Trombones, trumpets and saxophones are all great sounding instruments that can present a few difficulties when you're in the studio. For example, their large dynamic range can easily overload microphone capsules, preamps and A/D converters, making the instruments hard to compress. A delicate frequency response often makes horns sound harsh, too bright or too thin. And because of the quick attack and fast release of the instrument's sound, horns can make the room more noticeable in the recording. You can overcome all of these challenges just by having the right microphone. This article will cover what to listen for and what features to consider when choosing a proper microphone to record horn instruments so you can achieve the best sound possible.
Horn players wanting to record their music should look for a large diaphragm condenser microphone or a ribbon microphone. Both work equally well and this article will look at the difference between the two.
These mics generally have a 1" diameter or larger microphone capsule that helps provide a large round sound with bigger low end, a boost in presence at 2-4k and a clear top end. Most large diaphragm microphones are used for recording vocalists, but these characteristics are also great for horns as long as the boost in presence is not too overly-exaggerated.
With a ribbon microphone, you can expect a slightly darker top end of the frequency range, a smooth low mids and a big, low end presence. Also worth noting is that traditional ribbon mics have a lower gain output, are considered more fragile and must be carefully handled and stored because of the delicacy of the ribbon. That being said, the pros far outweigh the cons as a ribbon mic brings a warm, rich quality to the horn's recorded sound.
If you could only choose one, your best bet would be a ribbon microphone. Why? Because even though they are slightly darker, eq'ing levels in the studio is much easier when you have a ribbon mic. You can always squeeze out a top end if you need it, whereas a condenser microphone can make your recording sound too bright and that is harder to fix. It's much easier to brighten a darker sound while mixing than warm up a sound that was recorded too bright.
For those of you wondering if microphone's ability to handle high sound pressure levels is important, it is. That being said, most single modern, well-built microphones are already designed to handle high SPL's. Since you'll probably record your horn from 2 to 6 feet away from the instrument's bell and not directly into the mic, SPL problems will be almost non-existent.
A feature you should be looking for in your microphone is a 10-20db pad switch. This switch allows you to lower the output of the microphone to the preamp. Your only real issue as a horn engineer is distortion. If your gain is set correctly, you'll do well so having this switch is important. If the microphone you covet doesn't include this in-line pad switch, or you decide that it's something you want later on, it's easy to buy one for about 50 dollars. Ribbon microphones don't usually need a pad because their gain output is already so low.
When choosing a microphone to record trumpets, trombones or saxophone (or any wind instruments), you need a microphone that has a big, full open sound. You'll want one that captures the unique character of your tone and the subtle details of your sound. And be sure to listen to the transients of each note (the front end of the sound) and be sure the microphone has a fast enough response. While it may be a hard thing to do, try not to let the price tag be a factor in your microphone choice. A microphone doesn't sound better just because it costs more. Use your ears and trust your instincts when making your decision. There are some beautiful sounding microphones out there at a fraction of the cost of vintage and boutique selections. By listening to the overall sound, you're likely to save yourself some money and still end up with a superior microphone.
Royer 121 - This is a well-built ribbon microphone that is a favorite with horn players around the world. While not exactly a budget mic, it is a great investment in your sound.
Blue Woodpecker Active Ribbon Microphone - A newcomer to the ribbon mic family, the Woodpecker is an active microphone. It requires phantom power so releases considerably more gain than traditional choices. This mic is a little more detailed in the way it picks up the horn, and where the Royer is more aggressive sounding, the Woodpecker is a little “prettier".
MXL R77 Ribbon Microphone - If you're looking for a ribbon microphone with a low price point and higher budget sound, the R77 is an excellent choice. This is definitely worth considering if you can't afford a more expensive ribbon.
Neumann U87 - The U87 is a durable microphone that will serve you well in any recording situation. This is a great microphone choice for all types of horn players that will give you a big sound with a bit of a brighter top end.
Mojave MA200 - A top pick from the large diaphragm microphone category, the Mojave's MA200 delivers a sound that's warm and big with not too much of an exaggerated top end. This microphone is an excellent choice for horns or any type of instrument, as well as vocals.