How to Record a Saxophone – Recording tips for the home studio and beyond

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When considering how to record brass and reed instruments – and when recording saxophone in particular – the player and the tone he’s able to get from the instrument are vitally important. If you’re recording a professional with a lot of studio experience who knows how to get certain tones out of the instrument, you’re going to have a very different approach than if you’re in a home studio recording someone who’s new to the instrument and playing stacked notes.

“Take Grover Washington, Jr., for example,” says Jon. “I had the good fortune to record sax with Grover on a session in the mid 90s. He was as good as it gets. His tone was amazing. You could pretty much put a mic anywhere and it was going to sound good because he could resonate his sax really well.”

“To be honest, I was pretty intimidated. Here’s this internationally recognized artist who’s worked with the best engineers in the world. But from the first note he played, I could tell it was going to be the easiest session I ever had. Every noise he was making was the greatest sound I ever heard. He had a beautiful vintage instrument that was constantly maintained, and he knew how to play it.”

Mic placement recording tips
In a recording situation, if you have the quality mics and pre-amps to do it, you should probably put more than one mic on the sax. With sax players, there’s typically a lot of movement and activity going on. A more professional player who is used to working in a studio setting might be able to stay still and work the mic, but in general, sax players tend to move around. So a good approach to get consistent dynamics and a full tone is to use multiple mics to balance the sound as the player moves around.

The most common approach is to start with a large diaphragm condenser (LDC) mic about 10-15″ in front of the bell. If that sounds a little too harsh, or you want a softer tone, pull it out a little farther. Don’t point the mic directly into the bell, as you might get some wind noise or odd reflectivity back into the mic. Positioning the mic at different angles, start at about 45 degrees, can help remove the unwanted artifacts.

A common go-to mic in this situation in a pro studio is a Neumann U87. Of course, that’s a $3,500 microphone. There’s also the AKG c414, which retails for $1,000 (you can pick them up for $500-700 on eBay). The good news for the home studio enthusiast these days is you can spend $300-500 and get a really good mic, and there are other decent options for even less.

If your LDC mic has switchable pickup patterns, set it to a cardioid pattern to begin. You wouldn’t want a hyper-cardioid pattern due to the aforementioned movement and activity. Set it somewhere between cardioid and omni if your mic has a variable pattern selector. In some cases, if the room sounds great, you might even want to put the mic in omni. You’re going to get a less focused sound in omni, you’ll get more of the room sound, which may be what you’re after. The tighter the pickup pattern, the more directional the mic’s going to be, and the more focused the sound.

A great approach for a second mic is to put a ribbon microphone above the player, a good 3-4 feet above the instrument. A ribbon mic has a way of taking the harshness out of brass and reed instruments.

If you’re in a studio situation where you only have one mic, move the mic around the room. Put headphones on and be in the room with the sax. Move the mic around the sax until you find the sweet spot where you’re getting the tone you’re looking for.

Miking for tone
In some cases, you’re not looking for that perfect tone. You already have your mix, you’re recording a sax solo, and you need it to rip through the mix, so you already know what instruments you need this to sit on top of. Move the mic around the horn to find that sound you need to get the right presence from the sax. In some instances you’re stacking tracks to get harmonies and a full horn section type of sound, and in those cases you don’t want something squeaky and midrange present. If you want something softer, move further away from the bell.

There are situations where you’re going to want a real natural sound. Like in jazz, you’re going to want a little more room noise from that ribbon mic overhead, so you get a little of the key noise. In a really poppy record, you just want to hear that screaming sax, so you might focus more on your primary mic in the front and less on the room mic.

If the sax is a big part of the song, you can play with the mic placement and put one over to the side and get a wider sound. Talk to the sax player and get tips from him. Find out how he’s liked his sax mic’d in the past.

“You take your primary tone out of the bell, and you take your secondary tone to compensate in one way or another to fill out the sound to suit your needs,” says Jon. “A ribbon mic is fantastic for that. 10-15 years ago, ribbon mics were more or less gone from the typical recording environment. You’d find them in orchestral recordings and things like that, but they’ve come back into wider use because there’s a place for them in the modern studio, and they offer interesting presence peaks that work very well for saxophone. You can get a lot of air, and in many situations, without having to use EQ, it’ll pull that 2 kHz honking sound out, which is nice, because the more EQ you use, the more phase distortion you get.”

