recording the hammer dulcimer

Thursday, May 15th, 2008 | by

I took a couple days off from mad updates to this website to compose and track some dulcimer parts for Drew‘s new CD. I’d like to share the brilliant, gorgeous, awesome, triumphant dulcimer sounds I got.

But frankly, this instrument is a bitch to record. I think for this session I got the best tones I’ve ever had, but I don’t feel I’ve arrived at the sound yet. Consider this a work in progress, because really, what part of digital recording is not?

Details, a photo, and samples after the jump…

There are two challenges to recording the hammer dulcimer:

  1. The instrument is relatively quiet, which means I need a ton of preamp gain (which introduces non-optimal results from consumer-grade gear, in my experience); if I put directional mics too close to the instrument, the proximity effect becomes ugly.
  2. Mic’ing both sides of the instrument introduces a risk of phasing problems. (I once got a killer stereo sound with a pair of Oktava MK-012s in a spaced pair arrangement, only to find out that the image collapsed and lost about 9db of signal in mono — and then I learned about the 3:1 rule.)

I’ve tried a half-dozen mics in a dozen configurations. I’ve tried mid-side, XY (coincident pair), and numerous spaced-pair stereo positions. I’ve miked the top, the bottom, the sides, the bridges, the soundholes. I tried a PZM taped under the body. The only thing I haven’t tried is a really expensive microphone and high-end preamp, and only because I don’t own any, yet.

To be clear, most of the tones I get are fine, and some are good, and I think this one is really good, but none are transcendent, which is absolutely what I’m going for. The dulcimer sound is killing in the room. It sings. It soars. When I play in D minor, it makes people weep instantly. If you felt sad at any point a couple days ago, that was me.

For this session, I set up four mics, in hopes that the mix engineer will find among these tracks a sound appropriate for each section of the song in question. The three close mics can be seen in position in the picture above:

  • Avenson Audio STO-2A stereo “overhead” pair of Brad Avenson’s STO-2 omnis. Omnidirectional mics have little to no proximity effect, allowing them to be positioned close to the source without massive low-end buildup. I positioned these at either end of the soundboard, angled slightly down toward the strings, an inch or two above the tuning pins and facing inward toward the other mic.
  • Oktava MK-219For color, I put my Oktava MK-219 under the body and angled up toward one of the soundholes. The 219 isn’t as bright as I would want a mic on top of the instrument to be. In this position, it has no line-of-sight to the strings. My idea was to pick up the body resonance, possibly boosted by proximity effect, and the percussive thump of hammers hitting strings. The dulcimer tends to be a bright, even shimmering instrument, but not from down here.
  • Advanced Audio CM-87I put my Advanced Audio CM-87, in omni mode, about six feet away as an ambient mic. Listening back, I don’t love the sound of this mic in this position. It has a bit of a bump in its high-frequency response, which gives some definition to the string sound in a close-mic application, but here that lift comes across as tinniness, to my ear.

Here is a short sample of each. You’ll hear the CM-87, followed by the MK-219, followed by a single channel of the STO-2 pair… then the CM-87 again, the MK-219 again, and the STO-2 pair in stereo. These excerpts were RMS-normalized to equalize the levels.


Dulcimer Mic Samples (256 kbps MP3)

(If your golden ears are worth 8.25 times more of my bandwidth, here’s the same thing as a 24-bit WAV.)

Have a comment to share, or a cool technique for recording acoustic instruments? Please “leave a response” below!

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Posted in Microphones | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “recording the hammer dulcimer”

  1. Big Gerry

    October 11th, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    3rd sound sample sounded the best to my ear !
    First one was very boomy …. betch it was the Oktava (lousy mic)

    I have 2 Rode mics pretty happy with their sound. Good price for a condenser mic.

    Cheers, Big Gerry
    ( Veteran of 4 self produced recordings )

  2. matthew mcglynn

    December 7th, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    I think the MK-219 is a great mic. But if you like your Rodes, chances are you wouldn’t like the Oktava. The NT1/1A and NT2/2A are pretty brightly voiced. The MK-219 is much darker.

    Also, note that the mic position was different. The STO-2 pair was very close to the instrument. The MK-219 was under it. The CM-87 was about six feet away, and would therefore have sounded “roomy.”

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