Best practices for everything from flute to tuba, alone or together
By Bob Ross
This article is about recording horns. Let me start right off by apologizing to the purists—when I use the term “horns” I’m using it in the colloquial jargon of the jobbing musician, not the literal vocabulary of the musical cognoscenti.
In other words, I don’t just mean the French horns, but all manner of wind instruments, brass and wood and otherwise. Saxophones, trumpets, trombones, sub-contrabass clarinets…lighten up, they’re all horns! Yes, it is useful information to know that those hep cats in the “horn” section are blowing into a mixture of brass and woodwind instruments, and that those two families of instrument produce their sound via very different means…but for the sake of simplicity (and hopefully so that you will think I too am a hep cat) I will refer to them all collectively as “horns.”
Whatever one calls them, horns need to get recorded, and with only a tiny handful of exceptions (none of which would get past the critical eye of the aforementioned purists), this requires microphones. I’ll be documenting some mic techniques I’ve found most effective in capturing the essence of horns, both solo and in sections, as well as some things to consider when experimenting to find what works best for your recordings.
The brass instruments may be the easiest horns to mic, if only because their physical construction makes mic placement seemingly self-evident: since all the air goes in one end and all the sound comes out the other end, stick the mic in front of the “Out” end and yer done, right?
Okay, I’m oversimplifying. But that big conspicuous flared bell on the front of the horn is indeed where the sound emanates from, so the primary challenge is choosing a complementary mic.
As far as mic positioning goes, left/right and up/down decisions are both just variations of on-axis/off-axis, for the trumpet is by nature a very directional instrument. On-axis (i.e. pointed straight into the bell) is bright, sharp, clear, incisive…off-axis is duller, more diffuse, with fewer upper harmonics and not as much bite.
The optimum distance from mic to bell will be dictated by many of the same considerations when miking a singer; close-miking yields higher SPL with more proximity effect (if your mic is so inclined) and more detail in the upper harmonics, as well as a higher ratio of direct to reflected sound.
Two important points here. First, the trumpet is capable of incredibly high SPL, especially within the first few inches of the bell. So be certain your mic is capable of withstanding abuse in the 135–140 dB SPL range, and be sure the pad switch is within reach.
Second, some of those “details” I alluded to include the mellifluous gurgling of saliva in the player’s mouth and in the trumpet itself. While it can be argued that this is an inherent component of the instrument’s sound, it is generally not an aspect of the trumpet that one chooses to highlight. If there’s too much spit in the sound, consider backing the mic off a few inches or repositioning it slightly off-axis. (Or politely ask the player to empty his spit valve…though generally they’ll do so long before you notice the need. Keep a mop handy.)
That being said, I tend to prefer dynamic mics for trumpets. They are robust enough to withstand the high SPL, typically have a slightly rounded or warmer high end that complements the brash tone of the horn’s upper register (while attenuating excessive spit sounds), and their proximity effect can be used for added punch.
Especially if I’m recording for a rock or funk tune, I stay away from condenser mics. While they provide a far more accurate portrait of the actual trumpet sound, in practice the resultant recording doesn’t always blend into the track as effectively, and the necessary focus and impact can be lost.
Some of my favorite trumpet mics include the Sennheiser MD 421 and MD 441, the Electro-Voice RE20, RE15, and RE27, and the Shure SM7. Don’t overlook inexpensive dynamic mics either; I’ve achieved excellent results with a Shure SM58 and an Audix D1. Typically I’ll start with the mic on-axis about 12″ from the bell and then adjust contextually to taste from there. A tiny bit of compression is often appropriate, though I rarely exceed –4 dB with a 3:1 ratio, and I’ll highpass filter the channel strip around 150 Hz.
For jazz recordings or sessions where a more delicate trumpet sound may be required, ribbon mics are a superb option. I’ve used the beyerdynamic M 160, M 260, and M 500, and the Coles 4038, all with stellar results. Ribbons tend to exhibit a quicker transient response than moving coil mics, so the sound will be snappier, closer to that of a condenser, but with the warmer high end of a dynamic. Just be careful about high SPL, as ribbon mics tend to be more fragile and unforgiving.
