How to Record a Saxophone

Whether it's a tenor leading a combo through a friday night jazz odyssey or a baritone providing that counterpoint bass line to pop vocals, the saxophone is easily one of the most versatile instruments you can play. When it comes to putting the sax on record, the approaches, tools and outcomes can be just as diverse. Like so much in the recording universe, there's no single best approach to recording any one instrument. There are, however, plenty of tips and guidelines to keep in mind next time you need to record a sax part.

Which Mic To Use?

Out of the gate, you can't really go wrong with a sturdy dynamic mic like a Shure SM57 (or a SM58) for recording nearly anything. If you're a sax player making your way in the world, a SM57 is a worthy investment since it can be used equally well in live settings.

Lots of pros point to ribbon mics as a secret weapon for recording winds and brass. Considering that most of the all-time great sax recordings were recorded in an era when the ribbon was king, it makes sense that a studio grade Coles 4038 or a Royer 121 will help get that soulful vintage horn sound with a tasteful high-mid roll off. Many ribbon mics have a natural scoop in the 2 kHz to 4 kHz range, which is where much of that extra sax squeak and pop lives. Ribbon mics do a great job naturally preventing this from landing in the final mix.

Of course, not all of us can afford a vintage ribbon mic (or really any ribbon mic), but finding a condenser that doesn't over-emphasize the higher mid-range will also suit the sax well. With condensers, you'll need to be sensitive to taking in too much hiss, pop and other incidental noise coming out of the horn. There is value in these natural sounds which can really bring a jazz record to life, but depending on the rest of the mix, these noises can be a distraction.

No matter what type of mic you're using, you'll want something with high SPL, especially with ribbon mics. This is true when recording any wind instrument as the mic needs to withstand the often underestimated force of sound coming out of the bell. If you're working with a sax player that really gets into it, you need to make sure your mics are ready to stand up to the test in an even and consistent way.

Mic Placement

Again, there are no rigid rules when it comes to the proximity of the microphone to the instrument, and the placement will vary greatly depending on the room, your gear, and of course, the player. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the sound of the sax is produced from each and every section of the instrument, so choosing and placing your mics in a way that gets ample coverage on all parts of the horn is key. Placing the mic too close to the bell of the instrument will only accentuate the lower frequencies instead of capturing the full, robust sound of the saxophone. You see live players do this sometimes, but this is more to combat bleed with other instruments on stage than as a means to optimize the sound of the sax.

Conventional wisdom dictates that with single mic setups, the length of the sax should be roughly the same as the distance between the mic and player, with the mic placed somewhere in the middle of the mouthpiece and the bell. Some pros recommend placing the mic overhead of the player, and generally speaking, striving for some level of off-axis-ness is a good bet.

There are also all kinds of creative configurations you can achieve with multiple microphones. We don't really have space here to go into extreme detail, but with these setups especially, it relies on trial and error. An example of one approach would be a dynamic mic like a SM57 close to the horn with a large diaphragm condenser at a longer distance to get more of the space and the room. But even with that, taking the time to play with the placements and listen back will yield a much better result on the final product.

Sax Sound vs Room Sound

Like any acoustic instrument, the sound and character of the room you're recording in is likely going to be the biggest determining factor in your final cut. For many, recording in a more open space with natural reverb and reflection will replicate the experience of hearing a live sax in a concert hall or venue.

If working in a room with less natural character or more unwanted noise, going with a closer mic placement might be your only sure bet. If you do want to strive for a more open sound, try toying with some outboard or virtual reverb effects to add some space.

Regardless of which route you take, you can always rely on the power of experimentation. Every room, every recording rig and every sax player is different. The method that's best for recording a sax is going to vary widely. And of course, whether it's a wind instrument, a guitar, a vocal line or a drum set, nothing beats the power of a compelling performance.

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