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The cello is pure distilled elegance. Its tone is among the most gorgeous and evocative of any instrument. It has the lyrical expression and agility of the violin, in a baritone playing range. Trombone, bassoon, vocalist- nothing would sound so beautiful performing the cello’s definitive melody. The violoncello, as it is properly known, is noteworthy for its emotional range. It can just as easily settle into a classical piece as pop, soul, or even hardcore skate punk.
While it is often used in emotionally touching settings, it can just as easily be played in a tense, gritty manner; check out the soundtrack from the 1966 version of Farenheit 451 or the arrangement in Eleanor Rigby.
But what good is all this depth, soul, and range if you can’t mic up your cello to really capture the sound? So, how do you mic a cello?
Mic placement on a cello comes down to the desired sound and microphone type. With a directional mic (cardioid), placement close to the strings gives more attack while positioning closer to the F-hole emphasizes lower tones. Omni mics just need to be close to the cello but experiment with distance to find your preferred sound.
That’s the quick answer and should be enough to get you started. However, there’s more to consider here, and we’ll cover it, but cellos (along with other bowed string instruments) aren’t especially fussy when it comes to miking so should be able to find a sound you like with just those guidelines.
Miking the Cello for Recording
While the exact microphone position will largely be the same between the recording studio and live performance, there are still some factors you need to keep in mind when it comes to recording a mic’ed up cello.
Do You Have The Right Recording Space For A Cello?
Where will you be recording the cello?
The instrument may play by slightly different rules than you expect depending on the space you’re using to record. The rule of thumb with most modern acoustic recording is to record dry then add reverb later. This rule holds true for cello and means that these instruments (along with other acoustics and vocals) are usually recorded in spaces that have been treated to minimize sound reflections- such as vocal booths or small rooms.
In fact, string instruments such as the cello tend to thrive in larger and more reverberant recording spaces whenever possible.
Don’t necessarily try to find a cathedral after visiting hours are over or book a concert hall for your new single. If you’re able, try recording in a large room but avoid carpet and other flooring types that will absorb sound. Definitely don’t record in a vocal booth. Room reverb enriches the cello’s tone. And with the seat, bulky instrument body, bow, and possibly music stand to contend with- the player will probably be grateful as well.
Are You Working With The Right Mic?
The cello’s tone, like other bowed string instruments, is extremely rich and complex. It’s extremely common to hear the cello described as being similar to the human voice and there’s even some science to back that up.
Between overtones, bow technique, and room reverb, there is plenty of detail to capture and the best microphones for the job are either large diaphragm condenser mics or a high-quality ribbon microphone.
For most situations, a large diaphragm condenser microphone will do the best job of capturing all the detail that the cello has to offer- both at the high end and low end. A large diaphragm condenser mic is also a good choice if you’re only able to work with one microphone or just want to keep your mic setup simple. This should be no surprise and a quality condenser microphone is the go-to choice for a wide range of acoustic instruments including the guitar.
You can make a small diaphragm condenser mic work but this works best when you’re able to place multiple microphones on the cello and other instruments. That makes it a bit more of a complicated solution with more specific use cases.
I once heard it said that there are two types of recording engineers- those who are in love with ribbon mics, and those that haven’t used them yet. Ribbon mics are a bit obscure these days, but you might recognize them as the popular design from the heydey of radio broadcasting.
They have experienced a revival recently, as musicians discover their uniquely beautiful, dark tones which can be a great match for the cello. The ribbon mic is said to “hear like your ears” and creates extremely smooth, flattering recordings.
When it comes to the cello, ribbon mics have their own unique considerations too. They are known for having a very low output, so you may need to invest in a mic activatorto compensate for this. They are known to mute high frequencies, but ribbon recordings are very receptive to EQ. If you boost the high frequencies, you will hear just as much high-frequency detail as in condenser recordings which helps even the playing field when it comes to cello recordings.
Sometimes You Just Need A Cello Mic Shootout
We’re talking about music here and even though I think I’ve done a good job of giving you the pros and cons of each, at the end of the day most of it will come down to personal preference.
That’s where a back-to-back cello mic comparison can help and there are dozens available online but this one is definitely my favorite and does a great job highlighting the sound quality of some major brands:
Cello Mic Placement In A Recording Studio
When recording a cello, a very intuitive and simple mic setup can work wonders.
Mount a large-diaphragm omnidirectional condenser mic 1 to 3 feet in front of the cello, aimed where the bow meets the strings. Yep, that’s it.
You can experiment with the distance and exact location that the mic is pointing to play with the tone. A closer mic will get a fuller, deeper tone due to the proximity effect.
If the mic is fairly close, try pointing it more at the strings for more attack and texture, or more at the instrument’s body or f-hole for a softer tone. If the mic is further from the instrument, you will get more room reverb and a slightly more distant sound which can pair very well with the cello’s natural tones.
A two-microphone can also work very well if you can manage it. Try a large-diaphragm condenser or a ribbon mic placed as described above, and another condenser mic further away as a “room mic.” The room mic could have an omnidirectional polar pattern. Make sure to follow the 3:1 rule, and place it at least 3x as far from the instrument as the close mic.
Mid-Side Stereo Recording With A Cello
I personally love using the mid-side stereo mic technique, especially on rich acoustic instruments like this. M/S recording can get an amazingly wide and immersive tone that will capture the gorgeous room reverb, and a lot of little detail as the cello moves slightly.
Mid-side stereo recording requires two mics and a bit of setup. Mount a cardioid condenser mic as desired, and mount a figure-8 pattern mic directly above it. Ribbon mics are inherently figure-8, and many mics have selectable patterns. The figure-8 mic should be positioned so that one of its null points is facing the same direction as the cardioid mic.
With this setup, record three tracks. One track is the cardioid mic, the other two are duplicates from the figure-8 mic. Flip the phase of one of the figure-8 mic’s tracks, and pan the two tracks hard left and hard right. The cardioid mic has captured the “center channel” and the two figure-8 tracks together form the “side channel.” When blended, you have an absolutely gorgeous stereo sound.
Mid-side recording has a few unique advantages. You don’t have to worry about phase issues, which is unique compared to other forms of stereo recording. (When you sum to mono, the side track simply cancels out and disappears, leaving just the center channel.) Furthermore, by mixing the side channels up or down relative to the center channel, you can control how “wide” the track feels.
Miking A Cello For A Live Performance
When playing live, mic technique will depend on context but it’s usually quite similar to the basic set up that we described in a recording studio with a few extra considerations.
When miking cello on stage, you will find yourself positioning the mic much closer to the instrument than in the studio. The cello’s sound tends to be quieter than other instruments on stage, and therefore could be prone to feedback as well. The venue will likely add its own reverb to the sound anyway.
Since you will be close-miking, you may need to cut the low frequency range of the cello.
The cello’s lowest note has a fundamental frequency of about 65 Hz, so you are likely to need to make room in the mix for bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, and vocals. I personally recommend against attempts to use stereo mic techniques on the cello live. Live stereo miking tends to be more trouble than it’s worth and creates more problems than it solves.
However, if the cello is being played in classical contexts, close-miking is generally not used. The players blend acoustically and use the acoustics of their performance space for amplification. Generally, for recording, a stereo pair of good small-diaphragm condenser mics is used on the entire ensemble. No mics are used for amplification.
Congratulations! With your magical electro-acoustic technology, you have brought the elegant historical tone of the cello to the modern era.
Whether you are working on classical music, folk, pop, or something else, you’ll be shocked what a well-miked cello can add to your sound. But of course that’s assuming you have the right mic setup!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.