THE GRASS IS SOMETIMES BLUE
ROB LONG DISCUSSES THE OTHER STRUM-ABLE STRINGED INSTRUMENTS AND HOW BEST TO PLUCK THE BEST SOUND.
Over the years, we’ve watched the walls between genres gradually crumble. This is a very healthy development, as it allows artists to draw upon a wider set of influences, have a broader palette with which to create, and generally keep the musical gene pool alive and growing rather than shrinking and mutating!
From a recording point of view, this often means the introduction of instruments other than the standard guitar, bass, drums and keyboard setup of the common rock or pop formats. Acts like John Butler, Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, Imagine Dragons and Judah & The Lion have all incorporated more traditional acoustic instruments into their styles, and effectively brought the sounds of the mountains to the big cities in a whole new way.
If you’re a composer or musician working on your own material, learning how to capture these instruments to get what you want out of them is imperative. Likewise, if you’re engineering for clients (live or in the studio), it’s even more critical that you have some sense of where to start. I have been in many situations where it’s painfully obvious that the engineer can’t even name the instrument they are about to mic, let alone have any clue on where the sound comes from or how to capture it! The ultimate DIY course would involve a session with a competent player on the instrument in question, where you take time moving a mic around the instrument and the space, and get familiar with all the possibilities before you jump into tracking on a song.
Electric instruments can be fairly forgiving in many ways: The amp often provides half the tone, and you can get away with cheaper instruments and bend them to your will. Acoustic instruments are a little different. There’s nothing to hide behind, so purists spend top dollar on their gear. It's also worth noting that tuning cheaper acoustic instruments is often more challenging than it is to play them! THE SUN CAME UP AND THE DEVIL WENT DOWN
Players tend to fall into two main groups – acoustic music specialists who are fully focussed and proficient on their weapon of choice, or rock/pop players who have picked up a new instrument as a second or third option.
The specialists will tend to have much more developed techniques, more expensive equipment, a more thorough knowledge of the instrument’s capability and legacy throughout musical history. On the other side, they are often very picky about what music they want to play and how it should be done.
Those who pick up more traditional instruments to add a "string to their bow" often have super budget models, very basic techniques, and tend to approach their second instrument in the same way they’d approach their first one. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, creating a new or unusual sound from a traditional instrument is often the goal, and can add flavour to a track that a virtuoso may not! Some tracks require that smooth, professional edge that a specialist session player can provide. Other tracks scream for something more unusual, edgy and unique. Often the songwriter makes the best contribution, as the ideas are
more sympathetic to the track. It’s about the song, not the instrument. Learn the rules, then burn the rules!
Going for the high res, rich, natural sound on acoustic instruments often calls for high-end gear, or at least a very specific and tailored chain to suit the instrument in question. To find out what the top guns use, look no further than the fine fellows who track the elite bluegrass, jazz and world music artists around the globe. They, of course, have access to all of the ‘to die for’ goodies under the sun. Budget aside, let’s take a quick look at some conventions.
Like anything studio related, there are so many variables that it’s difficult to generalise, but regarding microphone choice, there’s always the good old LCD for high-fidelity, full frequency range and elegance. However, you’ll soon notice that engineers often tend to lean towards the smaller, pencil-type condensers rather than their larger diaphragm brothers. These tend to capture a tighter, flatter and more focussed response. The smaller diaphragm responds more quickly to transients, making SDCs ‘faster’ mics. Omnidirectional mics tend to sound more natural, as they don’t exhibit the proximity effect (unnaturally increased bass response from close proximity to the sound source).
Ribbon mics really hold their own here as well, though, especially on instruments which are a little harsh, bright, squeaky or otherwise a little too righteous and need some smoothing and body. Regarding ribbons, think ‘natural, warm character’. A few years ago, I did some tracking in a little boutique Nashville studio that specialises in bluegrass music. I was gobsmacked when I realised they only owned three condenser mics and a couple of dynamics – the rest were a mix of ribbons of all age and manner!
