At various points throughout your recording career, you’ll have chances to record certain instruments for the first time. Maybe you’ve never recorded an actual piano, or a drum kit. Or maybe you’ll need to record an accordion, or a hammer dulcimer, or bagpipes.

Having never done it before, where do you start? I had the pleasure of recording a violinist in my home studio last week. I’ve recorded violin before, but never in my home studio. It’s a lot of fun to mic up a new instrument, but sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin.

You don’t have to re-invent the wheel

Chances are someone else has recorded the instrument you’re about to record. Before your session, take a few minutes to find out as much as you can about recording that particular instrument. Don’t make this a 4-hour research session, though. That’s how people end up researching for years and never actually finishing anything. Ask a friend. Hit up your Twitter/Facebook friends. Post something to a forum. All you’re looking for here is some quick feedback for where to start. I’d also recommend simply doing a Google image search. You can learn a LOT from pictures of recording sessions. (I just googled “violin recording session,” and in about 30 seconds of perusing the image results I had 2 new ideas for recording violin.)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great idea to try new things. There are no rules, but just because everyone uses an SM57 on a guitar amp doesn’t mean you can’t use it, too. 🙂

Keep it simple

For my violin session, I simply used single mic (large-diaphragm condenser) into my Presonus Eureka preamp. I set the mic up about two feet above the violin and about two feet in front of the violinist. Could I have used 2 mics? Sure, but if the violinist moves around (most do), it would’ve caused all sorts of weird phase issues.

Besides, the violin is a small instrument. One microphone tends to capture the sound just fine. I didn’t mic the violin too closely, because violins don’t sound all that pretty from 6 inches. They tend to sound much better from a distance. That’s why I moved the mic back a few feet from the instrument itself. (Having good acoustic treatment in your room REALLY helps when you don’t want to close-mic something.)

When the violinist was warming up, I moved the mic around just a little bit to find a spot that sounded good. I recorded a quick practice take and played it back. It sounded great to me, so we jumped in and started recording. I didn’t waste 45 minutes trying out different techniques. I guessed at one setup, it worked, so we moved forward.

Some Quick Tips

If you’re recording an unfamiliar instrument, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • If you’re using a directional mic, you can adjust how bass-heavy the signal is by adjusting the distance between the mic and the instrument. The closer the mic is, the more bass it will record (proximity effect).
  • If the instrument is fairly large (piano, upright bass, orchestra), you’ll want to think about using multiple microphones. Keep in mind that the more mics you use, the more likely you are to have phase problems. (See 3:1 Rule.)
  • Use your ear FIRST. Stand in front of the instrument and find the spot where it sounds best to your ear, then put the microphone there.
  • If things aren’t sounding great, try using a different microphone. Changing from a condenser to a dynamic or ribbon can provide a whole new range of tonal options.

Do you have an upcoming session involving a new challenge? Tell us about it by leaving a comment.

*Photo by arquera

  • Judex

    Very useful advice.

    I do not have a good recording device. I have been thinking to buy the Zoom H1 or their latest model.

    Could you, please, advise me. I am an adult Learner with a Valencia V400.

    Thanks and Cheers.

    • It’s hard to say what you need without knowing more about you. I’d suggest calling somebody at Sweetwater. They know the gear better than I do and can help you pick the right one.

      1-800-222-4700 or http://www.sweetwater.com

  • I Some months back, I recorded trumpet and did the same research on google and gearslutz. I wanted to be huge reverberant sound, and some doubling also happend. I use a direct and a stereo micing technique in a large corridor, actually a school corridor. The direct sound was an sm57 off axis, and the room sound an M/S configuration so I have the tools to control how much room sound and direct sound I wanted. It turns out pretty well.
    Here is an audio snippet unprocessed: [audio: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8675979/trumpet_raw.mp3%5D

  • I’m glad to see some fresh takes on mic techniques. I just tried a similar one condenser mic technique on a resonator guitbanjo. Never recorded one till last week I did two takes in 10 min to get the position dialed in and sounding just how I wanted it. Love the articles and the site!!!

  • Sam

    Thanks Joe, this is really handy for a violinist myself! I usually do two microphones, but I’ve never thought of just having the one with standing a few metres back. I’m going to try it! 🙂