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I've recently started writing classical-style piano and violin duets, and I've decided to start recording my work. As a newbie to the world of the home-recording-studio, I'm a bit overwhelmed by the wide variety of microphones and audio interfaces on the market.

I plan on recording the piano and violin parts for my pieces separately, but ideally I'd use the same microphone to stick to a low budget. I've heard that large-diaphragm condenser mics are all all-around, multipurpose microphones, but how will they capture the violin and piano sound specifically (I'm looking for a sort of rich, classical sound)? Also, what are the trade offs of buying, say, a $150 condenser versus a $40 one? Is the difference significant for the average listener?

I'm also curious whether my recording area is adequate for capturing a classical sound. I understand this is a very complex topic, but generally speaking, are larger rooms with more reverb preferable to smaller, dead rooms?

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First – obviously, sound starts at the instruments. Rich, classical sound pretty much requires at least a decent baby grand. If you only have an ordinary upright piano, no miking can really get you there. Similarly, the room acoustics have an enourmous influence: any square room has nasty resonances, and even if these are hardly noticeable while you're playing they'll become painful on a record with substantial room component, as you'd generally want for a classical recording. Take that into account before spending any money on mics – of course those are important too, but rather less than instruments and rooms!

For the microphony, the simplest good option is to use an ordinary stereo-pair of microphones. Place it somewhere audience-like to get a natural, not too lop-sided stereo picture. I would also record the violin with the very same mic setup, to give a “realistic live-like sound”. The stereo configurations I'd consider are

  • M/S. Gives you a clear center signal, and easily controllable stereo width / room-content. If it turns out the room sounds just too bad, you can reduce the side component and replentish the reverb with digital convolution of a well-sounding hall. Note that you need a figure-eight mic for this; ideally use two large-diaphragm mics, one cardoid and the other fig-8. You'll need to spend at least 300$.

  • ORTF. Nice wide stereo picture even if the piano is not so full-bodied – provided the room sounds good. This technique works quite well with most small-diaphragm condensers, they just should be matched. It might sound a bit distant/feeble though.

An alternative approach would be a close X/Y pair, pointing right into the lid or even on the hammers. This is often used for pop recordings because it gives very crisp attack that won't drown even in a loud mix with drums (and no reverb smearing – save for the piano's own sympathetic resonances); but for classical recordings it is rather too harsh, in particular if the piano doesn't sound that smooth. Also, the stereo image sounds a bit synthetic with this technique, and you'd need to record the violin with another mic position, which needs to be compensated for in the mix. I wouldn't recommend that to a beginner.

If neither the piano nor the room has convincing acoustic properties, you might be better of not recording acoustic piano youself at all. Digital modelling / sampling has become really a viable alternative by now, for instance Pianoteq.

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I'd go with two of the same microphone type (large-diaphragm type), one close to the piano and one further away to capture some ambient sound and reflections in the room. This way you can adjust the level of directness/"wet"-ness afterwards (moreover the ambient source may be a better choice if you afterwards want to apply artificial reverb, should your recording area be too dry).

For mid range priced large diaphrams I really like SE Electronics. The SE 4400A should do a good job here. However if budget is tighter, check out the Magneto (reviewed here).

  • The Magneto seems to be just what I'm looking for, thanks! – Omid Jul 1 '15 at 1:41

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