Apart from all the time we spend practicing and doing gigs, it’s becoming more and more common for us as jazz guitarists to be able to record ourselves. Today, more than ever, musicians from all musical styles own and use a certain amount of home recording gear. It has become an essential part of our careers for us to be able to do everything from making our own demos, composing and recording music as well as providing guitar tracks for a project that we can upload to another artist or producer who lives halfway around the world.
So much gear, so much to know and so many opinions about what is best. In this post, I’d like to look at some of the different microphone choices to record a jazz guitar amplifier. What are some of the better microphones we can use to capture a good representation of what a straight up, clean jazz guitar should sound like?
One of the things you will encounter in your quest to find which microphone to buy is that the majority of the reviews and recommendations come from musicians and recording engineers who work predominantly in the pop and rock genres. All those great microphone reviews are focussed on capturing a guitar player shredding through a Marshall stack. Although some of what they find may be true and will still translate to the kinds of sounds we play, for the most part, there is much more for us to know.
Ok, so recording jazz guitar, what do we need to know? Let’s start with microphone types. There are 3 types of microphones you can use to record jazz guitar: Dynamic, Condenser and Ribbon. If you want to know more about each type, click here. All are great microphones that can be placed in front of your guitar amp. Which is best? Which type should you buy? The good news, all 3 types of microphones can produce great results. In the end, it all comes down to your own tastes, goals and what you are willing to spend.
We’ll listen to 2 dynamic microphones: Shure SM57 and Beyerdynamic M201 N (C). Dynamic microphones are generally on the less expensive side. Dynamic microphones will most often have a narrower frequency response and don’t require phantom power. Now it’s important to note that a narrower frequency response is not necessarily a bad thing. What that means is it’s not going to pick up the really low or the really high frequencies. We don’t really want the boomy low notes or the super high overtones anyway. So, in essence, dynamic mics are sort of providing a nice EQ for us. Dynamics will help take out some of the stuff we don’t really want anyway.
For condensers, we’ll listen to a Shure Beta 181 with supercardiod capsule and a Neumann TLM 102. Condenser microphones have a much wider frequency response, usually from 20-20,000 Hz and do require phantom power. Although most audio interfaces today do provide phantom power, there are still some that don’t so it’s always good to check. Condenser microphones are much more acurate and will pick up much more detail, both in a good way and in a bad way. This of course means that if you are in a noisy environment, the microphone will capture all of that noise as well. Any amp hum, ringing tubes, finger noise, street noise, all of this will be more evident when using a condenser mic. At the same time, more of the colour, nuance and the dynamics will also come through giving you a much richer sound.
Ribbon mics are a favorite for guitar players. I would describe them as being both accurate and flattering. The sound of a ribbon microphone is probably somewhere between that of a dynamic and a condenser. They seem to capture a lot of detail but always in a good way. Ribbon microphones do not require phantom power and in fact phantom power can severely damage a ribbon microphone. Ribbon microphones also need to be matched with a very good preamp that can provide 70 db or more of good, clean gain. If you are planning on using a ribbon microphone with a soundcard which does not have enough gain, there are solutions like the “Cloudlifter” or “Fethead” which offer an additional 20 db or so of ultra clean gain. The Ribbon microphone we will listen to is the AEA R84. It is a beautiful modern day recreation of (or perhaps a microphone inspired by) the vintage RCA 77. The AEA R84 is an expensive microphone but there are many excellent low cost Ribbons for as low as $99 which provide amazing results on guitar amps. (Apex, Cascade Microphones, MXL…..)
Here’s the what and how used for all of the recorded examples. Microphones, placed around an inch and a half from the speaker grill, went through a BAE 1073MP preamp into a Universal Audio Apollo Quad into Pro Tools 2018. For the AEA R84 Ribbon Microphone, I used a Grace Design M101 preamp. The Grace has a Ribbon mode which works very well with the R84 and provides very clean, high gain levels.
I played my 1968 Gibson ES-175 using the neck pickup through a Traynor YCV20 with JJ tubes and a 12″ bass speaker. Why a bass speaker? I’ve always preferred the sound of my guitar through a bass amp. Using a bass speaker helps to cut a lot of the unwanted highs you get from most amps. At this point, I like tube amps. I keep going from jazz amp (Polytone) to tube amp, (Mesa Boogie) back to jazz amp, (Acoustic Image) and now once again a tube amp. (Traynor) It’s funny because I’m sure the listener never actually notices the difference anyway. In the end, we sound like we sound.
Below are the recorded examples for each microphone. Since some of the microphones have higher signals than others, I’ve matched volumes to help make comparisons easier. Also, there are 2 examples for each microphone: one with just guitar and one with piano bass and drums. In most cases the sound of the guitar alone doesn’t tell us enough. How it’s going to sound in the context of an entire mix is much more important.
Tape emulation, parallel compression and reverb have been added to all examples with piano, bass and drums. The solo guitar examples have no processing. No EQ has been added to any of the examples.
Shure SM57 Solo Guitar
Shure SM57 Guitar with Trio
Beyerdynamic M201 N (C)
Beyerdynamic M201 Solo Guitar
Beyerdynamic M201 Guitar with Trio
Shure Beta 181 (Supercardiod Capsule)
Shure Beta 181 (Supercardiod Capsule) Solo Guitar
Shure Beta 181 (Supercardiod Capsule) Guitar with Trio
Neumann TLM 102
Neumann TLM 102 Solo Guitar
Neumann TLM 102 Guitar with Trio
AEA R84 Solo Guitar
AEA R84 Guitar with Trio
Which sounds best? To me, they all sound like they get the job done very well. To be fair, these are all microphones I like to use on guitar amps and especially when recording jazz guitar. They do all sound a little different, and bring out different aspects of the amp sound. My intentions are not to say one is better than the other or give you a list of “the best” microphones to record jazz guitar. It’s more of a chance to have one more listen from a clean jazz guitar perspective.
This comparison has actually been pretty revealing to me. Hearing all these microphones side by side has made me reconsider some of my own choices.
It’s also important to note that I did play the example 5 times in a row. Because I wanted to place the microphone in the exact same spot each time I could really only use one microphone at a time. I know some people like to record the guitar once direct and then do the re-amp thing. I don’t have confidence in that approach. So even though I tried to play exactly the same each time, I’m sure I was influenced slightly by the sound of each microphone and may have reacted to each to a certain degree.
As always, I hope my Blog Posts are helpful and that this one in particular in some small way will help you to find the right microphone that works for your own style of playing and sound.