Many people think that recording violins, cellos, or for that matter any non-fretted string instrument requires special handling. They think that one must have the correct room with the exact dimensions to cull the natural flavor out of the instrument.
Well, this is not so. It is actually a vicious rumor spread by engineers who specialize in classical recordings, because they need a good reason to justify all of the money they spent on gear and how much they charge per hour. Okay, I admit I am exaggerating here—and I apologize to any wonderful classical-music engineers I may have offended—but I’m simply trying to get home-studio musicians to stop fearing the practice of recording acoustic instruments. Trust me, you can get a great string sound in the comforts of your home studio.
Find the sweetest sound. There is no replacement for what the instrument and room in combination have to offer, and finding the “sweet spot” to set up mics is a process of discovery that one needs to embark upon with an earnest approach. What does the instrument sound like from two feet away, three feet away, and so on? Move around the room, and find the sweet spots as the players play, and then set your mics in those positions. The distances given here are a rough approximation of where to start this process.
Go easy on the outboard gear. I am not going to discuss specific EQ or compression formulas with any of these techniques, because there are no real formulas set in stone. Every sound varies from player to player, and from instrument to instrument. As a rule of thumb, I keep my micpreamp input levels at about halfway to 60 percent so I won’t blow anything out, and I also want to keep the sound as pristine and authentic as possible with no preamp artifacts. I always adjust the mic position before I go near any outboard gear, because EQ and compression can compromise the integrity of the organic signal.
Everything needs to breathe. I have said it before, and I will continue to espouse the concept of “air as your friend.” Generally speaking, natural ambience makes all things warm and gooey. If you take it air away, the instruments can sound odd, and you can’t really duplicate a natural sound with reverb processors. It’s best to document the “air in the room,” or the distance between the sound source and the microphone, by, once again, experimenting with mic positioning. If there’s too much distance from the source sound, the signal will sound mushy. Too little distance, and it will sound harsh. But a blend that’s just right delivers a magnificent aural experience.
Specific Instrument Tips
Upright bass. Of all the string instruments, you would think this one requires the most room to breathe, but this is not necessarily so. I have found that using a two-mic method works best for this instrument. I start by using a great low-end microphone such as an Electro-Voice RE20 or an AKG D112. I place it about bridge height, somewhere in between the f-hole and the bridge at a distance of about 12 inches. Of course, always be careful not to get in the way of the bow. Then, I use a large-diaphragm condenser mic—such as an AKG C414 or a Neumann TLM 173—set to a cardioid pattern, and positioned about five feet high and about five feet away from the instrument to capture some room flavor.
Cello. The cello typically produces a very warm and intimate sound, so I normally use a single largediaphragm condenser mic, such as a Neumann TLM 103 or an Audio-Technica AT4050. Whichever one I choose—based upon listening critically to determine the mic that delivers the sweetest sound—will be set to its cardioid pattern with no lowend roll off. In regards to placement, I recommend getting down on all fours, and listening to how the sound rolls out of the cello. Generally speaking, a good place to start is to place the mic about two to four feet away from the cello, and raised a little bit above the bridge.
Viola and violin. I approach both of these instruments similarly, because they are very close in shape and size, and the manner in which they are played. Not surprisingly, both instruments benefit from tremendous amounts of air. I like to use a smalldiaphragm condenser to capture their timbres—typically choosing a Shoeps CMC with an MK4 capsule, an AKG C 451 or a Neumann TLM 184. I typically place the mic about four feet over the bridge, and set to its cardioid pattern to provide a sharper image of the room. Then, I take a large-diaphragm condenser, and raise it a few feet above the first mic, and about three feet in either direction of the instrument. I set the large-diaphragm condenser to its omni pattern to further provide a lush room sound.
The string quartet. So now that we have miked all of these instruments separately, let’s take a whack at a quartet. A quartet usually consists of two violins, a viola, and a cello, and the players almost always sit in a halfmoon position facing the “audience.” The sound of a quartet is best when heard from a distance, because you want to give all the instruments a chance to blend in with the ambience of the room. Armed with this knowledge, I often put up a pair of matched large-diaphragm condensers, set up in an X/Y pattern, and about seven to ten feet away at a height of about eight feet. This is my starting point. Then, I close mic the individual instruments with small-diaphragm condensers to offer some discreet volume control should one player not come on as strong as another. I typically end up going to disk with four solo tracks for each instrument, and left and right tracks of the stereo blend in the room. The fun comes in when you decide how to balance all of your tracks. Try to go with something natural and organic, but if the quartet is meant to be a pad under, say, a rock track, then the sky is the limit.
The room. Working a room with mic positioning to find its hidden sonic treasures is a beautiful thing. I am always surprised by the “good” and “bad” ambient sounds I find in the process of moving mics around. It’s truly a treasure hunt finding the optimum balance between source sound (the instrument) and room sound (the environment), but if you find the right sweet spot, your home-recorded strings can definitely sound almost as wonderful as anything tracked in a large studio.