Posted on: | Category:

You’ve just perfected a difficult passage of your favorite concerto and grab your smartphone to capture this monumental practice achievement. You run through the passage again and while not perfect, you still feel pretty good about your progress. You listen back, expecting to hear exactly what you thought you heard while you were playing, but it sounds nasally, distorted, and thin. Sound familiar? What’s going on?

Of course, a topic for another day might be how we sometimes don’t actually hear ourselves accurately while we’re playing (a good reason to record yourself frequently and listen back!), but for now, let’s assume this is not the issue.

First off, the violin family instruments have a wide range of frequencies (this table suggests 200Hz-3500Hz for the violin), much wider than a vocalist let alone the spoken conversation a smartphone mic was designed to capture, not to mention the violin’s expansive overtone series. While the Voice Memos app is great for quickly capturing a song idea or recording the gist of a rehearsal, there’s a reason why the microphones used in recording studios cost thousands of dollars - they feature technology that’s up to the challenge of capturing a near perfect representation of an instrument’s tone.

Luckily, even a $50 USB mic will create a big sound improvement over a built-in cell phone or computer mic and why I recommend the investment not only for recording, but for my violin and viola students taking lessons on Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom. As mentioned, to successfully pickup the nuanced sound of a violin, we need a microphone with a frequency range that will at least include the violin’s range. Thankfully, most microphones captures this range and more, yet some are better suited to a violin or viola than others. While a microphone designed for vocals can capture the overall sound of a violin, a condenser microphone, and more specifically, a Large Diaphragm Condenser, is often the best at capturing the details, while sounding warmer and richer than a Small Diaphragm Condenser. I’ve also heard reports that using a good ribbon mic, if you can afford one, is great for a violin.

Beyond the mic, room acoustics are a crucial consideration. Reflective surfaces and bigger spaces amplify natural reverb, while fabrics and smaller spaces dampen them. A small or dead sounding room typically will not be inspiring to play in and won’t give the instrument’s resonances enough “breathing room,” yet if we intend to add effects to the track, having a more focused sound may be ideal. In contrast, large room with a lot of natural reverb and/or echo or a room with a lot of hard surfaces, like a bathroom or stairwell, may be lovely to play in, but may wash out the sound and minimize your mixing options later on. It all depends on your vision for the recording. Recording studios usually have at least a few rooms of various sizes with acoustic treatments to suit each space. In this situation, bowed strings are usually better off in a medium to larger room rather than in a vocal booth. In a home recording situation, experiment with recording in a few different spaces. If a space is too bright, hanging blankets to dampen reflective surfaces can help reduce overwhelming reverb. If a space makes the violin sound like a cardboard box, try moving to a different space or reducing the amount of fabric in the room (rugs, couches, beds, tapestries, etc.).

In my experience, a room with various angles for sound waves to bounce off of can lead to more interesting frequencies than a boxy room. One of my favorite rooms to record in was a mid-sized trapezoidal room located off the main sanctuary of a church. With a two story high vaulted ceiling, there were a plethora of unusual angles for sound waves to interact with, so don’t rule out an odd space before you try it! I lucked out with my home studio. Though rectangular and only 120 square feet, I think a partially slanted, partially flat ceiling adds extra angles to make it one the best spaces I’ve had the privilege to practice and teach in to date.

Besides the recording space, microphone placement is another key factor. At one of my first recording sessions the engineer was setting up the microphones and asked me to play a bit. I started warming up and was surprised when he suddenly jumped up on a chair, hovering over me, listening for a precise spot he wanted to capture. Obviously, violin and viola sound-holes point up and to the right, while cello and bass sound-holes face forward and often slightly to the right. Mic placements need to be anywhere from about a foot to a few feet away, but in line with these sound-holes, or in other words, out in front of a cello and up on a boom stand above the violin!

This is another reason why setting your smartphone on a table below you to record will fail to accurately capture your sound. A mic set up in front of the violinist, as we would for a vocalist, may lead to slightly better results, but may sound nasally or scratchy because it’s not capturing the warmer, richer, bass frequencies that are coming from the lower strings on the other side of the instrument. When positioning the mic above a violin or viola, make sure the right side of the mic is facing the instrument and try a few different angles, favoring the higher or lower strings, closer or further from the instrument, nearer the bridge or nearer the fingerboard, and avoiding anywhere the bow might travel. Each instrument, player, mic, and room offers a different mix of tones. Listening through headphones while you play can be a quick way to determine what brings out the qualities you’re looking for. Rather than continually adjusting the mic you can save time by adjusting where you sit or stand as well.

