I hold the opinion that strings are among the most beautiful and expressive instruments in the world. Strings in popular music have brought us songs like "Tonight, Tonight" by Smashing Pumpkins, "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" by Aerosmith, and "Apologize" by One Republic. These are all great songs in their own right, but when married with the raw power of a string section these songs inspire, captivate, and oftentimes bring us to tears.
When you set out to record violin, viola, cello, and string bass it is very important that you choose a microphone that accurately portrays the wonderful sonic qualities of the original. This article will provide you with knowledge you need to choose a great microphone, no matter your budget.
What to Listen For
If you ask 10 different engineers about their microphone preferences, you will likely receive about 1,000 different opinions. Engineers are an opinionated and fickle bunch (I include myself as an engineer too, in case you think I am picking on anyone). That is why it is important for you to understand what to listen for, so you can make your own educated choice. After all, it is your music! If you don't like the sound, then you'll never be pleased.
Choose a microphone that makes your instrument sound like... (ready??).... your instrument!! That's the basic and easy to understand answer. You must find a microphone that captures all the fullness, beautiful and detail that the original instrument portrays. Here are a few tips for your search....
– Compare multiple microphones at ones so you can easily hear the sonic differences between them
– Try out some expensive microphones, even if you can't buy them. You need to know what a GREAT microphone sounds like before you can choose a less expensive microphone that shares qualities of their more expensive counterparts. You can find a great mic at a great price. You just have to know what you're listening for!
– Find a microphone that makes you sound "larger than life." You can always thin the sound later to fit it in the mix. Buy a big, exciting sounding mic!
– Choose a microphone that inspires you! You shouldn't have to talk yourself into liking the microphone you choose. Buy a mic that makes you want to play, record and share your music with others!
Some adjectives I would use when describing what I am looking for in a string mic are: big, thick, warm, open and detailed.
This article is not specifically about microphone placement techniques, but I do want to give you a few quick pointers about how to mic your instrument....
When trying to record stringed instruments, be sure that you don't place the microphone too close to the instrument. A violin was never designed to be heard from inches away. Try miking violins and violas from 1.5-3 feet above the instrument, aimed at one of the f-holes. For cellos and basses, you'll place the microphone in front of the instrument, also aimed at one of the f-holes. The biggest difference between recording high strings vs low strings is that lower sounding instruments may require you to back the microphone away from the instrument a little in order for the low frequency waves to develop. Let your ears be your guide!
Take note that the farther away a microphone is from the instrument, the more the sound of the room itself makes a difference in your recording. For strings, a moderately live sounding space is preferred. Hard wood floors and vaulted ceilings can be really nice. If you don't have a nice sounding live room, you may want to try a dryer sounding space, (deadening the room with absorption panels and diffusion) opting to add artificial reverb later.
The biggest advice I could give you when placing your mic is to step into the room and listen to the instrument(s) with your own ears! You may need to try a few places in the room before you find the sweet spot, but experiment and take your time. Once your ears have told you the best sounding space in the room, put on some headphones and have the musician play as you move the mic around. Adjust the mic's position until you hear that full, rich sound we talked about. Be sure you hear an appropriate balance of tone to string noise. These techniques should help you get a great sound.
You didn't think you'd get through an entire article without my opinion, did you? Now that you know what to listen for and how to place your microphone, allow me to introduce you to some great microphones on the market that you may want to try.
If you've read any of my other articles you'll notice that I have an affinity for ribbon microphones. I find ribbon mics to be incredibly effective when recording strings. Their tonal characteristics are generally thick and rich, and work wonders on instruments with dense harmonic overtones like strings, woodwinds and brass. Large condenser microphones can also work extremely well. Here are a few mics you should try.
Royer 122 Ribbon Microphone - The Royer 122 is the phantom powered version of the 121. Phantom power allows the microphone to get substantially more gain from the microphone that its original counterpart. This can be helpful in capturing all of the nuances of strings playing at soft passages.
Blue Kiwi - I had the opportunity to use this microphone for several months a while back and I found myself loving it on just about any acoustic instrument. I used it frequently where I might use a Neumann U87. If you feel the need to get a condenser microphone rather than a ribbon, this is a great one to have!
Neumann TLM103 - The Neumann 103 has a warm big sound that Neumann is known for and does a really nice job of capturing stringed instruments, even low strings.
Audio Technica 4033 - The 4033 is a great all around condenser mic and does an especially great job on high strings.
MXL R77 - I recommended this microphone for brass instruments as well. The R77 is a great ribbon microphone for the price and would do a wonderful job on stringed instruments. Definitely worth a look!
With all that modern recording technology offers us, you should be able to have a great sounding, low-cost home studio that can record strings with pro results. Hopefully this article will help you choose the perfect microphone! Just a quick word of advice, be sure to let others know that you're able to record great sounding tracks from home. You may just find yourself collaborating with musicians from all over the world. These are exciting times to be making music. Take advantage of all the resources that are available to you!