Recording Brass

March 16, 2018 | Author: Nives Kurjak | Category: Microphone, Saxophone, Brass Instruments, Clarinet, Woodwind Instruments
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How to record brass section...


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Tips from the Pros

Recording brass and woodwind

Getting down large blown instruments can be tricky, so here Keith Gemmell offers some important guidelines on recording each instrument, plus a tutorial on punch-in/punch-out recording with Cubase SX/SL and Logic.



Keith Gemmell Keith can usually be found in his studio recording library music and producing commercial MIDI software. A professional sax player for many years, he also publishes educational audio products for woodwind and is the author of three books on Cubase and Logic. Occasionally he gets out to do a bit of music tech lecturing.

July 2003 MUSIC TECH magazine

Keep your distance Contrary to popular belief, the sound of a saxophone doesn’t come just from the bell. Well it does, but only when the very lowest notes are being played, because that’s the only time all the sound holes are actually closed. Most of the sound comes from the main body of the sax itself. So where’s the best spot to place the microphone? Not directly over the bell, unless you require a very bright, punchy sound. A more natural sound is achieved by placing a cardioid mic 1–1.5 metres in front of the instrument, above the bell and aimed at the middle of the keys. This technique captures the entire frequency spectrum. If you need a more intimate, warm and full-bodied sound, move the mic closer (ie. nearer the sound holes). The sound characteristics of a saxophone, particularly the tenor, are close to those of the human voice. If you already possess a shaped-response mic designed for vocals, it’ll probably do a good job on saxes, too.

Upon reflection Recording the clarinet is a slightly more tricky business. Like the saxophone, the sound emanates from both the sound holes and the bell of the instrument. However, unlike the sax, the bell points downwards. As a result, the higher frequencies are projected to the ground and reflected back, where they join up with the mid and lower frequencies. So a reflective floor will render a more brilliant sound. If you’re recording in a home environment or project studio with a carpeted floor,


here I am, in this rock ‘n’ roll band, happily riffing away in the background, when suddenly the lead singer turns around and heads my way. “Take it away Mr Sax man,” he yells and shoves his microphone deep into the bell of my sax. I promptly oblige, but the harsh, nasty-sounding racket echoing around the hall doesn’t even remotely resemble the tone I’ve spent years perfecting. Why? Because the singer has mistakenly assumed that the sound of a saxophone comes only from the bell – one of many commonly held misconceptions about this family of instruments. OK, so that was a live scenario, and different guidelines apply and different microphones are used in the studio environment. But a fundamental principle of recording brass and woodwind instruments has been demonstrated; positioning your mic is where the skill comes in – it’s where art meets science. The next step? Deciding on a suitable microphone. “That’s all very well,” I hear you say, “but I don’t have an unlimited choice of mics in my project studio.” Don’t worry. Generally speaking, recording brass and woodwinds is a relatively easy business using good directional mics. Most professional studios tend to favour expensive condenser models, typically AKG C414s or Neumann U87s, but if your budget is tight, good results can be achieved with a quality dynamic mic, such as the trusty Shure SM57 (that you can buy for about £100). That said, there’s an increasing number of budget condenser models arriving on the market, such as the SE2200 (£140). A little higher up the scale is the Audio Technica AT3035 (£175). So, there are plenty to choose from… I happen to play the most commonly used woodwind instruments that you’re likely to encounter – saxophone, clarinet and flute – so I’ll deal with those first.

