics pick up sound, they do not require any power to charge their pickup element. They are essentially picking up sound all the time, whether they are plugged in or not. Condenser mics however need phantom power to charge the element that picks up sound. Almost all mixers have a phantom power button on the channel strip (link), so providing phantom power is very easy in most cases.
Now that we have established the types of mics that are best suited for the outdoor activity, let’s talk about specific models. For dynamic mics we have the classic SM57. This mic (and it’s sister the SM58) are the best selling microphones of all time. The SM57 is the only dynamic mic on this list because for our cases outdoor, it will do the job better than any other dynamic microphone, plain and simple.
*It is worth noting that the SM57 and the SM58 share the same body and house the same electronics inside, and by unscrewing the mesh sphere on the SM58, you can basically turn a 58 into a 57 (link).
Moving on, the world of condenser microphones is a little bit more varied. For our purposes, we will break them down into two categories, the large diaphragm condensers (LDC) and the small diaphragm condensers (SDC). Although the mainstream tends to favor LDCs, SDCs are actually more suited for the transient material percussion instruments create. That being said, here is a list of commonly used condenser mics:
AT2035/AT2020/AT2050 (LDC)- These three microphones all come from Audio Technica, a seasoned veteran of the recording industry. Given a little space beneath the keys, these mics are a great fit for the outdoor activity…provided you treat them well and try not to get them wet.
Samson C02 and Rhode Nt5 (SDC)- The CO2 pencil condensers are a great buy for the price and come in pairs. Included with them is a circular shock mount that will keep them isolated from the bumps and thuds that come from the keyboard frame. In addition to being great on marimba and vibes, this mic is also great on snare drum and tiny instruments like finger cymbals or triangles. The Rhode Nt5s are slightly more expensive than the Samsons, but they offer a less colored sound and an extended frequency response. Think about investing in the NT5s, and then using them on your program’s choir or orchestra in the off season.
AT Pro45 and the Shure Beta 98 (SDC)- These two microphones are microphones that have been repurposed for the marching idiom, the Pro45 being a hanging choir mic and the Beta 98 being a horn/ drum mic. These mics both offer a very small profile, making them good for situations where mics need to be as invisible as possible such as over-mic’ing a keyboard, for mic’ing a horn, or for mic’ing auxiliary percussion on the rack. Don’t be fooled by the size of these mics, they have the same (if not better) range of other mics on this list.
Shure Beta 57 (LDC)- This mic is the SM57 reincarnated in a condenser microphone. It offers the same design and durability of the 57, with the increased frequency response and sensitivity that comes with being a condenser microphone.
“Other Microphones”- After all is said in done, there are a plethora of different mics and designs to choose from. The Shure Beta 91 is a kick drum half-cardioid mics that works well for keyboard instruments. If you have one lying around, try using a binaural pair under a keyboard(link). A wide range of companies sell dynamic and condenser mics for cheap, or as part of bundle deal. Stick them underneath your instruments and use your ears to determine if they fit or not.
Last but not least, let's talk about a couple microphone myths:
“Changing a mic will totally change the sound of what it’s recording.” :While it is true that every microphone colors the sound of the source it hears, the differences are often subtle. That being said, microphones will not make things sound in time, or more in-tune, or significantly different than in you hear the source in real life. One’s first instinct might be to reach for an EQ or Compressor, but often times if you don’t like the sound being produced change the placement of the mic, or the implements you are using.
“It matters if all my microphones aren’t the same.” : Perhaps this idea is true in the ultra clean world of the modern studio, but outdoors the differences between microphones are often negligible. This idea might hold true if you focus on the visual aspect of the front ensemble, but sound wise it’s all up to you. Remember the golden rule, use your ears.
“I HAVE to have two mics on my keyboard instruments”. : Although it’s not a bad idea to have a stereo(link) pair on every instrument, it is not necessary. Often times I will put my best mics on the center marimba/vibe, and by the time I’ve reached the end of the line, I am using 1 mic in the center of the instrument. (Check out this article for pictures of mic’ing setups.) By hanging a cardioid microphone low in the center (or most played range) of the keyboard, you will be able to pick up the most important part of the keyboard instrument you mic.
Personally, if I am in charge of setting up a front and purchasing the mics, I go with the 57. They sound great, they don't feedback easily, it's hard to break them, and easy to fix them. At $99 or less, they are a great long term investment for your program. Included in that, I'll check and see what other mics are lying around. If the school has some nice Rode NT5's, you bet I'm throwing that up somewhere.
As always, it’s easy for audio myths to perpetuate, but as a musician, your ears will never fail. Feel free to experiment and play around with the set up and microphones that work best for you. I hope that this list points you in the direction that best suits you and your ensemble.