How to Get A Pro Recording of Your Acoustic Violin From Home
Why every violinist should record from home
This article is written by guest author Brad Johnson
As a violinist, you have many great opportunities at your fingertips if you can learn how to get great recordings from the comfort of your home.
Websites like SoundBetter.com and airgigs.com make it easy for musicians to market their services to other’s projects. And being a violinist, you could offer a great service where there isn’t as much competition as a guitarist, drummer, or programmer might experience.
The good news is that recording acoustic violin from your home doesn’t have to be expensive, complicated, or take years of practice.
As long as you get the basics right, you can accomplish a lot with a little.
Let’s get started!
Part 1: The Basics
Before diving into the gear, you will need to get a pro-sounding violin recording from home; let’s first dive into essential preparation.
The secret of a great recording
There is no denying the power of outstanding performances when it comes to music.
The energy and personality of the musician always dictate the quality of the recording. If a player is unprepared or nervous, this will translate into the recording and what you hear coming out of the speakers.
This crazy intangible that no amount of gear, software, or money can fix.
As you begin this journey of recording your violin, there will be a steep learning curve. You will give stale and stiff performances as you overthink the entire process.
But this is entirely normal!
The key is to get your recording space up and running and integrate it as part of your practice routine quickly. Get comfortable hitting the record button and running through your practice routines. Don’t worry about “laying down the track” and simply get used to the experience of recording yourself.
As you remove the mystique and pressure of recording, you will feel more natural and confident when you intentionally record a new song with your violin.
Another benefit of incorporating the recording aspect into your practice routine is that you will have documentation of your progress in both your violin and recording skills.
Violins are very resonant instruments that also have lots of extra little noises. When recording violin, you will pick up every tiny detail that usually goes unnoticed in a live performance.
Your instrument and bow must be adequately maintained and set up to get a pro-sounding recording.
When your instrument is in proper working order, you will avoid picking up any unwanted noises.
This might seem like a funny point to mention when getting a pro-sounding violin recording from home. However, great recordings will get ruined by jangly jewelry and noisy clothes.
Wearing comfortable and loose fabric that doesn’t make noise as you play is a small but crucial part of getting the best recording you can from your violin.
Getting the right room to help you achieve an excellent violin recording will be the most challenging part of this whole process.
When you think of an incredible-sounding violin recording, you often think of those big open spaces where sound feels as if it is floating in the air. Unfortunately, your house, or apartment, was not designed to produce this type of sound.
In fact, your living spaces are working against you when recording music. A bedroom, living room, or bathroom is too small to allow sound waves to pleasantly reverberate as you’d hear in a concert hall.
The solution to this is to make the room in which you create your home studio as “dead” as possible. You want to try and remove as much room sound from the recording equation as possible.
There are many ways to accomplish this, some expensive and some affordable. If you are handy (or know someone who is), building your own sound panels is the most effective and cost-effecient way to stop room reflections.
This can be accomplished by using 4” thick Owens Corning 703 Fiberglass panels, putting a wood frame around them, and wrapping them with a breathable fabric.
Place one panel above you on the ceiling, one in front of you, one behind you, one to each side of you, and one in each room corner. Then you will create a much better recording environment.
There are also acoustic companies, like Auralex, that sell acoustic foam that you can place on your wall, which is very effective and fast to install. However, these solutions are more costly and not as aesthetically pleasing as the DIY route.
For more information on setting up sound panels in your home studio, please refer to this resource from Sound on Sound Magazine here.
Part 2: The Gear
Now that we have our foundation built for a pro-recording, let’s get into real gear talk. I promise you won’t need to spend an arm and a leg if you get the last things right!
If you Google “The best microphone for recording Violin,” you will get many opinions and recommendations. However, I will argue that the microphone doesn’t matter as much as you would think.
Microphones are simply sonic paintbrushes.
However, it’s critical to understand the nuances, inherit benefits, and potential pain points of certain microphone types when recording your acoustic violin.
There are two types of microphones you should consider when recording your acoustic violin:
A condenser microphone comes in either a large diaphragm or a small diaphragm version.
Small diaphragm condensers will accurately pick up more details, which could work against you by picking up unwanted noises from your instrument. For example, the extra detail could accentuate the bow friction against the strings and make notes sound sharp to the ears.
Because violins can have sharper transients, I would recommend against a small-diaphragm condenser as your go-to violin microphone.
On the other hand, large-diaphragm condensers tend to round out transients and have a smoother response.
A large-diaphragm condenser can run from a couple of hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. While the cheaper condensers are very high-quality these days, they have drawbacks.
Manufacturers of cheaper condenser microphones often add a boost in the high-end to give an “airy” brightness to recordings. However, high-frequency instruments like the violin can add extra brittleness and bite, making your recording sound tinny and irritating.
While you can remedy this later with equalization, de-essing, and compression, it isn’t always the most efficient workflow.
This is where spending a little more on a microphone can save you tons of time and headache.
If you’re willing to spend a little extra on a large-diaphragm condenser, then you could get one that has a tube in it.
Tubes add a “fatness” to an audio recording and a subtle saturation that is pleasing to the ears (think vinyl records).
Tubes often will accentuate the midrange of an instrument. Because of this characteristic, they could be a fantastic option for violinists looking for a little more vintage color from their microphone instead of a high-fidelity sound.
Great options for a large-diaphragm condenser with a tube are Warm Audio’s Warm Audio WA-251 for a brighter, airy tone or the WA-47 for a thicker, mid-range tone.
Ribbon microphones have a natural suppression in the high-end and are known for being highly natural-sounding and warm. They are incredibly effective for recording acoustic stringed instruments like a violin.
