TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 13 Recording Acoustic Stringed Instruments

Thanks to those of you who are following the Home Music Studio series, we at TCM Mastering and Music Group really appreciate your interest. Don’t forget, if you have any questions on the recording process please get in touch…click here for contact details.

Today’s blog will complete our look at the challenges of recording stringed instruments by considering the Harp and String Ensembles. These two instrument groups may be a rarity in the Home Studio setting, but one or both will crop up at some time during your recording career. And they do add a definite touch of class to a recording.

Harpo Marx – An Accomplished Harp Player.

Recording Harp

The Harp presents several problems when recording. First, it is notoriously difficult to tune and then keep in tune. If it is a Harp with pedals you will have the added problem of noise from the pedal movements. Plus there will be resonances in the lower strings which aren’t always pleasant and the smaller Celtic Harp poses challenges of its own.

So where do you place a mic or mics?

In some respects, you can treat the Harp like a Grand Piano on its end. It has the same basic string shape to a Grand, so you could try using some of the techniques mentioned for Piano in this earlier blog.

Dynamic mics do not have a flat enough response and tend to be used close up (accentuating the bass-proximity effect). Which means specific strings will be favoured over others. So the recording would be coloured and unbalanced to say the least.

Single Mic On Harp In A Large Live Room.

Condensers or Ribbons are your best choice. Try placing a condenser a few feet from the striking point. Angle the mic slightly so that it’s not pointing directly at the hands to reduce the percussive sounds produced. The picture above shows one mic in this position. You can achieve a good stereo recording by placing another mic in the same position on the other side of the Harp.

Harp With Multiple Stereo Mic Setups.

The picture above shows several mics in different positions. If you have a good selection of mics, this is a great time saver. Set up different pairs, feed each mic to a separate track on your DAW or recorder and monitor each pair separately. This way you can quickly compare each pair’s sound to see which you like best for recording…..consider this same technique when recording any acoustic instrument.

A favoured method of recording a Harp is to use a Blumlein pair of mics. It’s like the X-Y technique (see Part 6 Mic Technique Blog) but with two figure-8 mics set at 90 degrees to each other in a column arrangement. See the diagram below, which also shows the two overlapping polarity patterns.

Place the two mics so that the capsules are at the same level as the hands about 2 feet from the Harp. This method really requires a quiet, good sounding room to produce the best results.

If you have to record the Harp alongside other instruments at the same time, try this method. Wrap a KM 84/184 or something similar in some foam rubber (except for the capsule part, obviously) and wedge it into the upper sound hole. Secure it in position with some surgical type tape. This will hopefully keep the mic fixed (preventing rattles and knocks) without damaging the instrument. The resultant sound might not be perfect but will give you good isolation from other instruments.

You could also try a stereo pair with one mic registering the lower end and another aimed toward the upper strings. Careful placement should result in a good balanced spectrum of sound.

And remember, always check for phasing problems whenever you use more than one mic.

If you need further ideas for recording the Harp, check out this article.

Recording a String Ensemble

For most Home Studio setups, it would be extremely difficult to record a String Ensemble at home. But the members of the Ensemble probably practice in a Hall, Church or School so you could always take your DAW and mics to them.

When having to deal with a ‘foreign’ recording location it’s always wise to arrive well before the musicians so that you can get set up and test mic cables, headphones and all the other sundry items that need checking.

Will you be providing a click track or backing track for the musicians to play along to? Will you provide music for them to read from? Have they had time to rehearse?

Royer SF-24 Stereo Ribbon Mic Placed Above Conductor, With All String Sections Spot Miked.

How do you group and position the various players? The same instruments should be grouped together, obviously. That is, all Double Basses in one group, Cellos in another group etc. You may need to set up a separate solo mic for a Violin.

You will also want to check out the room. If it’s long and thin, which way do you position the players? Use your ears to determine the best position and direction the players need to face. If there is time you can do a test, positioning the players one way and then another.

Sound Engineer James Stone, Recording String Quartet for UK band fiN

Using distant miking techniques means that you’re going to need to choose sensitive, quiet mics and quiet mic preamps. Either high output Condenser mics or Ribbons (eg. AEA R84) will work well. Both types have a good, wide frequency range and respond quickly to transients.

However, it’s probably wise to avoid capacitor mics as they tend to emphasise the presence peaks which can sound unpleasant on Violins especially. The smooth, resonance free top end of a Ribbon mic works very well.

The easiest and possibly best way of recording an Ensemble is to employ a stereo pair of mics placed between 10 and 20 feet away. Some engineers like to use omnidirectional and small diaphragm mics for strings.

X-Y or Coincident Pair Technique.

There are several stereo techniques. One which has been mentioned already is the X-Y or Coincident pair technique (see diagram above). This employs two identical directional mics angled apart with their capsules almost touching. The resultant stereo image can be narrow, but it provides good mono compatibility.

Spaced Pair Technique. 

The above diagram shows a Spaced pair setup (not to scale). This method uses two mics spaced apart and pointing straight ahead. Phase problems are inherent with this approach, but can be reduced to a minimum by using the 3:1 rule. Place the mics three times farther from each other than they are from the source. However, use your ears to determine the optimum mic positions. It’s also possible to introduce a third mic in the middle to help fill out the stereo spread.

Near-Coincident Pair Technique.

The Near-Coincident pair technique, above, uses two directional mics spaced and angled with their capsules apart horizontally. The greater the angle or spacing the bigger the stereo effect. Again this tends not to be very mono compatible, but play around with positions until you get the best possible compromise.

There are many stereo methods you could try. See Home Music Studio Part 6 Mic Techniques for more ideas.

Next week we will move onto the Horn section.

If you have any questions or comments you’d like to raise, get in touch with us through the TCM Music Group Contact Page.

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  1. […] Last week in the Home Music Studio series of blogs, we rounded up our look at String Instruments by considering the challenges of recording the Harp and String Ensembles. […]

  2. […] you have a good sounding room you could try the Blumlein technique, just remember this will pick up sounds from in front and behind the mics (as you’ll be using […]

  3. […] you have a good sounding room you could try the Blumlein technique, just remember this will pick up sounds from in front and behind the mics (as you’ll be using […]

  4. […] Blumlein technique (see Home Music Studio Part 13), because it uses figure-8 mics, will capture more of your room acoustics. So if your room does not […]

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