This is a guest post by Kyle M. Bagley.
Saxophone is one of the most difficult instruments to record. Engineers can easy fall into problems that will make the recording unusable or inadequate.
This article will describe a basic overview of the instrument and its sound and mic techniques. This article focuses mainly on close-miking players and individual sound. For more on miking a section or far-miking sax players, read Part 1 in the series.
Understanding Reed Instruments
The Saxophone is played with a reed, which is the small piece of wood in the mouthpiece of the instrument. As the player blows, the reed vibrates, making a sound which runs through the instrument. The pitch is then decided by which keys (holes) are pressed down top to bottom. The sound comes out of all open keys, with the highest notes coming out of all holes, and the lowest notes coming only out of the bell.
The Sound Doesn’t Just Come Out of the Bell?
No, the sound does not just come out of the bell! Unlike recording a brass instrument, putting a microphone down the bell of a sax will record only the lowest notes with clarity, and will have a very undesirable tone.
Pointed at the center of the instrument, place a mic at least one foot from the bell, generally between one and three feet away. At close range, the clicking of keys as they open and close can be audible, sometimes ruining a recording. The farther away a mic is from the source, the less audible articulations and dynamic variation are, which may be important to the player’s sound.
In simple terms, a closer mic will produce a more percussive “honk” sound, where a farther one will lose attack and create a “sweeter” sound. Also consider the sound of the room when placing a mic, as distance increases the reverb or room sound, which is counterproductive if room mics are also being used.
Place the microphones directly on-axis to the instrument. Not doing so can create a sound with no real presence or articulation. For this reason, microphone technique on the part of the musician is very important. Turning or leaning (like to read music from a stand) can point the player away from the mic in a way that heavily alters the tone.
You can use additional “spot” mics to support ranges that are not coming through well in the main mic, usually very low or very high notes. These are usually placed above or below the instrument, pointed towards the center. Whenever you use more than one close mic on an instrument, be sure to check for phase cancellation.
Large diaphragm condensers are most often used for saxophones. They respond well to the range of the instrument and distance required for capturing a full sound. Similar to using these mics to record vocals, quality (and price) can be a huge factor here. Large diaphragm tube mics can add a “sweet” texture to a solid tone, making them a great option for saxes.
Small diaphragm condensers and dynamic mics like the SM57 are not the best option for sax, as they are more directional and make it difficult to capture the full range. If a dynamic mic must be used, an SM58 or other vocal mic is preferred.
Kyle M. Bagley attended Berklee College of Music, and currently lives in Rhode Island as a musician and studio owner. See more of his work at http://www.kylembagley.com
Image by: atiredmachine