Best Microphones For Miking Bagpipes


The bagpipes. Though best known to the Anglophone world as a Scottish instrument, have been around for more than a millennium around the world. Bagpipes are strange woodwind instruments that utilize enclosed reeds fed by a continuous sack of air.

The sound of the bagpipes is unmistakable to those who have heard it before. A bright, full sound combined with one or more constant drone notes.

Oftentimes the bagpipes require no sound reinforcement when playing live. They tend to project quite well. However, when reinforcement or recording of bagpipes is required, we should be thinking about what microphone would serve us best? Here are my recommended bagpipe microphones:

  • Royer R-121: The Royer R-121 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a famous ribbon microphone and flagship product from Royer Labs. This microphone reproduces the sound of bagpipes with great accuracy and reduces the potential harshness of the instrument. Whether we’re tasked with miking the bagpipes in mono (with one mic) or in stereo (with a pair of mics), the R-121 is a top choice.
  • AEA R88: The AEA R88 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a stereo microphone with two ribbon diaphragms in a Blumlein pair setup. This microphone is my top stereo mic recommendation for bagpipes. Because the bagpipes are often played alone, it’s beneficial to capture a stereo image of the instrument. The R88 provides excellent sonic capture and a consistent stereo image when recording the bagpipes.

Let’s talk about each of these ribbon mics in further detail in this article.


Disclaimer:

“Best” is a dangerous word. There is really no such thing as a “best microphone” for any situation. The microphone(s) listed in my Recommended Microphones And Accessories” page are simply my recommendations. These recommendations are based on my own experience and are mindful of budget. It would be easy to suggest an ELA M 251 or U47 for most scenarios. However, these tube mics are very expensive, putting them out of a hobbyist’s price range and making it difficult for professionals to make their money back on the gear.

Another important note is that the microphone or equipment you choose is not the most important part of recording audio. In fact, there are many factors that are arguably more important than the choice of microphone. These include:

  • Performer (whether a musician, speaker, or otherwise)
  • Instrument
  • Microphone technique/placement
  • Number of microphones used
  • Natural sound of the room
  • Content (whether that’s the song, discussion, or otherwise)
  • Signal chain (including mic cable, preamplifier, console, and/or interface/computer)

With that being said, some microphones and gear suit some instruments better than others, prompting this series of articles under “Recommended Microphones And Accessories.”


What Does A Bagpipe Sound Like?

When choosing a microphone for any application, it’s to our great advantage to know the characteristics of the sound source. So what does a bagpipe sound like?

Bagpipes are considered a woodwind instrument. The instrument creates its characteristic sound by vibrating its enclosed reeds from a constant reservoir of air from the bag. One or more drone pipes create the characteristic drone tone(s) or the bagpipes while a chanter pipe is used to play the melody.

The bagpipes are limited by their range of nine diatonic notes and are often played as a solo instrument or accompanied only by percussion.

The harmonic content of bagpipes is rich and gives the instrument a very distinguishable sound.

A Note On Miking Bagpipes

One strategy for miking bagpipes is to use two relatively close mics (between one a three feet) to capture the chanter (in front of the piper) and the sound of the drone (behind the piper). Ensuring the phase of the mics is aligned is critical here.

This close-miking is beneficial when the pipes are playing along with other instruments; when the room is too reverberant or noisy, or when space is too tight.

Another strategy is to allow some distance between the bagpipes and the microphone(s) so the sound of the instrument may fully develop.

This “distance-miking” strategy works well when recording solo pipes and/or when the space is quiet and sonically “dead.”

Choosing a stereo setup is often best when recording solo bagpipes, whereas a mono setup is likely better if the bagpipes are playing with other instruments.

For more information on microphone placement, check out my article Top 23 Tips For Better Microphone Placement.

Frequency Range Of Bagpipe

  • Overall Range: 415 Hz ~ 15,000 Hz
  • Fundamentals range: 415 Hz – 932 Hz (A♭4-B♭5)
  • Harmonics range: 830 Hz ~ 15,000 Hz

So we want a microphone that will accurately capture the true sound of the bagpipes. Knowing the fundamental frequencies and the harmonics of the bagpipes is a great place to start. On top of this, there are a few more criteria to keep in mind when choosing the best bagpipes microphone.


What Makes An Ideal Bagpipes Microphone?

Here’s a short list of factors that make for an ideal bagpipes microphone:

  • Flat Frequency Response: Choosing a microphone with a flat frequency response will reproduce the sound of the bagpipes accurately without excess colouration.
  • Gentle High-Frequency Roll-Off: Although we want a flat frequency response, the bagpipes often yield a harsh sound. Picking a microphone with a gentle roll-off in it high frequency response will tame these piercing high frequencies and yield a smoother reproduction of the bagpipes sound.
  • Directionality: Select a microphone with a polar pattern than works with the miking technique you use on bagpipes.

With frequency response and directionality in mind, let’s talk about the recommended Royer R121 and AEA R88 and why they’re great bagpipe mics.


