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In this modern day, most recording advice assumes a lot of things. Like an unlimited budget, and an ideal recording room, and all the time in the world to record instruments individually and perfectly. But as we all know, real life is a lot messier than these theoretical situations. There are many, many situations where you might find yourself wondering how to record a live band using only two mics.
This approach might seem very primitive and limited in the modern day. After all, since the mid-60s, recording has involved using as many mics as possible to close-mic every sound source. More than a half dozen mics on the drum set alone is standard. Usually instruments are recorded individually and mixed together, to achieve perfect sound isolation. This also gives instrumentalists unlimited tries to perfectly nail their parts. When time, space and budget allow, the advantages to this approach are obvious.
Why Record Live
But maybe you have everyone in the rehearsal studio together, and you want a great-sounding recording to hear how you all sound together. Maybe you prefer live-recording to capture that chemistry of a live performance, that can never quite be replicated with overdubbing. Maybe you are seeing one of your favorite bands play live, and you have the opportunity to record the performance. This guide will help you capture that performance with the most clarity and professionalism possible, even if you are limited to just two mics for the whole band. I’ll give the advice with two scenarios in mind- a live band in a rehearsal studio, and a live band in a small or medium venue, like a bar or club.
Recording With Fewer Microphones
It might be hard to believe, but before the mid-1960s, a lot of popular music was recorded with shockingly primitive approaches. Recording an entire band live in the studio, with just one or two mics for the entire band, was not uncommon. Many small studios didn’t have the budget for more equipment, and many bands didn’t have the budget to book much time.
One of my personal favorite recordings ever is “Louie, Louie” recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963. This recording has been called influential in the development of garage rock. It’s even been called one of the first “punk” recordings, and Kurt Cobain cited it as an influence on writing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The Kingsmen’s band included a vocalist, keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums. This famous recording was recorded in one take, with all the band members in a circle around the vocalist, and a single microphone suspended several feet above them. Yet this recording is more popular and influential than so many subsequent recordings that were made with more “ideal” techniques.
Keeping the Past Alive
In fact, there is a recording studio in Essex, UK called “Sugar Ray’s Vintage Recording Studio.” The owners have lovingly crafted a studio that uses only authentic 50s equipment and recording techniques. The video below produced by Sound on Sound is quite long, but well worth a watch if you are interested in the history of music production. After all, foundational techniques are developed with the most limited scenarios, so any producer or engineer should familiarize themselves with these “outdated” techniques. The video runs through setups to record a live band with one, two, or three mics, and the results sound shockingly great. You can also check out their website.
Also check out the OneMic series on YouTube. The video below was the first I saw, and is a fabulous example of a band being recorded with one stereo microphone. The recording is completely raw and unprocessed, and is totally inspiring to the possibilities of recording with minimal equipment.
Now with that preamble, read on for techniques.
Recording a Band in A Rehearsal Space with Two Mics
Rehearsal spaces present a lot of unique character and challenges. Recording a band in a small square room, as rehearsal spaces tend to be, is an engineer’s nightmare. Oh, the boomy bass frequencies, the boxy reflections! But you can make the most of this situation. For example, there are ways to “deaden” a room and reduce unwanted echos and reflections, if you have the opportunity.
If you have only two mics, then one of your main challenges is balancing levels. After all, you can’t balance the levels of the tracks relative to each other when they are all on one or two tracks. The other big challenge is vocals. We are used to hearing vocals that are very compressed, and right at the front of the mix, in professional recordings. Even using a PA in a rehearsal studio, the vocals are very easily lost in the mix. Particularly because musicians like to crank their amps and slam their drums in rehearsal. And who can blame them- it’s one of the few safe spaces to “turn up.”
Sound Good in the Room
The most important thing to keep in mind is that since you are so limited in terms of mics, you will also be super limited in terms of mixing post-recording. Which means that for best results, the single biggest priority should be to sound good in the room before even hitting record. Check your egos at the door, because that means making some compromises that are likely to upset some band members.
First of all, crank vocals so they are the highest they can be without feeding back. If possible, the singer should face the PA to minimize feedback (since vocal mics are cardioid, meaning they pick up sound in front and reject sound behind. This way the vocal mic is rejecting the sound from the PA, thus avoiding feedback.)
Play to the Room
The players should listen and balance their levels to keep the vocals audible, in the front of the sound. Guitarists and keyboardists should use their amp or PA EQ to cut their bass frequencies. They will not be happy about this, as their tone will sound “tinny” when played alone. But when everyone is playing together, this leaves more space in the mix for bass, drums, and especially vocals, without making the sound “muddy.”
Another potential issue is cymbals. In recordings, they tend to be EQ’d and compressed to avoid the sustained ringing that can occur in certain frequencies. In this live setting, the drummer should play cymbals very lightly, to avoid overtaking other players. And in general, they should play in a relatively quiet, controlled way.
Any musician who’s been in bands knows this war of escalation: the drummer plays loud, because it’s fun. Other players turn up their amps to keep up with the drums, which only encourages the drummer. Meanwhile, the vocalist is left stranded at the roadside, miles behind. The drummer is in control of the band’s dynamics to a large extent. A good drummer knows to check their ego, and play with dynamics that serve the music, not ruin it.
At this point, your mic selection is relevant. You should know whether your mics are dynamic or condenser (or ribbon, more rarely.) And you should know their pickup patterns: Cardioid (unidirectional, or “one-directional), figure 8, omnidirectional, or selectable.
