TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 17 Recording Woodwind – Harmonica, Accordion and Bagpipes

Last week in the Home Music Studio series we discussed the more common Woodwind instruments – 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 quite different instruments in the way they look and the way they’re played.

Colourful Harmonica Collection.

The Harmonica – also called the Blues Harp, French Harp or Mouth Organ – is a free reed Wind instrument. Sound is produced by blowing in or out over the reed chambers enclosed within the metal housing or frame. The Harmonica comes in different sizes and types including the diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, orchestral and bass versions…but they can all be treated in a similar fashion when it comes to recording them.

Hohner Chromatic Harmonica.

The chromatic (see picture above) has a button on the side of the instrument which when depressed allows you to play all the sharps or flats. Enabling the musician to play in any key.

If you’re after the classic blues sound, try the Shure Green Bullet mic. It’s an omnidirectional mic but is cupped in the hands along with the Harmonica.

Shure 520DX Green Bullet Mic.

A popular technique is to plug the mic into a guitar amp…something like a Pignose or Vox AC30, then mic the amp’s speaker or take the direct out into a direct box. The nice thing about the Pignose is that you can overdrive it and get a little ‘grit’ to the sound. If you use an amp without a direct out and are recording with other instruments, try moving the amp into a separate room to mic it, so that you can achieve some separation from the rest of the band.

Top class results have been achieved using a Green Bullet mic (£150) into a REDDI tube direct box ($795) into an A Designs Pacifica Preamp ($2250)… expensive setup. Purists prefer the vintage Green Bullets, but if you’re not too bothered a modern version does a pretty good job. Not everyone will want to spend this amount of cash to record a Harmonica…..but I mention these items so that you are aware that it is the whole recording chain that needs to be considered in any recording situation.

Condenser mics are unsuitable for close miking, because they will pick up the breaths from the player and accentuate bad player technique. So if you do want to use a condenser mic, place it a foot or two away possibly off axis.

Toots Thielemans on Harmonica.

If you need some inspiration have a listen to Toots Thielemans. Quincy Jones has called him ‘one of the greatest musicians of our time’.

At a pinch a dynamic Shure SM58 positioned a foot or so from the instrument will capture a good ‘folky’ sound.

Harmonicas can sound very shrill, so listen to the instrument direct and then monitor the recorded sound. You may want to apply some judicious EQ to roll off frequencies at and above 5K and add some bottom end at 80Hz. Ultimately, the sound you’re recording and want to capture will be determined by the style of music it is to be a part of. A short delay or slap back can also add body and fatten the sound.

Some compression can help the Harmonica sit well in a mix. But if you’re not sure about how much to use, wait until the mix stage before applying it.

Piano Accordion.

The Accordion’s sound is produced when the bellows are compressed (squeezed) or expanded whilst pressing keys or buttons causing valves to open, forcing air over the brass or steel reeds. Like the Harmonica, there are several different types.

I find it hard to believe, but some Accordion players when recording, actually play the left hand and then do a separate pass for the right hand…..but then I don’t play Accordion. However, I’m sure there are also plenty of players who prefer to play both hands simultaneously when recording their instrument.

At about two feet away and at chin level, try an AT 4050 cardioid on the keyboard side and a dynamic Shure Beta 57 cardioid on the button/bass side. As an alternative, you could use a couple of large condensers – Neumann U87 and a Groove Tubes GT 55. Record each mic to its own track so that you can maintain flexibility up to the mix stage.

Accordion With Mics On Both Sides.

Technically speaking the Accordion might produce some phase shift issues between two mics, because the instrument moves when the bellows are squeezed in and out.

There are small diaphragm capsule mics on the market (made by Schoeps or MBHO) which can be attached to the instrument, thus keeping the mic distance constant to the sound source…..effectively getting rid of any phase problems.

You could also try an X-Y pair set up in front of the performer. Remember, the closer you mike the less the room will be a part of the sound. So if you have a decent recording room, back off the mics a little to take advantage of the room acoustics.

Pay careful attention to mic positions and any EQ you add – you don’t want to emphasise the key/button noise. Adding a little reverb sometimes helps the sound, but again leave these signal processing adjustments to the mix stage unless you’re absolutely sure you have the sound you want.


Bagpipes in a Home Studio I hear you say!!! Well, you never know do you? There are plenty of recordings with Bagpipes, from traditional Scottish pipes playing Amazing Grace to Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre and they’ve been used in films (Braveheart) and theatrical shows (Riverdance) too.

They do have a very ethereal quality about them and if recorded well in the right song, can really make those record executives sit up and listen when you play your latest offering to them.

Bagpipes consist of an air supply (which the player provides) in a bag, a chanter and drone or drones. Traditionally the bag was made from a sheep’s stomach! But Gore-tex is used extensively these days. The chanter is the melody pipe played with two hands. The drones do just that – provide a drone/constant pitch or pitches over the melody played on the chanter.

You can mic the chanter and each drone individually, but if you’re recording more than one piper at a time you’ll need a lot of mics.

Sound tends to emanate from many parts of the instrument. So close miking will only serve to accentuate certain parts of the instrument. Best to place a mic or stereo pair some distance away, they are after all very loud instruments. Condensers and especially ribbons need to be well away from the instrument if those are your mics of choice.

Try an X-Y configuration at least 3-5 feet distant (more may be better), 4-5 feet off the ground. You may have to move the player around the room to find the sweet spot first, then place your mics.

X-Y Stereo and Blumlein Mic Techniques. 

If 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 figure-8s).

Alternatively, move the two mics further apart from each other, maybe 6-8 feet and direct them towards the instrument.

Maybe you could borrow or hire a school hall or church for a few hours. The larger space will allow you to capture the instrument from a distance as well as closer if necessary. Combining the two mic positions in this situation can give you an interesting sound with a little natural delay…..but always record separate mics to discrete tracks on your recorder.

Finally, consider recording the Bagpipes outside if you can find a quiet spot without traffic, birds and other sundry distractions. There’ll be little in the way of reflected sound, unless you can find a spot overlooking a lake surrounded by mountains!

Always check your sound for phase issues and mono compatibility when employing multiple mics.

Next week we’ll attack Drums and follow that with Percussion.

Thanks again to everyone who is following this series. We really appreciate you taking the time to check us out. If you need some real Drums overlaying on your latest track or maybe a whole package offering recording, mixing and mastering contact us for more information by clicking here.

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