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Tips from the pros ▲

try standing the clarinettist on a flat piece of wood, large enough to catch the reflections. The clarinet has a range of over three octaves, split into distinctive-sounding registers. Deep, rich and woody in the lower, or first, register – think Peter and the Wolf – liquid and mellow in the second; high and piercing in the third. There’s also a weak spot called the ‘break’. So it’s worth finding out from the player before you start recording which registers they are likely to use most. Position a cardioid mic 1–2 metres in front, above and slightly to the side of the player (to minimise key noise) and aim it towards the lower keys. Some experimentation with positioning might be needed. I sometimes use two mics, one about 0.5 metres above the keys and another some distance from the bell. Two other reed instruments that you may encounter are the oboe and the bassoon. A cardioid mic placed over

Most ‘blowers’ are trained musicians and are more than capable of working out a few simple harmony lines. THE RULES IN BRIEF

Mic’ing up

Generally speaking, choosing and placing mics for recording brass and woodwind instruments is quite straightforward, provided common sense prevails. Condenser mics with a cardioid pattern yield good results. Mic placement depends very much on where most of the sound actually comes from: brass – from the bell, flute – from the mouthpiece and sound holes. However, particularly with the woodwinds, the sound emanates from other parts of the instrument and it’s better to keep the mic at a reasonable distance from the player. Brass instruments emit high SPLs – another reason to keep your distance!


the sound holes and at a reasonable distance from either will provide a natural and balanced sound. Placing a mic near either of their bells will result in a bright, but not necessarily more pleasing, tone.

Breath control Flutes are different again and some experimentation may be necessary. The sound is projected from both the mouthpiece and the sound holes. Where you place the mic will depend on the type of sound you want – breathy or pure – and the skill of the player. For a natural sound, place a cardioid mic about 2.5 metres above the ground and about 2 metres in front of the flautist. Aim it towards their mouth. If you have the luxury of a second mic, place it about 90 degrees to the player’s right. There is another method; place the mic above and slightly behind the player to reduce breathiness. Aim it towards the finger holes. But if it’s a breathy sound you’re actually after, place the mic closer to the player and aim it between the mouthpiece and the first group of sound holes. You may need to use a pop shield.

The heavy mob Now let’s take a look at the heavyweights: the brass instruments. The two most commonly used members of this family are the trumpet and the trombone. What do they both have in common? Volume. High sound pressure levels (SPL), up to 130dB. Take care; some mics, such as ribbons, may not be able to cope with these SPLs. A condenser with a large diaphragm and flat response is usually best. And use the pre-attenuation switch to cope with the high SPLs. The AKG D112 Bass Drum mic also does the job, particularly with the trombone. If possible, avoid mics designed specifically for vocals. They’ll work with saxes, but their shaped response will exaggerate the higher frequencies of brass. Where the sound comes from is obvious – the bell. However, although the higher frequencies are projected in front of the bell, the lower ones are spread over a wide area. So, once again, a mic placed too close will result in a very bright, but not necessarily pleasing, sound. Place a cardioid mic about 2 metres in front of the player and move it further away or nearer according to the acoustics. Placing it slightly off-axis by about 30 degrees will produce a mellower sound. On-axis will be brighter.

Keep on tracking The chances are that a good many of you are guitar players. It’s also likely that some of you would relish the opportunity of overdubbing a complete horn section on your songs. Unfortunately, many project studios are short on space, and it can be an expensive business. Good brass and sax players don’t come cheap – after all, playing these instruments to a high standard requires years of practice. However, you may be lucky and manage to persuade a complete horn section to play on your demos for free (beer and sandwiches thrown in, of course). This will most likely be on the understanding that a paid session will be forthcoming if a recording deal is secured. It’s often easier to ask a single player, a mate perhaps, to do you a favour. You may not be experienced at arranging for horns, and if that is the case, one advantage of working this way is the chance to build a horn section, track by track, with the help of the player’s musical knowledge. Most ‘blowers’ are trained musicians with a good deal of musical theory under their belt and are more than capable of working out a few simple harmony lines.

