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Squidward didn’t do the clarinet any favors, did he? He managed to turn a noble instrument into the butt of a joke. But 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!
The Unique Clarinet
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! Whether you are recording in a studio or miking it live, pairing clarinets with mics is a distinct task. Read on for tips to help tame this unpredictable beast.
Recording Clarinet in the Studio
As I mentioned, 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!
Condenser vs Ribbon Mics
Recording a clarinet in the studio, you are best off with a large diaphragm condenser mic or a ribbon mic. Condenser mics are the standard vocal recording mics, 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 CL-1. 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.
Best Mics for Recording Clarinet
If you want to use a large diaphragm condenser mic, try a classic vocal mic like the Neumann U87 if you have the budget. The U87 is a classic for a reason; not only does it sound gorgeous on vocals and endless other acoustic instruments, it also sounds immediately familiar because it has been used in so many famous recordings. If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, check out the company Warm Audio, which makes reproductions of classic gear like the U87 at a fraction of the cost.
I never miss a chance to recommend Avantone products. This company is one of my favorite small-but-mighty gear manufacturers who consistently punch above their weight. I used to have a CV-12, a warm and flattering tube mic that has a reputation for outperforming mics 2-3x its price. The CV-12 would sound great on clarinet, taming its nasal and squealing qualities as necessary.
If your budget is smaller still, I’ve seen many recommendations for the Audio Technica AT2020 from wind players. I’ve never used this mic, but it’s gaining a reputation as the best-sounding budget large-diaphragm condenser for brass and woodwinds.
Conversely, if you want to go the ribbon route, the 121 could be described as “the” ribbon mic. I also saw a specific recommendation for the Beyerdynamic M160 on studio clarinet. For the lower budgets, the Cascade Fat Head has a similar reputation to the Audio Technica mentioned above, as best-in-price for wind players. And finally, I now have an Avantone CR-14 that I’m very taken by. It’s one of the lowest-priced ribbon mics on the market, and it does not have quite as high-fidelity a sound as the other mics I mentioned. But it does have a satisfying warm sizzle that’s worth exploring.
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.
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. Eat your heart out, Squidward. In the meantime, if you are having a hard time getting a recorded clarinet to sit right in a mix, don’t be afraid to reach out to professional mixing and mastering services. You may be surprised at how affordable they actually are, and a great tool for learning by example. Keep working, and 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.