The Royer R121

Royer R121

The Royer R121 is the flagship ribbon microphone from Royer Labs. It gets the top recommendation as a bagpipe microphone due to its spot-on accuracy in reproducing of the nuances of the bagpipes sound. On top of that, its high-frequency roll-off effectively reduces the harshness sometimes present in the sound of the bagpipes. The R121 works effectively when close-miking bagpipes but also at a reasonable distance from the pipes (given that it’s a dynamic ribbon mic).

Frequency Response Of The Royer R121

The frequency response of the Royer R121 is given as 30 Hz – 15,000 Hz ± 3 dB. The R121 frequency response graph is as follows:

Image from the Royer R121 Specification Sheet

The R121 picks up a similar sound to what our ears hear (though in mono). This is partly due to the frequency response.

We see that the response is pretty well flat over the range of bagpipes (415 Hz – 932 Hz). The harmonics of the bagpipes’ sound benefit from the gentle boost the R121 offers in the upper mid-range.

Though these boosts and cuts may seem small (± 3 dB), they play a big role in determining the sound of the R121.

The gentle roll-off of the R121’s high-frequency response yields a warm, full sound. This roll-off also dampens the sometimes harsh sound of the bagpipes, producing a more agreeable mic signal.

For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).

Polar Response Of The Royer R121

As discussed, the Royer R121 is a ribbon microphone. Ribbons are naturally bidirectional (have a “figure-8” polar pattern). That’s because the ribbon diaphragm of a ribbon mic is typically open at both sides. Here is the polar pattern diagram for the Royer R121:

Image from the Royer R121 Specification Sheet

As we can see above, the R121 has a standard “figure-8” bidirectional polar response. It’s equally sensitive to sound coming from the front and from the back while rejecting sounds from the sides.

We also note that the R121 has a fairly consistent polar pattern across its frequency spectrum. However, like nearly all microphones, the R121 does have some off-axis colouration particularly in the form of reduced high-end response.

Using a bidirectional mic on bagpipes can help to isolate the instrument from other instruments at 90 and 270-degrees. It also helps to reduce the amount of room sound (compared to an omnidirectional mic).

For more information on the bidirectional microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Bidirectional/Figure-8 Microphone? (With Mic Examples).

Two Royer R-121s can be set up in a Blumlein Pair stereo miking technique. An R-121 and a cardioid mic can be set up in a Mid-Side stereo configuration.

For more information on stereo miking techniques, check out my article Top 8 Best Stereo Miking Techniques (With Recommended Mics).


The AEA R88

AEA R88MK2

The AEA R88 is a stereo ribbon microphone. It features two high-quality ribbon diaphragms positioned in a Blumlein pair within the microphone body. The R88 captures a true sound of the bagpipes without the unwanted harshness oftentimes heard in condenser microphones. If the bagpipes would benefit from being in stereo, I’d recommend the AEA R88 as your go-to microphone.

Frequency Response Of The AEA R88

The specified frequency response range of the AEA R88MK2 is <20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. Here is the R88MK2 frequency response graph:

Image from AEA R88MK2 Specification Sheet

From what we can see of the R88’s frequency response, it has a gentle roll-off of higher frequencies starting from 200 Hz. A steeper roll-off happens in the upper frequencies (around 9 kHz). This gradual frequency dependent decrease in sensitivity gives the R88 a warm, full, natural pickup that works tremendously well on bagpipes.

The frequency response of the R88 warms up the sound of the bagpipes, accentuating the character of the woodwind instrument while decreasing the potential harshness of its high partials and of the space.

Polar Response Of The AEA R88

The AEA R88MK2 is a stereo microphone. A stereo image is created using the Blumlein pair technique. The R88 has two bidirectional ribbon diaphragms stacked on top of one another length-wise, pointing 90-degrees from one another. The result is a stereo image that is shockingly accurate to the way we hear naturally. Each ribbon diaphragm exhibits the following polar response graph:

Together, the two ribbon diaphragms yield a Blumlein Pair:

Blumlein Pair Polar Response Drawing

The R88 has a 5-pin XLR output two effectively carry the two mic signals (one from each ribbon). A breakout cable is included to change the 5-pin to two 3-pins so that each signal can be send to a preamp in mono. We could, if we wanted to, use the R88 as a mono bidirectional microphone by only sending one 3-pin XLR to a preamp.

As a stereo mic, the R88 will capture the sound of the bagpipes in a most natural way. The mic is ideal for miking solo bagpipes, reproducing a very accurate stereo-image.

Alternatively, you could choose to use the R88 as a mono bidirectional microphone. Simply record one of the two 3-pin outputs. Ensure the microphone is positioned correctly so the diaphragm you intend to pickup the sound is actually the diaphragm picking up the sound.

For more information on mono and stereo microphones, check out my article Do Microphones Output Mono Or Stereo Signals?


The Recap

There are many microphones that sound amazing on the bagpipes. These are my two favourites:

  • Royer R121: Recommended mono ribbon mic on bagpipes.
  • AEA R88: Recommended stereo mic on bagpipes.

Honourable mentions:

  • Cascade Fathead (an excellent budget ribbon microphone for bagpipes).
  • AKG C414 XLS (recommended LDC for capturing the sound of bagpipes)

For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.

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