My Take on Music Recording with Doug Fearn

Recording Unfamiliar Instruments

September 16, 2023 Doug Fearn Season 1 Episode 82
Recording Unfamiliar Instruments
My Take on Music Recording with Doug Fearn
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My Take on Music Recording with Doug Fearn
Recording Unfamiliar Instruments
Sep 16, 2023 Season 1 Episode 82
Doug Fearn

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What if you were suddenly confronted with recording an instrument you had never had in the studio before? Or one you never heard before? Or one you never knew existed?

How do you figure out how to capture its sound? Where do you place a microphone? What microphone will you use?

In this episode I suggest various ways to evaluate an unfamiliar instrument or sound, using some examples from my own experience, and a few rules of thumb to get started.

This topic was suggested by a listener. If you have ideas for a episode, let me know.


Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

What if you were suddenly confronted with recording an instrument you had never had in the studio before? Or one you never heard before? Or one you never knew existed?

How do you figure out how to capture its sound? Where do you place a microphone? What microphone will you use?

In this episode I suggest various ways to evaluate an unfamiliar instrument or sound, using some examples from my own experience, and a few rules of thumb to get started.

This topic was suggested by a listener. If you have ideas for a episode, let me know.


Episode 82           Recording Unfamiliar Instruments                       September 16, 2023


I’m Doug Fearn and this is My Take on Music Recording


What if you were suddenly confronted with recording an instrument you had never had in the studio before? Or one you never heard before? Or one you never knew existed?

How do you figure out how to capture its sound? Where do you place a microphone? What microphone will you use?

When we start out recording, everything is new and challenging. If you have the advantage of an apprenticeship, or a recording school, you might have some insight into how others record an instrument.

You study endless YouTube videos, some created by people who know what they are doing. Or the  many that are too dogmatic or show a lack of basic understanding.

I started recording having never been in a recording studio. In fact, it would be several years until I ever set foot in another studio.

I figured it out on my own. And you can too.

Someone showing you how they do it might get you started, but is that the sound you want? We all need to figure out how to get the sound that we hear in our heads, and that may be very different from what you observed or were taught. You need to develop your own style. But that is a topic I have covered before.

In this episode I want to give you some ideas of how to approach recording an unfamiliar instrument. It could also apply to recording an instrument you have captured many times, but at this session, you need a different sound.

Let me again stress, that my way is not likely to be your way of doing this. We all need to bring our own concept to the recording process. But my experience might help you to think about how you might approach this problem.


Here’s an example from my very first recording session. This was in high school, and the musicians were classmates who had a 1960s style rock band. They mostly did cover versions of hit songs they liked, but also some originals.

The instrumentation was drums, bass, two electric guitars. And three of the players also sang. I was recording direct to two-track tape, so overdubbing was not an option.

I didn’t have many mics, and the mixer (actually a broadcast console) had a total of 6 mic inputs.

I should add that at this point in my life, I had not been exposed to that kind of music at all, so this was totally new to me.

I set up an RCA 77 in front of the drum kit, about five feet out and vertically centered somewhere between the middle of the kick drum and the snare.

By the way, that’s essentially how I record drums today, although I went through decades of close-mic’ing each drum, plus overheads.

The room had terrible acoustics, so the drums sounded pretty trashy. But the band loved the sound. They knew less about recording than I did.

I had them set up the two guitar amps facing each other and about four feet apart. I placed a bi-directional ribbon mic, an RCA “paintbrush,” in between the amps and adjusted the position to get a good balance. It was not a good-sounding mic, but it complemented the guitar sound well.

I used an omni dynamic mic on the bass amp. It was an Electrovoice 654A.

For vocals, I had one omni dynamic for the lead vocalist, and another one that the two guitar players shared. Both were E-V 654As. For the drummers vocal, I set up a cardioid dynamic mic, a Shure 55S, angled to minimize the drum pickup.

I didn’t much like the sound I was getting. There was not a lot of isolation, and the room sound was truly awful.

The lead vocalist did not sing very loud, so recording him in the room with everyone else resulted in unacceptable bleed. So, I put him in another room and ran his mic cable under the door. Not perfect isolation, but it solved the problem. I gave him a headphone feed so he could hear the others. The players in the live room did not have headphones. I did not have a way to give them a feed.

The band loved the recording. I was pleased that I at least captured the essence of their sound.

