Time-tested tricks for miking strings
“Men as thick as fiddlers in Purgatory…”—John Lord, “Frontier Dust,” 1926
Since their invention by the Persians several centuries ago, members of the viol/violin family have become ubiquitous. They’re central to symphony orchestras, of course, but they’ve also taken their place in vernacular traditions around the world, from India to Ireland, and the wailing fiddle and thumping bass are mainstays of American musical styles from old-time to bluegrass to blues to klezmer to jazz to C&W to pop to zydeco.
For all that, they’re surprisingly tough to record. In this article I’ll try to give some tips from my thirty years of wrestling with these sweet beasts. (It comes naturally; I was a bass player before being seduced by the guitar, and grandpa was a fiddler.)
Recording classical-style (string quartets, string sections, etc.) is conceptually simple. In fact, it’s simple enough that the basic technique can be boiled down to a haiku:
First, find a good room
Small diaphragm condensers
Okay, there are variations; you might prefer ribbons to condensers, or an XY arrangement. But the essence is straightforward: record the room, in stereo. You can sometimes do a folk or bluegrass band that way, too; one of my best sounding recordings, the Buckhannon Bros.’ Little River Stomp, was done using only an XY pair of Neumann KM 84s on most of the tunes.
More often, though, you’ll need to multimic, either mixing direct to two-track or multitracking. Mandolins and banjos are relatively easy to mic; fiddles (big and little) are not.
The problem is simple: violins tend to screech, basses tend to boom. I’ll tackle the little guys first.
Most of the difficulty comes from the instruments’ radiation patterns. These are remarkably complex; the sound of a fiddle is mostly the sound of the vibrating carved top, plus a bit coming directly from the strings (some of which is scraping-rosin noise). The top plate is tuned to a complex set of resonances, which beam out sound in all directions, producing the radiation pattern from Hell.
These instruments were really intended to be heard in a room, not close up. Violins and their playing styles evolved in the drawing rooms of Europe and the mountain shacks of America to be heard from a distance: several yards in the case of chamber music, across a large room in a symphony concert or a barn dance. All the bright stuff that normally bounces off the ceiling and is attenuated gets heard when the mic is 6″ away. In adapting the instruments to folk and pop music styles, we’ve had to adjust our aesthetic.
For the violin, the main adjustment is that we’ve learned a different tonal preference. We put up with a lot more scrape—no, we value it, because it helps the fiddle punch through the din of the denizens of a noisy dance floor. This change in tonal preference long predates amplification, of course, but it’s interesting that to a great extent it has continued. Not entirely, though; many bluegrass and C&W players seem to be veering in a mellower direction, and contemporary contra-dance bands (many of whose fiddlers are classically trained) have gone farther still. So have most Celtic players.
The aesthetic of this music usually dictates naturalistic recording techniques, unlike (say) rock or hip-hop music, where messing with the sound is part of the story. Unfortunately, the trends of contemporary recording technology will fight you all the way.
Consider: most of the time, we record with condenser mics; in a typical project studio, we’re probably using transformerless mic preamps (separate or part of a board) and some sort of digital recorder. As most of us live within pretty tight financial constraints, most of our gear is in the lower price brackets.
I’ll be blunt: Cheaper equipment is often brighter, crispier and harsher on top than expensive stuff. I’m not trying to be a gear snob here, just noting the general trend. A typical budget signal chain will exacerbate every bad tendency a fiddle can muster, and give you a recording that drills holes in your ears and frightens the dog.
To make things tougher, you’ll probably need to put the fiddle mic pretty darned close. Why? Because most of the musicians who play this type of music will not want to record one instrument at a time, painstakingly overdubbed with the help of a click track. This is ensemble music, with give-and-take being half the fun, and that means playing together. (They might, maybe, overdub vocals.) Unless you have enough isolated rooms to keep the instruments separate while they play, this means close miking and keeping an eagle-ear out for leakage.
All of this suggests that the best microphone for recording a fiddler should have a flat response on-axis, to avoid accentuating the screechy-scrapes, and it should be as flat as possible off-axis as well. This rules out many, perhaps most large-diaphragm condensers, which often have bright on-axis response to help vocalists punch through (and to impress naive purchasers in showrooms). Off-axis response is usually uneven due to the large capsule, which interacts with the violin’s complex radiation pattern (and room sound, and leakage) to make a recorded sound that’s downright squirrelly. I don’t want to say “never,” since once in a while I’ve had good results miking fiddles with large-diaphragm condensers, but would you settle for “hardly ever”?
The first choice, for most recordists and most fiddles, will be a small-diaphragm condenser. Here, you want to avoid microphones like the Neumann KM 184 or the Shure KSM32, with their little spikes up around 8-10 kHz. Instead, the first mic I reach for when a fiddle comes along is the now-discontinued Neumann KM 84, which has a remarkably flat response both on- and off-axis. (They show up regularly on Ebay.) Other mics I’d use if I owned them are the Schoeps CMC/Mk4 and the Sennheiser MKH 40; in fact, the best live fiddle sound I’ve ever heard came from an MKH 40 I had for review, sitting close to the sweet fiddle of Shetland master Aly Bain.
