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Q. Can you help me with my viola recording setup?

Published December 2011

This month I'm planning a week's worth of recording for a commercial release of my own viola-led instrumental music, and I'd appreciate your thoughts on getting the most of my proposed viola-recording setup. The room is the inside of a 7x4-metre wooden shed, with lots of rafters to hang quilts from, and the proposed mic is a Coles 4038 ribbon design, with an SE Electronics Reflexion Filter behind the mic and two or three quilts suspended behind the performer.Simon Lyn, via SOS web site

SOS contributor Mike Senior replies: Experimentation is likely to be a big part of finding the sound you're after, and the space feels like it's big enough that you shouldn't have to put up with any boxiness. I checked out the files on your site (; I think you want to try to capture quite a dry and up-front sound for putting together such intricate and detailed arrangements, so that you have complete freedom in terms of the ability to synthesize involving imaginary environments for them at mixdown. However, I'm sure you're already well aware that the viola (like any string instrument) often doesn't sound that great if you mic it too close; the string buzz and mechanical noises tend to dominate over the fuller and more resonant tone of the wood. This makes me think that your instinct of using a directional mic of some sort in combination with acoustic padding is eminently sound. That way you can get far enough back from the instrument to get a balanced impression of all its frequencies, but without getting too much room sound. This frequency dispersion diagram for violin and cello from SOS May 2006 also provides some useful guidelines for recording viola, given the structural similarity of the instruments.This frequency dispersion diagram for violin and cello from SOS May 2006 also provides some useful guidelines for recording viola, given the structural similarity of the instruments.

In that regard, using the Coles (naturally a figure-of-eight polar pattern by nature of its design) might not be a bad idea, as you'll get the same kind of direct/reverb balance out of that as you would out of a cardioid, but any off-axis pickup will probably be better behaved tonally. The idea of a Reflexion Filter behind the mic is also eminently sensible, in that case, to cut down on rear-arrival sound levels. The Coles will also probably give you a smoother high end to the sound than a condenser would.

Are there any possible down sides, though? Well, you might actually want a bit more forwardness at the high end in your case, to emphasise the tiny high-frequency nuances and to keep the sounds up front. Also, you'll need a good deal of gain to pick up all the internal details of your softer playing with a ribbon mic even a few feet away, and a lesser preamp design might not give you that degree of level hike without unacceptable noise levels. If you've got a good preamp, though, then the ribbon should be plenty quiet! And, speaking of noise, the one disadvantage of pulling the mic away from the performer is that you may then be in more danger of obtrusive background noise if the hut you're working in isn't soundproofed or in a reasonably isolated location.

The rest of the job will just be a question of trying out different miking positions, and there are some pointers in Hugh Robjohns' excellent 'Recording A String Section' feature back in SOS May 2006, which might be useful here, especially the dispersion diagram. One other idea to throw in is that I might actually be tempted to record in stereo, especially for the lead lines, simply because stereo recordings often seem more natural and present to me for single string instruments, and you've got more than enough room to accommodate a wider instrument image given the comparatively sparse textures you create with your arrangements. Again, though, I'd probably go for directional mics when specifying a stereo mic rig, rather than using anything involving omnis, again so that you can keep things nice a dry without having to mic too close.  

Published December 2011