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If you find yourself asking the best way to mic a marimba, then you are not fooling around. This is not a lighthearted, casual jam session. A marimba is an enormous and stately instrument, easily eight feet long and 200+ lbs.
But the marimba is also known as one of the fussiest and most difficult instruments to mic or record. It has a deep, complex tone. Sound is made by mallets striking bars and then amplified by the resonating tubes below the keys.
A poorly-miked marimba can sound thin and powerless (making an instrument this large sound thin is an accomplishment in its own right!) and a common complaint is that the stick noise is irritatingly prominent.
As a general piece of advice, when you are experimenting with different mic setups and placements, if you are getting overpowering stick noise, ask the player to switch to softer mallets. You might find these more musical when miking. Alternately, switch to harder mallets if you are seeking a more severe percussive sound.
But that’s just scratching the surface so let’s take a deeper look at how to mic a marimba across a variety of situations.
Miking a Marimba in a Controlled Environment
This advice will assume that your marimba is in a fairly controlled environment. This could be recording solo in a studio or any other space that’s been acoustically prepared to reduce echo, reverb, and other unwanted affects. Or it could be recording or live-miking a performance in a concert hall with an ensemble and good acoustics.
Whatever it is, you’re not dealing with too many extra variables so we’ll focus on the number of mics you’re using.
With an instrument as large and complex as a marimba, using one mic is probably not an ideal solution. I recommend doing this only if you have no choice.
Try placing a single, large-diaphragm condenser (similar to what you’d use for a live acoustic guitar performance) in front of and above the marimba. So from the perspective of the microphone, you would be looking down and forward at the marimba.
This placement should probably capture the best overall mix of the mallets striking the bars, and deep warm amplification of the resonators. I am being intentionally vague about the distances. This will depend so much on your recording environment. Try moving closer for a more intimate sound, farther for more room sound.
But if you’re not sure where to start, I usually start close and work back from there. However, don’t place it too close or else you won’t be able to pick up the sounds produced by bars on the far end.
Keep in mind this will only sound as good as your room, and if you are miking for an ensemble, you will be limited by proximity to other instruments.
Recording a marimba with a stereo pair is as close to a standard approach as anything and can allow you to achieve a stereo image. There are a few potential approaches. One is to space a pair of dynamic microphones at either end of the instrument, 4-8 feet away depending on how much room sound is desired. These can be lower for more resonator sound, or higher for a more percussive attack.
You can see exactly what this two mic set up will look like on a large marimba in this video:
Or my personal favorite way to record stereo: mid-side recording. This method does not require a matched pair, but one mic must be cardioid and the other must be figure 8. I have given a brief overview how to record mid-side, and its advantages, in this article.
More than Two Mics
If you have more than two microphones at your disposal, I’d recommend a hybrid of the other approaches. Try a combination of stereo dynamic mics close to the instrument, and overhead condensers.
Place the dynamic mics fairly low, so they become “resonator close mics.” If you have the resources, this setup can’t be beaten for the control over the sound you will get, as well as the size and presence of the instrument’s sound. You can control the relative tone by mixing the warm resonators higher, or the cold percussive strike.
With this number of mics on such a resonant instrument, be mindful of phase issues. If you hear any weird thinness, try flipping the phase of any of the tracks. When recording with many mics, the sound reaches the mics at different times, and sometimes the phases can cancel.
Whenever I record complex percussion instruments with multiple mics, such as drums, I am also a fan of manually aligning tracks. Zoom in very very close to your sound waves, and you should be able to identify when the same percussion strike is hitting the different mics at slightly different times.
Move the tracks manually so they align, and you may find that your overall sound is suddenly much more powerful.
Miking a Marimba in a Noisy Environment
The methods I mentioned above will capture the most beautiful, complex sound from the marimba. But they are not always practical. If the marimba is performing outside, or in a marching band or drumline ensemble, this mic setup might do more harm than good. The other miking techniques may pick up too much bleed from the surrounding instruments.
When miking the marimba for marching band or drumline, mic the instrument from underneath. The best practice is to mount the mics to the horizontal bar at the bottom of the frame, pointing upwards at the bars. Specially-designed clips are used to mount the mic stands to this bar, and telescoping mic stands are ideal.
Make sure the mics are in shock-mounts. Otherwise, the instrument’s resonance will rattle the mics and ruin the recording. With shock mounts, there will still be some low-frequency rumble, but it should be below the instrument’s range, and can be rolled off with EQ.
The mics should be pointed upwards at the keys, about 9-11” from the lower register. Try placing them on the higher end if you intend to play mostly in the middle, or lower if you are playing across the instrument’s range. Follow the 3:1 rule as a general rule for placing spaced pairs of mics.
However far the instruments are from the sound source, they should be at least 3x as far from each other to avoid phase issues, as mentioned above. So if the mics are 9” from the keys, they should be at least 27” apart, and if you then choose to move them downwards, make sure to space them farther apart as well.
In this context, you should definitely use cardioid mics, but whether to use a condenser or dynamic is your choice based on the sound you seek.
Condenser mics are more sensitive and will capture a more detailed, intricate sound, whereas dynamic mics will sound warmer and even. If you want to purchase mics specifically for the purpose, I am a fan of the Shure SM57 or Electro-Voice RE20 as far as dynamics go. If you want a condenser, I like the sound of the Avantone CV-12.
And there you have it, an introductory guide to miking a marimba in a variety of settings. At the end of the day, recording is like riding a bike. You can read guides all day, but until you hop on the bike, you don’t actually know how to ride. Especially when it comes to more difficult instruments like the marimba or something like the French horn.
Trial-and-error will be your greatest asset, especially since every song, player, instrument, and space is different.
Marimbas can be used in a handful of settings. Most often they are used in marching band or drumline ensembles, or in classical, symphony, and concert band settings. Sometimes they are tracked individually, sometimes with an ensemble. Sometimes they are recorded live, inside or outside. You may have a number of different mics available at your disposal.
Happy producing, and always feel the joy of the music!
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.