The use of stereo mics is very common. The goal is to capture enough variety of tone and texture from a blend of two mics to avoid hardcore EQing. Experiment with a high pass filter on one mic to minimise frequency overlap from one mic to the other. And of course, as always, check the phase for cancellation.
Generally with acoustic stringed instruments, one mic is used to capture the body of the instrument, whilst another is placed to capture the top end detail (i.e. string, pick, bow, bridge, finger or fretboard noise). Larger instruments like guitars and basses can project excessive boom from the sound hole and should be miced off from a distance, if at all. Smaller instruments like violins and mandolins are more forgiving, and micing closer to the sound hole (or ‘f’ hole) can warm things up.
RUN! I HEAR BANJOS!
Despite the clichés, the banjo can be an incredibly versatile instrument. They can be played delicately – almost harp-like – and can make you weep for all the right reasons! But of course, banjos can also get loud – banjo roll patterns are often 16th notes, making them busy. This, in turn, requires all the electronics to be fast in order to capture the transients well. The sound tends to need space to develop. Hence, close micing often gives a limited perspective on the instrument’s full tonal range. For starters, try a condenser 50 to 100 centimetres out from the spot where the neck meets the body. Have a listen to the tone ring as well – this could be a good spot to put a second mic, or something a little more ‘pointy’ like a solo mic. If the sight of a banjo makes you feel the need to paddle more quickly downstream, try feeding one through a wah pedal into a quad stack!
FIDDLING WITH VIOLINS
The technical difference between a ‘fiddle’ and a ‘violin’ is zilch! The difference is the player, the technique, and the genre. For example, 'violin' is a common term in classical music, whilst 'fiddle' is more in tune with country or folk. But from the studio perspective, it can also be the way you track it. Like banjos, violins can produce lots of volume when played a certain way, and they interact a lot with the space. Again, it's typical to see the mic placed 50 to 100 centimetres
above the instrument, often aimed at the point where the bow meets the strings. For more detail, use condensers. These can make certain players and instruments sound a little scratchy and harsh, though. If you have a ribbon, this would be the time to give it a run.
Of course, there are many players who have ditched the traditional sounding violin for a much more flamboyant approach, going as far as treating it like an electric guitar by using stomp pedals, amps and electric fiddles. When you combine classical chops with some psychedelic inspiration, the sky it the limit!
A DOBRO-YDIAN SLIP
Dobros and resonator guitars can sound incredible across a range of genres in the hands of the right musician. Basically, the sound emanates from two points: the sound holes, and the resonator (metal speaker-like cone) situated under the bridge. Traditional bluegrass players use metal banjo picks, but sometimes you’ll want to avoid the click of the pick as it can be distracting. Other times, though, it might add some colour. The same applies to the scratchy sound of the slide against the stings – it can really add atmosphere, or on the contrary, sound like an audio glitch. It depends on what you're going for!
Once again, the playing style will influence the mic setup. Generally, you can alter the ‘zing to warm’ ratio by moving between the sound hole and the bridge, or of course, go the double mic setup and find a blend that works. Some resonators have a magnetic pickup installed to feed straight into an amp. It's party time when you start fooling around with a blend of electrified and acoustic sounds. I even once re-amped the miced stem back through an amp when the composer decided the take was perfect, but needed some chilli!
A MANDOLIN OR AMANDA LYNN?
Mandolins can really add some sparkle to a track. They blend well with acoustic guitars in a left-right configuration, or you can use them as a feature. SDCs are your friend here; you can get in quite tight and find a sweet spot that grabs some sound hole warmth and some string or picking detail. Trad players use the famous ‘chop’, which acts like a snare pattern on the 2 and 4 of the bar. Transients are big and fast, so be prepared!
Whether you go for the ‘natural’ approach or go the path less travelled, some more traditional instruments can really lift a track. Don’t be afraid to experiment – just make sure you warn the neighbours first!