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Questions about low budget violin recording

Hi all,
My sister-in-law is going to be doing some "pandemic" recording for grad school auditions and I was hoping to help her capture something nicer than what she was going to try with her phone or webcam or whatever. It's mostly solo classical violin pieces and a couple with piano. And if I'm being honest I'm also looking for an excuse to get myself some gear, since I've been interested in recording for a long time. I've done some research, mostly on forums like this one, and I was hoping to get a little advice on my planned setup.

Currently I've got a few mics in the $100 range:
2x MXL 990 (large diaphragm condensers, not stereo matched or anything)
1x MXL 991 (small diaphragm condenser)
1x AT2020 (popular condenser used a lot by YouTubers I think)

I've got an average Windows laptop or a Mac mini, and I plan to upgrade from Audacity to Reaper.

I've got a Behringer 1204USB mixer (~$200) that sounds like garbage when I use the USB and that adds 60 Hz hum when I plug it into the line input on the Mac. This is the piece I'm most likely to upgrade. I'm thinking about a Steinberg UR44 ($350) or, if I really go all out, an Audient ID44 ($700 gasp).

My cables and stand are all pretty basic. Like Amazon Basic quality. Not sure if upgrading these is the most cost-effective place to put my money.

I've read good things about Sony MDR-7506 monitor headphones ($100), and I'm leaning towards those.

The audition guidelines obviously don't allow any addition of artificial reverb, so we're hoping to find a decent space in a church or something, and I want to record in stereo to give the recording some depth/space.

My current idea, based on the gear I own, is to use the MXL 990s as a stereo pair a couple feet up and away from the violin, with the MXL 991 set back another foot or so. (I realize that's probably not typical, since I usually only see small diaphragm microphones in X/Y or A-B configurations.) And then I'd use the AT2020 for the piano.

My main question is how boneheaded I'm being. What glaring mistakes am I making, and what should I do to course correct? The other question is if you have any suggestions as to where it would be most effective to spend money.

Thank you for your time! I hope to be able to share the result here in a month or so.


paulears Mon, 10/19/2020 - 08:26

You have a few options really, but the problem is that you haven't quite decided what the purpose is. They have a criterion that bans reverb, but you are allowed to record in a church full of it? Are you trying to record an audition piece or a commercial sounding track for release? Are you allowed to take the recording back and 'enhance' it with eq and other treatment - excluding reverb, which is banned?

You also have to consider perspective. A stereo pair around say a metre/3ft away won't give huge amounts of room sound because the violin will be loud compared to the reflections, so might sound rather dry - dryness that reveals the instrument as well as the player. Maybe it would be better to put up a more distant stereo pair to capture the violin AND the piano in the space, but record the violin with the spare mic to make the three?

However - if you have a USB mixer, why are you using the one input and getting the hum? The big choice with just two channels is that you have to get it right, mix wise there and that's very difficult. Although I hate them for recording normally I would use a pair of proper IEM earphones so the room sound is blocked and I can move the mics in or out to set the direct to reverb balance. The Sony's are rather nice, but you will find it difficult to make these decisions when the room sound leaks in.

Personally - I'd use a multitrack interface, or even a zoom or something and record your stereo pair, the violin and borrow another mic for a close in piano mic - then I'd balance and eq each channel properly and cheat with artificial reverb. If real reverb is accepted, then how will they tell if it is the space, or your careful crafted reverb from a plug-in?

That's devious of course, but reality is rarely reality nowadays and as long as it sounds real, it will be fine.

The saving grace is that many virtuoso musicians would never tell a good recording from a bad one if they can hear the focus instrument.

Last point - you say a low budget recording. Is it a low budget violin? If it's a classic instrument, then thats actually easier to record. If it's a nastier one, then maybe there's no need to go too far. If the recording, like many I have done over the years for educational purposes, is just to get a feel for their level and ability, even a rotten old iPhone recording is probably enough for the purpose.

Boswell Mon, 10/19/2020 - 09:31

If you think about the pieces with the piano, then it's the piano that's the wide instrument and the violin is narrow. Given your available microphones, that would suggest that you find a large-ish tall room with a grand piano, possibly a church or a large hall. Then use the 990s as a stereo pair on the piano and the 991 quite high above the violin and pointing down but slightly away from the piano. It may mean placing the 991 mic stand on a pair of tables to achieve this.

