So, feel like trying your hand at recording real strings? Maybe you have a song that would be great with a traditional string quartet accompaniment such as Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”, or a country tune that needs some fine fiddle-playing added to the mix. Perhaps you want a viola solo or some celli accompaniment in a dramatic bridge section.
Stringed instruments are built with resonating chambers and therefore project and amplify their sound to a fair degree already – but I feel they usually sound at their best in a wooden space with high ceilings.
Ideally, you need a room for your recording session in which the strings sound pretty good acoustically, since a large part of the sound will be gained from having a decent acoustic environment for the players, where the sound waves may acoustically couple with the resonating areas and/or reflective surfaces to form a more complex, richer sound altogether, far more interesting and dynamic to the listener’s ear than one would ever be able to get from recording them in a carpeted living room with big sofas and upholstered chairs too near the player.
The acoustic environment is a large part of the sound of a traditional string quartet, so close miking is always a compromise but can be useful. The obvious situation for close miking strings would be when other loud sound sources are playing in the same space at the same time, say drums or piano. In that event, you would likely get the best results for control and separation of the sound by using clip-on mics attached to each string instrument. Unfortunately, this usually results in having to apply a lot of corrective equalization (EQ) and also judicious application of reverb to simulate the distance the mics would have been at in the ideal situation for the music.
You also need sufficient headroom (as in height of the ceiling, not audio levels). If the mics are placed too close to the ceiling, they will pick up reflected sound, and if the ceiling is a hard, reflective surface, then a lot of unwanted flutter echoes in the midrange area may get into the mic too.
Music stands are a must, and the players invariably expect to be able to have them where they can see them properly whilst playing, so you must make sure you allow space for these fairly bulky items very near to the player. Lighting is also critical to most string players since they almost all use sheet music. The kind of subdued lighting that makes rock musicians happy is not likely to work for the violinist.
There will also be instrument cases to store for a strings session. Try not to pile them up in the room anywhere near the microphones or players, since they can often cause flutter echoes themselves, particularly if they are hard-shell cases. Clutter in the space you are recording in is not a good idea in general.
A relatively empty room usually sounds very nice, but again, watch for echoes – some damping of reflections is very helpful if the room is sounding TOO live for your requirements. Clap your hands in the room for a rough snapshot of what you are dealing with acoustically. If you hear a lot of fluttering midrange echoes, then you know you need to use some materials to damp the reflections, or move the player to another part of the room where the sound is not impaired in this way.
What can you do about acoustics? Well, it’s pretty simple to make noticeable changes to liven or deaden a space.
Use sheets of plywood on the floor or leaning up against the wall to add some more sense of “live” reflections, or use thick blankets and quilts to calm things down and make them a little more “dead”. Don’t overdo either direction, and use your ears and common sense as you try things! Don’t lean bits of wood up where they can clonk the bass player on the head, even if they deserve it LOL
Condensers are the most popular choice for many stringed instruments, and this is true for the orchestral family of stringed instruments, where small-diaphragm microphones will often be the choice, although large-diaphragm types will also sound very good. I would expect the smaller diaphragm mics to sound ‘sweeter’ than the large types, while the large types often deliver a little more sense of size and richness in the lows. With strings, the sweeter option is more common in a pop or country production, so the small-diaphragm mics are often the first choice in contemporary music.
Beware of the nasal, scratchy sound of a violin that will usually arise if you put the microphone too close to the instrument. Back off and you will find a warmer, sweeter tone with no nasal qualities, and the idea is to subtly fill that out with the room sound.
This is a very important aspect of recording string players in a way that will allow them to sound rich and full, rather than thin and nasal. Increased distance from the source naturally adds more room sound, but at the cost of reducing the close sound.
With violins and violas, the added distance is really helpful in softening the sound you will get, but you don’t want to get so far away that the original sound is losing too much volume relative to the reflected sound. How far?
Placement of microphones at a typical orchestral session may prove to be, say, five feet or more, and situated up above a quartet of string players. This may well be impossible in many home settings, since high ceilings seem popular with royalty and art galleries but not so much the rest of us. The sound is projecting more or less upwards from the body and the f-holes in the violins and violas, whereas the celli and basses are projecting at a slight angle a bit above horizontal to the floor and a foot and a half or so off the floor.
All the instruments, however, are made of resonant wood materials with chambers that amplify and focus the sound and so soundwaves propagate from all sides and parts of the main body of the instrument – obviously the neck and headstock of such instruments are not contributing important elements to this vibrating air sound coming from the hollow part(s) of the instruments, but of course the strings themselves are not entirely silent and any bowing sounds or finger glissandi or squeaks will naturally add to the overall feeling of the complete sound emitted.
Capturing these aspects with microphones, or perhaps rejecting some negative aspects of them simultaneously, is achieved by using the right types of mics, those that are suitable – such as condensers and ribbons – and by being at a distance from the source that captures a good blend of the overall instrument’s sound and the ambience of the space it is being played in.
Ribbon mics will be warmer-sounding, typically with less brightness or harshness than condensers, but are more fragile. The condensers are more detailed and more bright, generally speaking.
Space is usually at a premium in our home studios. None the less, this is the kind of distance that can give rich and airy results.
If you can accommodate this, great! If not, three feet may be possible. If that’s not going to work for you either, consider booking a larger studio for the strings or don’t mike from above. It’s quite possible to mic the violins and violas from only a foot above them, but the sound may suffer from some harshness here and there, or an unwanted nasal quality. If you want a scratchy fiddle for a vintage folky feel, it may well be appropriate to get closer in to the instrument.
