Getting a fiddle to sound natural and warm through a microphone is a problem that just about every fiddle player I know struggles with. So if you’re frustrated by the sound you’ve been getting either in the studio, know this: it’s not just you.
Over the years, through (often painful) trial and error, I’ve a learned a few things that have helped me get a better sound live and in the studio.
There are three different types of microphones you’re likely to encounter as a fiddle player: small-diaphragm condenser mics, large-diaphragm condenser mics and ribbon mics.
Because they pick up a broad range of frequencies and therefore tend to capture a natural sound, condenser mics (both small- and large-diaphragm) are probably the most commonly used microphones to record acoustic instruments.
Large diaphragm condenser mic (LDCs)
Large diaphragm condensers are often used to record vocals because they tend to capture a big sound, often with a lot of high-frequency detail (though this varies quite a bit model to model). And I find that it’s often the amount of high-end detail that determines whether a mic is good for the fiddle or not.
Too much detail, and you’ll pick up a lot of bow noise and get a grainy, rosin-y, sometimes scratchy tone. Not good.
That said, there a few large diaphragm condensers that fiddle players tend to have good luck with. The bad news is that a lot of them cost as much as a car…well, at least the kind car I drive.
But if you’re in a professional studio, you’ll probably have one or more of these at your disposal.
Neumann U87: Generally a safe bet for recording the fiddle. I’ve noticed a fair amount of tonal variation among the U87s I’ve recorded with. Some U87s tend to be a little on the bright side. If your fiddle is bright-sounding to start with, the U87 may or may not be the best match.
Neumann U47: A large-diaphragm tube condenser mic (more on tube mics later), is a fantastic-sounding microphone. It sounds big, warm and natural…but on a champagne budget.
AKG C12 or C24: The C12 (mono) and C24 (stereo) are large-diaphragm tube condenser mics and can sound very nice on a fiddle. I find them to be a little brighter than the U87 and particularly the U47. Also car-priced.
LDCs for home studios:
Audio Technica 4040 and/or 4050: Both are good fiddle mics and fairly versatile (they’re also solid live mics, if you’re doing the single-mic bluegrass setup). If you’re going to buy one condenser mic to use in your home studio, this would be a good pick. Also good for mando, vocals, upright bass, sometimes guitar.
Shure KSM32: Like the Audio Technica 4040 and 4050, the Shure KSM32 is a versatile microphone that works well both in the studio and live, especially if you’re playing bluegrass single-mic style. It has a fairly flat frequency response, which means it will capture the sound of your instrument without over-emphasizing the high-, low- or mid-frequency range.
Small-diaphragm condenser mics (SDCs)
Small diaphragm condenser mics tend to be my first choice for recording fiddle. The rep on SDCs is that they generally capture the sound of your instrument without favoring (or “hyping”) any particular range of frequencies. Often true, not always. Here’s what what has worked well for me.
Neumann KM64: This small diaphragm tube mic is my hands-down favorite for recording fiddle. The KM64 sounds warm and natural, with smooth high-end detail and a tight-sounding low end.
Neumann KM84: The tube-less version of the KM64, just about every medium-to-large studio has at least a pair of these, and for good reason. A fairly flat, neutral frequency response, so a good and versatile choice for acoustic instruments.
There’s a more-recent version of the KM84, the KM184. Avoid this mic, it’s a fiddle killer. Super bright, picks up a lot of bow and rosin.
Schoeps SDCs: I’ve had good luck with a variety of Schoeps SDCs, though in general they seem to sound a little grainier and harsher than the Neumanns. To my ears.
SDCs on a budget:
Audio Technica Pro 37: This is a nice little mic and cheap, cheap, cheap. I bought mine for $99 (it’s a great live fiddle mic, and it’s super small, so I can keep it in my fiddle case and always have it on hand). Can be a little on the bright side, so some EQ might be necessary, but you could spend a lot more and get a lot less.
M-Audio Pulsar II: A good, neutral-sounding SDC in the same price range as the Pro 37.
Beyerdynamic MC903: This has a reputation for being the poor feller’s KM84, though it seems a little warmer, less bright than the KM84. Depending on the fiddle, I usually prefer it to the 84. Quality build, excellent sound.
A note on ribbon mics:
I’ve noticed that there are a fair number of engineers who like to put ribbon mics on violins/fiddles. I find that this works well only if your fiddle is very small-sounding and dog-whistle bright (in other words, not a good fiddle). Most good bluegrass fiddles sound muddy and two-dimensional through ribbon mics. Play your fiddle with earplugs in, and that’s about the sound.
If the engineer sets up a ribbon mic in front of you, politely inquire if he/she can set up an SDC alongside it for comparison. When you listen back, you’ll pick the SDC. I’d put money on it.
Finally, a word on where to put the mic. In the studio, fiddle players tend to go with an overhead mic positioned about 8-10 inches from the instrument. Beyond that point, use your ears. Some mics sound better right over the bow, others are better down the fingerboard. Some mics sound better on axis, others are better off axis. Sometimes it depends on the song.