Recording Woodwind and Brass Instruments
When it comes to recording musical instruments in the studio, every family, such as woodwind and brass, presents its own unique set of challenges. The world of electric guitars and basses involves mic’ing the amplifier or running the instrument through a preamp or modeling device. This is the first stop before signal makes its way to the mixer or interface. Keyboards, Synths, DJ gear, Sound Generation hardware, and MIDI controllers are often sourced directly into a DAW (digital audio workstation). After capturing the audio, it is commonly tweaked, manipulated, and processed with a variety of additional digital production tools.
But what happens when you are asked to record an acoustic instrument? One without a built-in receptacle for XLR, 1/4” TRS or MIDI cables that connect directly to your recording gear?
The history and versatility of wind instruments
Woodwind and brass instruments have a comprehensive history in the world of music. The earliest wind instruments were devised thousands and thousands of years ago. Today’s modern horns have distinctly traceable origins going back nearly 500 years. Even in today’s creative culture of fusion, remix, and technology, it’s easy to pigeonhole the use of woodwinds and brass into their historically traditional genres. That usually means orchestral, jazz, musical theater, and symphonic arrangements for film. The truth is much more eye-opening. You’ll be able to hear horns in Funk, Latin, Afrobeat, Folk, and various World Music genres. They have also enjoyed a continued surge of popularity in numerous Hip-Hop and Pop stylings.
It should be noted that when it comes to the technology behind sampled woodwinds and brass instruments, today’s software synthesizers and samplers have improved by leaps and bounds over predecessors. And musicians and producers should definitely seek to take advantage of those sounds when writing and programming their newest works.
However, a woodwind or brass instrument has a nuance and authenticity all of its very own. The sound of a computerized softsynth horn sample, even one based off authentic parameters, just isn’t the same.
When you’re mixing and matching different reeds, mouthpieces, and instruments of different builds and construction methods, the character of a wind instrument will undoubtedly change. Add in the fact that each individual performer approaches the instrument differently. It could be a specific embouchure (playing position of the mouth), their breath support, or approach to articulation. Listen for these characteristics and you’ll immediately notice how the sound of any two players is going to exhibit noticeable differences.
Flute and Piccolo
We’ll start with the flute, in all of its trademark glory! Standard playing position of the flute involves holding the instrument horizontally, arms outstretched away from body. This is also known as the transverse position, perpendicular to the ground. The flute consists of three pieces – the head joint, body, and foot joint – which are then assembled together. The head joint contains the lip plate, the portion where the player secures the lower lip while blowing and directing a small, focused stream of air across the embouchure hole.
The flutes talked about in this article are most commonly made of metal. It can range from nickel-silver – a hybrid metal consisting of nickel, copper, and zinc that mimics the appearance and feel of silver – to precious metals such as solid sterling silver, gold, and even platinum. There are also models of flute that are made with combinations of these precious metals. You’ll often see different types with one material plated over the top of the other. The material composition of the flute does make a noticeable difference in tone, as each metal brings with it special resonance characteristics.
It’s common for advancing and professional players to mix-and-match different combinations of head joints and instrument bodies for an increased range of sound options.
The Flute Family
The piccolo, the smallest instrument of the flute family, is pitched an octave about the flute. It is commonly used to double the melody parts of flutes, violins, and pianos in the extreme high registers. Piccolos are two-piece instruments (head joint and body) most commonly made of nickel-silver, sterling silver, or grenadilla wood. Like the flute, there are differences in tone between the models and the head joint can be swapped out for more possibilities.
Much like the piccolo, the alto flute and bass flute are specialty instruments within the flute family. They are lower-sounding flutes – much more uncommon, but can serve as a whole new take on bass lines and unorthodox mid-range melodies. You won’t find these flutes just anywhere, as they are primarily found in the hands of professionals and specialists. If you’re wanting to explore their tonal possibilities, look to a local high school or college/university music program to find a musician who can bring these distinctive instruments to your project.
The majority of the vibration and sound generation originates from the lip plate and moves down the instrument. When a clip-on microphone is used for the flute in a live performance situation, it is most often secured closest to the lip plate. To get that same level of strong, focused tone in a studio setting, you’ll need to position a dynamic cardioid microphone (the Shure Beta 57A is a great choice) within about one foot of the head joint.
Much like a vocalist enunciating consonants, note articulations on the flute can create a number of sharp plosive sounds. You’ll have to ask yourself, and your fellow musicians, what are your musical preferences? Do you want that crisp ‘snap’ of the tongue clearly defined in every recorded passage? Your microphone will pick up those unique details. Would you prefer to soften that extraneous noise? A Microphone Pop Filter incorporated into your recording setup will do wonders in smoothing out those sharp attacks.
If you’re looking to introduce more of the acoustic resonance of the space into the tone of the flute, setting up a condenser microphone (or matched pair) approximately 3-4 feet from the performer is the way to go. Be sure to keep the microphone at head level. The natural overtones of the flute will really shine through and the performer can explore a wider range of dynamics. A couple of highly recommended condenser microphones for flute are the Rode NT5 (great as a matched pair), Audix ADX51, and the top-of-the-line Neumann KM184.
From a production standpoint, the flute is tailor-made for use with reverb and delay effects. They easily add a layer of complex patterns or an incredible sense of ambient, ethereal tones.
