Bluegrass in Your Living Room

You’ve just been informed that your cousins from West Virginia are on a Greyhound bus heading directly to your house, and they want you to record their bluegrass masterpiece.
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You’ve just been informed that your cousins from West Virginia are on a Greyhound bus heading directly to your house, and they want you to record their bluegrass masterpiece. Your entire understanding of bluegrass is based upon a documentary about the Hatfield and McCoys and a movie scene where Ned Beatty is squealing like a pig— what do you do?

First things first, collect all the mics you can; you are gonna need ’em. Bluegrass isn’t an overdub recording scene; bluegrass players like to play live, all together, all at once, no matter the individual degrees of virtuosity. You’ll need enough mics to cover every instrument, and possibly vocals. If you have only one condenser mic, reserve it for vocals and substitute dynamics for the instruments. Because dynamic mics aren’t as sensitive as condensers, you’ll have to jack up preamp gain and place the mics closer to the instruments than you would place condensers.

When you experiment with these miking techniques, remember that, as with any music recording, vibe is king, so if the player is spooked by close mics, opt for a less-intrusive set-up.

Fiddle is a tough instrument to mic in a live recording; its timbre can change when it is played in different keys. For fat fiddle tones, you can’t beat a largediaphragm condenser: Start by placing the mic above the fiddle, about eight to ten inches away. Point the mic toward the top of the fiddle, where the bow strikes the strings. Position the mic right over the lower f-hole for that down-home, scritchy, rosincoated bluegrass sound. If the fiddle sounds weak in the mix, sweep the 2 to 3kHz range with a 1 or 2dB boost until you get more “presence.”

You can get a great mandolin sound with a single small-diaphragm condenser: Position the mic above the mandolin, pointing down at the strings, aiming between the neck and bridge. A distance of six to ten inches is ideal for picking up high-end articulation and detail. If you’re looking for more plectrum/string interaction—as well as a nice dose of body punch— point the mic at the lower soundhole, seven to nine inches from the top of the instrument. Be aware that a mandolin player’s hand and wrists flick about like your grandma shaking a Polaroid picture, which can cause a weird audio modulating effect that gets worse the closer you place the mic.

Acoustic Guitar
If the guitar has a naturally boomy low end, accentuate articulation by pointing a small-diaphragm condenser around 10–12 inches from where the neck joins the body. If you find the overall sound lacks a certain “woodiness,” angle the mic more toward the soundhole. If fingerpicking sounds wimpy, move the mic three or four inches closer to the guitar and patch in some light compression with a 3:1 ratio with a medium attack.

A large-diaphragm condenser is ideal for capturing the nuances of a banjo, but by this time you are probably running out of them. If the picker plays hard, you can get great results with a dynamic mic, but use the most sensitive one that you own. A tube preamp can add a nice level of down-home filth. Most decent banjos have a sweet spot around the point where the neck joins the head, so start by placing the mic six to eight inches from that spot. Experiment with the angle of the mic until you find the desired mix of twang and warmth. Applying a light compression ratio of 2:1 with a fast attack can make the notes really pop.

Upright Bass
To capture lots of detail with plenty of body, wrap a cheap omnidirectional condenser in foam rubber and wedge it between the bass’ bridge and body, with the capsule pointing up toward the neck. Cut everything below 30Hz. You won’t hear those frequencies, but they can make the room or other instruments resonate unfavorably.

Round-neck Dobros are played like traditional acoustic guitars, while square-neck Dobros are played sitting down, with the instrument across the player’s lap. Miking techniques are similar for both, with a single small-diaphragm condenser about eight to ten inches from the resonator being ideal. However, on a squareneck you can get away with using a dynamic mic, because the stability of the seated player lets you place the mic much closer to the instrument—say, one to four inches from the resonator. Dobros are supposed to sound twangy, but if you want to tone it down, cutting 1 to 2dB at 1.8kHz should do the trick.