The flugelhorn is an auxiliary trumpet that is often called for when a more lush, mellow sound is required. (Remember Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good”?) Recording considerations are exactly the same as those for the trumpet, keeping in mind that the idiomatic flugelhorn sound will be less cutting, more velvety than a trumpet.
For this sound you may want to add large-diaphragm condensers to your arsenal here, though my first choice would still be a ribbon mic. With a larger bell than a trumpet, the flugelhorn allows for finer degrees of “off-axis-ness” (is that a word?), so experiment with subtle changes in mic position to find the sweet spot that captures the instrument most effectively.
Pretty much everything I said about the trumpet goes for the trombone also. With a range that extends slightly more than an octave below the trumpet, you’ll want to chose mics that can do justice to that bottom end and set the highpass filter at 80 Hz.
The Electro-Voice RE20 and Sennheiser MD 421 are again my first choice for trombones, and ribbon mics will usually provide excellent results as well. Try your favorite kick drum mic here; I’ve recorded good trombone sounds with an AKG D12 and D112, and I’d be willing to bet that a Shure Beta 52 or a beyerdynamic M 88 would make a kickass ’bone mic.
On first glance you’d think the French horn was an instrument designed to frustrate the recording engineer. Not only is the bell facing away from the listener, but the player’s got his hand stuffed in there too!
Do not attempt to circumvent these seeming obstacles. If you were to close-mic the bell of the French horn in the same fashion that we mike a trumpet or trombone, you would completely forgo the idiosyncratic sound that defines the French horn. The distant, ambient majesty that characterizes the sonic dialect of the French horn has a lot to do with the fact that very little direct sound reaches the listener. You want to capture that distance…without making the instrument sound physically far away.
The first step is to set up a recording environment conducive to a live ambience. At the very least, position the player in front of a hard reflective surface. (At the very most, position him/her center stage at Symphony Hall…but for now, we’ll assume the very least.) The distances between the horn player and this reflective surface behind them and the mic or mics in front of them become your primary variables.
It goes without saying that you could spend all day changing these variables in search of some elusive sweet spot. For starters, try positioning the performer equidistant between the microphone and the reflective surface. If space allows, I like to make this at least four feet on either side. Since I’m trying to capture ambience, I use a condenser mic. If I have the tracks available, I use two condenser mics in stereo, set up as a coincident pair (usually standard 90° XY orientation).
As the French horn has an impressively wide range from the G two-and-a-half octaves below middle C (approximately 50 Hz) to the top line F on the treble clef, premium quality condensers are mandatory for capturing this instrument. I reach for large-diaphragm Neumanns if they’re available, but I’ve also liked AKG C414s. Recent work with the RØDE NT1 and the Aston Origin suggests these would also be good choices, and never underestimate the value of a pair of venerable Shure SM81s. (They’re small-diaphragm condensers, but I find them to be the Swiss Army Knife of microphones.)
For a bit more presence and teeth to the direct sound, I’ve sometimes positioned a third mic behind the player. A boundary mic such as the beyerdynamic TG D71c or Shure SM91 on the wall or floor works well for this application. Pan it center and slowly blend it in with the stereo pair out front until you’ve achieved the desired texture. Your console’s phase reverse switch on this third mic channel may come in handy for cementing the three signals into a coherent stereo image. Be sure to check your monitors in mono while doing this, especially if you’re tracking a film or television score.
I generally won’t compress a French horn, though be aware that the instrument is capable of some window-rattling dynamics. If the part you’re recording calls for the cuivré technique, in which the instrument is overblown with higher-than-normal lip tension until the metal of the horn vibrates loudly, judicious compression may be in order.
As the bass member of the brass family, the tuba records well with the same mics one would use to record upright bass, a bass guitar amp, or kick drum. Large-diaphragm condensers also serve the tuba well. I’ve had success with a Neumann U 87, an AKG D112, and a beyerdynamic M 88.
With such a large bell (upwards of 18″ on some BBb models) there’s a lot of experimentation with mic placement available, similar to the considerations one makes when miking a large diameter speaker. Do I mike the center or the edge? Perpendicular to the front or at an angle? And so on.
