Micing a marimba
I'm doing a favour for a friend this week, and in the process boldly going where no me has gone before. Everything should go fine, but I would be interested in anyone's input on the best way to mic a marimba.
I would mic it in a way that complements the song.
I’ve spent a great deal of time recording marimba. For a number of reasons, it is one of the most difficult of instruments to mic: Once the resonance builds up, a good marimba produces a very large set of harmonics. A good marimbist can produce a very large dynamic range. A change of sticks can completely alter the tonal character. The sound of a marimba doesn’t come from a single location, it builds up throughout the instrument and is usually largely dependant on the natural acoustic.
Completely overcoming all these difficulties simultaneously is not entirely possible and the best solution in my experience tends to vary from situation to situation. For example, the first time I was involved in recording a marimba was at the Hit Factory in London. We spent a long time playing around with different high quality mics from their extensive collection but eventually and much to my surprise, the difficulties of the marimba were largely overcome by the use of 4 SM57s! 2 overheads about 8ft off the ground at either end of the marimba and 2 about 15ft in front of the marimba. A few months later I was trying to record the marimba in my own studio, I spent many hours with the same mic setup but never achieved anything that sounded better than a crap school project! The best results I obtained was using 2 quality large diameter capacitor mics (Beyer MC740s), one at either end of the marimba pointing inwards, a foot or so beneath the bars and between the resonators. I then used a Lexicon to add a nice clean hall reverb. There are other examples of recording in different locations where neither of these mic’ing patterns worked and we had to use something completely different!
So my advice is to first try to understand the sound of a marimba in a good acoustic. Failing this, get a copy of the “Rhythm Song” CD by Evelyn Glennie and listen to the “Michi” track. Once you’ve got the sound in your head give yourself plenty of time to experiment with different mics and positioning.
Two last things to look out for: Marimbas have a lot of individual parts joined together which often results in various audible little buzzes or rattles from the frame, the resonators or the bars/support posts. The second potential problem is that a marimbist has to use soft sticks at the bottom end of the marimba, if the music calls for them to shift to a much higher register without the time to change sticks it is likely that you will pick up a considerable amount of frame noise.
Not what you really wanted to hear I’m sure but I hope this info is useful.
I have had a bit of experience with rosewood and musser marimbas, so this is what has worked for me. If you are in a larger live room, and want the room as part of the picture, (stereo is best) experiment with a quality pr. of small diaphragm condensers - KM 184's, C-451's, Oktava 012's etc, and strike a balance with room and instrument. If no live room, or not wanted/needed, find where the range of the piece lies on the marimba (between E3 & A5 etc.) and mic towards the upper and lower extremes of the piece. You can experiment with distance - close miking will give some unwanted resonances, so be careful. You can manipulate the stereo image by adjusting the mics, so play around. One way that pleases the marimba player is setting the mics above the player's head (but out of the way) - this seems the sound that they are used to.
Hope it turns out,
The Musser 450 LHS was one of the nicest sounding marimbas ever made. The only downside is that much of the repertoire written in the last 20 years has been written for a 5 octave marimba (C1-C6), whereas the Musser only has a range from A1-C6.
I'm not sure that close mic'ing picks up unwanted resonance. It certainly picks up less of the impact and more of the resonance, which is often a good thing, depending on the piece.
I also have preferred dynamic or ribbon mikes for Marimba and other percussion instruments. KM-84s/86s are the best condensers I've found for marimba. Probably the first thing I'd reach for are some EV RE-15s or RE-20s. The 15s are nice because they are supercardioids and don't get muddy as you move back.
We had a great sounding marimba and set of vibes in an isolation room at Motown. (I understood they had been purchased as Army surplus!) More important, we had the two Jacks, Brokenshea and Ashford playing them. Those guys are simply awesome.
You are correct - I meant close micing might create louder resonances at the point of the mic placement - as well as bass buildup with the proximity effect.
I have not heard the Musser 450 LHS: worked primarily with lesser units of that design, but more recently with a beauty rosewood played and owned by a local gal. It's a 5 octave, tho the only problem is pitch - seems we in the North have such a dry climate, the wood in any musical instrument drys and becomes brittle, and intonation can sometimes be wonky. Being a brass player, that never bothered me, 'tho chapped lips can kill a session too!
I have had excellent luck with an RCA 77-DX over the player's head...the ribbon gives good tone, eats the "bad" transients, and is less sensitive to hum and buzz, etc.
hope this helps,
That's a coincidence, in what seems like a previous life I used to be brass player.
Regarding the tuning, it is probably nessesary to have the bars retuned. About 7 or 8 years ago I was given a tour of the Musser factory. The tuning of the bars is quite an amazing feat. Tuning the fundamental is the easy part, they also tune the first 4 or 5 harmonics! Indeed the main defining difference between a marimba and a xylophone is that the first harmonic on a marimba is tuned to the octave whereas the first harmonic on a xylo is tuned to the fith.
Great info. Thanks a lot!!!
For what it's worth, I like the MKH 40's on both.