Miking Orchestral Instruments for Worship, Part 1

Featuring Brad Duryea Posted on April 7, 2008

The results of my exhaustive study are in: orchestra players and sound engineers are about as different as cats and dogs. There can easily be misunderstanding and even animosity between the two groups in live sound situations because each group often doesn’t understand the other group’s needs, concerns and expertise. This series will show you how to achieve good sound with orchestral instruments, especially when they are part of a modern praise band. In part one, we’ll address why good communication makes a huge difference and I’ll explain some common points of contention. We’ll also talk about some general miking principles to get you started. In part two, we’ll dive into specific examples of how to mic various orchestral instruments and I’ll dispel some common myths.

If you’ve ever listened to a good symphony orchestra in a well designed hall, you know what an orchestra is supposed to sound like. The volume level is just right, the mix is blended well, and the reverb is tasteful. It’s a thing of beauty, and there isn’t a bit of electronics involved. That world is all about acoustics and not at all about sound reinforcement. Once we try to marry orchestra instruments with a rock band, or a less-than-wonderful-sounding room, or both, we usually have to compromise. That’s when sound reinforcement becomes necessary. And, while it may not be obvious, the working relationships between orchestra and sound crew are key to achieving good live sound.

Mic Your Orchestra: Getting Started

Let’s talk about some of the ways we might mic an orchestra, in general. If we are recording (not amplifying) an orchestra playing by themselves in a great-sounding hall, we will typically mic up the entire orchestra from a distance with a pair of microphones to capture an overall stereo image. In an ideal world, this might be all the miking that would ever happen with an orchestra. As soon as you need to amplify the orchestra to effectively blend with, say, a rock-style praise band, everything changes. Why? Whenever you amplify a microphone, you also amplify all of the sounds near it. If the microphone is far away, you will also amplify background noise, stage wash from other instruments, and either cause feedback or make it highly probable. So, while distant mics are very appropriate for making a natural-sounding recording of an orchestra, they are generally terrible once you get a sound system involved.

So we need to mic everyone up close, right? Here’s one of the problems: many orchestra players aren’t used to being miked up close, because it’s not usually necessary in a symphony hall or recording studio. Consider this: your orchestra players might be afraid of the microphones! They might view the microphone as a spotlight with the ability to single out their mistakes for the world to hear. Imagine having a camera shoved in your face and you’ll understand. Microphones can also get in the way of their playing (such as with the bow of a violin), so we have to consider giving the players room to do their thing. We know that the close mics are just there to capture a decent sound and allow a proper blend of everything on stage, but it helps to remind the orchestra folks of this. No more or less of the orchestra player (or, heaven forbid, their mistakes) will be heard than if they were playing in a symphony hall with no microphones.

Communicating The Concepts Of Miking To The Orchestra

One of the best ways to communicate these concepts to the orchestra, and for us to learn their point of view, is to have a “pre-game huddle”. By taking a few minutes to understand each other, the end result is almost always better sound. For instance, explain why they are being miked in the first place. Let them know there’s a really good reason to have mics so close, and that they are not necessarily going to be “featured soloists” because of it. Set the expectations of sound quality, rehearsal and sound check routines, and microphone handling (i.e. who should move mics around) so they know your goals and intentions. Make sure they understand that you may need to reposition and tweak microphone placement during the rehearsal/sound check to get the best sound. Take the time to encourage them, too. Remind them of how good they sound, and, since they have no idea how the overall mix sounds to everyone else, tell them how good everything sounds together.

Consider, also, that an orchestra player may have considerable experience miking their instrument up close for live sound, so be open-minded and listen to their ideas! And, if they have concerns about a particular mic placement affecting their ability to play, try to accommodate. Both parties usually have to compromise to get the best overall results.

How Close Should The Mic Be?

When determining just how close the mic should be, you have a few things to consider. If the instrument (or group of them) is very loud, such as a brass section, the mic may not need to be very close. It may be appropriate to have a microphone several feet away. The louder sound makes up for the mic distance and allows you to capture several instruments with one mic. A microphone may not even be necessary for louder instruments, so don’t automatically mic up everything “just because”. This is sound reinforcement, after all.

A quieter instrument, such as a violin, may need to be miked very close (possibly within inches). The trade off is this: the closer you mic something, the more gain you get before feedback and the more isolation you get from other neighboring sounds. However, you might also get a less natural sound that can change drastically if the musician moves even slightly. If gain-before-feedback is your biggest priority, then get that mic as close as you possibly can. Otherwise, you may be able to back the mic off some for a more pleasant sound overall. Only your ears can tell you what’s right.

Close Miking- Pros and Cons

Pros: more gain-before-feedback; more isolation from neighboring instruments; and a “cleaner” sound.
Cons: may sound less natural; creates inconsistency if the musician moves around; tends to get more in the musician’s way; and may make the musician too self-conscious.
Applications: live sound reinforcement, especially with rock band and orchestra together.

Distant Miking- Pros and Cons

Pros: often sounds more natural; allows the musician(s) room to move around some; stays out of everyone’s way; and picks up more room ambience when desired.
Cons: increases the risk of feedback and muddies up the sound with nearby instruments, loudspeakers and noises.
Applications: recording and some live sound situations, such as with a loud brass section or light amplification requirements.

You can get extremely close using microphones that attach directly to the instrument. Several manufacturers make microphones that can clip onto the bell of a brass instrument, and there are microphone mounts made specifically for strings, for example. If you have an unused lapel microphone lying around, you might also give it a try by attaching it with a clip or a rubber band. The advantage of attaching a microphone to the instrument is that the musician is free to move around, the mic doesn’t get in anyone’s way, and there is no mic stand. The primary disadvantage is that many musicians hate the idea of something being attached to their instrument, so make sure to ask for permission and explain the advantages.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, everyone involved has the same goal: that the worship experience is as effective and uplifting as possible. We know that good sound is one of the pillars of a great worship experience. One of the best ways to get there is to maintain good rapport with the musicians and to respect each others’ expertise and experience.

Here are a few points to consider:
- Be willing to learn from and respect an orchestra player’s knowledge of and experience with their instrument.
- Make an effort to set up and test microphones in advance to minimize distractions during rehearsal/sound check.
- Explain to the musicians how and why you do what you do.
- Encourage them by reminding them how good they sound.
- Seek the musicians’ points of view on the whole process so you can understand their perspectives and concerns.
- Maintain a servant’s heart. It is too easy to let ego get in the way. Remember that everyone is there  for a greater purpose than their role alone.
- Strive for consistency wherever possible.
- Become familiar with the instruments you are trying to mic. Not only will it help you understand how to get a good sound from the instruments, but your interest and display of expertise will help win the confidence of the players.
- You will probably have to get microphones very close to the quieter instruments to get useful signals, especially in loud environments.
- The only way to find the best microphone position is to experiment and listen, so invest some time into the process and use your ears!

[Originally printed in Church Production Magazine, May/June 2006.]