I usually position the mic one to two feet above the bell on a large sturdy boom stand, and use that as my starting point. If I’m recording an orchestral cue or a traditional brass choir, I’ll eschew compression. However, if I’m recording dixieland or music where the tuba takes on the role of a bass player, I’ll treat it as I would any string- or synth-bass…I’m looking for a corpulent bottom end that can provide a firm rhythmic/harmonic foundation by any means necessary.
With the exception of the flugelhorn, all of the above brass instruments may be used with mutes. These cardboard and metal devices are inserted into the bell to alter the timbre of the instrument, as well as to reduce its volume. Because of the reduced output and the subtly complex harmonic spectra produced by muted brass, I generally opt for condenser mics when recording them.
So far in this article on miking horns we looked at the instruments in the brass family. It is perhaps worth noting that (modern plastic trombones notwithstanding) most of those instruments are indeed made of brass.
Now we’ll look at miking horns of the woodwind family, where one is immediately presented with a mild conundrum: a great majority of these instruments are not made of wood but of metal or even plastic! Saxophones are usually brass, flutes are silver, gold, or platinum, many a clarinet these days is plastic….
These numerous and varied construction materials hint at the equally numerous and varied sound-producing methods employed by the different woodwind instruments, and one has to take into account how an instrument produces its sound before one can successfully record it.
Both woodwinds and brass change their pitch primarily by shortening or lengthening the vibrating column of air within the instrument. With the brass instruments, valves or slides physically alter the amount of tubing connected between the mouthpiece and the bell; all the sound comes out of the bell regardless of how much plumbing is connected before it, which is why we are for the most part concerned with close-miking the bell of the horn.
Woodwinds, however, use tone holes to change the length of the air column, and those tone holes run along the entire length of the instrument. This is a key (pun intended) part of the physics of woodwinds, and the one generalization that holds for the entire instrument family: sound emanates from the entire instrument, depending on what note is being played (i.e. how many tone holes are covered).
If all the keys are closed (all the tone holes are covered) the instrument behaves basically like an oddly-shaped tube with a mouthpiece at one end and a bell at the other: the air column vibrates inside the entire length of the horn, and most of the sound will indeed emanate from the bell, just as with a brass instrument.
But as soon as you lift a finger from a key and open the first tone hole (thus shortening the vibrating air column) the fundamental pitch issues forth from that open tone hole! The output at the bell is now attenuated considerably. (Except on their very lowest notes, the bell of woodwind instruments serves mostly as a timbral filter.) Lift another finger (open another key, shorten the air column yet again) and the fundamental tone now issues from that hole.
Wait, it gets weirder: this one-to-one relationship between which tone hole is open and the physical location of the note’s maximum acoustic energy only holds true for a single (usually the lowest) octave or so; as you move higher into the instrument’s register the vibrating air column gets more convoluted, with harmonics emitting from all sorts of locations on the horn!
And believe me, that’s an oversimplification of the actual physics involved. But the point to remember is this: there is not a single physical location on a woodwind instrument from which all the sound emanates—sound issues from all over the instrument.
So in order to record the true character of a woodwind instrument, one has to chose a mic placement that captures all of those potential sound-producing locations in a natural balance.
What with that big gaping brass bell, you’d be sorely tempted to close-mic a sax just like you would a trumpet, right? And in fact quite a few engineers get a respectable sax sound by doing just that: close-miking the bell.
Despite my ramblings of the previous paragraphs, this can be a useful technique in one’s miking arsenal (especially for live reinforcement, where leakage necessitates tight miking). The tone tends to be focused to the point of being nasal, a bit “honk-y” sounding with a discernible barking resonance… and the lowest three or four notes on the horn will always sound disproportionately louder, fatter, and more aggressive.
Judicious use of compression (perhaps 10 dB at 4:1) will be in order if you choose to mic the sax this way. This mic position can provide a thick incisiveness that might be effective in certain contexts.
But if you’re interested in more than just a “respectable” sax sound, you’ll want to back off from the bell. I find that a well-balanced sonic portrait of the entire sax’s range is usually attained by positioning the mic 12 to 18 inches away from the horn, aimed at a point equidistant between the end of the bell and the player’s left hand. This captures an acoustic blend of the resonant barking bell tones with the more airy upper register (coming primarily off the smaller tone holes) in their natural proportions.
