Studio Insider #167 February, 2012
In the world of bluegrass and acoustic music, the fiddle is the most difficult instrument to record. Last month, I asked fiddlers around the country to comment on their favorite techniques, giving special attention to room design as well as microphone brand and model. Their answers were as varied as their names, and were sometimes contradictory. I’ll share their answers with you.
It’s all about the room
Most of the fiddlers recognized the importance of the room sound where the recording is being made. They felt that the best recordings happen when the fiddle sounds its best, and this is highly dependent on the acoustical functions of a sweet performing space.
Bruce Bowers, who plays fiddle at the Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, WI, commented, “The fiddle, the room, and mic placement are much more important than the mic. Big rooms are best, so you can pull the mic back a little, and the contribution from the room is delayed enough in the time domain that it doesn’t mess with the tone.”
Laurie Lewis, a leading figure in bluegrass, said her “fiddle likes a larger higher-ceilinged room than I have here at home, preferably with a combination of wood, stone, and carpets. Rooms like that have been my favorite over the years for recording fiddle. In my house, I just try to baffle the sound without deadening the room too much, so that there is a sense of space but you can’t really tell what the size of the room is. I point the mic down at the bass f-hole, about 15″ above the top of the fiddle, sometimes a little closer.”
Old-time fiddling master Bruce Molsky adds, “As far as room choices, I like smallish, warm sounding spaces with a little nice resonance. If it’s too dead dry then I have a hard time being objective. In my opinion, the recording space is part of the music.” Judy Hyman, an east coast old-time fiddler, feels the same, preferring “a nice-sounding room with some liveness.”
Paul Elliot, swing (and more) fiddler from Seattle, adds another perspective regarding the type of room for tracking fiddles. “I really like the sound of a violin in a good room, but for the modern bluegrass sound that’s sort of highly compressed and highly focused, I almost think a deader room close-miked is better. (At lest to me it sounds more like the stuff they’re doing these days.)”
Fiddlers who want to improve the sound of their recordings should listen to a variety of recordings of other fiddlers, in various musical settings and from different studios. They should attempt to discern the ambience that surrounds the fiddle, and listen critically to the full spectrum of the instrument: the resonance of the body, the scrape of the bow on the strings, the ring of the room.
The type of sound that players and producers want from the fiddle will certainly change, depending on the musical environment the recording engineer or producer is building. For example, Evan Price, jazz fiddler with The Hot Club of San Francisco, says, “The sound I want is an intimate, conversational one. Knowing that the violin will have plenty of room in the final mix—that it will be one voice among only four to six versus a member of a larger, orchestral setting—allows me to mic it in such a way as to favor the warm, low-mid frequencies and allow some of the high, sizzling frequencies to dissipate. If I were playing in a larger group or want a more classical sound, I might opt for a smaller diaphragm condenser to be placed above and a little in front of me, and at a greater distance, say three or four feet.”
Several fiddlers mentioned multiple-miking techniques. Bay Area Cajun and old-time fiddler Suzy Thompson says, “For recording, I like to use two mics, one above the fiddle, and one pointed toward the back of the fiddle. I’d say that each mic is about a foot away from the fiddle, maybe farther — depending on the recording situation, how much bleed there is of the other instruments, etc. It usually takes a bit of fussing to get a really good sound, but using two mics helps a lot when it comes to the mixing phase. The older ribbon mics, the same ones that give a warm sound to vocals, seem to sound great on the fiddle.”
Evan Price says that he has “recently settled on a blend of mics that captures my sound the best. I use an (Audio Technica) AT 4033, Neumann U 87, and a Coles ribbon, arranged equidistant from the violin (approx. 18″), and generally in front of the instrument rather than above it.”
These brand names and model numbers may not be familiar to some readers, and as Bruce Bowers commented above, “The fiddle, the room, and mic placement are much more important than the mic.” I agree with Bruce’s assessment, but will comment briefly here on microphone types to give a starting point to interested fiddlers and recordists.
Three types of microphone
Remember that there are three broad categories of microphone design: condenser, dynamic, and ribbon. Condenser mics usually need phantom power (or a battery) to supply their internal electronics, and use a microscopically thin diaphragm to capture even the slightest acoustical subtleties. Dynamic mics don’t need a power source, and normally have a wire coil attached to their diaphragm, which moves inside a magnetic field, generating electricity. They are really a very basic electrical generator, and because of the added mass of the coil, they are not quite as responsive or accurate as condenser mics.
But creating an acoustical picture isn’t always about accuracy. Some engineers and producers like to color a sound they are recording to better convey a feel or an emotion, or to better simulate a listening experience.
Some dynamic mics provide a less harsh and less “close” sound than the expensive condenser mics. Ribbon mics are even better at softening, or “rounding off” the sound they are capturing. Most ribbon mics pick up sound from in front and in back of the mic, so more room sound can get into the recording than when using a “cardioid,” or uni-directional microphone. This can be a real plus when trying to capture the sound of a fiddle, which reacts with the room to produce its tones.
Contemporary fiddle monster Darol Anger prefers “Royer, Coles and Cascade ribbon mics,” and likes to place them “aiming the mic at my chin from about 18 inches away…”
Ben Surrat, recording engineer in Nashville, likes the Audio Technica AT 4060, but adds that when he records fiddler Aubrie Haynie, “he uses a Neumann KM 64 and a Martech MSS-10 pre. A wonderful combination…but as you know, it’s a bit pricey.”
Here are some fiddlers’ personal microphone choices:
Andy Lentz, fiddler with Rita Hosking: a “Shure 330 ribbon microphone, Neumann U87, and the more budget-friendly Audio Technica 4040.”
Fiddle great Byron Berline: “My grandson and I like any good vocal mic for our fiddles. Not any one in particular, just a good one.”
Bruce Bowers: Coles 4038, Neumann KM84, AKG 414
Bruce Molsky: C12 & Neumann TLM193
Judy Hyman: Neumann U-67 and Royer 121 (ribbon)
Laurie Lewis: Neumann M149 (Laurie added, “I have also used a wonderful Telefunken tube mic for my fiddle a couple of times, and thought it was the best sound I ever got. Can’t remember the model number, but it was old and expensive.”
Matt Combs (fiddler in Nashville): AKG 414 (condenser)
Paul Elliot: “Coles 4038 and AEA R84 and Royer ribbon mics; also Neumann U87 for the top mic and an M147 for bottom.”
As the recording and production processes have democratized and allowed players and non-professionals to make and sell their own recordings, the needs and desires of the players have become better known to the industry. Cyclist Lance Armstrong famously said, “It’s not about the bike.” Most professional fiddlers say, “It’s not about the mike. It’s about the player, the instrument, and the room.” When these elements are as good as they can be, then start listening to differences between microphones.
Joe Weed records acoustic music at his Highland Studios near Los Gatos, California. He has released six albums of his own, produced many projects for independent artists and labels, and does sound tracks for film, TV and museums. He recently produced “Pa’s Fiddle,” a collection of 19th-century American music played by “Pa” Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series. Reach Joe by calling (408) 353-3353, by email at [email protected], or by visiting joeweed.com.