Honk if You Love Horns

As the recording engineer for the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Club Foot Orchestra, and numerous R&B and horn-based ensembles, I'm sure that I've learned most
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As the recording engineer for the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Club Foot Orchestra, and numerous R&B and horn-based ensembles, I'm sure that I've learned most
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Internationally recognized as the premier avant-garde saxophone quartet, the Rova Saxophone Quartet explores every known musical extreme through original and commissioned scores. From left to right: Bruce Ackley (soprano), Jon Raskin (baritone), Steve Adams (alto), and Larry Ochs (tenor).

As the recording engineer for the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Club Foot Orchestra, and numerous R&B and horn-based ensembles, I'm sure that I've learned most of what there is to know about recording brass and woodwind instruments-that is, until the next horn player walks into my studio and I invariably learn something new.

Recording horns is always exciting. It is never predictable, however, and it almost always presents major challenges for the recording engineer-especially at the personal-studio level. The complexity of the sound-generating apparatus, especially for the larger saxes and woodwinds, as well as the potential high SPLs, means that microphone selection, mic placement, and room sound all become critical, interrelated factors. Bear in mind that horns were designed to be heard from a distance; therefore, achieving a balanced, pleasant sound through close-miking requires not only a discerning ear and the appropriate gear but also a good bit of recording magic.

In this column, I will focus on the horns (I'm using the term horns generically to cover instruments from both brass and woodwind camps) most commonly heard in jazz, blues, and pop music-that is, trumpet, trombone, and saxophones (with some mention of clarinet, cornet, and flugelhorn). Unless you're recording classical or chamber music, these are the instruments you're most likely to encounter in the personal studio. I'll also discuss recording horn sections, including techniques for incorporating ambient sound.


Premium large-diaphragm condenser mics-the type generally preferred for recording vocals-can excel when used on horns, especially tube condensers. However, condenser vocal mics can often have significant presence boosts above 4 kHz, which can make them sound harsh and unflattering on horns. Condenser mics also tend to reveal inadequacies in the recording space and may contribute off-axis coloration to other instruments in an ensemble.

For these reasons, many engineers prefer the focused pattern, soft high end, and flatter response of ribbon mics for close-miking horns, particularly brass instruments. Certain dynamic mics also yield excellent results with brass and low-register horns. (See the table "Boisen's Recommended Mics for Horns" for a list of mics that I like to use, classified by instrument and price.)


The most important guideline for studio-miking any type of horn is to never stick the mic straight down the bell. This type of miking is standard practice for live sound; for recording, however, miking any horn too closely or aiming the mic straight down the bore emphasizes all the wrong aspects of the instrument and can cause brittleness, "fizzley" high end, erratic dynamics, booming low notes, and other ugly stuff.

In general, the richest and most balanced tone for any curved-bore horn develops around the edge of the bell. I usually start by miking three to six inches away from this area, which captures a blended, natural tone aided by a hint of room sound. This distance gives the performer room to move without going off mic, and acoustic compression helps keep dynamics under control. I advise the use of a pop filter to help protect delicate microphone diaphragms and to keep the performer oriented at a consistent distance and angle in relation to the mic. To minimize phase cancellation, make sure that music stands are placed low or to the side of the mic at an angle, so that any reflected sound is diverted away from the microphone. When using solid-metal music stands, you can further reduce unwanted reflections by placing a towel over the back.

My main goal when evaluating mic placement is to find a position from which I can hear all the notes in the instrument's range reproduced evenly, with a pleasing tonal balance from airy highs to warm, low frequencies. I listen to the horn on its own and in the mix, ensuring that there are strong low-end fundamentals-but not so strong as to pop out or muddy the track-and smooth highs that aren't harsh, "spittley," or scratchy sounding.

All members of the saxophone family can have a problem with overprominent midrange frequencies. If mic selection and placement don't allay this problem, you can deal with unpleasant honkiness by applying subtractive EQ in the range of 600 Hz to 2 kHz either during tracking or mixdown. (If I'm recording live to 2-track, I like to EQ while tracking; otherwise, I prefer to wait until mixdown.)


