How to mic a Cello
Article by Gregor Zielinsky. Read more on Gregor’s profile page.
This article describes how to mic cellos in special loud situations, as well as in the more common situations. We will describe how microphones from REMIC MICROPHONES, will help to solve situations in a way, which is unique until today:
- How to mic a cello
- The sound of the cello
- Types of microphones
- How to mic cellos in common studio recordings
- How to mic cellos for live performance
- Special situations in the studio
- How to set up a wireless microphone on a cello
How to mic a Cello
Miking a cello can be a very challenging task. Especially when it comes to certain situations like:
- Playing together with some loud “competitors”, like a rock band
- Playing together with piano and other instruments
- Playing in groups of cellos
- Open air concerts
- Special sound ideas
- Film scoring
- Object based recordings or others
All these situations differ from the “classical – classical” recording, which means: recording a solo cello, a string quartet or an orchestra for the purpose of a “normal” classical recording, of a “normal” classical piece of music, with a normal microphone setup, using instrument spot microphones. By a “normal classical piece”, we mean by composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Schönberg or any of those well-known composers. There are also “younger” composers, that compose special music for cello.
Capturing the sound of a cello in situations, where you need to have the instruments loud and separated from other instruments is the task that we want to have a special look at here. Using special pick up mics for classical instruments is not really new. Usually, this is called close miking.
However, frankly said, we are pretty much aware, that the results of these common attempts are very often not very convincing.
Either the sound of the cello sounds very unnatural, or you just cannot hear the cellos, when the musicians are working “against” the rock band. There are also examples like the concert for cello and brass orchestra by Friedrich Gulda, where it would be useful to have a special “help” for the cello.
The Sound of the Cello
In order to find out how to close mic a cello, while keeping its specific sound, let us have a look at how the sound of the cello actually is produced.
As we all know, the cello is a string instrument, played with a bow. Therefore, the natural sound can be defined by the attack and transient response, when the player starts to play a note. This first phase is most important for any kind of sound. It defines how human ears detect and understand any sound. Which can be a musical sound, spoken word or any other sound.
As an example, take the letters “d” and “t” They sound pretty much the same, However, that attack phase of the “d” is softer and longer, than the transient of the “t”. This gives us the chance, to differ, whether we hear the word “do” or “to”.
After the decay phase, the next important part is the sustain part, which is also called “quasi stationary phase”. During this phase the sound has stabilized and the complete spectrum of the cello will develop.
The above drawing represents the level envelope of a cello sound over its development from the start to the end after releasing the bow.
The next important aspect of the cello sound is the resonance, also called formant. The resonance can be heard and measured during the so called “quasi stationary” phase of the sound. This is usually reached after the attack phase of the note.
Besides the actual musical sound of the string, the cello has some noise artefacts, which are caused by the bow moving over the string. These artefacts belong to the sound of the cello. However, when they are picked up too emphasized, they will usually be regarded as disturbing.
Last but not least, the polar pattern of the instrument is important. This is especially relevant if you use a common microphone, where the mike is placed at a little distance from the cello. The polar patterns describe, which frequency range is projected in which direction from the instrument.
Attack Phase of the Cello
The attack response of the cello has an average length of 60-100 ms. In certain playing styles it can be extended to up to 300 ms. The attack phase contains all overtones and partials that a cello can produce. Also, it may contain a lot of noise artefacts.
This can be changed by the artist and is of course a very important way to form the sound. It has an enormous influence of the artistic expression that the musician wants to give to his interpretation.
Of course, this can also be played in a very soft way, so that especially the noise artefacts will be suppressed, mainly in piano dynamics. There are many different ways of playing the cello. Like “coll´arco,” “col legno” or “pizzicato.” These different styles produce very different transients, spectra and stationary states.
The cello has several areas of formants.
Formants are resonances, which are independent of the pitch the instrument is playing. This is true for vowels as well. For example, if you sing with the letter “UUU”, no matter, what note you sing, it will always resonate with a frequency of 300 Hz.
This graph presents the basic and most important formants, that you find in the human voice and in most tuned instruments. The vowels above the ranges of the formants that you see here refer to the German pronunciation.
Courtesy of PPV Verlag: Dr. Jürgen Meyer: Acoustics and the Performance of Music
Formants or Resonances of the Cello:
- The resonance of the body, which lies usually around 110 Hz.
- Two resonances, that characterize the individual sound of the instrument. These are around 250 Hz and between 300 and 500 Hz, thus sounding somehow between “U” and “O”.
- Another resonance can be found around 900 Hz.
- Furthermore, there are can be formants around 1.5 KHz but also between 2 KHz and 3 KHz. This may also vary, depending on what kind of cello it is.
Courtesy of PPV Verlag: Dr. Jürgen Meyer: Acoustics and the Performance of Music
These graphics show, how and where the sound of the cello is projected. It basically explains that all relevant parts of the cello sound is mainly projected to the front.
There are a few parts, that are additionally projected to the side and the back. However, as a difference to the violin and viola, the placement of microphone for the cello should be at the front.
Types of Microphones
There are many different ways of recording and capturing the sound of a cello, as well as other string instruments. This is mainly depending on what kind of recording you do.
Basically, the use of condenser microphones can be suggested, as these microphones pick up sound in a much more detailed and precise way than dynamic microphones do. Usually, engineers are using cardioid patterns. In a studio situation you might also want to use patterns like wide cardioid, omni, or even figure of eight microphones. Ribbon microphones, which have a special, warm sound, usually have a figure eight pattern.
How to mic a Cello for common Studio Recordings
There are many ways of capturing the sound of a cello in a normal “classical – classical” situation. Usually, condenser microphones with a small diaphragm, as the widely used microphones from Neumann, Schoep or Sennheiser are used.