Decades later I heard that recording. I really didn’t want to hear it, but the band leader insisted it was not that bad. And I was surprised that it sounded amateurish but decent.


Every session after that had its challenges, including new unfamiliar instruments for me to record. I built a couple of “direct boxes” for bass and electric keyboards. There were no commercial Dis available back then.

By that time, I had my own studio and my clients were more sophisticated. The next challenge was recording horns. In the studio, “horns” means brass instruments like trumpet, trombone, and saxophones.

I knew a bit about brass instruments, but not much about their R&B style of playing. Usually, they had to all go on one track, but I could use individual microphones.

But where to put the mics?

I found that often you can ask the player, “when you are recording, where do they put your mic?” That might give you the right answer. But it is surprising how often you will get bad advice. Often, they will talk about a live performance, not a studio recording. But it can be a starting point.

On a jazz trio session, I was confronted by an upright bass, played by a jazz legend. I had no idea where to put his mic. I was intimidated by this great player, and avoided placing the bass mic for a while. After everything else was mic’d, I had to figure this out. I asked him how his bass was mic’d in studios he had worked in. He was on hundreds of records, and he was a bit surprised at my question. He raised his eyebrows in an intimidating way, and pointed to a place slightly above the bridge of the bass and about a foot away. He never said a word. But he was right. The bass sounded great. By the way, he loved the sound I got and we went on to do more projects.

I don’t recall the mic, but it could have been a 44.


I went through the same process when I first had to record a string session. I knew I needed to mic the various sections, but exactly where to put the mics was a mystery to me. And this was a union session and the producer did want me to spend time experimenting. It would have been too expensive.

I put the mics where I thought they looked right. I used small-diaphragm condensers, from Neumann, AKG, and Schoeps. The arranger was satisfied, and so was the producer. These were professional studio string players, and I suspect it would have been difficult to make them sound bad. I just went for what seemed like the best balance and hit record.

Piano was always a challenge to me, especially before I got a good grand piano in the studio. Before that, I had several different upright pianos of varying heights and I learned that the bigger ones sounded a lot better than the smaller ones.

The Steinway B, on the other hand, was difficult to make sound bad, no matter what I did with the mics.

Still, I was never totally satisfied with the piano sound I was getting. The standard technique back then was to place a couple of mics inside and close the piano lid as much as possible. That was necessary when recording piano in the same room as drums and other loud instruments.

I never liked that sound. For a solo piano recording, or an overdub, I preferred to remove the lid and mic the piano from above. Coincident mics had the best phase coherence, which was important back then when mono was still the way most people heard music at home or on the radio.


Vocals seemed easy enough for me back in those days. The Neumann U87 was king, and you just set It up in cardioid, with bass roll-off, and the pad, if necessary. The singers would always want to get far too close to the mic, from their experience singing on stage with a SM58. Actually, that’s still a problem today, with many singers with limited studio experience.

We didn’t use screen pop filters back then, but if I ran into this problem today with an inexperienced singer, I might use a pop screen placed the closest distance I would want the singer to get to the mic.

For background vocals, I used the U87, or similar, in its omnidirectional pattern and arranged the singers around it. If it was only two background singers, I would use the bi-directional, figure-8 pattern. That’s where I discovered that the sound of a bi-directional mic fit my style perfectly. I started recording lead vocals with the mic in that pattern. I also discovered the magic of the RCA 44, which up until then I rarely used.

All three patterns, omni, figure-8, and cardioid, all produced very different sounds. I learned to use those variations to get the sound I wanted. That usually only worked if the vocal was an overdub, due to lack of isolation from any other sounds in the studio.


My second studio was much bigger than the original one, and it had a good room sound. I learned to appreciate the contribution of the room with many vocalists, depending on the song and the singer. I would move them back a couple of feet and everything sounded much better. Or I would change the pattern to change the sound of the mic and change the balance between direct and reverberant sound.


On occasion, I would be confronted by instruments I had zero knowledge of, like Middle-Eastern stringed instruments, or Indian percussion. What I learned was to spend some time in the studio and listen to the instrument. I had to determine how the sound was produced, and where it sounded best as I moved around.

But I could never tell if that was the desired sound the player wanted. Sometimes they would tell me what was wrong when I asked them during a playback. You have to be careful, though, because sometimes they like a sound that enhances their instrument but doesn’t blend well with the other instruments. At those times, you may have to tactfully override the players desires for the sake of the sound of the overall recording.