For trumpet, miking at a distance of six inches is usually sufficient, with the mic diaphragm facing into the bell or slightly off center. When recording louder players, however, or when using old and sensitive ribbon mics, place the mic 12 to 18 inches away to get a clear, incisive tone without transient overloads or too much buzziness. You can also remind trumpeters that they don't need to blow at peak stage volume in the studio. In fact, for recording purposes, quieter playing produces a more rounded tone; it also saves a performer's lip during long sessions.

Due to the trumpet's directionality, distant mic placement (12 to 18 inches) works surprisingly well, and the trumpet's relatively high range (rarely playing below A4, or 220 Hz) means that proximity effect is negligible. The trombone can be approached similarly, although I advise somewhat closer miking with a ribbon mic toward the outer edge of the bell (within four to eight inches) to avoid a thin, "blatty" tone. The flugelhorn and cornet are sometimes used in the studio for a mellower, more intimate sound than trumpet, and are generally played at lower volume. These evocative horns are good candidates for close-miking (three to six inches) with the warmest-sounding mic you can find.


When recording muted trumpet and trombone, start by tossing out all the rules. Every type of mute-solo tone, harmon, cup, plunger, straight, pixie, and bucket-has its own sonic peculiarities, and each blocks the bore of the instrument in a different manner and to a different degree.

For general solo performance, start with the mic positioned within three inches of the edge of the bell to pick up usable tone and detail. Proximity effect becomes more noticeable with close-miking like this, especially when players gravitate toward the instrument's lower range to exploit the mute's colorful resonances. And be aware that plunger and harmon mutes are often manipulated by hand to produce tonal variations or wah-wah effects, necessitating more distant and lateral mic placement.

To compound the engineer's troubles, a muted passage in the middle of a conventional trumpet track requires careful choreography, with the performer having to move up on the mic when using the mute, and then return to the original position afterward. In this situation, it can be helpful to mark lines on the floor with tape to indicate where the player should stand for the two different sections.

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FIG. 1: A single, large-diaphragm condenser mic, preferable a tube model, can be located to capture a balanced image of soprano sax. Move the microphone toward the mouthpiece to accentuate highs, and toward the bell to increase “honk” and cutting power. You can bring the mic closer to the instrument to emphasize warmth and midrange or pull it back to provide a more open, natural sound.


The soprano sax is always a challenge to record because of its unique combination of high, trumpetlike register and warm, slightly nasal tonality. As with any saxophone, a lot of viable sound emanates from the open holes, and the linear layout of the tube means there's a long distance from the small upper holes down to the bell. In addition, the sound that focuses at the bell tends to be strident and honky, with an emphasis on any high-end edginess or sputtering from the reed.

To capture an intimate, detailed soprano track, try using two microphones: one at the bell and the other on the high keys. This technique, however, requires experimentation to achieve phase coherency and tonal balance.

I prefer to use a single mic, ideally a large-diaphragm tube condenser, placed directly above the keys somewhere between the middle of the horn and the lowest pads (see Fig. 1). You can easily adjust tonal balance by moving the mic up or down along the length of the body, with "honk" and cutting power increasing as the mic gets nearer to the bell. Once you locate the sweet spot, moving the mic closer to the instrument will emphasize a warm, fuzzy midrange, and pulling it back will provide an airier tone more like what the performer hears. These same principles apply to the clarinet, although I advise closer miking to bring out the instrument's dark, woody tone.

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FIG. 2: You can attenuate the bristling highs of an alto sax by positioning the diaphragm of the mic partially beneath the lip of the bell.


The alto sax, though more compact physically than the soprano, presents its own challenges to the recording engineer. Many players like to exploit the instrument's piercing upper range and high-volume potential. And even exponents of "mellow alto" need all the help they can get to convey an adequate low end.

