Why Microphone Placement Trumps Microphone Type

Placement vs Type

In the world of audio recording, the debate over microphone type and brand has raged a hundred years, largely fueled by individual mic manufacturers’ and retailers’ desire to increase their own market share.

​Audiophiles and professionals invest considerable time and resources in acquiring the latest and greatest microphones, believing that the ones at the high end of the price spectrum will significantly elevate the quality of their recordings. While type and brand are clearly something to consider, it’s arguable that microphone placement, the often-overlooked element of the recording process, holds far more sway over the ultimate quality of a recording.

Microphone Placement vs Microphone Type

Unlike fifty years ago, there are now huge numbers of high quality microphones of every type.

The differences in frequency response, noise, distortion, and dynamic range are relatively minimal within a given category of mics. While I wouldn’t discourage you from using the highest quality mic you can get, I know of thousands of recordings made with mid to low quality mics that sound really cool, and nobody would know what kind of microphone was used just by listening.
More of the magic happens with mic placement, in my opinion. The way a microphone is positioned relative to the sound source will always dramatically affect the resulting recording. Here are some reasons why microphone placement often takes precedence over type and brand:

    1. Every sound source emits audio in a unique pattern and is shaped heavily by the surfaces around it. Placing a microphone in a strategic spot allows you to capture what is unique and desirable about that place in time. 

    2. Likewise, microphone placement can help reduce what may be not so desirable: background noise and unwanted reflections.

    3. Adjusting the microphone's distance and angle will influence the dynamics and frequency range of the recording. Closer placement emphasizes proximity effect, while angling the microphone will alter the tonal characteristics.

    4. Room Acoustics: The acoustic properties of the recording environment play a significant role in audio quality. Proper microphone placement can mitigate the impact of poor room acoustics and enhance the overall recording. And more distant mic’ing can allow you to capture what is beautiful about an acoustic space.

    5. Artistic Expression: Microphone placement is an art in itself. Producers, engineers, and sound effects recordists often experiment with different positions to achieve a unique sound that complements the artistic vision of the recording.

    6. Budget-Friendly Solutions: Skillful microphone placement can compensate for the limitations of budget-friendly microphones, making it possible to achieve professional-quality recordings without breaking the bank.
My point is not that brand and model don’t matter at all. Though I do think they matter a lot less than we tend to think they do. What I’m suggesting is that spending time experimenting with mic placement is likely to make a bigger difference in the recording than the difference between two different mics. It’s also one of the key ways a recordist can create a style.
You can listen to this comparison of a Neuman U-87 and an AKG C414 here on Youtube. They sound almost identical. You can easily make up for these kinds of differences with eq. Move either of the mics back only one foot, or one foot to the side, and the difference in sound will be very significant.