Best Microphones For Miking Banjo


The unique twang of the banjo makes it a standout instrument in any musical genre the instrument finds itself in. When recording or reinforcing the banjo live, it all starts with the microphone. Let’s talk about my two top recommendations for miking banjos:

  • Neumann KM184: The Neumann KM184 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a small diaphragm condenser microphone that works incredibly well on string instruments at close and distant mic positions. This microphone gives us an incredibly accurate recreation of the banjo’s twangy sound.
  • Shure SM81: The Shure SM81 (link to check the price on Amazon) is another excellent small diaphragm condenser microphone that I’d recommend trying on banjo. This microphone is less expensive than the KM184 and sounds nearly as awesome on the banjo (and other string instruments).

We’ll get to the specifics of each of these mics shortly, but first let’s talk a bit more about the unique sound of a banjo.


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 Banjo 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 banjo sound like?

The banjo is string instrument that typically has 5 strings. The strings of a banjo are usually made of metal. These metal strings yield a bright sound when plucked.

The banjo has a circular, open back resonator head to help provide natural amplification of the sound. The resonator head vibrates along with the lowest fundamental frequency and, in turn, causes a slight frequency modulation of the strings. This yields the characteristic “twangy” sound of the banjo.

The sound of the banjo is, of course, more than the notes played. There’s also the resonator sound, the plucking of the strings, and the movement of the player.

Frequency Range Of Banjo

  • Overall Range: 147 Hz ~ 14,000 Hz
  • Fundamentals range: 147 Hz – 1,047 Hz (D3-C6) standard 5-string 22 frets
  • Harmonics range: 294 Hz ~ 14,000 Hz

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


What Makes An Ideal Banjo Microphone?

Let’s discuss a short list of the critical specifications that make up a great banjo microphone:

  • Flat frequency response: Choose a microphone with a flat frequency response to accurately capture the sound of a banjo. The banjo has a full set of harmonics that range fairly wide across the audio frequency spectrum. A mic with a flat frequency response will more accurately reproduce the sound of the banjo.
  • Accurate transient response: It’s always preferable to have a pronounced transient response when miking stringed instruments. There is a lot of information in the relatively fast transients of the steel strings of the banjo.
  • Low self-noise: Small diaphragm condenser microphones are often the best bet for miking banjos. These mics are active and therefore have self-noise. Choosing a quiet active microphone will help to further capture the subtle nuances in the sound of a banjo performance.
  • Directionality: Select a directional microphone to better suit the various miking techniques used in recording banjo.

So the above points should be kept in mind when choosing the best microphone for recording a banjo. Let’s talk about how the Neumann KM184 and the Shure SM81 compare to the above criteria.


The Neumann KM184

Neumann KM184

The Neumann KM184 is one of my favourite all-time microphones. I’ve been fortunate to have had at least one pair of these mics in all the studios I’ve worked in. 184s sound clean, professional, and really capture the essence of the banjo. Let’s review the KM184 according to the aforementioned criteria.

Frequency Response Of The Neumann KM184

The frequency response of the Neumann KM184 is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The KM184 frequency response graph is as follows:

Image from Neumann KM184 data sheet

The KM184 has a beautifully flat response in the range of banjo. This means a clean, accurate capture of the instrument’s harmonic content.

The gentle boost in the high frequencies helps to ever so slightly accentuate the upper harmonics of the banjo’s sound. A boost like this makes for a brighter, clearer, dare I say “twangier” banjo sound.

The slight roll-off in the lower frequency range helps to naturally remove rumble from the banjo signal without causing a thinning of the sound.

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

Transient Response Of The Neumann KM184

Other than thin diaphragm ribbon mics, small diaphragm condensers (SDCs) offer the most accurate transient response.

Some SDCs even overshoot, producing an exaggerated transient response. However, the KM184 is nearly spot on in capturing the true sound of the banjo.

There’s so much information in the fast transients of banjo strings (both in the fundamental frequencies and harmonics). The KM184 provides a beautifully accurate reproduction of this sonic information.

Self-Noise Of The Neumann KM184

Speaking of nuances, self-noise is an important specification to look out for in condenser microphones when choosing a banjo mic in the studio. The quieter the mic, the better it’s suited to capturing all the finer details of the banjo.

