Recording horns (trumpet, trombone, and saxophone) is widely considered to be one of the most difficult instrument groups to record. I am a trumpet player, so I would love to tell you that my first experience recording my instrument was a herald-like display of glorious trumpet sound....FALSE. I too found recording brass difficult, but luckily experience is a wonderful teacher.
Recording horns is difficult because...
– Horns have a large dynamic range and can easily overload microphone capsules, preamps and A/D converters. A horn's extreme dynamic range can also make an instrument difficult to compress.
– Horns have a delicate frequency response and can tend to be harsh, too bright and/or thin.
– Horns tend to "activate" a room's natural acoustical characteristics because of the quick attack and fast release of the instrument's sound, allowing the room to be more noticeable in the recording. For this reason a room must be treated properly and have a pleasing sound.
We will touch on all of these subjects in other articles, but for now we will focus on the most important part of the signal chain; the microphone. When you know what to listen for and what features to consider, there's no reason you cannot find a great microphone for your instrument at any price point.
For horn players, you are generally going to be looking for a large diaphragm condenser microphone or a ribbon microphone. Dynamic microphones can work ok, however, I find their characteristics to be overly harsh and thin. Not what we want! Let's look at large diaphragm condenser microphones.
Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphones generally have a microphone capsule that is 1" in diameter or larger (sometimes 3/4" is considered large diaphragm as well) and exhibits a large round sound with bigger low end, a boost in presence at 2-4k and a clear top end. Each microphone is different but these characteristics basically exist in most large diaphragm microphones. It is worth noting that these characteristics are perfect for recording vocalists, which is what these mics are most popularly known for. These characteristics are also great for horns as long as the boost in presence is not too overly-exaggerated.
Ribbon Microphones are generally known for being big in low end presence, beautiful in the low mids and slightly darker on the top end of the frequency range. Traditional ribbon mics have a lower gain output and are considered more fragile and must be carefully handled and stored because of the delicacy of the ribbon. Even so, the benefits far outweigh the negatives because of the warm, rich quality that the ribbon brings to the horn's recorded sound.
Now, I know what you're about to ask... What if you can only choose one? OK, I'll bite. Though one type is not better than the other, I would go with a ribbon microphone over the large diaphragm and here's why. Ribbon microphones, though dark, take EQ'ing very well. If you need top end you can always squeeze it out. With condenser microphone, you run the risk of recording too bright and that is much harder to reverse. I will always choose to brighten a darker sound while mixing rather than being forced to warm up a sound that was recorded too bright. I will always error on the side of too dark.
You may be wondering if a microphone's ability to handle high sound pressure levels is important. I suppose maybe it is, but I don't know of a single modern, well-built microphone that is not designed to handle high SPL's. Also, you will likely record your horn at 2-6 feet from the instrument's bell and not directly into the mic. When recording in this fashion, you run a very low risk of running into SPL problems. For these reasons, I don't really pay attention to the SPL ratings.
Similarly, a feature do I look for in microphones is the inclusion of a 10-20db pad switch. You would engage this switch to lower the output of the microphone to the preamp. You would use this feature if your mic is overloading the preamp. This is important because your only real enemy as a horn engineer is distortion. If your gain is set correctly you'll do well. Even if the microphone you want does not have a pad switch, you can buy an in-line pad for $50 or so if you find you need it later. Ribbon microphones don't generally need a pad because their gain output is already so low.
Sonically, you are looking for a microphone that has a big, full, open sound. The microphone you want to purchase should capture the unique character of your tone and the subtle details of your sound. Listen to the transients of each note (the front end of the sound) and be sure the microphone has a fast enough response. All of these things are very important when choosing a microphone to record trumpets, trombones and/or saxophone (or any wind instruments for that matter).
Finally, try your best not to pay attention to price tags when comparing microphones. Use your ears and trust your instincts when making your decision. Many manufacturers are creating beautiful sounding microphones at a fraction of the cost of vintage and boutique microphone companies. Don't be fooled into thinking that just because a microphone costs more that it will sound better. By using your ears you may end up with a superior microphone and a lot of money left over in your bank account!
Royer 121 - The Royer 121 is a favorite among horn players around the world. It is a fantastic ribbon microphone and is incredibly well built. Though not a budget microphone, you would be making a great investment in your sound by purchasing a ribbon mic from Royer.
Blue Woodpecker Active Ribbon Microphone - Relatively new to the ribbon mic community, the Woodpecker is an active microphone (requires phantom power) and therefore releases substantially more gain than traditional ribbon mics. The Woodpecker is perhaps a little "prettier" than the Royer 121 (where the Royer is more aggressive sounding) and a little more detailed in the way it picks up the horn. I must credit my good friend Tony Guerrero for introducing me to this wonderful microphone!
MXL R77 Ribbon Microphone - The R77 is a budget ribbon microphone with a higher budget sound. MXL has done a great job at offering a gorgeous sounding ribbon mic at a low price point. Definitely worth a look if you can't afford a more expensive ribbon!
Neumann U87 - The U87 is a historic microphone all the way around and is a great microphone for horns. To buy a U87 is to buy a work horse microphone that will serve you well in any recording scenario. On horns the U87 will give you a big sound with a bit of a brighter top end. This is a great microphone choice for all types of horn players.
Mojave MA200 - Mojave's MA200 is one of my favorite new microphones for any application. Warm and big with not too much of an exaggerated top end, this microphone is great on horns or all kinds as well as vocals, acoustic guitars... anything – it's a great microphone! This is definitely a top pick among the large diaphragm microphone category.
Audio Technica 4040 or 4050 - I have owned many Audio Technica microphones and have been pleased with each one. Audio Technica makes great gear at great prices. The AT 4040 and 4050 are great microphones and will give your instrument a big sound at a reasonable price.
Woodwind & Brasswind is proud to offer high-quality instrument microphones for musicians from professional to beginner. Instrument microphones are backed by The Woodwind & Brasswind's 110% Price Guarantee, assuring that you won't find quality microphone products at a lower price anywhere else.
Keith Everette Smith is a musician/producer/songwriter in the popular Nashville suburb of Franklin. He's worked with some amazing artists over the past few years including Chicago, the Jonas Brothers, Jack White and the Memphis Horns. You can follow Keith on twitter @producerkeith1.