I’ve achieved excellent results recording saxophones with all types of mics, though large-diaphragm mics seem to complement the instrument best. Personal favorites include the Neumann U 87 condenser, the Electro-Voice RE20 dynamic, and the Coles 4038 ribbon.
The RØDE NT1 is rapidly becoming my new weapon of choice for tenor and baritone saxes (as well as bass clarinet), as its uncolored off-axis sound allows the mic to capture that elusive bell/tone hole blend when it’s brought in closer to the horn for maximum gain. (Plus it’s affordable!) You can’t go wrong with a Sennheiser MD 421, and frankly some of my most cherished sax sounds were recorded with a Shure SM58.
If the console or mic pre’s highpass filter is variable, I always cut the saxes just below their bottom note: soprano @ 200 Hz, alto @ 135 Hz, tenor @ 100 Hz, baritone @ 65 Hz. If it’s a fixed filter I’ll engage it for soprano or alto, and leave it out for tenor or bari.
The soprano sax deserves special mention for a couple reasons. First, the majority of soprano saxes one encounters are straight horns, not curved like the more common alto and tenor sax. When recording a straight soprano I aim the mic perpendicularly to the instrument, approximately one foot away from the mid point of the horn.
While this technique is picking up output primarily from the tone holes, being at least 90° off axis from the bell, that generally serves the soprano sound best… because difference number 2 is that soprano saxes are notoriously nasal-sounding instruments. That lush sweet tone one hears from soprano sax on tunes by Spyo Gyra or (gulp) Kenny G is a rarity, the result of years of hard work by the players, coupled with gobs of reverb and several well-placed dips in the 800 Hz, 1.5 kHz, and 4 kHz areas.
The majority of soprano saxes possess an edgy, reedy sound that, at least to my ears, benefits from some conscientious warming and rounding of the upper partials. Staying 90° off axis from the bell seems to accomplish this quite nicely. For this same reason I tend to eschew condenser mics; the E-V RE-20 or Sennheiser 421 dynamics are my first choices for soprano sax.
As the standard Bb clarinet is approximately the same size and shape as a (straight) soprano sax, I mic the two identically: perpendicular to the instrument, one foot from the horn’s midpoint.
The standard Bb clarinet is mercifully a much more voluptuous sounding instrument than the soprano sax, so I’m less hesitant about using condensers and in fact prefer them here for their ability to capture subtle detail. Again, the Neumann U 87 is recommended (actually, off the top of my head I can’t think of an instrument where that sentence wouldn’t hold true!), as is the RØDE NT1, and I’ve also been pleased with the Sony C37 (a rare and costly large-diaphragm condenser) and the beyerdynamic M160 (a ribbon mic).
The clarinet’s range does extend about a major third below the soprano sax, so fine tune your highpass filter accordingly (approximately 150 Hz), as a full bottom end is an important component of the clarinet’s rich first octave, its “Chalumeau” register.
The bass clarinet sounds an octave lower than the standard clarinet, and is considerably larger with an sax-like upturned bell. Many times I find it sufficient to mic the bass clarinet the way I do the alto, tenor, or baritone saxes, with the mic pointed in between the end of the bell and the player’s left hand.
However, because the bass clarinet is such a long horn and because its bell doesn’t double back on the instrument’s length nearly as far as a saxophone’s does, the distance between the bell and the left hand is much greater. This necessitates pulling the microphone back further to yield the correct geometry—a single mic on a bass clarinet needs to be two feet or more off the horn to maintain a natural balance throughout the range.
Yet sometimes you’ll want a more immediate sound without quite so much room tone. I achieve this by using two mics on the bass clarinet, one near the top of the horn and one down near the bell.
A pair of mics with a fairly wide cardioid pattern can be brought in to about six or eight inches from the horn and blended at the console to yield a balanced sound with more bite and solidity than the single distant mic. I generally position the mics on either side of the bass clarinet, with the lower mic slightly off-axis from the mouth of the bell.
You’ll probably get a kick out of the radical “stereoization” that can be imparted on the instrument via the pan pots for these two channels. But if your quest is for realism you’ll want to tame those wanton urges and keep the panning pretty tight.
