Chicky Reeves on how to chose the perfect live mic

How to pick the perfect mic for every situation
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Having worked with artists as diverse as Prince, Radiohead and Johnny Cash, Charles "Chicky" Reeves knows a thing or two about microphones. Here he gives his thoughts on what kit to use in a range or situations.

Oh, God. That question of "which mic for what" comes up so often. It’s akin to the eternal question, "how long is a piece of string?" in that it all depends on the variables, such as what the instrument is, how well it projects, where it sounds best within that projection range, and how wide is the useful part of its spectrum. And then, all this is augmented by the musical style and the production elements desired for the performance. So, to answer this question best, I will focus on my own experiences with mixing in which I had absolute say in microphone choice.

To jump right in, we'll start with the bottom and work our way up:

Drums

I have been accused of over-doing it with drum mics, but mine is not the most complicated setup.

Listed below are some general choices that seem to work in most instances and why:

Kick: The Yamaha Sub Kick works great live and means I don't need to EQ in very much extra low-end (below 80Hz) to get the underneath sound I love so much. Plus, it looks nice in its wooden shell and black mesh audience-facing head.

AKG’s D112 is possibly the most common kick mic. One could just about get away with using it by itself, but I use it for getting just the body-punch of the kick. Placement is inside the shell, centred, aimed squarely at where the beater meets the head. At the console, this mic is augmented with a soft amount of gating and then heavy compression with a slow attack so that it almost acts as a transient shaper.

Shure’s Beta 98 is used as the typical PZM-style mic and is great for getting a full-range sound from the kick. This, too, could be used by itself. My preference is to use it in conjunction with the above mics for a more complete kick sound. A substitution for this mic is the Audio-Technica 4050. It's a large-diaphragm condenser, so a little unusual of a choice, but placed just outside the front hole, it sounds amazing! 

Snare

Using an Electro-Voice 408 instead of the Shure 57 (of any variety) is certainly a deviation from the norm. I am not really a fan of 57s on snares. The Electro-Voice, though, gives a snare the crack sound without any harshness. Plus it is really easy to get into very tight spaces! This mic is placed about 6 cm above the head, about 4 cm in from the rim, aimed squarely at either the centre of the head or wherever I see the most stick marks.

Shure’s SM81 is one of my favourite small-diaphragm condenser mics. As an under-snare mic, it's pretty unbeatable. Lots of natural sizzle above 7kHz, plus it can really deliver some extra body for the snare... provided one remembers to change the phase.

High-Hats

Either the AKG 451 or Shure SM81 will do just fine. Typically, I won't use much of this, preferring to get much of the sound from the overhead mics. Sometimes, though, you need a little extra presence and these two mics work very nicely.

Toms

Did I mention that the Electro-Voice 408 is really easy to get into tight spaces? Plus, it handles the punch from toms very well. It can be light on low-end, but the low end it lacks is usually at a point I would be rolling off anyway. This is my go-to mic for more aggressive sounding drumming.

Shure’s Beta 91 is great for a more "slick" tom sound. It's full range and great for hydraulic heads being hit hard or coated heads being hit with brushes. This is what I use for RnB or jazz acts.

Overheads

Here I usually opt for Audio-Technica’s 4050 or my own bespoke ribbon mics.

The Audio-Technica 4050 is a workhorse mic for me in both the studio and live environment. And for mic'ing up overheads, these are excellent. They give a nice, crisp, unhyped sound that's full-range enough for me to use to supplement the overall sound of the kit.

My own ribbon mics are an option depending on the drummer's style and the venue. If the drummer is more of a "vintage" style player, they give a slightly duller and more aggressive sound.

Unfortunately, many venues don't have the greatest on-stage acoustics and since my ribbon mics are figure-8 pattern, what they pick up on the back side might not be the most pleasant sound. Therefore, I use these sparingly.

Bass, Guitars, Keys

The Universal Audio Solo 610 is a great mic preamp, but in this case, I love using it as a DI. The bass is nice and clean if you want, but I love to drive it a bit at the input stage of the 610 for a slightly fat, not-overpowering sound.

I also like to mic up the bass amp cabinet, if it's a good sounding one, and when I do, my choices are the AKG C12 (a rare-ish expensive mic) or the beyerdynamic M 88. The C12 I'll use for more delicate gigs or ones where the bassist has obviously spent a great deal of time crafting his bass tone. The M88 is a solid dynamic mic which, when combined with the DI channel, is a nice, full-bodied tone. It lacks some of the low end one might get from a Shure Beta 52 or the like, but I try not to use the amp to get anything below 120Hz. That's where the DI comes in for me. At the console, I'll usually compress them individually at low ratios, then compress them as a group at higher ratios.

For guitars, again, the Audio-Technica 4050 works great just about all the time. Slightly off-axis, this mic will accurately reproduce the tone of the amp. It will, however, need padding and a high-pass filter (both switched on the mic itself).

More often than not, my ribbon mics get used for guitar amps. As mentioned above, they are figure-8 pattern and for some venues, that can be a problem. Rarely, though, is this a problem with guitar amps since the sound pressure level can exceed 110dB SPL at their positioning. The onstage sound just won't really register at all. Whenever there has been a situation where I want the ribbon sound, but the stage/venue sound presents a problem, I've gone as far as gaffer-taping thick cloth on its audience side with almost no negative effects on the overall sound.

Acoustic Guitars

I have a real problem with using pickups in acoustic guitars. I don't like them. Ever. If I am forced to use one, I'll grab a Radial or BSS DI and use the console to process the sound into something I dislike less.

But I mostly am able to mic them, and for that, I prefer using a Shure SM81 with the high pass filter turned up. The positioning is coming up from the floor about 20cm from where the neck and resonance chamber of the guitar meet at a 45° angle. Mostly, avoid the hole. The Helmholz resonance from the hole sounds great in a room, but not through a PA system. In a live situation, it's rare to be able to double-mic an acoustic, so this position is a great compromise and this mic can really deliver.

Keyboards

Here I use Radial or BSS DIs. These DIs are transparent and will get the job done nicely. Their solid build also makes them great for the live environment.

Vocals

This all depends on the singer and his/her style, but here are a few of my favourites:

The Shure SM58 is such a solid mic and is my usual dynamic mic for live. I've used the SM7B, which sounded great, but for live it's not very pretty and not very practical. SM58s can sound different from one to another with wear-and-tear, but generally, they’re as reliable and good as it gets.

The Heil PR 35 is a great, great mic. It cuts through very nicely, has a beautiful sound, and is excellent at rejecting feedback and spill from the stage. If there were more radio options for these or more of them in stock at major PA suppliers, I'd use this mic for so many things.

Neumann’s KMS 105 is also a great mic, especially for a quieter singer on a quieter stage. This thing sounds beautiful, but it is, after all, a Neumann.

Everything else

For everything else, be it keyboards through amps, percussion, accordion players that show up unexpectedly (I'm thinking about Grace Jones gigs), or whatever, having a few Audio-Technica 4040s, some Shure SM81s, and a few beyer M88s around will get you out of any tight spot.

Conclusion

There are so many mics and so many situations (or variables) which call for different choices. The ground beneath your feet can shift suddenly, so be prepared to stay upright and have a backup plan if these examples don't work for you. As with anything, use your instinct and learn from your mistakes. And don't be afraid to change out a mic if it isn't working for you. Sure, delivering great sound might get delayed a little, but keep this in mind: No one ever remembers a late delivery, only a bad one.

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