Back then, I played guitar a bit, and bass fairly well. I also taught myself how to play the flute. Those experiences helped me to understand how best to mic those instruments.

That led me to a curiosity about other instruments. Whenever time permitted, I would ask the player of a violin, or oboe, for example, to show me how the sound was produced. Some of the players I worked with regularly would even give me an impromptu lesson on their instrument. Several even loaned me an instrument to experiment with.

There is nothing more humbling than trying to make a decent sound on a violin or a bassoon. But those frustrating endeavors taught me a lot about how those instruments, and many others, produced their sound. That gave me insight into how to mic them. It also increased my appreciation of the skill those professional players had.



I’ve talked about choosing the right mic in previous episodes, but it needs to be covered in this discussion as well.

Often, there are conventions that many engineers follow when recording a particular instrument. That might be the right sound, but there might be something even better. It can be surprising how mics that we think of as being very similar can sound totally different on some instruments, or some voices.

If you have the luxury of time to experiment, it can be useful to set up several candidate mics and listen to each to hear the differences. At this point, I generally hit the right combination of instrument and mic right off the bat. But not always. There will always be surprises.

For example, for an artist I am currently producing, I use some excellent studio musicians. One of them is a cello player who is very creative and gets interesting sounds. He often provides the only bass track on the record.

But the cello is placed in a strange range for a lot of non-classical music. The instrument can conflict with a guitar or keyboard part, or especially with a vocal, if you are not careful.

Since I record the entire rhythm track at once, with everyone in the same room, it can be a challenge when drums, acoustic guitar, violin, and cello are all playing together. The players are excellent at playing in a good acoustic balance, but there is still going to be some bleed.

I started out with an AEA R44C on the cello, with the null side of the mic facing the drums. As you know, the null in a ribbon mic is far deeper than the null off the back of any cardioid mic. And the off-axis sound is identical to the on-axis sound, just lower in level. With a cardioid mic, the off-axis rejection gets worse the higher the frequency, so many cardioid mics are essentially omnidirectional above a few kHz. As you can imagine, or probably have experienced, the bleed can sound really bad. Ribbon mics are better for this.

The 44 sounded great on the cello, and the minimal bleed actually enhanced the drum sound a bit. But the cello lacked the “bite” and definition I wanted on some songs.

Eq was not the answer.

I went through several mics, looking for the best solution. I tried a unique small-diaphragm cardioid condenser, which added the bite, with its presence peak, but it lacked the warmth of the ribbon mic.

I tried various cardioid ribbon mics, like the Beyer-Dynamic M160, AEA KU4 and KU5, which all sounded good but not exactly what I wanted.

I decided to try a Sennheiser MKH416, which is a shotgun mic used universally in the film world for dialog. It has a very narrow pattern and a nice presence peak. It sounded great on the cello, and I used it on several songs. But not when there were drums in the room. Like all cardioid mics, it becomes omni above a certain frequency, and that made the drum bleed sound a bit unpleasant.

The MKH416 is an RF condenser, which works on a different principle than conventional condenser mics. The main advantage to my ear is significantly less distortion, and that was important to me.

My ultimate cello mic for this situation is as yet undetermined. Everything I have tried has worked well, but none of those mics were a slam-dunk perfect solution for every song.

Often in this situation I would use a couple of mics, often a condenser and a ribbon. I’ve tried that but always ended up using one or the other mic and rarely the combination.



Every singer’s voice is different, and may require some experimentation to find the best mic. Usually, I have a pretty good idea of what to use, and most of the time I nail it on the first try. But not always.

The rule of thumb, as described by Wes Dooley in an early episode of this podcast, was simple:

“If you don’t like the sound, move the mic. If that doesn’t solve the problem, change the mic.” I think that is excellent advice and that approach has worked well for me over the years.

For a long time, the Neumann U87 was the standard vocal mic. Producers were familiar with the sound and most preferred it. But other times I would try something else, like an RCA 44, a Calrec small-diaphragm condenser, or a Neumann M49. Those were my three go-to vocal mics, along with the U87. All three have dramatically different sound, and what worked great with one singer might be terrible for another.

The placement of the singer in the room was another variable to be used. I knew my studio well, and I had favorite spots that I thought sounded best. But sometimes the sound in a different part of the room was better for the singer and the song.

