Microphones for guitarists
In this article, I compare several typical examples of the kind of microphones that guitarists use to record classical or acoustic guitars:
sE Electronics VR2 Voodoo, an active ribbon microphone
Beyerdynamic MC930, a high quality small diaphragm condenser microphone
AKG C1000s, a popular, affordable small diaphragm condenser microphone
Olympus LS-11, a handheld stereo PCM recorder
And, just for comparison, the built-in microphone in my Nikon D800 camera
In my videos, you can hear for yourself the differences between these microphones. The music in the first video is more straightforward, with a fuller sound, and the second video has music that’s more varied in style, with both single lines and chords and more variations in tone color.
Take a look (and listen) to the videos—differences in sound between decent microphones are not necessarily subtle! More information about the microphones and how the videos were made can be found later in this article.
VIDEO: Microphones for guitar, part 1/2:
My starting point: AKG C1000s
In my first videos, Desert Snow and Paper Plane, I used an AKG C1000s microphone running into Steinberg UR28M interface. AKG C1000s appears to be popular, probably because of its low price and reasonable quality, and the possibility of battery operation.
I never was too happy with the sound of my C1000s: part of the problem probably was my lack of skill and experience in sound engineering, but that mic is not the greatest in the world either. Classical guitar is a demanding instrument to record. It’s very quiet, and, more importantly, you have to get the sound just right for it to sound pleasant.
I clearly needed something better.
Too many options!
I researched the matter thoroughly – too thoroughly, maybe: I spent long hours on the internet, reading reviews, comparing options.
- Should I look at condenser microphones or ribbon mics? Consensus tended to favor condenser mics. Some guitarists seem to be very partial to the ribbon sound, but most write them off as specialty items, only good for some uses, like for getting a dark, soft, ‘vintage’ sound.
- Large diaphragm or small diaphragm microphone? Large diaphragm condensers (LDC) are said to be flattering, and I like to be flattered! But small diaphragm condensers (SDC) seem to be the choice for acoustic instruments, because of their neutral and quick response. Many great classical guitar recordings have been made with LDCs, but they have been extremely expensive high-end models, out of my price range. Affordable LDCs are not in the same league.
- One or two microphones? I can’t make real stereo recordings in my room, so buying a matched stereo pair would seem to be a waste. But, on the other hand, I will probably sometimes record in acoustically better spaces in the future, so a stereo pair would come in useful at some point.
- Pick-up pattern: cardioid or omni – or figure of eight? The omni pattern is said to be more natural, but in my room, I really need to keep the room spill to a minimum. Cardioids it is, then – though a figure of eight mic might be put to good use there, since that pick-up pattern can reject more of the early reflections, which are the most harmful, when it comes to colouring the sound in an undesirable way.
In the end, I settled for a matched pair of cardioid pattern small diaphragm condensers microphones. But which brand and model would be the best? Oktava MK012 is often suggested, and Neumann KM184 is revered by some (and hated by as many) as an upscale option. And beyond those, the options seemed endless.
SDC: Beyerdynamic MC 930
I like to root for the underdog if possible, and so I ordered a matched pair of Beyerdynamic MC 930 mics. Many glowing reviews and comments on gearslutz.com forum also steered me towards this decision.
At first the Beyerdynamic MC930 really disappointed me—I was depressed. No matter what I did, the MC 930 sounded too harsh and “naily”, as if I was playing with an aggressive, percussive attack and long, unfiled fingernails! Up close, father away, on-axis, off-axis, the sound never came close to being pleasing. In addition, one of the thread adapters was faulty and made a mic holder unusable. Not a big deal, but not good on an expensive product like this.
I wasn’t happy.
After much experimentation with microphone placement and some post processing (eq and reverb), I managed to get an almost acceptable sound with the Beyerdynamics. I used them to record my next two videos, Nessun dorma and Nicky and Nellie Went Waltzing.
But I still wasn’t really happy.
Ribbon: sE VR2 Voodoo
sE VR2 is not a beautiful object, but I was immediately far more pleased with its sound than with anything I had used before. Gone was much of the nasty nail sound, and gone was also a large part of that aggressive top end of the sound, which always seemed to be captured effortlessly and ruthlessly by the condensers.
Unfortunately, those characteristics were replaced by some slight muddiness or veiling, and maybe a bit of overall roughness—although how much of this is caused by the acoustics in my room, I don’t know. Still, I consider the sE VR2 Voodoo ribbon microphone to be a great improvement. The VR2 allowed me to capture a guitar sound that’s much closer to my actual live sound.
