PICKUPS and MICROPHONES: Getting a Good Blend

In past newsletters, I've talked about how to choose a pickup, or a microphone, when you're looking to get a great amplified tone in your live performances. What quite a few players have chosen to do, however, is to get the best of both worlds by combining a mic and a pickup, using a blending preamp. This allows you to combine the things that each element does well, to (hopefully!) create a combination that achieves more than the sum of its parts.

In speaking to a customer on the phone last week - who was trying, unsuccessfully, to do just that - it dawned on me that perhaps the "obvious" means for getting the combination to work well might not be the best one.

This particular player was doing what seemed quite logical: he dialed in a good sound, separately, from both the pickup and the microphone. He then blended them together, in varying amounts, until the "magic" happened. This approach makes total sense (and for some players, might work just fine.) Unfortunately for him, the magic failed to happen (or maybe he just didn't wish hard enough...) And that's what got me thinking.

As an aside, I have a personal home studio where I record, engineer, and mix my own music. I've done a lot of reading on mixing, in particular, to find out the "secrets" of a great mix. A huge revelation, early on, was that good engineers don't just mix with the volume sliders, they mix with EQ. Meaning, by creatively cutting and boosting certain bands, you carve out a sonic "space" for each instrument, where it excels -- and everything blends together without stepping on each other's toes. If you were to "solo" a well-mixed song's bass track, all by itself it might not sound its absolute best -- in fact it might sound pretty bad. But in the context of the entire mix, it's not fighting other instruments, but is, rather, complementing them. And that's when that weirdly EQ'd bass track suddenly springs to life and sounds amazing. And it's easier for the engineer to get a coherent mix on the whole track, because all of the volumes are in check, relatively even, and nothing is overwhelming everything by taking up the entire frequency spectrum.

So, back to our mic and pickup conundrum: how do we apply this approach to blending (mixing!) a mic and a pickup, which are both essentially trying to amplify the same thing? I'd suggest considering what each element "does well." The microphone adds realism and "air," and really shines in the upper frequency range. Meanwhile, the pickup is a pretty "direct" sort of sound, which is helpful for providing a big, full-bodied sound in the low range. So my approach would be to reduce the high frequencies for the pickup -- letting it do the "heavy lifting" down low -- and to reduce the low frequencies on the mic, to let it excel in the upper frequencies without stepping all over the pickup. This way, you capitalize on the strengths of each component -- while eliminating, through cutting the EQ, their "weaknesses."

So it's really about looking at it a little differently... taking a step back and considering something that seems less "obvious" until you think about it. This approach may give you a more easily "mixable" blend, since the two sources will no longer be fighting for the same sonic space. It may work well for getting the sound you hear in your head, and it might not - but at least it's got you thinking!

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