You most often deal with the sonic elements of guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, and vocals in your studio, but what if you were faced with the task of recording a trumpet player, a trombone player, or maybe even an entire brass ensemble? Would you be ready for that kind of a session? If your answer is no or well, I'm not sure, then read on. In this article I'll outline some successful strategies for recording brass. I'll also discuss important information about brass instruments and how they're played that will better prepare you for recording them.
The focus of this column will be on brass instruments specifically rather than on horn sections, which frequently consist of a mix of brass and woodwind instruments. Although there are many instruments in the brass family including trumpet, cornet, trombone, French horn, euphonium, and tuba I'll concentrate on trumpet and trombone because they're the ones you'll most frequently encounter. Many of the concepts described here also apply, however, to other brass instruments.
There's a reason why armies have used buglers for centuries. The sound of the bugle which is essentially a trumpet without valves carries in a way that few other instruments do. A trumpet can not only be loud, but it can also be piercing. To keep those highs in check while still capturing the most full and natural trumpet sound, I recommend using a ribbon mic.
In addition to controlling the highs, a ribbon mic's bidirectional polar pattern picks up more room sound than a directional mic does, and room sound is generally desirable when miking a trumpet. You have to be cautious, though, because some ribbon mics are fragile and can be damaged by the high sound-pressure levels that trumpets produce.
A dynamic mic yields a natural trumpet sound, although the sound is a bit more colored than a ribbon mic's. You can get good results miking a trumpet with a condenser; you have to be careful, however, because those mics are often designed with a slight presence boost (for recording vocals) that can accentuate a trumpet's brittle highs.
I've also had success using two mics on a trumpet in a spaced-pair configuration, with a ribbon mic feeding one track and a condenser mic feeding the other. (If you try this, make sure to listen for phase problems after you've positioned the mics.) When it's time to mix, I like to pan the two tracks to about ten o'clock and two o'clock, and make the ribbon track a bit hotter than the condenser. That combination allows for the natural sound of the ribbon mic to come through, with the brightness of the condenser mic adding a bit of spice to the sound.
Ribbon mics also work well in capturing the natural sound of a trombone. For a slightly grittier trombone tone, I sometimes opt to use a dynamic mic.
When recording a brass ensemble, ribbon mics are my first choice. They capture a nicely blended section sound when used as stereo overheads. I don't recommend miking an ensemble or section with individual mics for each instrument. You'll get a more cohesive sound by recording them all into one mic pair. I've had success using a spaced-pair configuration, but you can experiment with other stereo-miking techniques.
Whether you're recording a pop section or a classical ensemble, set up the players in a semicircular arrangement so that they can see each other for visual cues.
Space and Placement
When considering mic-placement options, remember that a brass instrument's sound comes solely from the vibration of its bell, which is unlike woodwind instruments (such as sax, flute, oboe, and bassoon), where the sound comes from the keyholes and the bell (or from the foot in the case of a flute). Notice that I didn't say the sound comes from the end of the bell, but rather from the vibration of the bell. That is an important distinction. The bell is so important to the character of the sound that a player buying a professional, custom-made brass instrument will usually be given a choice of bell material and shapes, which imbue the horn with a variety of sonic characteristics.
A brass instrument's sound is affected greatly by the room in which it's played. One of the most important considerations when placing a mic to record a brass instrument is how much room sound you will capture. If you close-mic the bell, you'll miss out on much of the room reflections, which, in a good-sounding space, can add character and openness to the sound.
There are varied opinions about how far back to place the mic when recording a trumpet. Although some people advocate a much closer placement, I have had the most success putting the mic about four to six feet in front of and a few inches above or below the line of sight of the bell. I point the mic about 40 degrees off-axis to help cut down on air sound as well as capture more of the room sound (see Fig. 1). For trombone and other low-brass instruments (see Fig. 2), the microphone can be closer (about two to four feet) and a bit more on-axis (about 30 degrees).
Every room is different, so it helps to experiment with mic placement. Before you set up any mics, have the musician move around until you find the spot where the horn sounds best in the room. Then set up the mic, put on your headphones, and move the mic around until you find the most favorable placement. You'll get different reflections depending on the mic's position, and they can have a big impact on the sound. If you want a completely different sound, record the player with his or her back to the mic.
Acoustically speaking, a cramped home studio is often not a good place for brass recording. It's preferable to record in a large space that has hard surfaces to take advantage of the natural ambience. If your gear is mobile, consider using a larger and more reflective venue. An unfinished basement one that has not been furnished or carpeted can be a good recording space for brass, because it produces a nice open sound. If you're going for a classical sound, you can record the session in a church. A large, stone church can yield a beautiful, round, natural brass sound.
You can also capture natural ambience by recording a brass instrument in a tiled bathroom. In addition, you can get a focused sound in a bathroom by placing a mic one or two feet in front of and above the instrument and one or two inches from the wall. Have the musician face the wall and blow into the instrument a bit more softly than normal.
One of the best classical brass recordings I've made at home was done using the ribbon-plus-condenser technique described earlier. I placed the ribbon in the bedroom where I was playing and the condenser in a hallway with a stairwell. I panned the tracks and captured great, natural-sounding trumpet tracks without having to use any EQ effects. This is an excerpt from the following article: Brass Tactics.
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