Making a great recording need not be difficult. I suggest a quality cardioid microphone and a great all rounder would be the Audio Technica AT4033. It’s a condenser microphone and will require 48 volts phantom power supplied by the mixing console or your sound card microphone preamplifier. (this is very common on mic preamps).
Ok, lets say your instrument is an acoustic guitar. Aim the microphone where the body meets the neck and the golden distance which makes a decent recording of the widest number of instruments is 10 inches (about 25cms). This is normally a good distance a compromise between picking up direct sound from the source relative to the reflections from the room. When you record make certain you are recording at 24 bit resolution and that you peak the recording level at no higher than -14dBFS on the digital input metering. This will create a clean and quiet recording free from distortion. Ask the musician to play as loud as they are likely to do so and use the microphone pre amplifiers gain control to get the record level to -16dBFS. (Note that the musician is likely to play a little louder than the level they gave you when they do a real “take”, it almost always happens).
When recording ensure there are no red lights appearing on your mixing console channel or microphone preamplifier suggesting clipping or distortion. It is unlikely at the suggested record level but if you do see red lights consider using a pad switch. A pad switch is a button which reduces the level coming from the microphone. It can sometimes be found on the mic itself, as with the AT4033 suggested above or on the mixing console. (normally near the top of the channel). Here are a few instruments which generate high sound pressure levels and which you may need to apply the pad switch to when recording. Snare drum, kick drum, tom tom drum, trumpet, electric guitar cabinets and amplifiers, saxophone, bongo, loud rock/rap style vocals.
Vocals need a few extra words of advice, when recording a vocal ensure you have a high quality pop shield 5-8cms /2-4 inches from the front of the microphone. In addition, for a vocal performance the working distance of the vocalist from the microphone may be a little closer than 10 inches. When recording multiple instruments playing together feel free to move the mics a little closer in or more distant from their sources to achieve the sound you require. Closer means more direct sound from the instrument and less spill from the other players and room acoustic. (possibly at the expense of a less natural tonality) More distant microphone technique means a more natural sound with more spill and acoustic being recorded.Happy recording.
Barry Gardner is the Chief mastering engineer at SafeandSound online mastering.
The studio offers free, no obligation audio mastering previews.