Now I was happy!
Handheld: Olympus LS-11
I wanted to include in this article also a handheld recording device, since I and many other guitarists routinely use them to record performances on location. Where portability is paramount, handhelds are a good option. There are many models to choose from; the Olympus LS-11 that I own and use is about midrange, I guess. Not the most expensive or the highest quality, but it’s solid enough, and it has good performance and sound for its class. It should be fairly representative of this type of recording device.
LS-11 has two small diaphragm condenser mics for stereo sound, but in this comparison, I used only one side as a mono mic, which I pointed at my guitar, just like the other microphones.
My recording room is not acoustically treated, except for a large sheet of foam behind me and another, smaller sheet on the floor between me and the mics. These are meant to cut down on the early reflections. The room in is asymmetrical in shape and has a lot of furniture, so it does have quite a bit of diffusion.
My room is very problematic to record in, as probably are many if not most domestic (bedroom-type) recording spaces. That’s of course only beneficial for the validity of this microphone comparison: if my room was great, almost any microphone would produce a pleasing, if not always accurate sound. But in the rooms many of us must work in, the microphone becomes very, very important.
For Beyerdynamic MC930 and sE VR2 I used a Steinberg UR28M audio interface with its Yamaha D-Pre mic preamps running into a laptop. Since the UR28M has only two mic inputs, I used a Behringer MIC100 preamp for AKG C1000s, which you should take into account. The AKG is at a disadvantage here, the MIC100 is not the a very high quality mic preamp. All microphones were recorded at 24 bits and 48 kHz resolution, uncompressed.
All the mics were placed next to one another about one metre from the guitar, about one metre from the floor, pointing slightly downwards at my guitar. Placement and direction were not fine-tuned, but are the result of my earlier experiments.
The camera was farther away, and so was the cameras built-in mic, of course.
After recording, each of the sound files was normalized to make their levels roughly comparable—levels between different mics were not meticulously matched. Because of the different characteristics of the mics, that was not really even possible, and not necessary anyway in this non-scientific, empirical test. This produced the ‘dry’ versions that the videos refer to.
The ‘wet’ versions were processed by applying a high shelf filter, reaching -4.5 dB at about 15 kHz, and adding some reverb with RoomWorks SE reverb plugin. This processing produced much more pleasant-sounding files, but also masked some of the individuality of each microphone.
As a whole, the post production, cutting and compositing process for these videos was far more complicated than is usual for me. In fact the project consisted of so many tracks that I ran against the track number limitation in my rather basic video editing software! A far cry from my usual three or four tracks.
In order to retain as much of the original sound quality as possible, the videos were rendered using a high bit rate for the soundtracks. What YouTube does to the videos when it recompresses them is unfortunately beyond my control.
My conclusion: ribbon goodness
The differences between microphones can be heard very clearly in my videos. For recording classical guitar in an acoustically problematic room, I would rate the microphones like this:
Nikon D800 mic is very nearly unusable—1/10 points!
Olympus LS-11 could be used in a pinch, 4/10 points
AKG C1000s is almost okay, 5/10 points
Beyerdynamic MC930 is pretty good, 7/10 points
sE Electronics VR2 is very good! 9/10 points, clearly the winner here!
VIDEO: Microphones for guitar, part 2/2:
My videos illuminate very clearly the basic fact: the worst option you have is to use your camera’s built-in microphone. Just don’t do it, if you don’t have to! Any external microphone will do a much better job than that!
But if you get the chance, perhaps you should consider acquiring a ribbon microphone to record your guitar—especially if your room’s acoustics aren’t the greatest. A ribbon mic will probably be more forgiving, and as a result your guitar will sound more natural and much warmer.
But in the end, any preference between condenser and ribbon microphones remains of course a matter of taste and opinion.
Other options for a ribbon mic
The sE VR2 ribbon is just the one I happen to have, and the only ribbon microphone I have first hand experience with. There are probably other ribbon microphoness even better suited to recording classical guitar. Among others, I’ve heard good things about Coles 4038 for example, and AEA and Royer are reputed to make excellent, if very expensive ribbon mics. As happy as I am with my sE VR2, it’s not perfect.
Who knows, there might be an upgrade path for me there somewhere. I’d like to have a microphone to which I could give ten out of ten points…
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