The Neumann KM184 has a self-noise rating of 13 dB-A. Although this isn’t extremely quiet, it won’t be noticeable in most iso-booths (unless the sound dampening is top-notch). This means the mic will work wonderfully in picking up the quiet sounds of the banjo.

Directionality Of The Neumann KM184

The Neumann KM184 is a cardioid microphone. Let’s look at its polar pattern:

Cardioid patterns work amazingly well when miking banjos at close range or at a distance.

For more information on the cardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).

Pointing the KM184 at a banjo from a distance (about 4-8 feet) will capture a clean, full sound of the banjo with no worries of an exaggerated bass response (due to the proximity effect). The 184 will “hear” the banjo similarly to how our ears do naturally.

When close-miking a banjo with a KM184 (or any other directional mic), it’s common to point it at or near the 12th fret. The slight off-axis colouration of the 184’s cardioid pattern will help reduce the high frequencies coming from the sound hole (lower resonances) while still picking up the full character of the banjo. This helps to reduce the proximity effect and capture an accurate sound when close-miking.

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

For more information on microphone proximity effect, check out my article In-Depth Guide To Microphone Proximity Effect.


Shure SM81

The Shure SM81

The Shure SM81 reproduces the sound of a banjo very closely. When positioned correctly, the SM81 captures the sound of a banjo just like our ears would in the same space.

Let’s talk about this fantastic mic in more detail:

Frequency Response Of The Shure SM81

The frequency response of the Shure SM81 is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The SM81 frequency response graph is as follows:

Image from the Shure SM81 Specification Sheet

The first thing we’d notice when looking at the graph is the 3 options we have with the SM81. There are 2 different high-pass filters (HPFs) we may engage: one gentle slope starting around 300 Hz, and a steep slope starting around 120 Hz.

The second thing we may notice is the “1 Meter” written below the line. This is the frequency response graph the microphone portrays at a distance of 1 meter from a banjo (or any other sound source). This is important since the proximity effect of the SM81 means the bass response will increase as the microphone is moved closer to the sound source (due to the directionality of the SM81).

I’d suggest engaging the steeper HPF when using the SM81 on banjo. Remember that the banjo’s lowest fundamental in standard tuning is 147 Hz, so engaging an HPF on the 81 won’t really thin out the banjo sound. The HPF will, however, remove a lot of unwanted low-end rumble and hum from the banjo signal.

When close-miking banjo, I’d try out the gentler HPF and listen to how it counteracts the proximity effect.

More importantly, the frequency response of the SM81 is flat. This makes for a very accurate capture of the banjo!

Transient Response Of The Shure SM81

When it comes to transient response, ribbon diaphragms are the best. However, small diaphragm condensers aren’t far behind in accuracy. The Shure SM81 is nearly spot on with its responsiveness to transients.

There’s so much information in the transients of the banjo (both in the fundamental frequencies and harmonics). The SM81 captures this nuanced information accurately.

Self-Noise Of The Shure SM81

The self-noise rating of the SM81 is 16 dBA. This is noticeable in the quietest of studio rooms. However, if you’re recording in a hall or chamber, the self-noise shouldn’t be an issue.

Though not the best rating, the Shure SM81 is more than “quiet enough” in the vast majority of situations.

Directionality Of The Shure SM81

The Shure SM81 is a cardioid microphone with the following polar pattern diagrams:

Image from the Shure SM81 Specification Sheet

As mentioned, cardioid patterns are sufficient at recording banjos at close range or at a distance.

Pointing the SM81 at a banjo from a distance will capture a clean, full sound with no worries of exaggerated bass response (due to the proximity effect). The SM81 will reproduce the sound of the banjo similarly to how our ears would naturally.

When close-miking a banjo with an SM81, the microphone does an excellent job of “hearing” the banjo while rejecting the extraneous background noises and instruments.


Let’s Recap

So these are my two top recommended microphones for banjo. Of course, there are many microphones that sound amazing on the banjo, but in considering price and setting, these are my top 2 recommended banjo mics. Let’s recap:

  • Neumann KM184: best banjo microphone
  • Shure SM81: second best banjo microphone

Honourable mentions:

  • AKG C414 XLII
  • Rode M5
  • Rode NT5
  • Shure SM57

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

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