Mostly, cardioid versions of these microphones will deliver good results. Of course you can use patterns like omni or wide cardioid patterns as well. Some people would even use omni or figure eight patterns. Please regard, that using such patterns can be dangerous and should only be used in very controlled situations.
Of course the use of multi-pattern microphones is possible as well. At the end, which microphone you go for strongly depends on the recording situation as well as your taste (and what you have in your microphone locker). Another option would be the use of PZM floor microphones.
Important for Spot Mics: The Positioning of the Microphone
As seen in the graphics above, positioning the mic in front and above the instrument is the common way of picking up the cello. This will usually lead to good results. The distance for the normal recording condition should be like 0.5 meters or more. If you move to far away from the cello, you might lose the direct feeling of the instrument and might run in to bleed problems from other instruments.
Common set up of a cello microphone. The position may slightly vary in height, distance and angle.
Common Problems in Studio Situations
Even in a normal studio situation, when the cello plays together with other instruments, like in a piano trio or piano quartet, you might run into problems with crosstalk, especially with the piano.
While a violin is mainly playing above the main resonance of a grand piano, the cello sound is much more based within the middle and lower registers of a piano. This can cause problems in the balance between the piano and the cello. Also, you might experience problems with the natural placement of the cello, when you try to bring the level of the cello up versus the piano.
This can cause the effect that the cello sound pretty much in the front, while the piano sound is roomy, but still loud. You can hear this effect on many recordings.
Recording of Groups of Cellos
There are special compositions and arrangements for groups of cellos. In this special situation, you might run into the problem, that it becomes very difficult to separate the instuments from each other, This will usually be very depending on the kind of arrangement, that was written.
In order to keep the cello as differentiated as possible, but still keep a natural sound in combination with a main microphone, it can be very helpful to use REMICs for the cellos. Experiences have proved that the musicians are very happy with the options given by the REMIC cello microphones.
How to mic a Cello for Live Performance
When it comes to situations, where you need to pick up the sound of the strings very clearly and separated, we come the point, where we want to have the best result in terms of separation and feedback rejection, but with the best sound that we can achieve.
As we saw earlier, the sound of a cello is very specific. And by the way, this is true for viola, violin and other strings as well. Therefore, REMIC MICROPHONES has developed microphones that are adapted perfectly to the sound of the individual string instruments.
Basically, REMIC MICROPHONES is offering two types of the cello microphone. These are the “Studio/Live” Microphone, named “REMIC C5300 Studio/Live” – and then there is the “LB Live” Microphone named “REMIC C5300 LB”. Additionally there are several versions for wireless transmitters, which will be discussed later.
Both types adapt perfectly to the sound of a cello. They work great in loud environments, concert halls, or in the studio. While the Studio/Live version has a very natural sound plus a good sound rejection, the LB Live Version has a slightly altered, “woodish” sounding frequency range, but has an even better rejection and feedback suppression.
You can find more information about the difference of polar patterns of the REMIC Studio/Live and the REMIC LB Live cello microphone models:
Setting up the Mics and the Anxiety of the Artist!
We know very well that string players are very sensitive about their instruments. Therefore, the material of the REMIC cello microphones is very soft and can easily be attached by the musicians themselves. This is absolutely important for any live orchestra situation.
Also, the cables of the REMICs are very soft, giving the musician a lot of trust, that it will not harm their instrument or produce any disturbing noise, like structure-borne sound, when the cable is moving slightly above the surface of the body.
If you are recording or amplifying in a very loud situation, we suggest using the “LB Live” version. If the situation is not that difficult, and you may not have the loud rock band on the stage as well, we suggest using the “normal” Studio/Live version.
You can easily adjust the sound of the REMIC according to your taste with the help of a multiband EQ.
More info about EQing can be found here:
The sound of the REMICs is direct as can be expected due to its placement. But as it regards all the specific sound characteristics, it will deliver a perfect cello sound, which sounds really natural. It does capture the noise artefacts in a perfect balance to the sound of the string itself, and will never sound harsh or artificially “electronic”.
Finally, all REMICs have a built-in windshield. This can be very important in outdoor situations and it can also help to suppress the noise from a strongly breathing musician. The shield cannot be seen in anyway, and does not change the sound of the microphone at all.
Special Situations in the Studio
As we described earlier, if you have a normal recording, you may want to use common microphones. However, also in a studio situation, it might be meaningful to use the specific sound of REMICs. This was discussed earlier.
Of course, if you have a combination of strings paired with some loud instruments, and you just cannot place them in separate rooms or cannot track them, you have the same situation as in a live performance.
In addition, you might want to use the specific sound of the REMICs. The directness and the sound full of character will add a special soundscape to your recording. Using the “Live LB” versions, can produce a kind of “nostalgic” sound, producing a spectrum that might remind you of classical movies.
After all, it is a matter of taste, of course! Or as some clever guy once said: “Microphones make the best filters!”
More in depth information can be found here:
REMIC C5300 Studio/Live Microphone installed on a Cello.
How to set up a wireless Mic on a Cello
Using a transmitter on a string instrument like the cello usually raises the following questions:
- How safe is the connection from the cable to the transmitter?
- Can the musician set up the mic by himself and can he/she plug in the cable into the transmitter by him/herself?
Of course, there are many more questions, concerning the whole wireless topic. But this is not so much our topic here.
At REMIC MICROPHONES, we have especially considered those two questions. With decades of experience, we know that these are very sensible aspects.
REMIC WLM models come with a range of adapters with TA4F and Lemo connectors for Shure wireless sytems and also 3.5 TRS as well as Lemo-3 connectors for Sennheiser transmitters.
All in all, the REMICs are made for perfect sound and ease of handling especially in situations where it comes to quick and easy set-up of the microphones.