The LDC piano mics will give you the spatial effect plus some reverb whether or not the piano is playing, and the SDC will give an account of the violin. Not ideal, but it makes use of what you have. Any mis-match in the 990s should not be a problem as there is a big difference in sound from the high and low end strings of the piano. I would leave the AT2020 out of it.

That leaves the question of the audio interface, and I would not do the recording until you have something other than the 1204USB mixer for this job. Of the units you mention, the Audient iD44 is far and away the best for this type of work. You gasp at the cost, but buying something of a lower quality may only make you start looking for an upgrade after the first few recordings.

Awilley Mon, 10/19/2020 - 14:06

Thank you for the responses.
@paulears, it is not a low budget violin. She's an excellent player with a quality violin. (She just finished her masters in violin performance, and is going back for a doctorate.) I imagine the reason for the artificial reverb restriction is that they don't want noobs like me mucking up recordings with too much of it. And I'm happy to comply with the restriction since I don't have experience with it and since I think the clarity matters here more than anything else.

@Both, using the 990s to get the space and/or piano and the 991 for the violin specifically makes sense to me. As does the idea of doing the multi-track recording and fine tuning the levels later.

paulears Mon, 10/19/2020 - 14:26

Ha! Grad school didn't mean too much over here - I assumed a lower level. In this case, the people who want to hear her, will know and the quality of the recording should just be able to show her off, so to speak. I'd strongly advise you pick the venue and do some experiments, and take photos of the positions so you can repeat the best sounding ones. Good luck.

dvdhawk Mon, 10/19/2020 - 15:15

Crazy idea here...

Have you considered hiring a professional in your area who would have more experience and better equipment?

It's stress-free for you.
There's a high probability of a better result for her.
It's probably less expensive in the long run unless you have a long term need for a better interface beyond the wrap of this one project.
It's almost certainly less demanding of the violinist's time, giving her a chance to concentrate on her performance.
You could tag along and probably learn something of value from a pro.
Afterward, you can decide what the next logical step to further your recording interests might be.

If the recording arts are something you really think you will enjoy for years to come, there's nobody more in favor of diving in, dumping some money into it, and learning by experience.

In any case, best of luck. Paul and Boswell will have plenty of good advice for you.

pcrecord Mon, 10/19/2020 - 15:36

Hey Awilley, welcome to RO !
I got a MXL 990 and found it to be agressive on the high frequencies, I'd guess it could do ok with the piano but it'll harsh on the violin.
I did mod mine by changing the capsule to an RK47 (who has a lot less high frequencies)
I agree with both of my friends here, a zoom recorder or an audient interface are both great idea. I guess none of us is seduced by the behringer mixer.. ;)
Classical music recording is, I think, where you could spend thousands before getting the perfect sound (room, mics, preamps etc.. )

I think it's a good idea to use what you have and assess then.

paulears Mon, 10/19/2020 - 23:40

I had fifteen years of listening to students, often with good kit, recording a range of instruments of all qualities and instrument standards and came to one conclusion. The space was the key factor in the ‘niceness’ of the recordings. Often the exams would show up social differences. We’d have a Valuable violin recorded in the Public (fee paying) school umpteen hundred year old chapel with pairs of old valuable mics and even the odd Decca Tree thrown in with a State school with plywood violin, 2 Behringer dynamics recorded in the classroom. The mark scheme looked at clarity, stereo field, noise and distortion - and this did cover the end of class bell so obvious in a few recordings that had over-run. Next year, the teacher beaten over the head for less than good results took their kit to the nearby church and the gulf between them and the lucky posh schools and colleges vanished. We discovered that ANY mic in the most appropriate place could easily get top marks in each category because differences at the top end of the marking scheme were clearly audible but became subjective. A tad of extra sizzle or amazing accuracy of spacial location when you close your eyes? They’d already have top mark.

I’ve noticed when shooting videos in churches that now cameras are mechanically silent, their audio is really, really good! One of mine is a point of view camera, a very modest Panasonic that I’ll stick on a tall pole or put right at the very back for a cutaway wide shot. I use their audio tracks just for sync but this little camera has 5:1 sound which I always dismissed as a gimmick but in a church it has an amazingly big sound if you blend it in! Great acoustics are better than spending huge amounts on kit. Nothing will shake me from this view now. Two unbranded Chinese mics vs two great ones in the studio is quite an obvious difference but in good spaces we are often into that top of the mark scheme area where eq can often make the differences impossible.

one church job involved a choir spread out badly so I would have to recreate the conventional mix in the studio. I recorded each cluster of people with a much closer perspective and isolation so it was more close mics mixed with the X/Y main mics, conventionally places. I had all my larger mics out. The Chinese ones, the Samson’s, the drum overheads and 451s. Back in the studio I had NO idea from their individual recordings which was which. Channels 1 and 2 were the X/Y but the rest were just voices and I didn’t even have the sense to write down where they actually came from. I just collected altos and placed them where my ears thought they should be and then did the same. Totally artificial. I think the same singers at different distances and therefore different time worked to make them sound bigger. Sorry for going off topic a bit, but I really think the space is the key to good recordings with modest kit.

