TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO – PART 15 RECORDING: SOLO HORNS

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 15 Recording Solo Horns

If you have any questions or comments for TCM, on the Home Music Studio series so far, please drop us a line or call us – click here for contact details. We really appreciate your feedback.

Last week we considered some of the challenges recording Horn sections or Brass Ensembles. This week we’ll continue with a look at Solo Horns…..Trumpet, Trombone, Saxophone and French Horn.

There have been many great Horn players over time – Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Bill Watrous, JJ Johnson, Arturo Sandoval, Kenny G, Herb Albert, Chuck Mangione, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane to name a few…

…And several instances where Horn players contributed a major part to a band’s sound. If you need inspiration check out – Clarence Clemons on Sax in the E Street Band – Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter and many others on Steely Dan’s albums – Randy Brecker, Jerry Weiss and many more over the years in Blood Sweat and Tears – Miami Sound Machine – Earth, Wind and Fire and Tower of Power Horn sections.

It’s tempting to go for the easy option and just pull up that Horn sample on your keyboard. But if you take the time to record a real Horn it can sound incredible and can make your music truly stand out from the crowd.

Incidentally, pay attention to the sound quality coming from the instruments. Players and instruments tend to warm up as the recording session progresses. So the sound of any one instrument could be quite different at the beginning of a session compared to the end.

This could be an issue if you’re doing several takes and then editing them together to form a final ‘go’ take. Also these instruments require quite a lot of effort to play. So players can tire easily. Be realistic when it comes to how much you can do in a session.

Large Diaphragm Mic On Trumpet.

Let’s start with the Trumpet. It produces a very high SPL or sound pressure level (around 130dB SPL close to the bell) with a huge dynamic range.

It can play relatively quiet melodies then in an instant blow your socks off with a stab. So providing your recording room sounds good, it’s prudent to place your mic some distance from the bell end. Besides they sound better when you capture the blend of direct and indirect sound.

With Trumpets and Trombones most of the desirable sound comes straight out of the bell. If you stand behind a Trumpet you will hear very little high frequency content. To the side, you’ll pick up the lowest frequencies.

You could use a cardioid condenser 3 to 6 feet distant from the bell and then add a stereo pair further away to capture the room sound. Large diaphragm mics – Neumann U47 or U87, or small capsule mics like Neumann KM54 or DPA 4011 work great. They’re all quite robust and can handle high levels (although expensive).

High quality Ribbons like the Royer R-122/121 or AEA R88/R92 also work well. Just be aware that the high SPLs from a Trumpet can blow a Ribbon if placed too close.

To pick up the ambience of the room a pair of omni or cardioids like AKG 451E, Neumann KM 83i or SE Electronics SE-3 produce great results.

DPA 4099 Super-Cardioid Condenser Clip Mic.

An alternative is to use a clip mic, like the DPA 4099 shown above. This mic is a relatively cheap super-cardioid condenser which should give good separation if you are recording with other instruments. The main advantage with any instrument clip mic is that once it’s attached in the best position, the player can move without going off axis to the mic. So maintaining a consistent sound throughout your recording.

By adding a couple of ambience mics (as mentioned above) you pick up the reflected sounds of the Trumpet which should give you a fuller, warmer more desirable sound.

Condenser Mic On Trombone.

Similar techniques can be employed for recording Trombones. The Trombone is about as powerful but not as piercing or shrill as the Trumpet. Try placing your mic between 2-5 feet from the bell.

And if you’re room produces unflattering reflections, rig up some acoustic panels, duvets or blankets behind and to the sides of the player. If you can capture a good dry sound you can always add some reverb or echo in the mix.

Horns have quite a sharp attack, so don’t overdo reverb as it can muddy the sound if you add too much.

If you have to record 2 Trombones simultaneously, mic each one. This will help to prevent the sliders crashing together.

This next point applies equally to Trumpet and Trombone – if you have to mic really close up (between 2 and 12 inches), recommend to the player that he/she blows slightly off to the side of the mic to reduce the chance of overloading and distortion.

