Recording the Fiddle (Part 1: The Basics)
by Clark Huckaby
Recording your fiddle performance is an excellent tool for becoming a better player. By listening to yourself on tape (or on a digital sound file), it's easy to identify objectively weak aspects of your playing. "Tape doesn't lie," goes the old saying. By documenting your improvement over time, recording becomes a rewarding and motivating tool to add to your practice habits. At some point, you may also need to make demo tapes or CDs for yourself or other people to evaluate or enjoy. It's important to strive for good consistent technical quality in your recordings, especially for archival and demo purposes.
Thanks to the digital revolution, personal high-quality sound recording is accessible to virtually every musician. This has fostered a consumer-friendly market for high performance recording microphones, preamps, computer interfaces, software, and dedicated multi-track hard-drive recorders (which have replaced the musician's staple 4-track cassette recorder). You can now cut pro-quality fiddle tracks, at your own speed and convenience, and in the comfort of your own environment, without having to schedule and pay a professional recording studio. Focusing on isolation, microphone choice and microphone placement, here are some pointers to help fiddle players get the most from this wonderful technology.
Isolation is important in any recording, especially with a sound source as subtle and complex as a bowed instrument. The violin spans the audio frequency spectrum from the fundamental tone of the first G below middle C, or 196 Hz, to well beyond the range of human hearing (generally taken as 20,000 Hz for the youngest and most acute ears). Within this broad range, the fiddle's sound is replete with subtle harmonic information that warms listeners' hearts and differentiates it from less delicate instruments such as horns. All of this emotive subtlety must be preserved intact to achieve a successful recording.
Isolation does not mean imprisonment of the fiddler in some sterile foam-padded room. It's a relative concept, and absolute isolation is neither possible nor (in many cases) desirable. When applied to fiddle recording, important considerations are: (1) Isolation from the external noises of traffic and urban living. (2) Isolation from internal noise sources like heating, air conditioning, computer hardware cooling fans, footstomps, squeaky chairs, breathing, and inadvertent non-musical vocalizations. (3) Isolation from the fiddle's own sound directly reflected from nearby walls and ceilings. (4) Isolation from the very sounds that cue the fiddle player, including metronomes, monitors, and in some cases, accompanying instruments.
Suitable recording environments for the violin can be found in most homes. Close all windows and turn off any forced-air ventilation systems while recording. In urban areas, plan your session for a time of day when nearby traffic is minimal. Carefully listen for any domestic noises that you can eliminate, such as the refrigerator going through its cycle. Audition different rooms. Size, shape, and the amount and variety of its contents determine a room's acoustic performance. Bare floors, walls, ceilings, and especially windows and mirrors reflect sound (creating a "virtual" sound source "behind" the surface). Irregular hard surfaces, particularly shelved books and records, diffuse sound (scatter it in multiple directions). Furnishings like sofas, plush curtains, and rugs absorb sound (makes it vanish). A largish room with a mix of all three kinds of "stuff"--reflective, diffusive, and absorptive--usually gives the best results. Set your microphone up near (but not exactly at) the middle of the room; stay several feet away from the nearest wall.
Generically, I recommend condenser microphones with a cardioid pickup pattern for domestic recording of the fiddle. The cardioid (heart-shaped) pattern of microphone sensitivity contributes isolation from sounds behind and to the sides of the microphone. A good mic stand equipped with a boom is essential for recording the fiddle. As a starting point for experimenting with mic placement, angle the mic down towards your fiddle from about 18 inches above it and slightly to your right. If this puts the mic within two feet of the ceiling, consider recording in the seated position. Generally, decreasing the fiddle-to-mic distance increases harshness of the recorded sound, which may in fact be desirable for some fiddle styles. Increasing this distance increases the relative contribution of the room's acoustics, which may (or may not) complement the sound of your instrument.
Even though the immutable laws of physics are in play when you record, the "rules" of fiddle recording are themselves quite mutable. In fact, you will achieve optimum results only through the highly uncertain process of trial and error. I encourage you to have fun experimenting with different rooms, locations within rooms, mic placements and even different microphones if you have access to them. Let your ear be the arbiter of the recorded results, and remember that small changes in recording parameters can yield significant differences when dealing with acoustic instruments as delicate and subtle as the violin. In a forthcoming article I will expand on some other parameters important to the recording fiddler such as use of pickups (the ultimate in isolation), effects, overdubbing, and mixing tracks.
Clark Huckaby engineered studio recordings and live music in New Haven, Connecticut from 1992 through 2004, where he also played fiddle and mandolin in several country-oriented bands. Now living in Dayton, Ohio, he works mainly at the audio electronics bench and is looking for a band. Clark lets his geek flag fly at at http://www.clarkhuckaby.com/.
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