Since condenser microphones are very sensitive, particularly ones which have an omnidirectional or wide cardioid recording pattern, they can easily capture unwanted sounds as much as your string quartet or fiddle tune, like trucks going by, barking dogs, or even the subtle hum of an overhead light. Recording studios take care to soundproof their spaces, but homes are usually not designed to be completely soundproof. Choosing a space towards the center of your home rather than one with an outside wall can help reduce outdoor noises you can’t control. You could also consider recording at night or at a time when neighbors tend to be at work and aren’t typically running lawn mowers and chain saws, or slamming doors as they rush to and from work or school. Within the home, reduce ambient noise by turning off heaters, fans, or AC units which blow air, silencing all devices and their notifications, turning off lights, and unplugging the refrigerator if it’s within earshot of your recording space. Also, while you may be recording directly into a computer, purchase cables that are long enough to allow the microphone to be as far away form the computer as possible to avoid capturing the whir of the computer fan.

Even once you have a fairly quiet space, your recording may include unintended sounds. These commonly include the sound of air passing by the mic (yes, even fairly still air has a sound!). To minimize this issue, try placing the mic closer to the instrument. Or, perhaps you can hear yourself breathing, bow noise, crunchiness during spiccato or martelé passages, or fingers striking the fingerboard, all far beyond your intended articulations. If so, try placing the mic a bit further away from the violin, viola, or cello.

Sometimes you’re able to capture a beautiful tone, but only a hint of your articulations. A violin or viola does sit close to our ears, allowing us to hear every detail clearly which can lead us to think we’re playing dynamically while our efforts may not be audible to someone standing further away. If the player isn’t the issue then moving the mic closer can help. Another option is to use two mics, placing one closer to the violin, viola, or cello to capture articulations and that bit of fizzle of bow on strings, and the other further out in the room to capture the overall tone and reverb.

If you don’t own two mics, simply copying the single track within your recording software and mixing one with minimal effects while adding reverb to the other, can simulate a double microphone approach. Either way, mixed together two simultaneously recorded tracks can offer endless options for balancing the concert hall reverb we’ve grown to expect from bowed strings without losing the articulation, dynamic subtlety, and sense of immediacy and passion. Using two microphones made a significant difference in some of my recent recording projects.

This concept of balancing reverb versus articulation, also gives us an answer to why we might have noticed famous virtuosos sounding pretty scratchy when performing close up on YouTube videos recorded at home during Covid - (besides their mic placement, which was probably closer than those used to record a live performance) they’ve had to learn to almost over-articulate in order to cut through the orchestra and avoid being washed out from the reverb of the symphony hall. The natural acoustics of these large spaces soften everything up to a gorgeous balance.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that even with ideal acoustics, mics, mic placements, and a superb performance, professional sound engineers can spend hours tweaking a track, let alone mixing an ensemble or band. Equalization, panning, reverb choices, and compression are standard treatments for any track before a song is ready to be shared on social media, sent to Apple Music or Spotify, and made into a CD or record. Beyond elements of mixing, some artists also choose to add effects, manually tune specific notes, or auto-tune the entire track, not to mention the additional process of mastering a track or album, which is often done by someone other than the recording engineer who specializes in mastering and among other things, helps boost the audio levels to the current media standard.

This all gives just a glimpse of how much actually goes into any of the recordings that we aspire to sound like and a reason why listening back to yourself recorded on a smartphone can easily be disheartening, even if your playing is top notch. Recording, mixing, and mastering are an art just as complex as actually playing an instrument, so especially if you’ve never recorded before, it’s worth hiring a professional for any serious recording project, be it a professional demo, a single, or an album. However, with experimentation and a vision of how you’d like your instrument or ensemble to sound, using free recording software such as GarageBand or Audacity and decent mics, it’s possible to find satisfaction and an honest representation of your sound with casual tracks recorded and mixed at home. Even if you plan to record the finished tracks in a professional studio, having a home recording setup will help you polish your arrangements and fine tune your playing to be ready to hit the studio and make the most of your time there.

Please email me at if you have a violin, viola, fiddle, music biz, or practice related question you’d like answered in the blog or on a podcast, have a story or insight to share, or if you’d like to inquire about violin, viola, or fiddle lessons with me, in-person or online via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom.

The Violin Geek Blog is a free resource and always will be. We also don't sell advertising, meaning that everything you read has been a labor of love. If you'd like to support my efforts and help ensure they continue, please consider making a donation. Thanks for your support!

Laurel Thomsen

Violin, Viola, Vocals
Performance, Instruction, Recording

Based in Santa Cruz, California

Site by Laurel Thomsen
Photography by Michelle Magdalena
Skype: laurelthomsen

Become a VIP fan!

Join my periodic newsletter and be the first to learn about her adventures, music, tour dates, and new recordings. On occasion I'll also offer mailing list only downloads and discounts.
© 1996-2024 Laurel Thomsen, Email me