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 πŸ™‚ — 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. πŸ™‚

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. πŸ™‚

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.

  • ViscoelasticMan

    [Disclaimer: It’s way too late and I’m almost asleep, really shouldn’t be here]

    For the curious, proximity effect happens because..

    Ever noticed how your acoustic treatment is much less effective at low frequencies? Well, the directionality of microphones isn’t given by witchcraft.
    All microphone transducers are, by nature, more or less omnidirectional. Most of the directionality is given by the casing design (some by the outer casing, some by the capsule’s own), but just like your acoustic treatment the casing is less effective at blocking low frequency sound.

    Thus as you get closer to your instrument, the mic is still picking up bass from a wide area of the instrument, but mid and treble from a much narrower area. Hence there is extra bass.
    (Yes, “proximity” effect actually happens the same wherever the mic is, it’s just that it’s generally unnoticeable until it’s near the instrument. This is why properly documented mics come with directionality graphs at many frequencies.)

    Why is this important? Because it means increasing bass through proximity is not the same as increasing bass to EQ (even if you managed to match exactly the EQ curve of your microphone’s proximity), as you’ve all sharply experienced.
    In a grossly exaggerated and completely unrealistic example, if you put an SM57 almost rubbing it’s nose to the strings of a huge guitar, the mids and highs would be enhanced only for the strings you pointed it at, but the bass would be enhanced for all the strings, making the sound of the notes uneven. That’s no EQ’s business.
    [There are actually some neat experimental EQs that can do that kind of business, but it’s still not the same as getting a natural recording in the first place]

    *clicks submit and hopes he won’t regret it tomorrow*

    PS. There’s a (rather obscure) method for recording very “powerful” vocals without the proximity annoyances, but that’s for another day.

  • I’ve been close micing acoustic guitars WAY too much – I’ll be sure to move the mic away next time. Good points! As for drums, I like to move the mic away from the head more (not closer to the rim) – it seems to give the toms especially more breathing room to bring out the tones.

  • Edith Ballistics

    Absolutely spot on! Years ago I recorded a demo of a musical theatre work (rhythm section plus 10 discrete vocal parts, from lead parts to counterparts to chorus parts) with close-mic on all of them. Mixing nightmare 101 (like being haunted by the ghost of Phil Spectre, and he’s not dead yet)! Nothing would sit properly in the mix, despite applying liberal EQ cuts and dramatic Pans. The good news is, other things being equal, you only do this once.

  • Matt

    This is a great post. I have noticed that I’m always cutting EQ around 250Hz on everything. Hmmm. I wonder why?!?!? I’ve been close mic’ing everything.

    I do like how close mic’ing the vocals sounds however, I’m going to try not to close mic everything else to see if that helps with the build-up I have around 250Hz.
    Thanks Joe!

  • Preshan

    With acoustic guitars, it’s important to think “how will someone else hear this guitar naturally?” Usually, not with their ear right up against the 12th fret. They’ll be a few feet back. So by micing further away, you’ll get a more natural sound, as well as get rid of unwanted low end from the proximity effect. A good sounding room is a bonus.

  • Christopher w

    I did not know that the proximity effect doesn’t happen on other types of microphones, seems logical how it won’t either.

    I would like to make a point that drums are usually (in my experience) the other way round, the closer you get the more “clicky-hity” sound you get where as a few inches away its a more full-range sound. but then spill from other drums are the issue…

    • Yep. Omni mics don’t have proximity effect.

      With drums it’s a little different, it’s not exactly the same thing. You’re talking about moving the microphone from the center of the drum head towards the rim. That’s not moving it farther AWAY from the source, it’s moving it to a different part of the source. So, different thing entirely.

      It’s like if you’re miking up a guitar amp. You put the mic 3 inches from the grill. Then you move the mic closer to the center of the amp, then closer to the edge, but it’s 3 inches away at all times. That’s not proximity effect. You’re actually picking up different sounds.

      • Christopher w

        I did actually mean further away/closer to the source. eg. if you place a mic further in the inner part of a kick-drum there is more click than if you place a mic just outside the drum skin (if one is on).

  • Cush

    The other day when I was finalizing some arrangements on my demos (Recording drums TOMORROW!!!! AHHHH!!!), and I thought to myself “man does that lead vocal sound thin and boring.” I don’t generally want a super full sound because its more punk/metal based music but it was just so lifeless. So what am I going to do about it when I track vocals on the finished product?

    Stand closer to the microphone. Oh yes. Proximity Effect for the win.

  • rick

    I’m going to try recording vocals further from the mic (I am always 4-6 in away I think). I might try 12-18 in next time. Which means I really need to figure out some acoustic treatment for vocals. πŸ™‚

  • Bminor

    scary.. it’s like you wrote this directly to me.. I use 2 mics in my studio and one is SM58 and the other is NT1A πŸ˜€

  • Arjun Ramesh

    The instrument that I will mic up differently the next time I record will be acoustic guitars. I have had problems with proximity effect before and I used to close mic it because I did not want the mics to pick up the untreated room characteristics. However, now that I have sound treated my closet like an iso booth, I feel more comfortable moving the mic back 6-8 inches from the source and it sounds great. I will mic it this way for all future sessions.

    • I close-miked my acoustics for the same reason. The truth? Moving the mics farther away doesn’t really pick up THAT much more room noise. Try it.

  • Joe R.

    I used to listen to the radio and think, why do the vocals sound more distant our thinner than my vocals? Mine are always upfront and in your face! Enter Proximity effect…

    If it is an intimate song with less instruments I will place the mic closer for a warmer up front focused feel. If the vocals are to blend in with a full band, I back up from the mic. It just makes things sound more natural.

    Thanks Joe for teaching me these things… I’m a student of yours forever!

  • Frank Adrian

    If you’re doing mixes and find yourself cutting low mids a lot, you’re probably setting your mikes too close. Sounds need a bit of room to breathe.

    That being said, I still come closer to the mike for my vocals, because I have a high, reedy, almost nasal tone and can use all the help in the mids I can get. You see a lot of condenser mikes out there that have a bump in the HF range – adds a bit of sparkle on some voices, but (I think) it makes me sound too grating. I’ve been doing OK with EQ after the fact, but it’s one of the reasons I want to get a ribbon mike – to help me tame the highs in my voice.

  • I find if Im recording an acoustic and vocal track only, ill use proximity effect close on the acoustic guitar to give it a better low end. If im recording a group then ill back off quite a bit so that It can sit in the mix better. and when in doubt, or its a tricky guitar that wont play nice, ill just EQ the hell out of it πŸ™‚

  • Wayne Johnson

    I use the proximity effect on miking guitar amps. I also always use a PZM mike in the room. I also always record the guitar dry for later reamping or mix the reamped signal in with original for a huge guitar sound. I have a stereo par of CAD 95 mikes that I use for acoustics very forgiving with low end boom even at 6-8 inches away. These mikes also work great on vocals and are pretty directional. I recommend these for acoustic, vocals and live recording.

  • Proximity effect…very important!!! Especially for me because I do a lot of acappella stuff. Although it really comes in handy on my bass vocals. I get really close to the mic and it gives me this very nice, full, bass vocal. So, in those cases the proximity effect really works to my advantage. Thanks Joe for the article!

    Clifton

    • Yep. Proximity effect is just like everything else. It’s not automatically a bad thing. You just need to know when to take advantage of it and when to avoid it.