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Saxophone Recording in the Studio
This article is based on my experience playing the saxophone on recording sessions, and also recording saxophones while working as a producer/sound engineer sometimes alongside some of the best sound engineers in the world in some top studios. These methods work for me and are based on a lot of trial and error as well as years and years of observing great engineers and asking questions. You may find it useful to read the article on microphones at MediaMusicForum.com first.
Startup Saxophone Recording
A few years back I would have recommended a Shure SM57 (or SM58) as this is a great versatile mic, very useful for stage work as well (which it still is of course), and being a dynamic mic does not need phantom power. These days most people record directly to a computer, and so when using a traditional microphone, there is a necessary conversion process from the analogue domain to digital. Before the A/D conversion all microphones need to go through a preamp to increase the level. All computers and/or soundcards have such preamps/converters, but they are usually not very good so some kind of external converter (interface) is usually necessary. These vary enormously depending on the number of microphones you need. For many home studios recording a saxophone, an interface with one or two inputs is adequate.
Recording on a Mac
If you have an Apple Mac, then your obvious choice for startup recording software is GarageBand, a very inexpensive but surprisingly powerful digital audio workstation (DAW). The important thing of course is choosing the best mic and interface for your purposes. Here are some options:
- Apogee One. This includes a reasonable microphone and also a line/instrument input which is very handy if you also want to play guitar or keyboards.
- Blue Yeti. The great thing about this is that it is a USB microphone, so needs no extra interface. Unlike previous USB mics, this is very good quality. I have used these in my professional studio and they compare surprisingly well to a £3K-4K microphone. Furthermore you can record in stereo with several different polar patterns, so is probably a better option than the Apogee One, unless you also want to record electric guitar.
- Apogee MiC. Another USB mic, I have not tested this yet but by all accounts is really high quality.
- Apogee Duet.This is a much more professional and versatile interface than the Apogee One, but is purely an interface, no microphone/s included. This has two inputs (microphone, line or instrument) with pro quality mic preamps.
Comparing a Few Microphones
- A: AKG C12 VR (£4000)
- B: Oktava Ribbon ML-53 (£250)
- C: Shure SM58 (£100)
- D: Realistic Electret 1063 (£20)
Which microphone sounds best?
A very important question to ask yourself: “Do I want to include the sound (ambience) of the room with the saxophone?”
If the room sounds boxy or too reverberant for your taste you should place the microphone close to the saxophone in order to eliminate the room sound as far as possible. Reverb, ambience or delay (echo) can be added afterwards, during the mixing process. These days artificial reverb can sound very good and natural, especially the sampled reverbs such as Altiverb and Apple’s Space Designer which are sampled from real spaces.
However if you think the room you are cording in has a good sound, then you may want to record it. This means placing the microphone further away from the sound source. The further it is the more ambience it will pick up. However beware, once you have recorded this, it is almost impossible to get rid of it.
To a certain extent, you can alter the sound of a room. If it is too reverberant or live, draping heavy curtains or other absorbent material such as bedding will help. Acoustic panels for absorption and diffusion can be fixed to the walls for a more permanent treatment. Note that this type of acoustic treatment does not do any soundproofing, it just cuts down the amount of reflected sound within the room.
How close? How far away?
A good rule of thumb for microphone placement is to put the microphone the same distance away from the front of the instrument as the length of the instrument, provided there are no problems with the room sound or spill from other instruments. This should pick up the entire range of the saxophone evenly. Any further away and you are likely to get a very ambient recording unless the room is particularly dry or dead. In practice, I find you can get slightly closer than this and still get good even recording, especially with an omni as oppose to cardioid (directional) microphone, however if you are recording a saxophone section on one mic or one pair of microphones, you will probably need to move it further away, ie, think of the section as one big single instrument. This will of course have a more ambient sound so if you need it to be drier, then you could use several closer microphones. When doing this listen carefully to check that mics are not out of phase.