An alternative, at a much more affordable price, is the Oktava MC-012, but it has to be a good Oktava. These Russian mics have notoriously poor quality control, and if you pull four off the shelf at your local discount store, you’ll probably hear four different sounds. I strongly recommend the quality-controlled units available from the Sound Room (www.oktava.com), and you might want to consider the difficult but effective component upgrades sketched out by Scott Dorsey in past issues of Recording.
Reading reviews in recent years, it seems that there’s a thankful trend toward small-diaphragm condensers that are not only affordable but more balanced than bright. A couple of examples are the RØDE NT5 and the Aston Starlight. I haven’t used these myself, but people who have tell me the top end is unusually sweet-sounding for a condenser, which might be just the ticket for a fiddle.
Finally, don’t be wedded to the condenser. I’ve made some excellent fiddle recordings with beyerdynamic’s M 260 ribbon mic, and the M 160 (more expensive but even sweeter) offers good possibilities. Most ribbons have a figure-8 pattern, which probably won’t work in a high-leakage situation (and the fiddle’s bounce-back from the ceiling can be a real hassle). The beyers, however, are hypercardioid, which can also help keep the leakage down. Ribbons have a completely different gestalt from condensers; smooth, smooth, smooth. (Except for the beyerdynamic M 500, which is bright, bright, bright. Not a mic I’d choose for a fiddle.) You’d better have a nice quiet mic pre, though, especially for the M 160; these guys have low output.
Speaking of preamps, a fiddle is a mighty stiff challenge for cheap electronics; all those high sounds bashing against each other will excite every bad tendency in the box. If you have several preamps, you should probably use your best and mellowest one on the fiddle. If you don’t, and plan to record a lot of fiddle music, you probably should invest in at least one channel’s worth. A Peavey VMP2 (discontinued; back to Ebay) or a Great River MP-2 (not the MP-2NV, which is brighter) will do wonders for you, and the difference between a fiddle recorded on a preamp of this caliber and one recorded through the preamps of a cheap board isn’t funny. You’ll hear the quality difference on a fiddle more quickly than on any other instrument except, perhaps, cymbals or tambourine.
One more thing: Don’t be afraid to go off the main road. At least twice, I’ve come across fiddles which were so bright that the only mic that made them sound good was an Electro-Voice RE15 dynamic, which is very flat up to 13 kHz, and has virtually nothing from there on up. One of those was a classical session, too, miking from across the room. You never know.
Location, location, location
Now that you’ve chosen your microphone, where to place it? Here, you’ll need to experiment; fiddles are so different from one another, and so are players, that I can’t give any more than general suggestions. Aiming straight at the strings maximizes the sound of rosin and bow scrape, usually not a good idea unless you really want that sound (some hard-driving dance fiddlers may prefer it). You probably should avoid the f-holes, as they tend to resonate on a single frequency. Instead, I often find myself placing the mic 8–10″ above the instrument, over the neck but facing toward the body, perhaps aimed at one of the shoulders of the violin.
This will vary with the player, though; one fiddler I know, a national champion, puts the mic 2″ above the violin’s shoulder on his right side (yes, 2 inches—he can hold real still), and gets a great sound on the M 260; the mic’s proximity effect helps boost the instrument’s richness.
What about the fiddler who bobs and weaves? This can give you a sound that changes drastically from moment to moment, measure to measure. In extreme cases, you may need to resort to mounting a miniature condenser mic on the fiddle itself, as many players do for live performance. I’ve heard excellent results from the Crown GLM100, and some of the small Audio-Technicas like the AT831b can do a good job too. The real standout in this application in recent years is the DPA 4099 d:vote, which comes with a very neat violin mount. As always, look for the flattest response, and you’ll need to experiment a lot to find a position that gives good sound without encumbering the fiddler.
If the problem with violins is screech, the problem with bull-fiddles is boom, that unpitched, inchoate thud that sounds like a bad jukebox on speakers with some bass response, and like nothing at all on speakers without it. A good bass fiddle, in person, has beautiful tone, rich and woody, and can serve as a wonderful anchor for a band. But how to record that tone?
I’ll start with two big Don’ts. The first is the time-honored trick of wrapping a (usually cheap) mic in foam and shoving it under the tailpiece behind the bridge. This is popular for live performance because of the mobility it affords the player, and some bassists prefer it to a pickup. But most of the time the microphone’s proximity effect creates that infamous dull thud.
My second Don’t, an equally bad idea, is miking the f-holes on either side of the bass. Many people think that the f-holes (like the round hole on a flattop guitar) are “where the sound comes out”, but that’s not really the story. An acoustic stringed instrument is basically a resonant chamber, rather like a bass-reflex loudspeaker; if you put your ear next to the port of such a speaker and listen to music (not too loud, please), you’ll hear that the port basically produces a narrow range of notes, clustering around one particular frequency. This reinforces the overall sound of the woofer at the very bottom, but most of the music is still coming directly from the woofer.