Once again, large-diaphragm condensers are my mic of choice for bass clarinet, whether singly or in pairs. Don’t be afraid to mix dissimilar mic types for the two-mic technique though; try a small diaphragm condenser like a Shure SM81 or AKG C460 on the top, and your favorite kick drum mic (Sennheiser MD 421, AKG D112, beyerdynamic M 88, etc.) on the lower half.
Blending these signals seamlessly may be more challenging than with a matched pair of mics, but you can tailor the instrument’s low and high registers independently.
Unlike the saxes and clarinets, the “bell” of the flute is effectively non-existent, both in terms of its physical construction (hint: there isn’t one) and how that end of the instrument affects the timbre. Rather, it’s the business end of a flute, the mouthpiece, that contributes far more musical information, including upper harmonics, noise spectra, and mouth sounds.
The objective is to capture the mouthpiece sounds in proportion to the output from the tone holes. I use three different approaches to miking the flute, depending on the context and the sound I’m after.
For the most natural sound I point a cardioid condenser straight down over the top of the flute about 18 inches above the midpoint of the instrument. This allows for an acoustic blending of mouthpiece and tone holes, and seems most effective for classical music, solo flute pieces, or anytime when leakage from other instruments isn’t a factor.
For a more assertive sound, to cut through a dense rhythm section or a rock chart (think Jethro Tull), I’ll close-mic the mouthpiece with a dynamic microphone. Stage-oriented vocal mics work well here, as you’ll need something impervious to breath turbulence. The Shure SM58 is an obvious choice; I’m particularly fond of the Audio-Technica ATM41, which has a more substantial pop/breath filter, a tighter pattern, and a bit more of a rising peak in the 2–3 kHz region.
Sennheiser MD 421s and MD 441s work well in this application, though they usually require an external foam breath filter. (You’ll want to crank up the highpass filter to about 250 Hz.) The Electro-Voice RE500 condenser proved surprisingly effective as both a distant flute mic and a tight mouthpiece mic when I recorded Swiss flute virtuoso Matthias Ziegler.
If you do choose to close-mic the mouthpiece with a large-diaphragm condenser, you may have more success if you use the “pencil pop filter” trick: an ordinary pencil (I prefer a Ticonderoga #2) is taped against the mic vertically across the wire windscreen. For some inexplicable reason this breaks up breath pops quite effectively. I can’t for the life of me remember where I learned this trick, but I’ve used it for vocalists as well as flute, so I owe someone a beer.
The third approach is of course to combine the two previous approaches: hang a condenser 18 inches overhead and close-mic the mouthpiece with a dynamic. Blend to taste.
I prefer this combination to just using the tight mouthpiece mic, as it captures a rounder, sweeter flute sound. So even if I’m tracking aggressive rock flute I like to put up the second mic and see how much of it I can sneak into the mix before leakage (or in a live setting, feedback) becomes a problem.
Oboe, English horn, and bassoon don’t turn up in rock and jazz too often (Andy Mackay of Roxy Music played oboe), but if you record soundtracks you’ll eventually meet up with these lovely and unique instruments. I mic them as I would a clarinet, or in the case of the bassoon, like the bass clarinet.
(Admittedly it’s been 15 years since I’ve had the opportunity to record an English horn… but I did recently record a contrabassoon. I used a Neumann TLM 170 12 inches from the front of the horn on a boom stand at waist height. Worked great.)
Now, anyone with suggestions for miking a sarrusophone, please contact me at the magazine.
Now that we’ve talked about miking individual brass and woodwind instruments, it would behoove us to investigate the simultaneous recording of multiple players. I say this because multiplayer horn sections are such an integral ingredient of many types of contemporary music, from pop to jazz to funk to rock and roll. (Also because I like the word “behoove.”)
But before delving into the specifics of miking a horn section, let’s pause to consider how the horn section functions idiomatically in those genres, for this will inform our decisions on mic choice and technique.
1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 1
Not to overstate the obvious, but when we’re miking individual horns the objective is to capture the individual qualities of each instrument. With a horn section, however, the purpose of the multiple instruments is to blend into a single homogeneous (albeit timbrally complex) “sound object.”