“There’s a 2 Kilohertz bump that happens in brass instruments – it’s the go-to frequency to pull back in brass, where you get that squeaky tone. If there’s too much of it, you almost get this kazoo sound and not enough of the body of the sax. ”

If you’re in a room that’s small or doesn’t have great acoustic control, you’ll probably get a lot of resonant frequencies from a sax. Certain notes you hit are going to scream in the room. Using some type of baffle around the mic is highly recommended, to keep the energy concentrated and dampened around the mic. An sE Electronics Reflexion Filter ($300) will work great for cutting sax or vocals in a small studio. For anything that’s loud and in a very small room, it focuses the energy right into the mic and removes a lot of the reflections and resonant frequencies.

Another tool to aid in recording sax is to use an audio compressor. Sax tends to be very dynamic, so the same approach you might use on vocals also works great for smoothing out the dynamics of sax. “My way of applying compression to avoid the unwanted artifacts,” says Jon, “is to go 2:1 or 3:1 for tracking. Then in the mix, I hit it again with a 2:1 or 3:1. That’ll give you a little more of a consistent dynamic without all of the pumping which results from hard compression or limiting.”

“With a sax, there’s a very distinct bite at the beginning of the sound. If you’re using a compressor, and you’re finding that the top of the note is being lost in the mix, you can pull the attack time up a little bit so that you get that bite out of the sax before the threshold is reached. I’d say somewhere between 25 up to 100 milliseconds, depending on the dynamic of the song, and the tempo – or the type of playing. Is the player using staccato hits, or is it more of a smooth, long performance? Again, so much depends on the performer, the room, and the plans for the sax track in the recording.”

All in all, these techniques are just suggestions on how to approach recording a sax. Don’t get too tied up in the technical aspects. Use your ears, and if you like what you hear, go with it.

Jon Marc Weiss is the Senior IT Systems Engineer for Disc Makers and also an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with over 20 years’ experience. He recently opened Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Hollywood, PA to develop local and national acts. Check out Kiva Productions on Facebook.

Andre Calihanna is a writer, editor, and musician who contributes regularly to Disc Makers’ blog. His band Hijack has just recorded and released a new EP using many of the techniques found in our DIY posts.

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7 thoughts on “How to Record a Saxophone – Recording tips for the home studio and beyond

  1. I do a lot of recording with the AKG 414 and that mic is giving me the nice crisp I like a lot. However, as you describe there are ways to alter the overall sound by placing the mic in different positions and angles. I usually go for a pretty straight forward mic position just because that’s the sound I prefer.

    Nice article over all. Thanks!

  2. Good article. Like Andre says – use your ears.  Both in the room with the sax playing and in the control room listening back, cuz you might be surprised at what you get.  Also, when it’s sax in a section, sometimes a dynamic – I use a 421 quite a bit – is just the ticket for sitting with the rest of the horns.  And don’t discount using a ribbon as the main “close” mic.  Plenty of classic sax recording using RCAs… Another great trick is to use a a multi-band compressor (very sparsely) to tame that mid to hi-mid bump without killing the softer passages and harmonics in that register (sometimes I’ve had a honk as low as 700Hz). YMMV…

  3. For fun, consider the various hole (radiator) combinations for each note. Be sure to record a balanced low register!

  4. Good article.  However, I wish you had mentioned one thing–the saxophone radiates sound, not just from it’s bell but from the keyholes along it’s body as well.  (This is not true only when ALL the keys are closed, which is rare.)  This makes for a rather complex radiation pattern from the instrument.  

    One solution I have had success with is to pull back my primary mic a bit and aim it at the middle of the instrument, above the bell.  In the case of the larger saxes (tenor and especially, baritone) one can also get good results placing a microphone to one side (the keyhole side) of the instrument.  In any case, it helps to listen to the instrument at various angles to actually hear what your mic will be hearing.

  5. i  need  to  know   how    to   hook   my   mixing   broad   to  my  computer   useing   sonar 7  programs 

  6. Thank you!  I’m a sax player, and I’m printing this up and taking it with me to studios.  Had several guys who insisted on shoving the mic in the bell. 

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