The same is true of stringed instruments. Most of the sound comes from the vibration of the top; only the very low end comes out of the hole(s). If you put a microphone in front of a bass’s f-hole, you get lots of boom, and very little sense of pitch. (As a result of this miking choice, the listeners who have tiny speakers with no bottom to them will hear nothing from the bass fiddle at all.)
Pull back—if you can
So what do you do? A bass fiddle, like a violin, has a complex radiation pattern from its complicatedly-vibrating top, and you really will get the best results if you back off. A microphone 4–6′ away, where the various sound elements have had a chance to blend and integrate in the room, can produce wonderful sound, and without the worry of proximity effect from a cardioid microphone. Indeed, perhaps the best bass sound I ever recorded was when I miked Jacob Blickenstaff from James Stone Goodman’s band with a Blue Kiwi, placed about 4.5′ in front of the instrument, and about 3.5′ off the ground. It sounded most realistic, with a great combination of bite and richness. In fact, the sound was ideal—until the rest of the band began playing.
And then, of course, it all fell apart. The vocal, the mandolin, even the classical guitar, leaked into the bass mic like gangbusters. No good, boss; we gotta think of something else.
In those circumstances, I’ve found two microphone positions that provide a good representation of the bass’s sound in a room. One is about 6″ over the strings, about 3″ above the bridge on most instruments; the other is on the shoulder of the instrument opposite the player, 4–6″ from the top edge and about halfway from the neck to the right edge, or perhaps a little farther right. Distance for the latter placement typically ranges from 8–12″. (I’ve occasionally used two mics, one in each position, and with due care to distances and phase cancellation, I’ve gotten some very nice sounds.)
Up close and a little too personal
Microphone choice is crucial, and the critical factors are proximity effect and treble response. A cardioid mic, which you’ll probably use to minimize leakage, will usually have a substantial rise in bass response when used this close (a hypercardioid will have even more). You’ll need to compensate in the preamp, board, or mixdown process by rolling the bottom down beginning at 100-125Hz, or use a microphone with that sort of rolloff built in.
What about treble response? Remember that a lot of people will be listening to your recording on systems with poor or nonexistent bass. For them to hear any of the bass’s contributions to the music, a bit of trickery is needed; some accentuation of the bass’s higher overtones (the “wood” sound) allows a clear perception of pitch and rhythm, even to the folks who will never hear a fundamental. You can eq that in, of course, but I usually prefer to begin with the accentuation in the microphone’s response.
If you have access to a Neumann U 47—oh, never mind, neither do I. Two more affordable microphones that have done good service for me on basses are the now discontinued Groove Tubes AM51, a large-diaphragm condenser, and the small-diaphragm Electro-Voice RE200. Both share a flat, uncolored midrange and a sharp peak around 8-10 kHz that does a fine job of bringing out the bass’s bite. Unlike many cheap condensers, these mics lack the harshness and distortion that comes from bad electronics; they sound remarkably clean.
The AM51 has enough proximity effect that I usually have to use bass rolloff in the preamp, in addition to the switched rolloff on the microphone. The RE200 has a fairly steep rolloff built in, which usually works fine without additional help.
Another way around proximity problems is to use a “Variable-D®” dynamic microphone, which is designed to minimize the effect; the one I’ve found most useful on basses is the Electro-Voice RE20. Instead of the pristine clarity of the AM51 or RE200, the RE20 has a meaty, full sound, and its treble peak still brings out the wood. It’s also hypercardioid and fairly flat off-axis, a boon in high-leakage studios.
What about pickups? Once in a while, I’ve used a DI feed from a good-quality magnetic pickup, but always as a supplement to a microphone. By itself, the pickup sound is usually too midrangey for my tastes, but it can sometimes add a bit of punch to a drab instrument. I’d only try this on a multitrack recording, though; I’d give the pickup a track of its own, and be quite restrained about its use in the mix. (Make sure, of course, you connect the pickup to a Hi-Z active direct box, an instrument preamp, or a mic pre with a good instrument input.) Piezo pickups? Not for me, thanks.
Should the bass player use an amp while recording? No, no, a thousand times no! The bass will be bleeding into everyone else’s microphones anyway; an amplifier will only make things worse. If the bass player’s having trouble hearing herself in the din, well, that’s what cans are for.
Preamp choice matters with basses too, although for different reasons. In my experience, a good transformerless preamp is ideal on bass instruments, as the low-frequency transient response of these can be excellent. Most of us can’t afford Millennia Media pres, although the modern portable models are looking to change that; I’ve also had excellent results with a Sytek, and many people swear by the clean clear character of Grace Design pres.
Catgut and Horsehair
Viols and fiddles of all kinds have survived, almost unchanged, for hundreds of years, and one reason is that they produce remarkably complex and interesting sounds. The things that make them a challenge to record are also, I think, the reasons for their enduring popularity. You can make them talk, or sing, or weep, or growl, and the expressive possibilities are almost endless. They’re well worth the effort to record right.