Ideally, you should experiment with recording with this setup, and make adjustments based on what you find. Depending on what issues you experience, you might ask certain players to play louder or more quietly, to EQ more or less, or to move to different positions. Since every band and every room are different, the only way to get the best sound is trial and error. Of course, if time does not allow, these tips are enough to get you sounding decent.
Miking the Vocalist
Especially if your vocalist is not a trained singer, my favorite approach is to use one mic just for the vocalist, and one for the rest of the band. (Note, when I say “not trained” I realize I am liable to upset some egos. A singer can sound fabulous without training, don’t get me wrong! But trained singers will likely have better-developed mic technique and projection, whereas untrained singers more often rely on processing for their signature “sound.”)
Set up one of your mics so it is right next to the rehearsal room’s vocal mic. Your vocalist should be wherever in the room they can turn up their PA mic the loudest. Place the other mic in the center of the room, with the players in a circle around it. The mic’s pickup pattern (cardioid, figure-8, omni) is important to know the orientation.
If it’s cardioid, you are probably best pointing it at the ceiling, a little less than halfway between the floor and ceiling. This way you are not rejecting any instrument that is behind the mic. If it’s figure 8, you can get creative by knowing your band’s relative levels. For example, if the drums tend to be loud, you can make sure that the mic is pointed 90° relative to the drums, to lower their volume slightly in the mix. If the mic is omni, then the configuration doesn’t really matter, it should just be in the middle of the room and upright. If selectable, choose omni, or figure 8 if you want to take advantage of the mic’s null points.
Advantages of Miking the Vocalist
With this setup, you have the freedom to process the vocals individually to an extent. I typically start by EQing the vocal mic track. You can probably high pass everything above 250 Hz or so, even higher for a female singer- anything below that will just be muddy bass and drum frequencies that bleed in. You may also want to cut the low-mids (250-650 Hz) somewhat, as well as the highs (10k-20k) Then, try compressing the vocal track and adding reverb. Try cutting the band’s track a bit in the 1000-3000 Hz range to give the vocal track more presence. Beyond that, experiment with the mixing to taste.
Stereo Miking the Room
Another option is to have a stereo mic pair in the center of the room. This is essentially the same setup as the OneMic series. This setup works especially well if your band has a more acoustic sound with trained singer(s), if your room is larger, and/or if you have a matched pair of cardioid condenser mics. Place the mics in an X configuration as near as possible to the center of the room, and follow the rest of the guidelines I have already laid out. Observe how in the OneMic video, the vocalist(s) stands closest to the mic, in the center of its stereo image. The drums are farthest away, opposite from the vocalist, also in the center of the stereo image. Other instruments form a circle around the mics.
With the stereo mic configuration, almost no processing is worthwhile after recording, so it’s especially important to sound great in the room. You may use some subtle EQ to raise or lower problem frequency areas after recording, or perhaps some light compression. But essentially, the mixing happened live in the room, and this should be thought of as mastering.
Overall, if your band sounds great in the room, then you will sound good on tape, even if your mics are not placed ideally. Use as much trial and error as your time (and your band’s patience) allows. As the Sugar Ray studio and OneMic recordings attest, two or even one microphones can make for a stellar recording. And if you find yourself scratching your head about how to process the raw recordings to make them sound pro, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional mixing or mastering service. They can be more affordable than you think, and a great way to sharpen your own skills!
Recording in a Live Venue with Two Microphones
Suppose you want to record a live band’s performance in a small or medium venue. First of all, talk to the venue and the FOH person/engineer to get the go-ahead. Trust me, life is easier for everyone when you are keeping these people happy.
In this setting, you have far less flexibility. Of course, there are no do-overs, it’s truly live. And there is a crowd and employees, so space and options may be limited.
Miking the Vocalist
If you have the option, have your own mic on the vocalist, parallel to their vocal mic. This is preferred for the same reasons listed in the previous section- far more flexibility processing the vocals and keeping it in the front. Depending on the crowd and venue size, you might put your other mic roughly in the center of the room, facing the band.
If the FOH has a console in the middle of the room, put your mic there- that’s the position the engineer is using to balance the band’s sound, so it should be a sweet spot for recording too. If the crowd is noisy, and especially if the venue is big enough that every instrument is close-miked, you might mic one of the venue’s speakers instead. Of course, be careful with your levels, as this sound source could be very loud. Only consider this if you are working with a dynamic mic.
If miking the vocalist is not an option, you have other options. I would only consider this if the venue is very small, and only the vocals are running through the PA, with everything else live. Try an X-oriented stereo pair in the middle of the room, as suggested above for the rehearsal studio.
If more instruments are going through the PA, or if the venue is bigger, this suggestion is pointless. Everything will end up near the middle of the stereo image anyway. In this case, try one mic either in the middle of the room, or at the PA speaker, as explained above. Try using the other mic as a room/crowd mic. Placement with this is flexible, but in general, you’ll get the best sound if you keep it away from corners and walls (as this is where bass frequencies build and strange sound reflections can happen.)
If you are using a room mic, then mix it behind the main “band” mic when processing. Compress the track and high-pass it, so that most of the lows and low-mids are coming from the band mic. Use automation on the room mic to bring up the levels when you want to hear more crowd (like cheer sections or sing-along sections) and keep it relatively low otherwise.
So there you have it! With these techniques, you can capture that magic of live playing, even with limited equipment. As I’ve said, use as much trial-and-error as possible. This is the most important element, considering that “fixing it in post” is not an option. Keep working and your skills will improve! And don’t forget to always keep the joy of the music alive.
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.