If you don't know how to record or amplify an unfamiliar instrument, then you're going to have to work out how to do it for yourself. But with a few easy guidelines, it's simple!
It is an unwritten law of audio that at some point in time, sooner or later, someone will walk into your studio with an instrument that you have never seen before. Let's imagine that it's a melodica. How do you record it? Similarly, a live sound engineer might have to amplify an unfamiliar instrument. How should it be done?
The reason I have chosen the melodica as an example is because it seems to be an up-and-coming instrument, like the ukulele has been over recent years. Audio Masterclass's cub reporter snapped photos at Cardiff's The Full Moon venue of not just one band featuring a melodica but two. A sure sign of the instrument's growing popularity! Here are Toodles and the Hectic Pity...
As you can see from the pics, if you can peer through the murky atmosphere of the evening excitement, is that the melodica is a combination of a wind and keyboard instrument. Basically you blow into it and play the keys. It couldn't be more straightforward. You can blow into it directly as in the second pic, or through an extension tube that allows you to look just that little bit cooler as you play. Inside, the melodica has reeds that create the sound, not so different to a harmonica in fact.
Rather than give one rule to record the melodica, I would rather give one rule to rule them all that will work with any instrument. Well actually three rules, but they will work for any instrument and any sound source...
1. Start off from a natural listening position.
2. Point the microphone at the instrument.
3. Find the right microphone distance by experiment.
To explain in more detail, these three rules - or rather guidelines - will help you to capture the natural sound of the instrument. And if an instrument is new or unfamiliar to you, that is almost certainly the best starting point.
So if a natural sound is your aim, starting out by listening with your ears is essential. The player should be positioned in the room where they sound best, or feel most comfortable to perform well. Then walk around and find the best position to listen from, as if you are an audience member with a magic ticket that allows you to go anywhere in the house.
Guideline 2 should be obvious. There can be good reasons to point the microphone in some way other than directly at the instrument but, other than for ambience mics, pointing the mic at the instrument is always the best place to start.
Guideline 3 is a little more complicated. Normally the microphone will be placed closer to the instrument than the best natural listening position. This is because the human hearing system is very clever at sorting out reverberant sound from direct sound, so you can hear clearly at a distance. The microphone cannot do this anywhere near as well, so it would normally be closer to capture more of the direct sound. A useful rule of thumb is to think about a distance that is 1.5 times the maximum dimension of the instrument. This will capture the sound of the whole of the instrument, not just part of it, without too much reverberation from the room. If there is too much reverb, then get in closer. The closer you get, the more you will need to experiment with the exact position. But always experiment until you have the best sound possible.
Once again I would like to generalize for any instrument. The difference between recording and amplification is 1. That you have feedback to consider, and 2. That there will probably be other instruments than can spill into the mic (or 'leak' or 'bleed' if you prefer, but they mean the same).
Usually you're going to have to get in much closer with the mic for amplification. This allows the mic to pick up more sound from the instrument and less sound from the monitors and front of house loudspeakers. The higher this ratio, the less chance of feedback, and the more level you can achieve before feedback occurs.
Getting the mic closer to the instrument also means that it is comparatively further away from the other instruments on stage. So you get more melodica and less flute (see the second pic above). This makes it easier for the front of house engineer to balance the instruments. It improves things for monitors too.
The problem with getting in close with the mic is that you will no longer pick up the sound from the whole of the instrument. The saxophone is a good example because it produces sound from the full length of the instrument all the way from the reed to the bell. So to record it and capture a natural sound, 1.5 times the length of the instrument is a good starting point for the microphone distance. But for live sound this will usually be too far, so you will need to move the microphone in. But to which part of the instrument? Well, the answer is the part of the instrument where most of the sound comes out and sounds most 'saxophony'. This will normally be the bell.
So the same applies to the melodica or any unfamiliar instrument. Listen with your ears first. Get in close. Find where most of the sound comes out. Try your microphone there and listen to the sound from the mic. Does it sound like the instrument does naturally? If yes then all is good. If no then you need to adjust the mic position.
This doesn't really have anything to do with recording or live sound, but apparently he was given a trumpet and learned to play it a little. But then he realized that you can't play the trumpet and sing at the same time. So he traded his trumpet in for a guitar and the rest is history. So think about that when you're making your decision between melodica and ukulele!
Yes, the Tokai IC Pianix...
Yes, here is Akeo Minamikawa, a virtuosa of the melodica, with mics set up for both the melodica and (presumably) for vocals or announcements to the audience. Also presumably not at the same time. Notice how she plays the instrument from both sides! Take that, pianists.
Oh, and just in case you thought you'd seen every instrument there is to see, here is Frank Zappa on The Steve Allen Show in 1963...
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