Cardioid patterns work well, as do omni. If you have many players, try to group players in 3’s and 4’s, with mics above each grouping. Angle the mics towards the centre of each group. Using a figure-8 pattern on a variable pattern condenser such as a U87 or on a ribbon (a ribbon is figure-8 by it’s very nature) can sound really great on a violin, but the ribbon won’t be as bright or airy as the condenser, so bear that in mind when assessing the emotional impact you need from the sound.
Finally, the Lavalier clip-on mics are very useful when it is impossible to get separation at a distance, as when other loud instruments are playing at the same time and in the same space, as noted earlier in this post. You will find that EQ and reverb will be helpful to offset the downsides of close-miking strings alongside louder instruments.
VIOLIN AND VIOLA
The viola is much like the violin, except that it has a slightly larger body (about 5cm larger, in fact). A viola also has a slightly different range of notes available.
Where the violin is tuned E A D G, the viola uses the same A D G strings but adds a lower C in place of the violin’s E, making the viola an especially warm sounding instrument. The range of the viola is almost 4 octaves, depending on the player’s skill at hitting the uppermost notes, and starts from the C below middle C on the piano.
Certain classical composers (Mozart, Strauss, etc) have used alternative tunings in writing for the viola, but you are very unlikely to come across them in a home recording session for singer/songwriters! The viola also has it’s own clef called the viola clef (naturally!) which is used in sheet music for the instrument.
The violin and viola look broadly similar apart from the slight size difference, and sound very similar in general terms, except that there is a subtly warmer tone with the viola. A large diaphragm mic can work really well on a solo viola at 18″ or so above the instrument, but good ribbon mics can also sound especially rich and full on the viola.
Any recording techniques that work for the violin will also work for the viola very well, and the same caveats already mentioned apply to both instruments. If they are being played alongside each other, try to capture some of the acoustics of the space they are in by not miking either too closely.
CELLO AND ACOUSTIC BASS
Both these instruments are easy to record with a short floor stand for the microphone, and a little distance from the mic allows the sound to bloom in the acoustic environment before entering the mic. This is obviously how the listener is used to hearing the sound – from a little distance.
The cello is, of course, generally played with a bow, but it does not have to be. The same goes for the upright bass.
This should be taken into account when selecting microphones and positioning them. You want the players to have room to play without being scared of bumping into anything or feeling any sense of restriction. These are also relatively fragile instruments, and should be treated very carefully. Keep heavy microphone stands away from them, since you don’t want to have anything fall on the instruments or the players. If you must get nearby with a stand, make sure it is weighted down with sandbags or similar at it’s base to prevent accidents or damage to mics, instruments or people.
Celli sound great when there is wood near the instrument which can build up a rich early reflection field to be captured in the mic along with the sound generated from the instrument directly. You can use sheets of plywood or wooden gobos or simply a room with a hardwood floor.
Most large-diaphragm condenser mics, especially tube-based ones, will sound rich and full on a cello, but there is a place for small-diaphragm condensers and ribbons too.
The (upright) bass sounds great recorded with a tube microphone, such as the Telefunken AK47, or one of the other Neumann U47-inspired microphones on the market these days. Put it about 6 to 8 inches away from the body, checking it sounds good there by putting your ear in the intended spot first. Somewhere roughly in line with the bridge of the instrument works well, whilst being offset a bit to avoid any mechanical sounds being produced in that area. See my post on recording basses for more.
The Shure SM57 will do the acoustic bass proud in a pinch, and can be carefully wrapped in foam, so long as you don’t need strong, deep lows, since the Shure SM57 does not go particularly low in it’s frequency response.
A good quartet will blend their playing acoustically by ear, as jazz players also do. The mix is coming from the players, not from the engineer, in both these situations. Your job will be to capture that blend in the best way you can. With solo performance overdubs from a single instrument in the strings family, it’s a different ballgame, since you can take any approach that appears to work without concern for other instruments playing at the same time.
HOMEWORK BEFORE YOUR FIRST STRING SESSION
It costs literally only a few dollars a day to rent a violin or viola from a music store, and you can learn a lot from doing so in the interests of education.
Twelve dollars is probably enough to get a viola AND a violin for a day and compare them.
Put them side by side, play them both as best you can (using a bow on an open string is not that hard for non-players) and listen carefully to the sounds coming from the instrument. Have someone else generate sounds with them and move around the instrument(s), looking for where the sounds are most full in your space. Ideally, have someone who can play at least a bit on them come over and help.
Make test recordings if you can, simply to see the way your space is responding to the instruments, and what you might want to do to change the acoustic properties of the space before the session so as to flatter the instruments more.
Well, if you want to try an electric violin, you can start adding guitar effects pedals or Leslie simulations, and so on.
They are very handy for practising quietly on headphones, and would typically have a headphone output intended specifically for this purpose. If you are playing fiddle in a loud country band, then they may well be very useful in getting heard in proportion alongside the drums and electric guitar and pedal steel.
They also have an audio output in the form of a 1/4″ jack socket just the same as an electric guitar so amplification is easy. Since they are not built with a resonating chamber body, they are lighter in use as well.
ENJOYING THE SOUND OF STRINGS
There is something magical and wonderful in the sounds of the string quartet family. A huge body of music has been written for them over the centuries in all manner of styles, and it is a joy to become familiar with the best of that tradition.
Adding the sound of real violins to your song may well take it to a new place, and of course it is a good thing to explore musical instruments you are not yet familiar with. Plenty of books and websites deal with the details of the different ranges and uses of the string family, and it’s worth taking a good look around them to glean as much as you can ahead of recording sessions with strings.
Finally, remember to have fun! Music is fun, and these kinds of instruments have been around for a few centuries now, and they have survived for good reason – they are beautiful to listen to, and beautiful to look at.
Well, that’s it for my strings blog post, but do join me again in a day or two for my next post! The topic will be “Tracking a Small Choir”.
Happy music-making and recording!