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Throughout the entire history of recording, musicians and producers have been forced to deal with microphone bleed. It’s an issue that comes up in studios, basements, rehearsal spaces and anywhere else musicians try to record multiple instruments simultaneously.
At this point, you might be asking “Why not just record everything separately, one instrument at a time?” The answer is that many bands sound their best when everyone is playing together, feeding off the collective energy and locked in to the performance. But when a four-piece band records together in close quarters, bleed makes it difficult to mix the different instruments independently.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this article, we’ll explore how basic soundproofing and separation can cut down on unwanted noise, and discuss how the right microphones can make a huge difference in reducing bleed. Finally, we’ll discuss why bleed isn’t always a bad thing—you can actually use it to your advantage.
Before we talk about how to reduce bleed, we should consider the instruments that cause the most trouble. Drums are the single biggest culprit, since they’re usually the loudest element in a recording environment. Cymbals in particular are notorious offenders, and seem to find their way into every single microphone in a three-mile radius. Guitar amps can cause problems if the guitarist insists at keeping the volume at 11. Bass amps are also problematic, since low frequencies travel through walls and anything else in their way. Acoustic and stringed instruments vary—a violin is much harder to control than a regular acoustic guitar.
The easiest way to eliminate microphone bleed is to keep individual instruments separated while recording. This is why many studios have a dedicated drum room, plus separate areas for guitar and bass amps, and vocals. If your home recording space has several rooms or hallways in close proximity, you can achieve separation by keeping the drums in one room, placing the guitar amp in the hall, the bass amp in the kitchen, etc.
If you go this route, you’ll need long instrument cables and headphones with long cords so that everyone can see and hear each other while performing. If you only separate one element, it should be the vocalist, since his or her mic will be the most vulnerable to bleed. But many of us don’t have that option, and we’re stuck together in one room.
There’s a wealth of contradictory and sometimes confusing information about DIY soundproofing out there. For example, a friend told me about trying to soundproof his garage by nailing dozens of egg cartons to the walls. But the cartons did little to dampen the sound, and the leftover egg slime started to smell so bad that he quickly abandoned the plan.There are some simple things you can do in your recording space that can help cut down on bleed (without digging out old egg cartons).
Not all mics are created equal when it comes to controlling bleed. Polar patterns are extremely important when recording multiple instruments in a loud room. A mic’s polar pattern is its directionality—or how well the microphone picks up sound from different angles or directions. I recommend close miking each instrument using mics with cardiod or supercardioid polar patterns.
Cardioid mics pick up the most sound in the front of the capsule, and very little in the back. This isolates the signal you’re recording from unwanted ambient noise, making it a great choice for recording instruments like drums, guitar and vocals in a noisy room. Supercardioid mics have a narrower angle of pickup than cardioids, and reject even more ambient sound. Supercardioid mics aren’t as common as Cardioid, but are probably the most useful for recording vocals in a loud room since they’re the most vulnerable to bleed and unwanted noise. Check out our article WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH POLAR PATTERNS for a full breakdown and explanation of polar patterns and microphone directionality.
The enCORE 100i features a tight cardioid polar pattern with exceptional off-axis noise rejection, enabling you to hone in on a single instrument—even in a loud room. Its also versatile, and sounds great on loud instruments like guitar amps and drums, as well as vocals.
For vocals, you’d be hard pressed to find another mic that can beat Kiwi. With nine selectable polar patterns, including supercardioid, Kiwi makes it possible to record full, pristine sounding vocals in a loud room (check out our article KIWI ON THE RADIO to see why Sirius XM uses Kiwi for all of their live performances in the studio).
Baby Bottle SL
If you’re looking for some vintage flavor in your mix, Baby Bottle SL delivers a rich and present midrange, smooth top end, and neutral bottom that’s reminiscent of the world’s finest vintage microphones. It’s also got a 100Hz high-pass filter for notching out unwanted frequencies, and a -20dB pad for recording loud instruments—both of which are especially useful when trying to minimize bleed.
If you’re looking for detailed and transparent sound, the new Spark SL is a great choice for guitars, drums, vocals, and pretty much anything else you want to record. Based on the original Spark, the world’s best-selling studio condenser microphone, Spark SL also features a 100Hz and a -20dB pad.
Bottle Rocket Stage One
The Bottle Rocket Stage One is a great choice for just about any instrument, with 9 optional Bottle Caps mic capsules that let you tailor the sound for any recording scenario.
There are some situations when moderate bleed can actually sound cool. Some bands want more of a live, raw sound, while some bands want to capture the vibe of classic blues and rock and roll albums from the late 50s and early 60s. If you go this route, there are a few things you should be aware of.
Many of those early recordings were captured at lower volume levels—drummers played softer and amps just weren’t as loud. So try and keep volumes as low as possible, while still being able to hear your playing. Many of those recordings also relied on EQ to notch out distracting bleed, which is why they sound a little thinner than modern recordings. You can use the same technique by listening to a track in isolation, and using a notched EQ to remove the frequency where the unwanted instrument is cutting though. Finally, try not to go too far with the bleed. Guitar amps bleeding into one another might sound fine, but you’re going to have a hard time mixing if there’s snare in the guitar track.
That wraps up our discussion on bleed—now pass the bandages please.