Tutorial Punch-in/punch-out recording Using Cubase SX/SL and Logic. If you’re a brass or wind player who’s into recording, you may be working alone using an audio and MIDI sequencer to build compositions from scratch. When you reach the stage where the audio tracks need recording, you’ll be doubling up as recording engineer and performer simultaneously. I do this frequently and, believe me, playing saxophone and pressing

July 2003 MUSICMUSIC TECH magazine Month 2003 TECH magazine

Record buttons on and off is an unwieldy and potentially hazardous task, to say the least. Fortunately, the whole process can be automated in most sequencing programs by using their Autodrop facilities. The tutorial below shows how this is done using Cubase SX/SL and Logic. The process is very similar in both programs, but Cubase uses two buttons – Punch In and Punch Out –

and Logic uses one – Autodrop. Let’s assume you’ve sequenced the perfect track; all it needs is a blistering tenor sax solo between bars 17 and 25. We don’t want any noise before or after the solo (knocked over coffee cups and the like) so for a clean ‘drop in and out’, follow the steps opposite. This method of recording is also a very useful and safe way of replacing

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Mics for the job AKG C3000B If you can’t afford the C414 (right) the C3000B also has a large diaphragm and offers an affordable alternative. Designed for the project studio, it’s switchable between cardioid and hypercardioid patterns. Good results will be obtained on flute, clarinet, saxes, trumpets and trombones. It’s also fitted with a 10dB attenuation switch. Use it when recording brass!

SE Electronics SE2200 My original choice for the budget mic here was the excellent all-rounder, Shure SM57 (£100). But a newcomer to consider is the excellent Chinese-made SE2200 condenser. It utilises a large 1-inch gold-sputtered diaphragm, features a cardioid polar pattern and has a 10dB pad for high SPLs. It sounds good, looks great and is supplied with a shockmount in a nice aluminium flight case. Good value.


AKG C414 ULS A large diaphragm mic that’s ideally suited to recording woodwind and brass. It’s switchable between four pickup patterns – cardioid, hypercardioid, omni and figure of eight – it has a flat frequency response and a clean, full-bodied character. With 10dB and 20dB pre-attenuation pads, it copes admirably with the highest SPLs from the loudest brass players. This is the classic mic for the job.



Typical price £560 approx (online price) Contact AKG

Typical price £230 approx (online price) Contact

bad sections of an otherwise good take. For example, you can play along with the song safe in the knowledge that only the section marked out by the locators will actually be recorded. Of course, recording this way is not restricted to just brass and saxophone players; it can be used for vocals and anything else on both audio and MIDI tracks.

particularly if you’ve already laid down a substantial amount of audio.

It’s just an illusion All this tracking and doubling of one instrument can become a little tiresome after a while, both for the player’s chops (embouchure) and the listener’s ear. One instrument, brass or reed, played by one player and layered repeatedly can end up sounding rather bland, to say the least. One way around the problem in a project studio is to mix sampled brass and saxes together with the real thing. I’ve actually created a pretty convincing big band piece this way by tracking two alto and two tenor saxes myself and using a sampled baritone for the fifth sax. Nobody, so far, has spotted the interloper. The brass section was made up entirely of sampled trumpets and trombones. The trick is to use a variety of brass samples for the different parts.

Don’t tinker If a decent mic has been selected and correctly placed, the actual recording process should be fairly painless.

On the Transport panel, set the left Locator to 17. 1. 1; this is where the sax solo begins. Now set the right Locator to 25. 1. 1; this is where the solo ends. Activate the Punch In, Punch Out or Autodrop buttons on the Transport panel.



It’s still advisable, though, to do a bit of preparation in the form of a simple chord sheet. If you can, jot down the main lead lines as well, no matter how crudely. That, combined with you singing the lines will help the player get the gist of things and save a lot of time and frustration. A few words of advice here – keep it simple. The best and most effective brass writing is usually on the lean side. Use very high notes sparingly, especially if they’re intended for the trumpet; save them for a climactic effect. Although you will probably be tempted to harmonise those brass lines at every opportunity, don’t forget the power of unison. Doubled lines, sometimes an octave above or below, are not only simple and quick to record, but can provide a powerful sectional sound. If you’re using a multitrack machine, you’ll need to reserve a few tracks – three will probably be enough. If you’re recording to hard disk using a production package such as Cubase or Logic, then track availability will not be a problem. However, your computer’s processing power (CPU) will be a determining factor,

Price £140 Contact Sonic Distribution 01582 843900

Scroll back several bars before bar 17 (allow yourself enough time to reach the mic) and press the Play button. When the song position cursor reaches bar 17, the red light illuminates and Cubase or Logic enters record mode. When bar 25 arrives, off goes the red light and the program drops out of Record mode.