I've achieved my best results with alto saxes by miking in front of the lip of the bell, sometimes going a little under the lip to attenuate the abundant high frequencies that develop directly above the bell (see Fig. 2). Moving the mic closer or farther from the keys (note that the lowest keys and pads are quite close to the bell) can also have a major effect on the tonal balance, particularly on the high, airy frequencies and the low fundamentals below 200 Hz. But for a full sound, stay close, take advantage of the proximity effect, and do what you can to get the saxophonist to stay put-the balance of highs and lows shifts drastically once the mic gets more than a few inches in front of this horn.


Although tenor saxophonists tend to traverse a wider spectrum of tone and style than do alto players, the full, resonant characteristics and wide bell of the tenor make it one of the more forgiving horns to record. I'll often take an approach similar to the technique described previously for recording alto. Miking by the lip of the bell or by the low keys really helps, particularly when a warm, jazzy sound is desired. With some players, however, this approach results in too dark a sound.

To accentuate high end and provide a broader tonal balance, I usually move the mic up above the bell to capture the high keys and bell sound equally. This works well for bright pop music and performers who move around a lot. However, if this positioning captures too much mechanical noise or breath, move the mic down toward the bell or rotate it toward the player's left side (opposite the keys and pads).


For the baritone sax, I almost always choose to mic close to the bell to capture maximum bass response. Note, though, that a well-maintained instrument can project formidable lows at a distance of two to four feet!

Unfortunately, because baris are costly and their popularity is waning, most of the ones I encounter are not top-quality instruments. They share such common problems as thin sound, clattering keys, and uneven tonal balance, all of which need to be addressed through careful mic selection and placement. As with the alto, you can compensate for deficiencies in the instrument by moving the mic around the perimeter of the bell closer or farther from the keys. Applying a little compression when tracking can help to control erratic low notes. Try an optical compressor, set with a mild ratio of 2:1 and just 2 to 5 decibels of gain reduction.


To create a vintage vibe or dramatic ambience, I recommend experimenting with distant room miking on any horn, either as a single sound source or in combination with close-miking. The plaintive nature of the saxophone really lends itself to far-off, lonely sounds. Try recording a track in a large room from at least ten feet away. In a smaller room, have performers face a wall with their backs to the mic, and use a good condenser mic to capture every ounce of ambience.

One of my favorite sax tracks was recorded in the bathroom at Guerilla Recording with a Lawson L47MP tube mic positioned in the shower stall and set for omnidirectional pickup. If you attempt to use this technique, just make sure that the showerhead doesn't drip!

You can mix a bit of distant room sound with a conventionally miked horn part to grace your recordings with a distinctive, 100 percent analog reverb. Another way to deliver a unique, spatial ambience to your horn tracks is through stereo miking, employing either a coincident or spaced pair. Assigning a room mic (or stereo pair, if possible) to a separate channel on a multitrack recorder leaves even more creative options open for mixdown, including heavy compression, unusual EQ, stereo cross-panning, and more-is-more techniques such as adding reverb to the reverb.


With horn sections and larger ensembles, the engineer's task is further complicated by the interrelated issues of room sound and instrument blend. These are major considerations that may be of great concern to the producer, composer, conductor, and any others throughout the tracking and mixing phases. If the individual horns are miked too closely or the room is overly dead, your tracks, though sharply detailed, may prove difficult to blend in the mix. Conversely, if the instruments are too distant sounding-or if the room is overly reverberant, is too small, or has the wrong character for the music-it is often impossible to get adequate definition and control of the horns in the mix without resorting to gating, compression, or radical equalization.

Recording larger groups in a fairly live room is standard practice, and blend is greatly enhanced by the classical recording practice of clustering two to three players-or an entire section-on one mic, and then augmenting the ensemble sound with carefully placed room mics. Depending on the size and sound of the room, adding some digital reverb in the mix (hall or large-room settings with smooth, nonsibilant highs) will give the ensemble a lush, polished ambience.

