January 12, 2022
Whether it’s a piano, guitar, or cello, it can be really satisfying to record something you haven’t recorded before. It can also be a little difficult – some instruments' best practices are well documented and some are not.
So, in order to successfully record things that you rarely (or never!) record, it takes a little bit of fundamental knowledge, intrepid ingenuity, and faith in what you hear.
First and foremost, listen to the instrument in question. Make note of its major characteristics. Is it primarily a low frequency instrument? Is it percussive? Is it overly loud or quiet? If you have the player play and you walk around the room, do you notice any particular spots in the room where it sounds better or worse? What is the intended role of the instrument in your recording? Is it solo or part of an ensemble?
These questions and a lot of listening will go a long way toward picking the right mic(s), placement, and room acoustics. It’s also helpful to plan from the start whether you’re trying to capture an accurate representation of what the instrument sounds like in life or discover some odd other recording phenomena to create a unique recording.
In any recording situation, no matter how mundane, you may want to experiment a little before you lock in. The less familiar the instrument, the more you need this. Move mics around and record a swatch or listen in the control room. If you have enough mics and channels, you can try recording tons of different placements or various types of mics and compare tracks to see what you like best.
Basic understanding of what different mics are good at will help, especially if you’ve identified the key characteristic of an instrument. Generally, condenser mics capture high end detail best. Dynamics handle loud sources well and can deal with transient sources like percussion instruments – and they’re more robust for loud instruments. Ribbon mics can capture a warmer, smoother signal and are often great for soft, subtle sources, but are delicate – so loud, transient sources may damage them.
Also consider polar patterns. You may want to home in on a particular quality of an instrument and reduce the role the room plays, for example. In this case, a more unidirectional mic, such as the Carvin Audio M68, might be better. However, some instruments are less directionally oriented. With a strange instrument called the nellophone, for example, a player stands in the middle of a circle of oddly shaped pipes. Perhaps an omnidirectional mic (or two) or a mid-side pair positioned near the player would yield cool results.
This is simply good advice for any acoustic recording. The room you record in plays a huge role in the sound you capture. With unfamiliar instruments, you might not necessarily know what the “pure” unaltered sound is, so it’s especially important to actively listen for the room’s contribution and if possible, experiment with changes in room treatment, different rooms, or even taking the instrument outside to eliminate reflections entirely.
It’s worth it to have a conversation with the player of any instrument about all of the above considerations. Ask as many questions as possible about the history, mechanics, and intent of the instrument – even if you’re already familiar. Make sure to get a feel for what the instrument is supposed to sound like. Perhaps that buzzing and rattling you hear is intentional, for example.
Most of all, when encountering new instruments, have fun. Some instruments aren’t even intended to sound like conventional instruments, so in that case you don’t need to worry about breaking any rules. And as mentioned, you’ll have to believe in what you hear. If you keep some of these things in mind, you should be able to record just about anything successfully!
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"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all of the earth; make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of the psalm." - Psalm 98:4-5