How To Make The Bluegrass Grow

We will cover in this article some ideas on recording string instruments in the bluegrass style. When I think of bluegrass, I think of the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe, and the way he sounds and feels to me. It’s a very open feel, full of the moment with all of its greatness and mistakes. The timbres of the instruments are in a wonderful bubbling blend waiting to jump out for their moment, and then come back into the mix. It’s a live feel, and that’s what we are shooting for.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

We will cover in this article some ideas on recording string instruments in the bluegrass style. When I think of bluegrass, I think of the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe, and the way he sounds and feels to me. It’s a very open feel, full of the moment with all of its greatness and mistakes. The timbres of the instruments are in a wonderful bubbling blend waiting to jump out for their moment, and then come back into the mix. It’s a live feel, and that’s what we are shooting for.

The Room

First off, I like to record a lot of room when doing bluegrass. For each instrument, I will put up a nice, warm room mic (such as an AKG C414) set to its cardioid pattern, and positioned about six-feet high and three-feet away from the sound source. You may have to move this mic around a bit to find the sweet spot in the room, but the ambience will change the sound of your instruments when mixed together for the better. Air is good! This mic will pick up a lot of the room artifacts, as well—such as foot stomping and string scrapes— but that stuff is part of what gives bluegrass its natural feel in the studio.

Mandolins & Guitars

While these guys seem very different in shape and sound, they are actually played very similarly in the bluegrass style. The performers use picks on both, and move back and forth from a strumming and rhythmic chordal approach to playing lead lines. In addition, their arms partially obscure the soundholes. As a result, I treat both instruments much the same way, excepting the choice of microphone.

For the guitar, I typically choose a large-diaphragm condenser for a fuller range of sound. In many cases, I’ll position a Neumann U67 about eight inches in front of the soundhole, and about 20 degrees off axis from the top of the guitar. For the mandolin, I usually go with a smalldiaphragm condenser—such as an AKG C451 again—to get a nice, tight sound that will pop out of the mix. And don’t forget that you’ve already placed that room mic out there. Use it to the best advantage.

Banjos

This is a very interesting instrument to record—a stringed piece of wood with a drumhead attached. It comes in a variety of flavors, such as four or five strings, different scales lengths, closed back with resonator, and open back. When a banjo is played quietly, it sounds very soft, but when it’s picked hard, it produces a spiky sound that can overload mics if not handled properly. I usually position a large-diaphragm condenser approximately four to six inches in front of the banjo at an angle of around 30 degrees. The position will change a bit with the style of playing (picking, frailing, or claw hammer), so be flexible and experiment a bit. The trick is getting a good solid sound on all quiet and loud parts without having to use compression.

Fiddles

I will likely get a bit of grief about this from some fiddlers out there, but I think the fiddle (as opposed to the violin) has a bit more of a whiney, saw sound to it—which I love. Maybe it’s because some people play it in a lower position (down by the waist), than in the standard classical position. Either way, I want to capture that whine instead of mitigating it (which I would do when recording a less than stellar violinist). So along with our room mic, I will position a small-diaphragm condenser about six inches away from the neck of the instrument, pointing towards the bridge. I try to get as close as I can without getting in the player’s way. When I blend the room and the close mic together in the mix, I am able to get the bite I need while still remaining in the land of good taste.

Outboard Gear

No. No. No. You’re looking for the most natural sounds you can get. It’s all about mic position, mic choice, and the performances. Signal processing isn’t part of the deal. Let the instruments, the room, and the players do their job, and you will have done yours. Keep it clean and natural, and you will get a wonderful tone at the end. Yeehaw!