Awilley Sun, 12/13/2020 - 21:25

Hi all, thank you for the advice. I thought you might appreciate an update on how things went.

First, I went ahead and purchased the Audient ID44. It was worth it in my opinion.
Second, we found a church with a nice piano to record the violin/piano piece.
I tried the suggestion of using just 3 mics: the two MXL 990s as a stereo pair (roughly in a ORTF configuration) to get the room and the piano, and the MXL991 on the violin. Here's a picture of the setup.

After listening to the initial recordings, I thought the piano sounded a bit distant, so I tweaked things by adding the 4th mic (AT2020) on the piano, and I moved the LDC stereo pair a bit closer, about even with the camera.

Here's a before and after if you're interested in listening:


I haven't done anything to these other than adjusting the relative levels of the different mics.

@dvdhawk and pcrecord, sorry I missed your replies. (I expected to send me an email notification when someone else replied to the thread like it had done before.) I do intend to do more recording in the future.

paulears Mon, 12/14/2020 - 10:27

Interesting - I think maybe the mics have done a great job but are perhaps a little too far away, the audio version of a video camera on it's widest angle. The violin sounds really detailed, so moving the pair closer in might have restored the perspective a but, but a good attempt. You could check by reviewing the DSLR audio track - for the reverb to signal balance at the position where it was, maybe for the next recording you do there. I think that the distance and mic positioning got you a little too much room to piano perspective. The overhead on the violin sorted that one, but it kind of left the piano exposed with all those hard surfaces to blur things. PS I see what you mean on the instrument and performer quality - no issues there, just the lively room.

audiokid Mon, 12/14/2020 - 10:30

Awilley, post: 466256, member: 52095 wrote: sorry I missed your replies. (I expected to send me an email notification when someone else replied to the thread like it had done before.) I do intend to do more recording in the future.

Check your spam filter settings. Hopefully this is why.

bouldersound Mon, 12/14/2020 - 10:34

That's what I was thinking, a bit too much room. My instinct would be to move the stereo mics to about half the distance to the piano, and position the violin player and mic to minimize bleed from the piano, perhaps around behind the pianist but at a similar distance from the piano. I might plan my placement to accommodate time aligning the far mic to the close mics, though that could also be futile due to things like the size of the source (piano) and the phase at different angles from the source (violin).

In general, mics hear the room quite a bit more than the ear. It's best to err on the side of less room, going a bit closer than what sounds right to the ear.

Awilley Mon, 12/14/2020 - 21:59

Yes, I agree on the stereo mics still not being close enough. I think part of the problem is that I've been hesitant to turn the MXL991 (small diaphragm) up very much because I don't really like the sound of it. I'd describe it as being "gritty" as opposed to "smooth". I tried a visual EQ FX to put a dip in the frequency spectrum between 5kHz and 20kHz with a maximum reduction of 6dB around 10kHz. That seemed to help somewhat. In my mind that is to cancel out the spike in response that the microphone has in the same region. (I also assume this is what pcrecord is talking about above)

But maybe that's an overly simplistic way of thinking about it.

Here are some before and after snippets:

MXL991 solo (no FX)

MXL991 solo (with EQ)

Same snippet with everything

Maybe next time I'll get an actual stereo pair of better small diaphragm mics and use a large diaphragm on the violin instead.

Anyway I am really grateful for the advice you folks have given here.