If you are recording someone other than yourself:
- Go into the live room
- Ask the player to move around the room
- Listen to the saxophone from all perspectives
- Set up the mic appropriately
- When listening back in the control room try to remember the sound of the saxophone – that is what you are aiming for
What about spill from other instruments?
The same parameters for room sound apply to spill from other instruments that are playing at the same time. Many engineers prefer to record one instrument at a time to completely eliminate spill. Of course, this may not be possible for performance reasons, which may also dictate that players are close together. If you are going to need absolute control over the balance of individual instruments in the mix, you will need to eliminate as much spill as possible by close miking. Screens or separate rooms can be used. If spill is a real problem, for closer miking you can sometimes put the mic about 6 – 12 inches in front of the bell, but be careful, this may be a problem as the lower (bell) notes will probably be disproportionately loud. A solution is to place the microphone slightly to one side or else to use one or more other microphones further up the instrument. Cardioid (directional) mics may exhibit the
proximity effect if placed too close to the source. This results in a boost in the low frequencies, which of course may possibly be compensated for by equalisation (EQ- tone adjustment) but this is not an ideal situation.
However, if all the players are getting what you consider to be a good sound and balance naturally, spill may not be such an issue: you can place the mics further away or even share one mic between two or three players, e.g in a horn section.
Be aware though, that if there is any spill at all, you are unlikely to be able to repair or
drop in on any wrong notes or other mistakes individually. I find that whatever is necessary to get the best musical performance is more important than recording technique: it’s better to have a great performance with a goodsound than a good performance with a great sound. Ideally of course you have a great performance with a great sound.
The polar pattern of the mic can have a bearing on the above. Generally speaking an omni or figure of 8 microphone will pick up more of the room ambience or spill from other instruments compared with the direct sound. An omni or figure of eight microphone may have a more natural sound than a cardioid, but will usually need to be a bit closer to the source in order to eliminate the same amount of unwanted (off axis) sound that a cardioid would do.
Most types of good quality studio condenser microphones are good for the saxophone, subtle differences between makes and models are often a matter of individual taste. I have got good results from AKG 451, 414, CV12VR, Neumann U87, U47, Rode NT1 and many others. I currently use an AKG C12VR, I like the ability not just to switch between three polar patterns but to choose more subtle combinations – you can gradually switch from omni to cardioid.
Electrovoice RE20, Sennheiser 421 and the good old Shure SM57/SM58 are fine for saxophone recording as well. Even if you can’t afford a top quality condenser, there is no reason not to get a great sound from either of these.
The classic Coles 4038 is great for saxophones. It has a figure of 8 polar pattern so it’s best when room ambience or spill from other instruments is not an issue. For a specific “retro” sound I also like to use a vintage HMV ribbon mic or pair of them, but you are unlikely to find one of these.
Generally an individual saxophone is recorded in mono, but stereo recording can be very effective, especially for solo saxophone or tracks that have only a few instruments. If the saxophone is part of a complex mix there is not really anything to gain from recording it in stereo. A stereo pair of mics will inevitably pick up more room, so either make sure you like the sound of the ambience you are getting, or use some damping material on the room.
For close miking place the microphone above the lip plate. This is where most of the sound comes out. If you put the microphone in front of it you will have a problem with the player’s breath hitting the capsule of the microphone and causing noise. You may get a more natural sound with the mic further away, observe the “length of instrument rule” above.
A microphone in or near the bell will get similar problems to the saxophone as far as bell notes are concerned, only more so. Either place a microphone at a distance or use two or three: one low down, one near the middle and one near the top for the tricky notes (A and Bb) which can be quite weak.
Live Sound Reinforcement
Many of the same parameters apply to live situations, there may need to be a compromise between the most natural sound you would get with mics further away and the need to get separation. In addition, there is the problem of feedback. This becomes more of a problem if you need loudness but are getting a lot of spill. Often the only solution is to use cardioid microphones close up, although there are electronic feedback eliminators available. Dynamic microphones are often best for live work as they are more rugged than condenser mics and can take the inevitable knock or two.