One generally wants to hear the component parts (i.e. the individual horns) in very specific proportions such that each instrument’s individuality is subservient to achieving this composite whole. It’s the hive mentality; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and as such we’re primarily concerned with creating and capturing that composite “sound object”—even if it comes at the expense of some individual horn’s sound.
Allow me humbly and delicately to point out that much of the creating of that composite is the province of the composer or arranger. You could have a mic closet brimming with vintage C 12s at your disposal, but without effective horn writing you’d only wind up with really nicely-recorded cacophony. Garbage In, Garbage Out, as they say.
For the sake of this article I will assume that the horn writing is competent, and that the players are sympathetic, so you as the recordist can not just document the desired “sound object” but enhance and contribute to its effectiveness as well.
Also, I will grant that there are some situations where multiple horns aren’t really functioning as a section per se, but simply as a concurrency of individuals. Miles Davis’ classic jazz recordings of the 1950s come to mind, where Miles’ trumpet played alongside the alto sax of Cannonball Adderly and the tenor sax of John Coltrane.
Here (and in much small band jazz) the nuances of each particular instrument are of primary importance; the music is a forum for each players’ personality, and the horn writing serves more as a framework for that collection of soloists. For this style of music I generally mic each horn independently as documented in the previous two installments, and combine the disparate mic signals at the console.
And of course there’s no reason you can’t use that miking method for any horn sections, regardless of genre. But there are some things to keep in mind when recording multiple close-miked horns simultaneously. Let’s start with those.
1 + 1+ 1 + 1 isn’t 4
The 3:1 principle states that the distance between any two open mics in the recording space should be at least three times the distance between those mics and the sound sources they are supposed to pick up. It’s basically a rule of thumb to prevent phase cancellation, leakage, and off-axis coloration… but believe me, if you’ve got a four- or five-piece horn section blaring away in your live room, it’s a safety margin you’ll appreciate.
So you’ve got to consider the physical spacing of the players and their microphones. If you can manage six feet between the alto sax and the trumpet, and another six feet between the trumpet and the trombone, their mics can be positioned up to two feet away from their respective horns. If your room isn’t quite so spacious (or if your horn section isn’t three players but 13) and the musicians are forced to stand elbow to elbow one foot apart or so, now you’ve got to bring the mics in less than four inches from each horn.
“Hey, wait a minute Bob, you were recommending mic distances of at least 12 to 24 inches!” you cry out, astute and attentive reader that you are.
Ahem. Yes I did. Which is one reason I’m not a big fan of multiple close mics for horn sections. Most of us don’t have the luxury of recording in 30′ x 75′ spaces, so we’ve either got to compromise the mics’ ability to pick up the entire range of the horn uniformly (by bringing it in too close to the instrument) or we have to suffer the ravages of phase cancellation, leakage, and off-axis coloration. No thanks.
Yes, the latter can be somewhat tamed by strategic placement of gobos, baffles, absorbent panels and whatnot… but why kill yourself? Not only do you have to deal with those space issues, you still have to make decisions about balancing and panning those separate signals, either now during tracking or later during mixdown. And if I’m paying three (or five, or eight) horn players union rates for the tracking session, you can bet I’m not gonna be wasting time thinking about those sort of decisions.
1+1+1+1 = 2
Conveniently enough, a lot of those decisions have already been made… by the arranger, or by the players themselves, or by the recording space itself. Remember, the horn section creates a single homogeneous “sound object.” That “sound object,” with its innate spectral distribution, spatial cues, and dynamic profile, exists by virtue of having multiple musicians playing simultaneously in a room.
Therefore I find it more sonically rewarding, more conducive to achieving the composer/arranger’s aims, and a lot less work overall to mic the horn section as a single physical object. A single object that just happens to produce its sound from a variety of widely spaced physical locations within a room.
In my experience a matched stereo pair of condensers in a coincident or near-coincident array captures the power, the impact, and the sonic integrity of a horn section more effectively and more efficiently than multiple close-miking.
Panning can still be controlled by the physical placement of the musicians… balances can still be controlled by individual proximity to the microphones… timbre can still be controlled by microphone choice and (at least to a certain extent) by the physical location of the mics in relation to the room and the ensemble… and it all coalesces into an integral whole that sits in a track effortlessly and realistically.
