BY LARRY CRANE | FROM THE WINTER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The tools for making great recordings at home are higher quality, more affordable, and more available than ever, but what if you are attempting to capture your ukulele at a level worthy of putting on an album and releasing for sale or streaming to the public?
Let’s get one thing straight right out the gate: There are really no wrongs or rights in making great recordings. Experimentation can yield new sounds, and something that might sound goofy in one song could be amazing in the next piece. But having the knowledge to capture the sound you’re looking for will help you get a quality recording in less time. With that in mind, here are four main factors that will affect your recordings, as well as some basic studio knowledge that everyone should know when recording in any environment.
1. Pickups or Microphones?
I’ve seen this with acoustic instruments in the studio for decades. A player will come in with a decent ukulele, acoustic guitar, mandolin, or other stringed instrument, and then tell me it has a great pickup that I should use. I’ll ask, “What do you want your instrument to sound like in the mix?” and invariably get terms that describe the natural acoustic tone of their parts.
In general, acoustic pickups are built for amplifying your ukulele at a gig, either through an amp or the PA system. Yes, there are great players who will use a high-end pickup and pedals to create new (exciting) tones and loops out of the venerable ukulele. But what we are talking about here is using the wrong source—a pickup—when what we really desire is the acoustic tone of the ukulele, which can only be captured with a microphone.
Caveat: There are times I’ll record a mic and a pickup at the same time with the idea to maybe blend them in the mix if needed. This can be a great way to add more low end to a small instrument or some bite to the notes, but phase relationships between these two tracks will need to be addressed (that’s a whole other article in itself).
I’d also certainly record the ukulele with a pickup if it was a live performance. But, in general, you need to use a mic to make a ukulele sound natural.
2. Room Acoustics
So, based on what we just discussed let’s say you decided to track your ukulele with a microphone. What room should you record in? Two common misconceptions are these: 1. That you can work around the sound of a room with processing later in the mix. 2. That you always want the character of the room in your recordings.
With any acoustic-based instrument I always recommend moving around the space (or home) and performing in various rooms, trying a couple spots in each room. Listen carefully (or even record on your smartphone and listen back later) and think about how the different spaces affect the clarity, tone, and feel of the ukulele.
For example, in a bright, reverberant space like a bathroom you’ll hear the excitement of the space, but also a sort of clatter as sound bounces around the room. In a super quiet space like sitting on a couch in a carpeted basement den you’ll hear far less room tone, and the playing of ukulele will be clearer, but the room sound will be far less exciting.
Keeping in mind that all spaces (outside of scientific anechoic chambers) have some amount of reverberation, what we’re looking for is a balance of some room ambience and clarity of notes and strumming. Ambience is great, and with proper use can set the instrument in a perfect space. But when used improperly it can make your recordings a mess. A worst-case scenario is tracking multiple acoustic instruments in a highly reverberant space, mixing them all together, and ending up with a wash of indecipherable clatter.
3. Choosing the Right Mic
There are several types of microphones, and it’d take a book to fully describe them all. But the four most common ones are: dynamic, large diaphragm condenser, small diaphragm condenser, and ribbon mics. (See sidebar for descriptions.)
Ukes are usually nylon-stringed instruments and present a softer tone than a steel-stringed guitar, banjo, or a mandolin. With tone like this, most of the time it’s important to pick mics that help bring out clarity. Given this, my go-to would initially be a small diaphragm condenser mic, as the clarity of the top-end and transient response will usually yield a great result.
For ukulele played with a non-felt pick, I might use a dynamic or ribbon mic to make it “tougher” yet softer sounding to fit into a mix. For a ukulele that is a solo, main instrument I would likely consider a large diaphragm condenser as the main mic, plus add in a pair of small diaphragm condenser mics a few feet out from the big mic to capture some room ambience.
You can see how choosing the right microphone or microphones is a constantly moving target when recording. But the most common mistake I come across is people using a ribbon or dynamic mic yet desiring the focus of a large diaphragm condenser or the clarity of a small diaphragm condenser. Remember, if the mic doesn’t capture what you need there’s usually no way to get that back.
4. Microphone Placement
The main thing to understand about microphones is that unlike the human auditory system, the mic has no way of focusing to hear only what it wants. Microphones are unforgiving, so sounds that our brains tune out—like refrigerators, air conditioning, traffic, or floor creaks—will get captured as easily as the music we are making.
Looking back to our discussion of room acoustics, keep in mind that the closer a mic is to your ukulele the less room tone you will have in your recording. There’s certainly a limit to how much room sound will be “removed” as the mic gets closer (and if you compress the uke a lot in post-processing you’ll hear even more room tone), but the general rule is that proximity is key to balancing ambience and clarity.
But wait, there’s more! Most mics have a directional, cardioid pickup pattern, which means they will have what is known as the “proximity effect.”
This causes the microphone to exaggerate the low end as it gets closer to the source. While ukuleles in general work in a higher pitch register than, say, a dreadnought guitar, this can still cause problems. A buildup of low frequencies can easily swamp the higher tones of an instrument and reduce its clarity. Using a mic with an omnidirectional pickup pattern will eliminate the proximity effect, but it will also pick up sound from all angles, thus grabbing more of the room tone.
If this all looks like a game of back-and-forth, that’s because it is. All of these adjustments need to be made with real, concerted listening and an understanding of later consequences.
Many years ago, I finally began to understand the harsh reality of recording in general: It’s not simply about recording each instrument to sound good, but recording with the idea of what will be needed later for a great mix. Making each track or pass sound as big and perfect as possible isn’t as important as capturing takes that will all fit together in the end (or stand alone in a solo performance), because making a recording feel balanced, exciting, and listenable is the real goal. There really are not any set “dos” and “don’ts,” but there sometimes are recordings that don’t turn out as the artist wished.
Hopefully, with a few pointers like these above, you can get on the right track and capture your music in a way you’re proud of.
Dynamic mics are the most common—we likely all have used a Shure SM58 (or derivative) for live or recorded vocals. These mics are robust and reliable, but generally lack the top-end clarity of some other types of mics.
Large diaphragm condenser mics are the big mics we see in studios. These types feature amazing clarity with a bit of smoothness and find a lot of use on lead vocals, but they can be on the expensive side.
Small diaphragm condenser mics are sometimes called “pencil mics,” and usually feature top-end clarity and great transient response, meaning the attack of notes will be more present and clearer. This accuracy advantage can be the small diaphragm mic’s downfall, however, as they frequently sound odd on vocals, and cheaper versions usually are a bit on the harsher-sounding side.
Ribbon mics are a variation on the dynamic mic that have gained popularity recently. Though they can sound dull to the untrained ear, the way they pick up and represent frequency and dynamics is unique and can sometimes help the ukulele fit just right into the mix.