Space & Mics: Recording Strings

Nov 11, 2015

blog string recording

Over the last few weeks we’ve been exploring recording tips for several different instruments. We began this journey with some of the more obvious instruments, guitar, drums, voice, but then we moved away from the standard garage band recordings and have moved into the orchestra with the brass section. This week we’re going to continue our tour of the orchestra with tips for recording strings.

Recording something from the string section can be a pretty intimidating task; strings are often considered the most expressive instruments we have, second only to the human voice. Strings can be powerful and carry you away with their swell, or delicate and gentle, lulling you to sleep. The huge range of the string section, and indeed each member, means there is no simple formula to recording them. As with the brass section, in order to find the best sound you’ll need a combination of experimentation and some solid tips to get you started.

Use Your Space

Where your strings fit in to the mix will dictate the placement of your microphones. Does this piece feature the strings in a lead performance, or are they more subtle, providing backup? Even the genre will inform your mic placements. If you’re looking for a powerful “soul” feel to your string you can bring your overhead quite close to the players for those heavy harmonics and “in-your-face” feel. For classic rock tracks, on the other hand, most of your power will be coming from the guitars and the drums, with your strings playing a supporting role. In this instance you can actually move your overheads quite far from the instruments. The distance helps create a sense of width and breadth that doesn’t fight with the lead instruments. An orchestra, however, it a whole different animal. This is where that experimentation comes into play. You will probably want to have a fairly close overhead, as well as something further away to capture both the power and depth of your performance. Figuring out exactly where your strings fit into that performance is the tricky part.

Choosing Your Microphones

As we have discussed at great length in previous installments, there are a number of microphone styles to choose from. For strings many people swear by ribbon mics, while others prefer to use condensers. This really comes down to a matter of style, and which you want. Let’s take a quick look at the two big contenders.

Ribbon mics have three main advantages:

  1. They have top end roll off. This helps form that sense of distance, and can help with any “glassy” harmonics from violins. Even if it ends up being too much roll off, you can EQ up the high end to adjust for it. Just beware of ribbon hiss.
  2. Ribbons are figure 8 captures. This gives you interesting options. If you want more width to your sound, use space ribbons for more separation. Or you can Blumlein your ribbons (which is to set your mics at 90 degree from one another. If you imagine a straight line coming out of the face of each mic, they should make an “X.” Your instrument should be at the intersection of these lines) for a more wide stereo with a concentric mono.
  3. Ribbon mics also feature a rather slow transient response, which is great for any hard string movements.

Condensers have their own advantages:

  1. They have a clear sound, and full, rounded scope.
  2. They are much better for that nice, all around sound of your room.

When it comes down to it, you’ll be choosing your mics based on whichever one fits your needs best. With the proper placement, both these style microphones sound great for strings; as with everything else, it’s all about the particular sound you are looking for.

Using the same examples as before, if you’re looking for a “soul” sound, try condensers to get a nice buzzing in your harmonics. For string supported rock, use ribbons for that sense of space. The ribbon tone seems to work better for rock anyway. For a classical sound try omni-directional condensers for that full hall feel. Keep in mind, of course, that these are just guidelines. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments. You’ve got to experiment with your space and your mics to find exactly the sound you want.

Like the Boy Scouts, Be Prepared

Make sure you have a few extra auxiliary mics ready to go, just in case. From time to time you may find that you get a great capture, but the mix needs just a little more from one section or instrument. This is the case more often with smaller ensembles, like quartets and quintets. If you place a mic relatively close to the body of the instrument you need more of, and aim it at the f-hole, you can get just the right capture you need. Since the f-hole is the primary area from which the tones resonate, it isn’t always the best place to record solo string instruments; you miss out on bow sounds, finger noise, and bridge harmonics, all subtle, but necessary components of a solo performance. However, as part of an ensemble is works fantastically to give the fundamental tones a nice boost.

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

Back to our old adage once again. Never be afraid to experiment with your mics and your space, even when you’ve got other pressures. Sometimes taking that small moment to listen to your instincts can be the moment that makes it all worth while. A perfect example comes from the old Philly-Soul and Motown records. They would often use rows of stereo pair condensers to cut their string tracks. For them the power of the instruments and the clarity of their harmonics were far more important to their sound than depth. This distinctive sound had not been done before, and was the result of ignoring conventional wisdom and experimenting with that instinct!

Now, I’m not saying you’ll find a genre-defining sound your first time out. Remember, for every successful experiment there are several that failed. But when you find that perfect combination of mic placement and room dynamics, you’ll know.