Welcome to Day 15 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

One of the biggest challenges we face as home recording engineers — or is it recordists? Heck, I don’t know šŸ™‚ — is low-mids.

Initially, when you’re recording everything, you want a really rich, full sound. You want everything to sound…wait for it…warm. šŸ™‚

Once everything is recorded, you start mixing, you want to blend everything together and have it sound amazing, but you find that no matter what you do, everything sounds muddy.

When you solo the guitar, it sounds great. When you solo the drums, they sound great. When you solo the vocal, it sounds great. But for some reason when you play everything together it’s a big mush-ball of low-mids.There are certainly things you can do during mixing to help (and even eliminate) this problem. But what if there was something you could do during recording to minimize this low-mid buildup? Wouldn’t that be better? Wouldn’t it be better for your tracks to blend together naturally before you start adding EQ, compression, etc. during mixing? Absolutely.

As you’ve heard a bajillion times, get it right at the source.

“Don’t stand so close to me.”

Have you ever heard of proximity effect? It’s one of those recording school glossary terms. Most of those terms won’t help you get better recordings. This one is an exception. Knowing and understanding proximity effect could be your saving grace.

So what is it? Proximity effect is this phenomenon that happens with directional microphones, particularly cardioid mics. (I’m not sure if phenomenon is an appropriate description, but…I can’t tell you why it happens, so…phenomenon it is.)

Chances are you’re using a cardioid (unidirectional) mic. Whether it’s an SM58 or a Rode NT1A, most studio microphones are cardioid.

When you place a cardioid microphone closer to the source, it tends to pick up more low frequencies. This is the proximity effect.

You’ve probably seen this all the time. Radio announcers, bass singers in a gospel quartet, voiceover artists — they all tend to “eat” the microphone. This is a smart move, because the proximity effect causes their voices to sound deeper and fuller.

If you place a cardioid mic 3 inches from the 12th fret on an acoustic guitar, it’s most likely going to sound very boomy. If you move it back to 6 inches, or 12 inches, it progressively captures less and less low end.

Moving the microphone from 3 inches to 6 inches won’t really change how the mids and highs sound, but the lows will be reduced.

How This Can Hurt Your Recordings

Let’s say you’re recording 20 tracks for a song you’re working on. And let’s say you close-mic every one of them — acoustic guitars, guitar amps, bass amps, piano, vocals…everything.

While the proximity effect can really help a voiceover artist, it oftentimes does more harm than good for us recording folks. Why? Because each of those 20 tracks you recorded has a lot of low end. The proximity effect has essentially exaggerated how much low end was actually there.

While the individual tracks may sound nice and full, it can be nearly impossible to mix them all together without whipping out some pretty serious EQ ninja tricks.

As I mentioned in 7 Things I Wish I Had Done Differently on My Album, I recorded the acoustic guitars with the microphones way too close. I was able to make them sound okay, but it would’ve been a lot easier if I had paid more attention to the proximity effect during the recording session.

Some Final Points

As you might have guessed, the proximity effect only occurs in cardioid mics. Omnidirectional microphones have no
proximity effect, which means you can mic things closer, but they also pick up everything in the room. (Catch 22.)

The proximity effect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Too much of it can be problematic, but you can also use it to your advantage. Need more “umph” out of your bass track? Move the mic closer to the spearker cabinet. Vocal sounding a little thin? Have them sing closer to the mic.

Just be careful. šŸ™‚

Day 15 Challenge

Your challenge for today is to share either a. an example of where you used proximity effect to your advantage (or disadvantage) OR b. tell us one instrument you’re going to mic up differently on your next session after reading this.