Bluegrass bands have their work cut out for them when they need to record. This is because there are usually far more instruments in a bluegrass band than in a rock band, including mandolins, banjos, upright basses, and fiddles, and each instrument requires a different miking technique. Further complicating the process is the fact that bluegrass bands almost universally prefer to record simultaneously–it’s not usually possible to overdub one instrument at a time without losing the spontaneous feel that makes bluegrass and folk music so great.
Here are a few tips to help you mic a bluegrass band without sacrificing the sound of any of the instruments.
1. Limit the number of mics that you use. One of the primary rules of recording is to use as few microphones as possible, and this becomes more important when you add more live instruments. If you use too many microphones, you’re going to have problems with phasing during mixing, which will make everything sound fake and odd–and this will certainly limit the organic feel of a true bluegrass recording.
You can often mic separate parts of the bluegrass band, which will give you a better overall sound. Arrange the band according to the loudness of the instruments, and use a simple mic arrangement. Experiment. Some bluegrass bands will only need two mics, placed a few feet from the instruments, and then mics for the vocalists. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, so you’ll have to spend some time testing separate mic arrangements to see what works.
2. Use the right microphones. Microphone choice is also important. Large condenser mics are best for picking up an entire band, so start with a highly-reviewed, versatile condenser. If you’re miking separate instruments, use small cardioid microphones like an SM57.
Some recording engineers like running a line from a guitar’s pickups straight into a mixing board, but I’m not a fan of this technique. Bluegrass recordings should sound very natural, and any electric signal is going to diminish that trait in the final mix.
3. EQ and panning are always important. The more instruments you have, the more separation you need in the final mix. “Separation” in this sense means that you should be able to pick out any instrument and listen to it easily. To accomplish this, you’ll mix your microphones in stereo, and try to put each instrument (or as many as possible) into slightly different parts of the stereo and audio spectrum. As bluegrass bands use acoustic instruments, the EQing is less important if everything’s miked correctly; you won’t have much of a chance of a muddy or unclear recording when miking is done well. Spend a bit of time on panning, though, for the best possible effect.
Do you have any other tips for miking a bluegrass band? Post in our comments section below.