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Even though the clarinet doesn’t always have a stellar reputation in popular culture and it could be because it’s a relatively new instrument compared to ancients like the piano or the guitar and all its many variations.
But that only means it’s even more important to properly mic your clarinet so that you can get the best possible sound and show the world what this instrument can really do.
So how do you properly mic a clarinet to get the best possible sound?
Remember the clarinet’s sound emanates from the length of the instrument so place the mic 1 to 2 feet away for a bright tone or 4 to 8 feet for a more classic sound. If you’re playing live, use the same rules but move the mic about 6 inches closer to get a fuller tone.
That’s the quick answer but we’ll take a much closer look at everything you need to know along with how you can select the best mic for the situation.
Understand Where The Clarinet’s Sound Comes From
As I mentioned, the clarinet has an uncommonly diverse range of contexts and tones. So when recording clarinet in the studio, you should be guided by the result you are intending to capture.
Ask questions like, is this performance more energetic or lyrical? Is the sound more classical or jazz? Do I want a smoother or breathier tone?
All this aside, one very important piece of wisdom holds true. Looking at a clarinet, you may conclude that the bell is the “sound source” that you should focus on.
However, while this may be true with brass instruments, in this case, it’s a total misconception. Woodwind instruments such as clarinets, oboes, flutes, and saxophones, actually emanate sound along the entire length of the instrument. The clarinet’s keys open and close holes along the instrument’s length, after all. Its tone is like an aura that projects outwards from the instrument. Concentrating on just the bell is selling the clarinet short!
This is also different from many stringed instruments like the cello that have a clear soundhole so make sure you understand the unique mic’ing requirements of the clarinet.
Condenser vs Ribbon Mics For Recording The Clarinet
Recording a clarinet in the studio, you are best off with a large diaphragm condenser mic or a ribbon mic. Whatever you do, make sure you take the time to get a proper mic that’s made for music and not one that’s made for some other purpose.
Condenser mics are the standard vocal recording mics (except for very specific situations) and are also frequently used on all manner of acoustic instruments and percussion. They are known to highlight the high-frequency “air” of instruments. Use them if you want to capture a breathy performance with the clarinet.
If you seek a smoother tone when recording clarinet, try a ribbon mic. Ribbon mics comprise their own unique and exciting world for producers and engineers to explore. I’m actually trying to think of my own term, to dub a phenomenon I’ve witnessed many times: A producer has just discovered ribbon mics, and is thrilled by all the possibilities.
Ribbon mics are a bit pricey and fussy to use.
But they are known for their smooth, buttery, and dark tones. I have heard them called incredibly “natural,” that they “hear like your ears.”
Keep in mind a few unique aspects of ribbon mics when you use them.
They capture a very warm and dark tone, but are highly responsive to EQ, so don’t be afraid to boost the mids and highs dramatically to reveal the details of the sound. They are infamously low-output, so you may need to use them in conjunction with a mic activator such as the Cloudlifter line.
And they have a figure-8 polar pattern by design, so you will probably capture some room sound as well- which can be an attribute or a liability if your room does not sound great!
Positioning Mic for Recording Clarinet
Start by placing the mic about 1-2 feet from the player if you seek a brighter and more modern tone, or 4-8 feet from the player for a more classical sound. Position the mic about midway between the mouthpiece and bell.
Aim for the middle to start. Try aiming lower for a darker and less distinct sound, or higher for a brighter and thinner tone.
Recording in Stereo
If the clarinet is playing a prominent role in the recording, I recommend recording it in stereo.
Orchestral instruments just really come alive this way, as the subtle movements and immersive room sound are really captured on another level. You can try a matched pair of mics in a spaced pair or XY configuration. My personal obsession is mid-side recording, a unique stereo configuration that does not use a matched pair.
Instead, it pairs a cardioid “mid” channel with a figure-8 “side” mic. Mid-side recordings sound incredibly deep and satisfying. By mixing the mid and side channels relative to each other, you can control how spacious the recording sounds. And unlike other stereo recording methods, it sums perfectly to mono with no phase issues.
Pair a cardioid condenser with a ribbon mic, or even a selectable-pattern condenser such as the CV-12, set to figure-8 mode.
Miking Clarinet in a Live Setting
When setting up a clarinet with a mic to play live, your main challenges are to flatter its tone, and to capture its dynamics. You will likely need to position the mic closer to the player than in the studio, slightly sacrificing tone in the name of sound separation. But the same positioning characteristics apply otherwise. Do not simply place a mic near the bell and be done with it!
An excellent small-diaphragm condenser like the Neumann KM 184 is a classic choice. And these mics are so versatile that they are a worthy investment in general. Other great SDCs for live clarinet miking include the Shure SM81 and the Sennheiser e614.
Try placing the mic about a foot from the player, aimed at their lower hand position. If you are having difficulties because the performance is so dynamic, you may need to ask the player to monitor their own performance and focus on dynamic evenness.
An instrument-mounted mic is an option as well. While this will sacrifice richness of tone somewhat, the tradeoff is in the dynamics and lively performance. Particularly if the player likes to move while expressing themselves! DPA is the name to know in instrument-mounted mics. Use their d:dictate 4006a omni, or d:dictate 4011a cardioid if you need more isolation of the clarinet. Aim the mic at the fingering holes, a third of the length up from the bell, at a distance of 15-20 cm.
Another fascinating choice comes with Viga Music Tools intraMic. It’s an internal mic for clarinets and sax players. The intraMic avoids the feedback issues that can plague live-miking wind instruments, and unlike other internal mic options, does not require drilling into your instrument.
I saw one more route worth exploring, personally recommended by a clarinetist. A Shure WL185 cardioid lavalier on an Audio Technica AT8418 Unimount.
How To Attach A Mic To A Clarinet
Okay, so you know that you’re best off positioning the mic a few feet from the player but what if that’s not an option?
This video does a great job explaining how to mic a clarinet in situations where you need to attach it to the instrument rather than place it a few feet away:
To me, the most interesting thing about the clarinet is it seems to have a split personality. In fact, most instruments have a central “comfort zone” in their range, and notes that are too high or low sound shrill or weak. However, clarinet uniquely has two separate comfort zones. A gorgeous, lyrical low range, and an exciting high-range squeal, separated by a blah midrange.
Not to mention the fact that the clarinet has one of the biggest dynamic ranges of any wind instrument.
But each new unique attribute of a particular instrument translates to a unique challenge in music production- and it’s a lot easier than mic’ing a giant instrument like a marimba! Whether you are recording in a studio or miking it live, pairing clarinets with mics is a distinct task.
The clarinet is a beautiful, lively, and honestly fascinating instrument once you start to dig into its history. Check out its use in Klezmer music, which is Jewish Eastern European folk music. Or its use in Gershwinn’s masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue. Glenn Miller was known for a unique signature big band sound that used the clarinet as the soprano voice over a chorus of saxophones. And of course Benny Goodman deserves a mention as well!
With an elegant pairing of clarinet and microphone, perhaps we can work to turn around the clarinet’s reputation and bring it back to the recognition it deserves.
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.