One downside of ribbon microphones, especially regarding recording in your home, is that they have a figure-8 polar pattern. This means that the microphone picks up sound from both the front and the back. Because of this, ribbons can often pick up reflections off walls and hard surfaces, which could be not ideal for getting a clean recording. This is especially true if you choose to not treat your room with acoustic panels.
Also, cheap ribbon microphones are usually not worth it. If you’re looking for a quality ribbon microphone, you will need to spend at least $500-600 dollars.
Some of the most popular ribbon microphones run up to 1,000+ for one, so a ribbon isn’t a small purchase.
However, suppose you properly treat your room and are looking to record your violin for years to come. In that case, the investment into a quality ribbon microphone is well worth it.
If you want to find a tremendous all-around ribbon that won’t break the bank, check out the Royer R-10.
All in all, microphones are a critical component of getting a pro-sounding recording of your acoustic violin. However, when it comes to choosing the right one, it comes down to what will be the most efficient for you.
Short cheat sheet:
A cheaper condenser = clean and detailed recording but with an emphasis on high-end that can make your violin sound tinny and irritating. You will need to learn how to EQ, compress, and de-ess for it to sound right.
An expensive condenser = A very detailed and lively sounding recording. If you have transformers and tubes in the build, it will add more color to the recording. You will need little post-processing to make it sound professional with excellent performance.
Ribbon Microphone = An expensive option, but the go-to choice for most audio engineers to record acoustic violin. A ribbon attenuates the high-end, giving the recording a more natural and warm sound. However, ribbon microphones have low output, requiring a special pre-amplifier to improve their performance.
After choosing your microphone, you will need to know how to position it to get the most out of it.
The general rule of thumb with microphone positioning in regards to recording your acoustic violin is to keep it about 6”-12” above your instrument with the capsule pointing to where the neck connects with the violin’s body.
However, it’s important to note that this might not always be the best option for you as you record your violin.
The challenge with standardizing microphone placement is that it really depends on your room, the microphone, and your playing style.
If you want less room sound, you will want to have the microphone closer to your violin.
Suppose you happen to have a charming, reverberant room. In that case, you might want to have the microphone further back to capture the natural ambiance.
However, there are challenges to both of these placements.
Having your microphone too close to your violin can impede your performance, pick up a lot of unwanted noises, and emphasize the low end.
When your microphone is too far away, you will lose low end and create a sense of air around your recording that might be difficult to make present when you mix and master.
At the end of the day, you will need to experiment with different placements and see what sounds best.
Side Note: Mono vs. Stereo
It’s popular to record acoustic violin with two microphones (in stereo). However, as you are learning how to record your violin from home, it’s best to stick with one microphone (in mono).
This will help reduce complex issues, like phase issues, and ensure you get better recordings quicker.
The audio interface
An audio interface takes an analog signal and converts it into a digital signal so it can go into your computer for capturing and processing.
Audio interfaces can be highly affordable ($100+) to insanely expensive ($3000+).
For recording a great-sounding violin track, you don’t need to buy an expensive interface.
In fact, there is an excellent interface by Universal Audio called the Volt 1. This interface has one preamp, a headphone out, phantom power to power a condenser, monitor outs, and tons of included software.
The price of the Volt is just over $100 and is a fantastic value for the money.
Another great thing about this interface is its “vintage” mode. This adds subtle harmonics to the signal, which rounds out transients. This can be highly beneficial for an acoustic violin track to help tame harsh frequencies and get a smoother-sounding recording.
Suppose you’ve followed the advice in this article. In that case, the software you use to sweeten your acoustic violin tracks should be minimal and straightforward.
There are great free Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) on the market with free plugins to help you take your recorded track to be radio-ready.
If you have a Mac, then you can use GarageBand. If you have Windows, you could use Audacity.
This software will take time to get used to, but don’t let them overwhelm you. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube that will help you understand the basics of recording, mixing, and mastering to ensure your recording sounds pro.
When learning how to record your own tracks, the challenge is overdoing it with post-processing.
In reality, you only need 3 tools to make a track sound excellent.
When starting out with equalization, you should cut frequencies more than boost them. When recording in your home, you often have weird resonances from the room and uneven frequency response of your instrument from poor mic placement.
The quickest way to make your instrument sound better is to try and remove mid-range “mud” and notch out any harsh frequencies (1).
Compressors are also easy to overuse. A compressor evens your playing dynamics by making quiet parts louder and louder parts quieter.
There are many controls on a compressor that are intimidating and confusing at first. But the one feature of a compressor that is easy to understand is the gain reduction meter (the little needle). If that needle goes above 3-5 dB of gain reduction, you are using too much.
Also, another problem with compression is if you recorded your violin at a distance, you would bring up the room noises the more you compress. If you are recording in a not-ideal room, this will make your recording sound noisy and chaotic (2).
Reverb will be where you artificially bring back to life that wonderful and airy sound that all great violin recordings have.
Reverb is like adding salt to a food recipe. If you add too much, that one ingredient overpowers everything else. However, if you add too little, your food will taste bland and uninspiring.
Reverb is all about personal taste, and you will need to experiment and listen to get the right amount (3).
The more you experiment with these three processors, you will gain more confidence and understand how to use them properly. You will make more intuitive mixing decisions that will give you a pro-sounding acoustic violin recording.
Suppose you’re serious about your acoustic violin playing and want to take your skills to the next level. In that case, it’s time you invest in some essential recording equipment and software.
With a little bit of effort, you can create high-quality recordings from the comfort of your own home. Recordings that will impress your friends, help you grow as a musician, and maybe open up some new business opportunities for you!
Brad Johnson (guest author of this article) is a musician and producer from Southern California. When he isn’t spending time with his wife and kids at the beach, he is helping musicians at Song Production Pros.