As a player alters the length of the Trombone’s telescopic slide to change pitch, invariably the bell end will move slightly. This means if you’re using a very directional mic, the instrument can easily go off axis to the mic and the quality of the recorded sound can vary.

Sennheiser e908b Clip Mic For Trombone.

You may not consider this to be a problem. But you can avoid it if you need to, by using a clip mic like the Sennheiser e908b or the Shure Beta 98H/C which are both cardioid condensers.

The Saxophone is slightly different to the other two Horns we’ve mentioned so far. Strictly speaking it’s a Woodwind and the quietest of the three. It has sound holes along a large section of its body and these holes when open contribute to the overall sound of the instrument, resulting in a much wider pattern of radiated sound.

Left To Right – Soprano, Alto, Tenor And Baritone (Not To Scale).

There are several types of Sax covering different tonal ranges. The most widely used ones being – Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Baritone.

One Of The Larger Saxophones – Contrabass…..Should Come With A Free Course Of Back Treatments!

The instrument is basically a long conical metal tube of mostly brass. The lower pitched versions would be very long and difficult or impossible to play if it weren’t for the fact that they incorporate a U-bend.

 Saxophones Radiate Sound In A Wider Pattern, So Place The Mic To Capture TheWhole Sound.

If you’re recording Alto or Tenor Sax try using a single mic 12 inches or so from the Horn, level with the middle of the instrument (see the picture above). If you want more of the room pull the mic back  and position it at ear level pointing towards the instrument.

A solo Baritone Sax presents different challenges because of its size and shape. Try placing a single condenser mic about two feet from the bell. You can also try putting a second mic at the bottom of the instrument to pick up the lower frequencies which arise from there. Ribbon mics produce great results too producing a lovely warm bottom end, especially when close miked.

Audio Technica Pro35 Clip Mic For Sax.

There are also clip mics for Sax which produce good results. Ultimately, mic choice is down to what you want from a recording and how best a mic fits for a particular player or location.

The Soprano Sax being a straight tube, presents slightly different problems to the other instruments in the range. The bell end does not curve upwards but points down. So you might prefer to use two mics – one placed to pick up the more strident sound emanating from the bell and another pointed towards the keys to capture the warmer sound from the middle of the instrument – but check for phasing problems. This will give you some flexibility in the mix to blend the results from the two mics.

The Horn Or French Horn.

The Horn or French Horn as it’s commonly known is part of another sub-group of instruments which pose another set of challenges. It’s not normally used in a rock or ‘pop’ setting or Horn section, but is used in classical music.

This instrument does seem to benefit from being miked from a distant to capture the full reflected sound. So providing your recording space sounds good and you can place the mic a good 5 or 6 feet away, this should provide you with a great sound. Try placing the mic pointing towards a reflective surface to maximise the total sound. The Horn tends to project in all directions so works best as an overdub or as a solo instrument.

This group of instruments require a bit more time and effort in setting up than some other groups we’ve discussed. Their tonal range, very different shapes and sizes present several challenges to both the professional recording engineer and home studio musician trying to capture that elusive Horn sound. But with a little patience and perseverance the resulting recordings can really transform a song or music track.

Next week I’ll discuss Woodwind instruments. Then go onto Drums and Percussion.

Editor’s Note 13th June 2011: News that Clarence Clemons of E Street Band fame, is seriously ill after suffering a stroke – We wish Clarence a speedy and full recovery. He has been unwell for several years with back and knee ailments. 

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2 Comments on “TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO – PART 15 RECORDING: SOLO HORNS”


  1. […] – the Clarinet, Oboe, Cor Anglais, Bassoon and Flute (the Saxophone was covered in the Horn Section). Today we’ll look at the best ways to record the Harmonica, Accordion and Bagpipes. Three […]


  2. […] – the Clarinet, Oboe, Cor Anglais, Bassoon and Flute (the Saxophone was covered in the Horn Section). Today we’ll look at the best ways to record the Harmonica, Accordion and Bagpipes. Three […]


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