@ paulears, unfortunately the audio from my old camera is really poor quality. I just use it to align the new audio and then mute it because it sounds awful.
@ dvdhawk, we did consider hiring a professional, but my sister-in-law's budged didn't allow for that (starving music student who graduated straight into a pandemic yada yada) and I wanted the experience and I do plan on using the equipment for other projects. And it was a relatively low-risk situation...the goal here was for me to beat what could be recorded on a smart phone.

paulears Tue, 12/15/2020 - 02:38

When you are faced with blending multiple mics, you have more things to solve than you ever have in close miked recordings. Balance and blend is the main one, but often turning up the closer mics does create this kind of 'fight' - and adding a bit of reverb or EQ doesn't quite fix it. When this happens, I use one feature in Cubase I rarely ever use for other recordings. The delay feature. Just incrementally adding delay to the closer mics can suddenly make them slot in. Especially so when you stick a mic on the pale pink piccolo in the woodwinds. You really need that source but it always sounds wrong - that little time adjustment can really lock it in, and I think that kind of thing is available in every DAW nowadays

pcrecord Tue, 12/15/2020 - 07:56

I like the version Brahms violin concerto (All Mics With EQ).
I wouldn't not expect to have a close and intimate recording done in a church so for me, it is normal to hear it with some reflections.
What I would be careful about is phase. Having close mics and distant mics means that they are not hit with the sound at the same time.. This can cancel certain frequencies and diminish your main source fullness.
Without going into scientific calculations, using the 3:1 ratio is a good starting point or, just use your ears and move the mics until they sound good to you.

Boswell Tue, 12/15/2020 - 07:58

Awilley, post: 466288, member: 52095 wrote: So if one mic is 3 feet away and one is 10 feet away, I could delay the closer mic by 0.006 seconds (7 feet divided by the speed of sound) to make it as if they were equal distance.

The rule I use is to delay the close-up mic by fractionally more than the time between the mics. By doing this, it helps to add detail to the sound while reducing the feel of it being close-miked.

Don't forget that the velocity of sound in air is temperature-dependent. As an example of both corrections in practice, you might choose delay values that always put the sound from the further mic at least a couple of millisec in front of the nearer one over the range of 10 deg to 30 deg.

Awilley Tue, 12/15/2020 - 08:26

Tried it out with a delay of 6ms based on eyeballing distances. The difference, if I am hearing it at all versus imagining it, is subtle, at least to me. I think the violin sounds cleaner, maybe more focused. I added a 7ms delay to the piano (which was surprisingly well-isolated) and couldn't hear any difference in that.

Here's the before and after:

bouldersound Tue, 12/15/2020 - 11:29

The relative levels of the two mics (close and far) will affect how audible the effect is. If one is substantially higher than the other, the phase interaction is minimal. That's how the 3:1 rule of thumb works. I'd be using the 3:1 rule of thumb to guide the close mic placement and positioning of the two sources.

The context I deal with this in is micing up a drum kit. I want the distances to a mic from unwanted and wanted sources to be at least 3:1 (with the benefits of that being enhanced by polar pattern). I normally move the overhead mics to the snare, then line up everything else to the overhead. For this reason I prefer a coincident pair (SM81, X-Y), oriented to put the snare dead center in the image. The result is that it's at an angle that looks a bit funny, but the acoustic image is balanced.

I think that delayed version does sound just slightly more together.

On further listening (to the earlier samples), what might be sounding "off" to me is that the piano sounds more distant than the violin.

pcrecord Tue, 12/15/2020 - 11:57

bouldersound, post: 466292, member: 38959 wrote: For this reason I prefer a coincident pair (SM81, X-Y), oriented to put the snare dead center in the image.

There is also the trick of using a cable and measure the distance from the snare to the overhead mics and make sure they are at equal distance it you want to do space pair ;)

bouldersound Tue, 12/15/2020 - 12:14

pcrecord, post: 466293, member: 46460 wrote: There is also the trick of using a cable and measure the distance from the snare to the overhead mics and make sure they are at equal distance it you want to do space pair ;)

That's true, but with a spaced pair they can only be at an equal distance to sources on one plane. So I'd be able to align the snare and maybe one tom. Anything else could only be aligned to one overhead or the other.

pcrecord Tue, 12/15/2020 - 16:06

bouldersound, post: 466295, member: 38959 wrote: That's true, but with a spaced pair they can only be at an equal distance to sources on one plane. So I'd be able to align the snare and maybe one tom. Anything else could only be aligned to one overhead or the other.

I get you.. normaly, I align them to the snare and the bass drum.. looks odd but works ;)

bouldersound Tue, 12/15/2020 - 20:44

pcrecord, post: 466298, member: 46460 wrote: I get you.. normaly, I align them to the snare and the bass drum.. looks odd but works ;)

I do the same, but by using a coincident pair I can align all the toms as well. "Looks odd but works" also describes my setup.

There are some missing cymbals in this photo, but it gives you an idea.

I realize spaced pairs are the norm for classical, but the general principles apply.



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