Both the clarinet and oboe share a number of similarities, especially when it comes to recording. Each instrument is most commonly made of either ABS plastic or ‘resonite’ at the more budget price point. Conversely dense, rich grenadilla wood at the higher-end intermediate and professional levels.
The clarinet generates sound by securing a single wooden reed made of cane against a mouthpiece. By blowing into the mouthpiece, it causes the reed to vibrate and the resulting sound to resonate throughout the long cylindrical bore of the instrument. Sound will continue to disperse out of the numerous tone holes and the bell. This creates a tonal palette that ranges from dark and mysterious to bright and pointed.
The oboe uses two cane reeds secured together with twine and cork. There is no mouthpiece for the oboe. The sound is generated by blowing directly into the opening of this ‘double reed’ to create its distinctive bright sound.
The most commonly used clarinet is the Bb Soprano Clarinet. There are numerous other lower-pitched varieties, listed here in descending order of pitch: Eb Alto Clarinet, Bb Bass Clarinet, Eb Contra-Alto Clarinet, and Bb Contra-Bass Clarinet. There is also an Eb Soprano Clarinet and Bb Sopranino Clarinet, both pitched higher than the traditional Bb Soprano.
The Oboe has family partner in the F English Horn, a lower, longer, more mellow sounding instrument that also uses a double reed.
You can position a small diaphragm condenser or dynamic microphone directly over the middle of the instrument body. The most common position is in-between the bottom joint and the bell at the end. The distance from the instrument may vary, usually between 6 inches and 2 feet. A couple of great dynamic microphone choices for oboe and clarinet include the Electro-Voice RE20, and the tried-and-true Shure SM57. If you’re looking for a small diaphragm condenser microphone to record these instruments, you’ll get incredible results from models such as the Shure SM81 and Sennheiser e614.
The saxophone is a versatile, hybrid instrument most commonly made of brass. It combines the design and function of a woodwind instrument with the build material and volume potential of a brass instrument. Just like the clarinet, the saxophone generates its sounds from a vibrating single wooden reed secured against a chambered mouthpiece. There are four common sizes: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone (or Bari).
Guitar players often have different instruments and amplifiers best-suited for a specific performance situation. Saxophone players are similar with their choice of mouthpiece and reed. Different types of plastic composite or ‘resonite’ mouthpieces are standard and wide-reaching. They cover a lot of classical and more traditional acoustic ensemble genres. Mouthpieces made of hard rubber are found primarily in jazz, while ones made of metal are best suited for jazz, funk, rock, and pop.
The tip openings and interior chambers of each mouthpiece also make a huge difference – more narrow and closed off means a more contained, direct sound versus the brash and aggressive sound of a wide open model. When recording a saxophonist, be sure to utilize a wide-range of equipment combinations to find your perfect sound.
Much like its own construction, recording the saxophone brings together the unique process of both a woodwind (clarinet in particular) instrument and a big-bell brass instrument. Position a dynamic or small diaphragm microphone close to the saxophone, so that it’s position more toward the midsection, above the bell. Don’t point the microphone directly inside of the bell! The lower notes on the instrument will sound excessively loud and likely exceed peak signal.
The Alto, Tenor, and Bari Saxes all can follow the same general mic positioning. Just be sure to take their differing sizes into consideration when doing so. If you are recording a straight soprano saxophone, use the same technique as you would a clarinet. Don’t be afraid to experiment with microphone distance and placement. It can range from 6-12 inches away to a couple of feet, and positioning the microphone (or two, or three. . .) at various points of the body will result in a variety of sound choices.
I would recommend the same group of mics for saxophone that was mentioned for clarinet and oboe. The Electro-Voice RE20 and Shure SM57 from the dynamic side and the Shure SM81 and Sennheiser e614 from the small diaphragm condenser side. Remember, the saxophone has a great volume potential, so test the microphone position even farther back if you know you’ll be capturing louder material.
Trumpet and Trombone
Trumpet and Trombone were often called on to carry a melody over the top of an ensemble. Their trademark sounds are created by blowing air through properly positioned closed lips. When secured against a tapered mouthpiece, this creates a “buzzing” sound. While engaging the mouthpiece, this air and sound vibration is directed through the instrument’s length of tubing. It then exits through the large opening at the end, known as the “bell.” Changing the firmness of the lip buzz, in combination with differences in directing air intensity, changes the pitch. On trumpet, you also press proper combination of valves to further alter the pitch. On the trombone, this is done by adjusting the length of the moveable slide to numerous ‘positions.’
Recording In a studio setting, you need to make sure the microphone is placed in front of the bell. At their loudest, brass instruments generate an incredibly large amount of sound and high-pressure SPLs. Make sure that your microphone is set up anywhere from 3-6 feet away from the player. To get the most natural, ‘break-even’ style brass tone, ribbon microphones are often the preferred choice. This type of mic will temper the gain-heavy sound of trumpet and trombone at louder volumes for a focused sound. Remember! Ribbon microphones need to be handled with care and should not be placed too close to these instruments. Trumpet and trombone pack some serious power, so keep that healthy distance.
It’s Time to Get Started!
Recording woodwinds and brass is incredibly exciting experience! You’ll soon be bringing a whole host of beautiful acoustic instrument sounds to your tracks. Always remember to experiment with different types of mics as well as their placement in relation to the instrument. Let your ears be your guide and as always, happy recording!
by Kyle Novak
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