I tend to favor large-diaphragm condensers for this application; the slightly hyped midrange detail of most side-address vocal mics lends itself especially to rock and funk horn parts. If I can get a pair, Neumann U 87s or TLM 170s are my first choice, but I’m perfectly happy with a pair of CAD Equiteks or RØDEs or AKGs. It’s more important that they’re a matched pair than what particular brand or model that pair is.
I’ll generally set the mics up in an ORTF arrangement (cardioids 7″ apart at a 110° angle) starting four feet in front of the ensemble, five feet off the ground, and then adjust things to taste while the horns play to the track.
If it’s a large group of horns I may move the mics further away from the group so the soundstage isn’t abnormally wide; if it’s a smaller group I may rotate the two mics inward, crossing their pickup patterns to approximate a standard XY configuration to prevent a hole in the center. If the sound is too thin, I may lower the mics closer to the floor; too thick or muddy and I may raise them up to six or seven feet (though ceiling height becomes an issue).
This approach has worked for me with three-, four-, five-, and six-piece horn sections. And I’ve had incredible success applying this technique to big band jazz, both for recordings and live reinforcement: mic up the drums, bass, and piano as normal, stick a soloist spot mic near the lead alto and lead trumpet players, and park this stereo pair of condensers in front of the 13+ member horn section. Done.
If the music you’re recording features a number of solo horn parts as well as the sectionals, you may want to put up individual spot mics on those players and mix them with the stereo pair. I like to keep them at a fairly low level, though not entirely muted, during the ensemble passages, and ride gain to boost those mics during the solo passages. And even if I’m tracking the soloist separately, I keep the stereo mic pair up and prominent in the mix to keep the solo horn contextually balanced with the ensemble.
I’ve also found some single-point stereo microphones that work well for this application: Crown makes the SASS-P, a proprietary contraption similar to a Jecklin disc array (two omni mics on either side of an acoustically inert boundary) that uses their PZM mic elements. Shure makes the VP88, which puts a Mid/Side array, complete with matrixing network, into a microphone body only slightly larger than a conventional handheld vocal mic.
While neither of these mics has the impressive low noise specs or high SPL capabilities of a separate matched pair of premium condensers, their frequency response character does lend itself to the typical needs of horn recording. And it’s hard to argue with their convenience.
The Shure VP88 is especially useful because it allows you to bypass the M/S matrix and output the Mid and Side mics as discrete signals; one can record these on separate tracks and matrix them during mixdown (with just three console channels, a mult, and a phase reverse switch), allowing the soundstage width to be tailored to your finished track long after the horn players have gone home. (Thanks to Steve Folsom, Melissa Etheridge’s engineer, for turning me on to the VP88s.)
Finally, here’s a setup I’ve found ideal for miking horn sections in smaller recording rooms (and wouldn’t most of us project studio owners confess to being “spatially challenged?”). Arrange a pair of microphones in a Blumlein configuration (coincident figure-8 patterns crossed at 90°) in the center of the room, and position your horn players in a complete circle around the mics, facing inward.
Depending on the players’ orientation to each microphones’ pickup pattern, this can give every instrument an intimate presence that translates into a soundstage far wider than the physical confines of the actual recording space…or it can sound positively alien. (Not that alien is necessarily bad!)
Since all the players on the back half of the mic array are by definition 180° out of phase with the front horns, there’s no obvious or logical correlation to how the ear/brain interprets this information when listening in stereo. But all it takes to eliminate any potential cognitive dissonance is to rotate the players to a different point on the axis of the mics’ pickup pattern. (I actually find it far easier to rotate the mic stand than to attempt to choreograph four or five musicians.) Horn players seem to like this setup too, as it makes it trivial to see and hear one another.
Which brings me to one final point: being able to hear oneself and one’s section-mates is critical for giving good horn performances. Accurate intonation and tight phrasing can make or break the impact of a horn section, and this requires being able to hear everyone clearly. So regardless of what mic arrangement you use, be prepared to spend as much if not more time providing headphone mixes as you do getting sounds. It will be time well spent.