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FIG. 3: You can capture the classic R&B horn section—trumpet, tenor sax, and trombone—in a number of ways. Here, three mics are used: a dynamic on the trumpet, a large-diaphragm condenser on the tenor, and a ribbon on the trombone. Try putting the tenor microphone closest and the trumpet mic farthest back.

Typical lineups for classic R&B, pop, and reggae horn sections include trumpet, alto or tenor sax, and baritone sax or trombone. For such sections-or any mix of two to three horns-I typically position the players side by side, setting them up in the same configuration that they use onstage (see Fig. 3). In a room with short, controlled reflections, I mic each horn at a distance that will capture some natural reverb and leakage from the other instruments. When mixing, I've found that a spring reverb or small-room and chamber settings in a digital reverb help unify and liven up these small sections nicely. And the inclusion of a room mic (or stereo pair) works wonders for the blend and depth of the horn section, especially when the individual mics are panned across the stereo spectrum.

Myles Boisen is a guitarist, producer, composer, and head engineer/instructor at Guerrilla Recording and the Headless Buddha Mastering Lab in Oakland, California. Thanks to Chris Grady and Steve Adams.

The variety of recording techniques described in this article can be heard on the following CDs, engineered by Myles Boisen.

Casino Royale, Back to Back Bacharach, vol. 1 (Double Play Records, 1999) (Note: In addition to their obvious strengths, Burt Bacharach's pop hits are also master-pieces of horn arrangement. Casino Royale's versions are largely faithful to the originals in this regard, using lots of muted trumpet, flugelhorn, and lyrical brass-choir voicings.) "Wives and Lovers" (flugelhorn, bari sax) "What the World Needs Now" (trumpet, muted trumpet, flugelhorn, bari sax) "Bond Street" ('60s-style alto sax and trumpet) "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" (trumpet and muted trumpet) "Wishin' and Hopin'" (trumpet and muted trumpet) More information is available online at www.doubleplay.com.

Rova Saxophone Quartet, Bingo (Les Disques Victo, 1998) (All selections recorded and mixed live in the studio using three close microphones and a distant room mic. See the sidebar "Recording the Rova Saxophone Quartet.") Available from disquesvicto.ivic.qc.ca.

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FIG. A: The Rova Saxophone Quartet in Vilnus, Lithuania, during their 1989 tour of the USSR. The members are positioned differently than in the recording sessions described here. From left to right: Steve Adams (sopranino), Jon Raskin (baritone), Bruce Ackley (conducting), and Larry Ochs (sopranino).

Ben Marcato and His Mondo Combo, Party Mix (Urgent Records, 1999) "Little Joe from Chicago" ('50s-style muted trumpet and tenor) "Smack Dab in the Middle" (blend and dynamics) "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" (trumpet solo with Altec 639b ribbon mic) "Lickin' Stick" ('70s-style dry blend, tenor sax solo) (trumpet and tenor horn section on all selections) Available from www.benmarcato.com.

The Club Foot Orchestra, Plays Nino Rota: Selections from La Dolce Vita et al. (Rastascan Records, 1997) "Nights of Cabiria Suite" "Nostalgico Swing 1 & 2" "Cimiterno" (trumpet, trombone, saxophones, and clarinet on all selections) Available from www.rastascan.com.

The Dynatones, Shake That Mess (Blue Suit Records, 1999) "Cadillac Assembly Line" "Baby Don't Leave Me" (tenor sax solo with room mic) "How Come My Bulldog Don't Bark" (bass trombone featured) "Bring Her Back" (rock tenor sax solo) "Crying for My Baby" (classic R&B horn section and arrangements on all selections: trumpet, tenor sax, trombone) Available from www.dynatones.com.

Having worked with members of the Rova Saxophone Quartet in numerous capacities since the late 1980s, I was thrilled-not to mention nervous-when hired to record the group at Oakland, California's cavernous Sharkbite Studio in 1995. The 1995 sessions were released on the CD Ptow! (Les Disques Victo, 1996), and the sessions recorded in the following two years came out on Bingo (Les Disques Victo, 1998).

