Stringed instruments such as cellos can be incredibly hard to mic properly, due to their finicky nature. There are basically two ways to go about it, and we shall presently explain both methods of recording a cello to you. In the end, you may want to combine these two methods for an even fuller sound.
Use A Directional Mic Close Up
The first method we’ll mention is using a directional microphone close up. To clarify, a directional microphone is one that is designed to get most of its sound from one particular direction. These mics are also referred to as hypercardioid microphones.
Here is a video showing how to record cello in this way, using a DPA D:Vote 4099.
To recap this video:
The DPA D:Vote 4099 directional mic is small and can be strategically placed to get the optimal sound you want. In the above video, the mic is clipped on below the bridge, and aimed at either the strings above, the F-hole, or somewhere in between.
Because the space between the bridge and the F-hole is relatively small, the person recording the cello needs to determine what placement of the mic will provide the desired sound in the recording.
As the video states, pointing the mic at the strings will give you more attack and presence, while pointing the mic at the F-hole will provide more low end and just more sound in general.
As the person recording the cello, and presumably listening back to hear how it sounds, you’ll need to try different positions with a mic like this, just to get things exactly right.
The size and make of the cello will make be a factor in the resultant sound, not to mention the strings, in addition to other contributing factors like the temperature of the air in the room and the size of the room.
Of course, because this microphone is so close to the cello, room-related factors will matter less, which leads us to our next recording method.
** The above mic (DPA D:Vote 4099) comes with a clip. Make sure you have that, because otherwise you’ll be trying to tape the mic to your cello, which is less than ideal, or someone will be holding it (also not ideal).
Using a Condenser Mic at a Distance
If one was to provide a counter-argument for using a directional microphone close up with a cello, it would be that using such a set-up somehow misses the point, as it were.
This is because, as the sound leaves the instrument and fills up a room, many recording experts claim that this is the sound you want to capture, not the up-close “attack” of the instrument.
The argument goes that the “true” sound of the instrument can only be captured at a distance. A condenser mic, which has a certain level of sensitivity, and omni-directional capabilities, would be ideal for such a purpose.
Part of this reasoning comes from the fact that if you were listening to a cello as an audience member, you would be some distance from the instrument, and this is the sound that you would hear. Similarly, in a recording, if you try to capture the instrument from the perspective of an audience member, this might ultimately be more fortuitous for the listening experience.
So, what might this magic distance be? This is strictly up to your preference. We would recommend a few feet away, at least. Again, the acoustics of the room come into play, as well as the cello, and lest we forget the cellist themselves. All of these factors will determine where you might place a quality condenser mic in relation to your cello player.
Below we have a Rode NT2, which is a great multi-purpose condenser mic that can be used for all sorts of instruments, from vocals, to stringed instruments, to electric instruments, and even drums. This mic also has the benefit of being able to switch between directional and omni-directional, which you can toggle between at your leisure.
Watch this video featuring the Rode NT-2, a Rode NT-5, a DPA 4090, as well as a Neumann TLM-127. Take note of the placement of the various mics.
Luckily, no one said you only had to use one microphone to get your ideal cello sound. We recommend using both types of microphones at the same time to get a more balanced sound.
On one hand, you’ll have the benefits of an up-close directional mic to pick up the sounds from the strings and coming out of the F-hole, and on the other hand you’ll be able to capture the sound of the room itself and how the cello sounds in that room.
If this is within your budgetary means, we recommend this set up over using just one or the other.
Aim For Quality
Another reason to use this multi-mic setup to record your cello is because you, we would assume, don’t want your cello to sound bad in the recording. It’s one thing to record a garage rock band, because people half-expect that to possess inferior audio. So, unless you want your cello or ensemble to sound like the classical version of the White Stripes, having two if not more microphones recording your sound at once might not be too much to ask.
Consider What Else Is In The Mix
As we mentioned earlier, if you’re using a condenser mic at a distance, you’ll want to have it back a ways from the cello. How far back? Again, we said that’s basically up to you. You can try different things here, including putting a mic way back to see what kind of “big” room sound you might get. Also consider reflective surfaces that might be in the room and make their way into the recording. These can create a natural reverb, but possibly too much depending on what you want. In such an instance, you might need something like curtains to cover up certain walls.
You’ll want to consider the final recording too, because obviously there’s a good chance you might have more than just your cello in the mix.
As such, you can and should record with this in mind, avoiding things like too much of the sound of the strings, as you might want to blend your cello’s sound with another cello, or any number of other instruments.
The harsher the attack, the harder it will be to blend softer sounds together, especially if that’s all you’ve recorded.
However, if you have done your due diligence and recorded both room sounds and close-up sounds, you can decide what you want to keep in the final mix.
The lowest note on the cello is the C2, which is around 65Hz. The microphone you choose should be able to handle the range of frequencies in all your string instruments with a high level of detail. These are questions which may be answered either by looking on your microphone’s packaging before purchasing, or talking to an expert at the music store or online before purchasing.
A cello is a sensitive instrument, and so requires great attention to detail when mic’ing and recording it. Rushing through the process will only give you undesirable results. We hope this article helped you in terms of deciding how you might go about this process. Good luck!