Photo: Myles Boisen
The saxophone and its single- and double-reed cousins are some of the most challenging instruments to record. Their complex systems of tone production, based on multiple harmonic stops along a lengthy and often curved bore, require exacting microphone placement. Saxophones in particular can sound strident or tonally imbalanced when miked too close or with the wrong mic. The acoustic environment also has a big impact on the sound of any woodwind instrument, and key mechanisms can be noisy and idiosyncratic, presenting additional impediments to ideal recorded tracks.
Preparation, an understanding of woodwind mechanics, and knowing what to listen for are all vital ingredients for successful reed recording. To begin, let's get acquainted with the members of the saxophone and woodwind families. For the purposes of this article I have omitted the flute, which is a woodwind but not a reed instrument, and focused on instruments that are in common contemporary usage.
The common curved saxes — baritone, tenor, and alto — are functionally similar, although each has its own characteristic timbre and stylistic usages. The baritone typically provides the lowest voicings in jazz and R&B horn sections and is less commonly used as a solo instrument. The tenor and alto saxes are ubiquitous as solo and sectional instruments in a variety of musical styles. In the right hands, the tenor has a warm, mellow low end and is very expressive throughout its entire range.
The lower range of the alto can be a bit stuffy- or muddy-sounding and difficult to capture clearly. But often this is not a major issue, because most alto players favor the effortless cutting power native to the mid to high ranges of the instrument. The curved soprano, which has the same fingering and range as the straight soprano, functions similarly to the alto and often has a different sound than its straight cousin due to the latter's forward-facing bell.
Thanks to Kenny G, most people know what a soprano saxophone looks like. Beyond its smooth-jazz reputation, the soprano is interchangeable with clarinet in trad-jazz circles and has also stayed contemporary in the hands of John Coltrane and Steve Lacy, among others. The sopranino is similar in construction to the soprano and inhabits a high, piping range that makes it the piccolo of the sax family.
The bass, alto, B-flat, and E-flat clarinets differ from other woodwinds in this article in that they have a cylindrical bore rather than a conical one. This internal structure imparts a characteristic bright timbre to the upper harmonics, while the low notes tend to be subdued and woody. The bass and alto clarinets have a small upturned bell below the lowest pads to aid in volume and projection.
The English horn and oboe look similar to the clarinets. Their arrangement of two reeds that vibrate together, combined with a conical bore, grant a distinctive buzzy tonality that is fairly uniform throughout the entire range.
The first rule for miking any reed instrument in the studio is a simple one: do not stick the mic straight into the bell. This type of placement has its uses with live sound for isolation and reducing a player's movement, but it also brings out the tonal qualities you don't want to hear in a recording: excessive midrange, scratchy highs, uneven timbre, and loud low notes when most of the pads are closed.
To get the richest and most balanced tone for any woodwind, you want to incorporate a blend of the higher harmonics, which come from the highest holes near the mouthpiece, and the sound that develops around the edge of the bell.
FIG. 1: You can accentuate the highs of an alto sax by positioning the mic''s diaphragm partially beneath the lip of the bell.
Photo: Chuck Dahmer
For the curved saxes, a handy visual placement aid is to imagine a straight line drawn from the top of the crook (the curved pipe that connects the horizontal mouthpiece to the vertical body) down to a spot about 3 inches in front of the bell. The most accurate and/or usable sound will normally be picked up by a microphone positioned somewhere along the lower half of this imaginary line.
Placing the mic lower and closer to the outer edge of the bell will give a big proximity-effect boost to the low notes. Putting the mic just above the lip of the bell and pointing into the bell will also emphasize the cutting power of the upper-midrange harmonics. Conversely, it is also possible to tame the sound of a strident alto or tenor by moving the mic below the lip of the bell (see Fig. 1). I find that these kinds of placements work best for the lower saxes or to give soloists a larger-than-life sonic signature.
Placing the mic nearer to the high keys will yield an airier, neutral sound that represents what the player or a listener might hear. Higher placement also affords the performer more lateral movement before going audibly off-mic. But this higher positioning also picks up more breathing and mechanical key noise. The recorded sax sounds that please me most are usually the result of moving the mic an inch at a time along the aforementioned imaginary line and then fine-tuning the position by rotating the mic to pick up more or less of the bell.
The principle behind miking the straight saxes, clarinets, and double reeds is not so different conceptually. It's all about getting even coverage of the entire length of the key mechanism, as well as blending in the bell sound.
Finding the sweet spot using a single microphone takes some adjustment, and capturing a good tonal balance may entail moving the microphone a foot away or more. For quieter reed instruments in ensembles, it may be advantageous to mic as closely as possible. But bear in mind that getting too close to the bell or any group of pads with a single microphone will cause certain notes or frequencies to dominate.
FIG. 2: Moving the microphone toward the mouthpiece accentuates the highs; toward the bell increases the cutting power and honk. Close-miking emphasizes warmth and high- and low-frequency details, while distance-miking yields a more natural sound.
Photo: Chuck Dahmer
Of all the straight reeds, I have found soprano sax to be the most challenging to record due to its inherently warm tonality. And because many soprano players don't point the sax at the floor, the bell sound disperses away from them and they don't hear the instrument as listeners do. To get enough highs and definition on this instrument, I often end up with the mic 1 foot to 18 inches away, aimed somewhere between the middle of the horn and the lowest pads (see Fig. 2).