The punch-in/punch-out recording process for Cubase SX/SL (right) and Logic (left) are almost identical .


July 2003 MUSIC TECH magazine


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Common practice As with vocal recording, dropping in and out is common practice when tracking, and relieves pressure on the performer (see the tutorial). This is important with trumpet and trombone because both of these instruments require a good deal of physical stamina. Frequent short breaks during the session will be needed (watch your beer stocks rapidly diminish!). When you reach the mixing stage, it’s time to consider the need for EQ and compression. There may


Avoid tinkering with EQ; in most cases, brass and saxophones will record fine without it. Aim at capturing a pure and natural sound. If you really feel the need for a twiddle, save it for the mixing stage. That way, you’ll be better placed to make the judgement call and be free to experiment. Remember, if you commit now and change your mind later, there’s little you can do apart from ask the player to do it all over again. Ouch! Compression? Again, avoid it if you can at this stage. Experienced brass and sax players will be in control of their instrument’s dynamics and will know how to project an even sound. Beware when setting levels, though; ask the player to play as loud as he will on the actual take. They don’t always do this when warming up; they’re saving themselves for that high note that will take you by surprise just near the end of that almost-perfect take.

Photo Mike Beck

Tips from the pros

Place the mic a fair distance away from brass to avoid accentuating higher frequencies. And placing it off-axis produces a mellower tone.

be areas where the higher brass notes will be louder than some of the lower ones. The same may be true of the sax, particularly if there’s been some screaming going on. In that case, by all means use compression, but no more than is necessary. EQ? Use it correctively, only when necessary, and for cutting rather than for boosting. Having said that, it really depends on what’s happening around it. For example, on a busy tune full of guitars, a slight tweak at the top end will help lift a tenor sax solo out of the mire. There are no hard-and-fast rules; just use your ears and common sense. MTM

Mic’ing up

Which mic to use and where to place it for different brass and woodwind sounds. INSTRUMENT MIC PLACEMENT Saxophone Close to the bell

SOUND QUALITY Bright, forceful

Close to the keys



Full-bodied, warm, intimate Above the bell and Natural aimed at the keys Close to bell Bright Close to Warm, breathy – sound holes low register only Above sound holes Natural aimed at lowest keys Close to mouthpiece Breathy, intimate and sound holes Above the keys Natural


Close to bell

Bright, punchy



Not close to bell & slightly off-axis Close to bell

Bright, punchy

Not close to bell & Natural slightly off-axis

COMMENTS OK if you require a harsher tone – rock solos, perhaps Nice for quiet solos – will pick up key noise Good recording practice resulting in a well-balanced sound Not ideal – somewhat unbalanced Nice for quiet solos in the lower register – will pick up key noise Good recording practice resulting in a well-balanced sound Nice effect for solos. A pop shield may be needed Good recording practice resulting in a well-balanced sound. Not ideal, unless you wish to destroy the player’s tone!

Good recording practice. On-axis will result in a brighter tone Not ideal, unless you wish to destroy the microphone!

Good recording practice. On-axis will result in a brighter tone

MICROPHONES Good quality condensers, cardioid vocal mics work – prefer Shure SM57 to SM58.

Good quality cardioid condensers

Good quality cardioid condensers.

Good quality cardioid condensers, large diaphragm. Instrument mics like AKG D440, Audio Technica ATM 25 also suitable.

Good quality cardioid condensers, large diaphragm. Instrument mics like AKG D440, Audio Technica ATM 25 also suitable.

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