The distance between the sound source and the mic was another variable to be exploited. Sometimes for a vocal double, I would put the singer many feet from the mic. Or even at the other end of the studio.


A couple of years ago we were making a harpsichord recording of a Bach piece, with an excellent harpsichord, played by George Hazelrigg. I talked about this in an episode from June 2021. Listen to that one if you want more details.

We started out mic’ing the harpsichord like I did for piano: lid off, with the mics above the sounding board. That sounded good, but there was too much mechanical noise. So we put the lid back on, set at its widest open position, and placed the mic a few feet out. So far, I had been using an AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic, which works great on piano.

It sounded good, but it really wasn’t exactly what we wanted. After trying other ribbon and condenser mics, placed everywhere we could think of, we were still dissatisfied. After two days of experimenting, we were out of ideas.

On the day of the session, I decided to try a pair of AEA R44C mics, set in the Blumlein stereo configuration. That is crossed figure-8 patterns, just like the R88. It was a long shot because I didn’t expect much difference from the R88.

But it was quite different. And exactly what we were going for.

This is an example of how sometimes the best solution is far from what you thought it was going to be.

It also illustrates why you should try things that seem all wrong, just to see what happens. Like the Sennheiser shotgun mic on the cello.

Of course, it helps to have a lot of mics to choose from. I am fortunate that I have dozens of mics, collected over the decades. But even if you only have a few mics to try, it may be that something strange turns out to be a good solution.

My ideal mic collection, if I had to limit my choices to just a few, might include several ribbon mics with different characteristics, an outstanding dynamic mic, like a Shure SM7 plus the ubiquitous SM57, a couple of multipattern large-diaphragm condensers, preferably tube based, and maybe a couple of small diaphragm condensers. If I could, I would have some of the mics in pairs, for stereo mic’ing.

Your choices might be very different. But the point is to have a lot of variety so that when encountering an instrument, you never recorded before, or a vocalist with an unusual voice, you have a bunch of mics with vastly different characteristics.

You never know what is going to work best.




You may have noticed that I have not mentioned equalization in this discussion. I think it is far too easy to start turning eq knobs when the sound isn’t right. That may seem to fix the problem, but in my experience, eq should be used sparingly, and only for an effect or a last-ditch effort to get a good sound.

One exception to my rule is when using close-mic’ing with a directional mic. There may be too much proximity effect, which exaggerates the low frequencies. Sometimes that is useful, but usually it is not. I often use a simple eq with a bass shelving roll-off when cutting the track.


If you’re confronted with an unfamiliar instrument, first study how it produces its sound. The player can be helpful.

Think through your mic collection and make some choices. You may want to try several mics.

Place the mic and then go into the control room and listen. If you like it, and the player and/or producer like it, you may be ready to record.

If you or any of the others are not entirely happy with the sound, try moving the mic. Sometimes putting your ear in various places will reveal a location that best captures the sound. Try putting the mic there.

If you have a knowledgeable assistant in the studio, have them move the mic around while you listen in the control room. It can be surprising how tiny the area is where the mic sounds best.

Also try varying the distance. Many instruments require a distance before the sound is fully developed. This may conflict with your need to maintain isolation. Consider an iso booth or baffles if necessary.

If the position you find is as good as it gets, but you still aren’t happy with the sound, try a different mic.

Depending on your room, the instrument, and the mic distance, the actual location in the room may enhance or detract from the sound. Often, we don’t have the luxury of time to move players, instruments, and mics during the session, but sometimes it is worth the effort to perfect the sound.

Often, you have to accept the imperfect sound and keep the session moving. But don’t forget that experience. Use that to guide you the next time you have the same instrument to record. It may take a while to refine the sound, but it is worth it. I am stilling doing that, even after all these years.

Players can be a resource for mic placement, but they may be thinking about the stage, not the studio. Also, they may prefer a sound that is not suitable for the overall song.

Always consider the sound in the context of the music. What sounds wonderful by itself may not blend with the rest of the instruments. It may even cause a conflict. I prefer solving these problems when tracking, not later.

All these things apply equally to instruments and vocals.


This topic was suggested by a listener. If you have suggestions for a podcast episode, please let me know. Your feedback is always helpful.

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This is My Take on Music Recording. I’m Doug Fearn. See you next time.