If you're after a more intimate, detailed soprano track, try using two microphones: one at the lip of the bell and the other around the middle of the key assembly. As with any multiple-mic setup, it is important to check for phase coherence and to make sure that the combination of two microphones doesn't color the midrange or produce phasing or chorusing effects when the sax moves around.
It is common practice to use two mics on a bass clarinet as well. Due to the length of the body, phase cancellation tends to be less of an issue, but it should still be checked. I have obtained good results using an XY stereo pattern with matching mics near the middle of the bore, as well as miking the bell and high keys separately.
When evaluating single- or 2-mic placement, it is vital to hear all the notes throughout the instrument's range reproduced evenly, with a pleasing tonal balance from airy highs to warm, low frequencies. Bear in mind that closer miking emphasizes high- and low-frequency details and yields a drier, more modern sound that may need added reverb. Distant placement favors a blended, organic, midrange tone with some room sound, which may be more appropriate for jazz and classical music, vintage sounds, and ensemble playing.
In most cases, I use condenser mics for reed recording. The higher saxes and clarinets, as well as the oboe and English horn, sound best to me when paired with a high-quality small-diaphragm condenser possessing flat frequency response. My preferred mics for this application are the Neumann KM 140 and Schoeps CMC6 series (with the MK4 cardioid capsule).
Overly bright mics such as those commonly used for drum overheads are likely to sound thin and also boost breath and mechanical noise. Obviously, with ranges that approximate the violin and trumpet, low-end response is not crucial on the higher woodwinds. A small-diaphragm condenser is also a good choice for miking the high keys or as a stereo pair in a 2-microphone setup.
For the lower saxes and bass clarinet, as well as for the bell mic in a 2-mic system, a warm low end is essential. For these applications, I prefer a large-diaphragm tube mic with minimal presence boost. My favorites include the Blue Bottle, the Neumann CMV 563 and U47, and various U47-inspired designs like the Neumann M147 and the Lawson L47 MP with its variable pickup pattern.
I have also gotten good results using ribbon mics on the lower saxes, especially for vintage-sounding R&B and reggae/ska horn sections. In addition, the softened high-end response of the better contemporary ribbon mics is a useful way to deal with any woodwind that sounds too harsh.
The Sennheiser MD 421 and Electro-Voice RE 20 are large-diaphragm dynamic mics regularly used for saxophones and brass in live sound settings. When a suitable condenser or ribbon mic is not available, this type of microphone makes a good substitute for studio work. (For more on large-diaphragm dynamic mics, see “Capturing Big Sounds” in the November 2007 issue, available at emusician.com.)
Reed players are generally very sensitive to matters of tone. When it comes to reed preparation, recorded sound, and sound and placement in the room, honor the performer's years of expertise with a few minutes of your patience and attention. I guarantee you will learn a lot if you do.
All woodwind and brass players move off-mic a bit. Moderate compression is one way to help maintain a consistent mix level with a player who tends to move around. Two physical techniques I've practiced have also been helpful at keeping performers in place. First, put short strips of tape on the floor, in front of the toes of the shoes where it will be easily visible. Make sure your musicians literally toe the line after returning to the studio from a break or between takes. The second trick is to align a pop filter concentrically with the bell to give the performer a visual reminder of their ideal orientation relative to the mic.
Although saxes are less vulnerable than stringed instruments to changes in temperature and humidity, relative tuning throughout the range of the instrument can often be an issue. Sax players will often have to lip up or down to get certain notes in tune. Extreme dynamics can also produce variations in pitch that may escape the artist's attention in the heat of the moment.
When it comes to the recording environment, woodwind musicians like to hear a lot of reflected sound coming back at them from reverberant surfaces in the room. This desire is often contrary to the engineer's preferences.
The majority of clarinet and double-reed players point the bell of their instruments toward the floor, as do many soprano saxophonists. For these instruments, a reflective flooring material — preferably hardwood — is advantageous. For curved saxophones, reflective walls or ceilings are best for reflecting bell sound back at the player. In an otherwise dead recording room, a sax player may prefer to play in front of a window or glossy-finished door to liven up their sound with some strong early reflections.
However, the sort of early reflections that make reed players smile can often vex engineers with phase cancellation, excess leakage, and other problems. The best room for recording reeds is one that has either a reflective floor or walls, but not both. Ideally the musician will be situated in the middle of the room, with no walls within at least 6 to 8 feet of the mic.
The worst sonic environment for woodwind musicians and recordists alike is the small, acoustically dead isolation booth. The low ceilings, carpeted floors and walls, small room size, and lack of high-frequency reflections are all negative factors for reed recording, especially for saxophones. If isolation of the instrument is a necessity, be prepared to mic as closely as possible.
Subtractive EQ around 300 to 450 Hz will help to minimize the boxy sound that characterizes most small booths. And added reverb will almost certainly be needed in the mix when recording in any kind of dry room. In this case, predelay and/or early reflections can be increased to make woodwinds sound more live without resorting to obvious long hall or church reverbs.
Besides sound bouncing off walls in a room, music stands can often introduce phase cancellation by directing a delayed waveform toward the microphone diaphragm. Out-of-phase reflections can be dealt with by changing the angle or height of the stand or by draping fabric over the stand.
Reed 'em and Smile
Despite all the potential pitfalls I have mentioned, great reed recordings are made every day. In addition to the tips offered here, you can find supplemental information in my article “Honk If You Love Horns” in the January 2000 issue and in the online bonus material at emusician.com.
Engineer Myles Boisen (mylesboisen.com) toots his own horn from Guerrilla Recording Studio/Headless Buddha Mastering Lab in Oakland, California.