The quartet insisted on maintaining its performance configuration, standing close together in a semicircle (see Fig. A), thereby making off-axis coloration and phase cancellation major miking concerns. Some of their scores included instrument changes, and on top of that, I would be mixing live-to-DAT, meaning there would be no punch-ins or opportunities to fix things in the mix. Based on my familiarity with the group's sound, and with an excellent CD recorded live by Bob Shumaker (This Time We Are Both, New Albion Records, 1991), I devised a three-microphone setup for the quartet, with an additional fourth room mic to capture Sharkbite's gym-size ambience.

The group set up on carpet in front of the control-room glass, outside of the control room, where the studio's early reflections were enhanced by wood paneling on the side walls. The reverb characteristics approximated those of a bright, midsize hall. Jon Raskin (alto, baritone, and sopranino) and Steve Adams (alto, sopranino) occupied the center of the semicircle, with Raskin on the left and Adams on the right. A large baffle was placed behind these two horns to keep the center image of the recording dead and tight. I chose to mic the pair with a single Neumann TLM 193 routed to a Peavey VMP-2 tube preamp. The mic was positioned about two and a half feet back, a little closer to the baritone, and at the same height as the saxophones' bells. This placement was designed to keep phase cancellation (the bane of multiple miking) at a minimum, while also avoiding extreme close-miking and its attendant problems (inconsistent levels, poor blend, and so on). By using this configuration, however, I took a calculated risk that both instruments might not be represented equally in the mix. Thanks to the neutral response of the TLM 193, and to the performers' precisely controlled dynamics, the risk paid off.

Bruce Ackley (soprano, tenor) stood at front left, miked first with an AKG C 414 B/ULS (cardioid pattern, low-cut filter engaged) through a Neve 1081 preamp, and later with a Neumann U 87 (cardioid pattern, low-cut filter engaged) running through the studio's Mackie 8-bus board and preamp. Ackley's mic was placed six to ten inches to his right, facing the pads, and about two-thirds of the way down the soprano body (and a few inches above the bell when he played tenor). I angled this mic to pick up ambient sound from Raskin's baritone, thereby adding some extra reverberation to his sound while creating a sense of stereo image with the center mic.

I took a similar approach to the right front mic used on Larry Ochs (tenor, sopranino). His mic-a Neumann TLM 193 through a Neve 1081 preamp-was placed closer and was more localized than Ackley's because of a combination of circumstances. I tried to get as close as possible to Larry's tenor bell to maximize definition and warmth and to minimize level changes resulting from his tendency to move around. But despite some asymmetry in the mic placement, the distribution of room sound through the side mics is well balanced on the recording, and the relatively dry sound at the center panning position was filled in with some natural reverb from the room mic.

The room mic was an AKG C 414 B/ULS (omnipattern, low-cut filter engaged), placed in front of the quartet at least 20 feet away, tilted slightly skyward, and as high up as the mic stand would go in order to pick up as much reflected sound as possible. This 414 was routed to the other channel of the Peavey VMP- 2 tube preamp and panned to the center of the mix. I adjusted the level on a song-by-song basis, just as one would utilize a conventional outboard-reverb return. To remove objectionable components of the mic and room sound, I used significant subtractive EQ on this channel (-6 dB at 6 kHz, -6 dB at 240 Hz, and -5 dB low shelving at 80 Hz). The other mics had conservative EQ adjustments, generally 1 to 3 dB cuts around 6 kHz to soften the saxes' high end, and 1 to 4 dB cuts between 235 and 270 Hz to tame muddiness in the room. No compression was used on individual mics or on the stereo mix bus.

A good place to start when listening for the smooth blend, natural reverb, and spaciousness of the three- plus-one miking technique described here is the short version of "Witch Gong Game." The track "Water Under the Bridge" is another favorite of mine.