September 05, 2004

#86: Mics for banjos

Phil from Massachusetts writes:

I am using a Shure SM57 to record myself I've plugged it into a Fishman pre-amp with some EQ controls to warm it up a bit, then that goes straight into the PC's soundcard. In conversations with other Sonar users on various list servers, I hear that the SM57 will not bring me "total joy" when mic'ing acoustic instruments. What can you recommend for that purpose? It doesn't sound bad to me, but maybe you know of a better choice? I'll be doing a lot of recording of acoustic instruments and want to get the best results I can.

You know, its funny-you recommended doing this sort of thing to me at camp, and here it is happening. I guess that's why you’re the doctor! I believe recording myself in context like this is going to make a huge difference in my playing. It’s a big help to hear your mistakes played back at you.

Thanks for any ideas you can offer.

Hi Phil,

The 57 is not normally thought of as a recording mic since it doesn't give a truly "flat" (accurate) reproduction of the original sound. In particular, it won't get the high end the way a condenser mic can. Most any mic will add some coloring, and most agree that the 57 does a good job smoothing the banjo sound, giving it a bit of warmth while keeping it punchy. In general, that's what I use on stage with Hot Rize. In Masters of the Five String, it was one of the top favorites mentioned by players.

I've been using an AKG 414 for recording for probably about 20 years now. It's a large-diaphragm condenser, which is a class often recommended for a banjo, where getting the low end is somehow helped by the large diaphragm. There are other, newer models that are a lot less expensive than a 414, that seem to do a very good job as well. I don't know which are recommended for recording.

To make your own decision re micing, see if you can work a deal with a music store where you can borrow different mics, and try them on your home setup. Or you could rent them, or promise to buy one of the ones you test.

When you test, try to play a variety of sounds, as well as you can, and record them. Do something up the neck, something down the neck, something capoed, something soft, something fast and louder. If you can play the same stuff every time you test a mic, the differences will show up so that you can evaluate. If you play different content for each recorded test, the content will distract you a bit and make it hard to evaluate the mic as opposed to your playing.

Of course, the age of your strings, where you place the mic, how well you're playing on a given day, etc., have a way of confusing the "data". The best way to test mics is to do it all in the same time period, possibly at a recording studio. You can reserve an hour or two and check out a variety of mics. At a studio, you can even set various mics up at the same time, and record them onto separate tracks while you play a minute or two of different sounds. Listening to them back on multitrack, able to quickly compare different mics back and forth on the same piece of recorded music, is a great way to test them.

Since mic placement is definitely a factor in sound quality, some experiments with different placements is another step to try once you've narrowed the field of mics to one or two. Each time you record, verbally state where the mic is placed, so that you'll be able to compare more easily. Some favorite places to put a mic are by the flange holes near the neck, pointing straight at the center from 8 or more inches away, on the side of the right hand away from the strings, and my favorite, pointed at the strings, somewhat near the neck, from about 6 inches away. Some people even use two mics (or differently-positioned mics) at the same time, and blend them in the mix.

Ultimately it’s up to your ears (try not to go by price tags) to tell you what works best. Then of course, if you practice enough and really focus on good sound, your playing will sound good through *any* mic!

Pete

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Do you have a copy of this unique "banjo bible"?