The mandola is a bright and joyful sounding instrument. It is to a mandolin what a viola is to a violin. The mandola is not as popular as the mandolin and is often heard as a solo instrument. If you've ever played or heard a mandola before, you know its beautiful sound.
When recording the mandola or reinforcing it live, the signal path starts at the microphone. To capture the best sound from a mandola, I recommend the following microphones:
- Neumann KM 184: The Neumann KM 184 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a small diaphragm condenser microphone that sound absolutely amazing on stringed instruments of the mandolin family. It is my top recommendation for capturing the mandola sound.
- Beyerdynamic M 160: The Beyerdynamic M 160 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a top address ribbon microphone with a hypercardioid pattern. It’s marketed as a superb microphone on strings and deserves a mention here. The M 160 sounds incredible on mandola.
We’ll get to the specifics of each of these mics shortly, but first let’s talk a bit more about the sound of a mandola.
“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)
- 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 Mandola 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 mandola sound like?
The mandola, like the mandolin is a string instrument with 8 strings and 4 course. Each course is made of 2 closely positioned strings tuned and octave apart from each other. The mandola is to the mandolin what the viola is to the violin.
The harmonic content of the mandola is warm but also quite bright, especially with new strings. The instrument's sound contains strong even and odd harmonics.
The mandola has an outer shell, a hollow body and sound holes that provide natural amplification. The outer shell helps to project the higher frequencies of the mandola while the hollow body and sound hole amplify the lower, fundamental frequencies.
The sound of the mandola is, of course, more than the notes played. There's also characteristic string noise as the player moves positions.
Frequency Range Of Mandola
- Overall Range: 131 Hz ~ 20,000 Hz
- Fundamentals range: 131 Hz – 1,319 Hz (C3-E6)
- Harmonics range: 262 Hz ~ 20,000 Hz
So we want a microphone that will accurately capture the true sound of the mandola. Knowing the fundamental frequencies and the harmonics of the mandola is a great place to start. On top of this, there are a few more criteria to keep in mind when choosing the best mandola microphone.
What Factors Make An Ideal Mandola Microphone?
Let's discuss a short list of the critical specifications that make up a great mandola microphone:
- Wide Frequency Response: Choose a microphone that will effectively reproduce the wide range of the mandola's frequencies.
- High-end frequency roll-off: Because of the mandola's strong high-frequencies, it's often preferable to have a flat or even a rolled-off high-frequency response. Many microphones with boosts in the upper frequencies will make a mandola sound overly harsh.
- Accurate transient response: It’s always preferable to have a pronounced transient response when miking plucked string instruments. There is a lot of information in the transients of all the string harmonics and often many strings will be played in short succession.
- Low self-noise: Condenser microphones are often the best bet for miking mandola. However, 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 mandola performance.
- Directionality: A directional microphone will help to isolate the mandola if it's in a room with other instruments. This is less important when recording the mandola in isolation.
- Sensitivity: Pick a microphone sensitive enough to capture the nuances in the mandola sound. This helps to capture the fullest sonic picture possible. There's more to the sound of a mandola than the vibrating strings!
Now let's see how the top recommended microphones stack up against the criteria that make a great mandola microphone.
The Neumann KM 184
Since my first mentor showed me a pair of Neumann KM 184s, they’ve been my go-to for miking plucked string instruments. 184s sound clean, professional, and really allow a mandola to “pop” out in a mix and as a solo instrument. Let’s look at the important specs here:
The Neumann KM 184 is also featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones)
• Top Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones)
• Top Best Solid-State/FET Condenser Microphones
Neumann is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use
• Top Best Studio Monitor Brands You Should Know And Use
Frequency Response Of The Neumann KM 184
The frequency response of the Neumann KM 184 is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The KM 184 frequency response graph is as follows:
The KM 184 has a beautifully flat response in the range of mandola with only a subtle dip in the lower fundamentals of the mandola. This means a clean, accurate capture of the harmonic content.
The gentle boost in the high frequencies helps to ever so slightly accentuate the upper harmonics of the mandola's sound. However, it does so without making the mandola sound overly harsh. So although there's no high-end roll-off, the KM 184 still works wonderfully on the mandola.
The slight roll-off in the lower frequency range helps to naturally remove rumble from the mandola signal without causing the mandola to sound thin.
For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).
Note also that the 184 is a cardioid directional mic and so the proximity effect will likely bring up some of the low end if the mandola is close-miked.
For more information on microphone proximity effect, check out my article In-Depth Guide To Microphone Proximity Effect.
Transient Response Of The Neumann KM 184
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 KM 184 is nearly spot-on in capturing the true sound of the mandola.
There’s so much information in the transients of mandola strings (both in the fundamental frequencies and harmonics). The KM 184 provides a beautifully accurate reproduction of this nuanced info.
Self-Noise Of The Neumann KM 184
Speaking of nuances, self-noise is an important specification to look out for when choosing a mandola mic. The quieter the mic, the better it’s suited to capturing all the finer details of the mandola.
The Neumann KM 184 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 dynamic range of the mandola.
For more information on microphone self-noise, check out my article What Is Microphone Self-Noise? (Equivalent Noise Level).
Directionality Of The Neumann KM 184
The Neumann KM 184 is a cardioid microphone. Let’s look at its polar pattern:
Cardioid patterns work amazingly well when miking mandolas 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 KM 184 at a mandola from a distance (about 4-8 feet) will capture a clean, full sound of the mandola with no worries of exaggerated bass response (due to the proximity effect). The 184 will “hear” the mandola similarly to how our ears do naturally.
When close-miking a mandola with a KM 184 (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 soundhole (lower resonances) while still picking up the full character of the mandola. The 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.
The Beyerdynamic M 160
The beyerdynamic M 160 is a double-ribbon microphone. It is a top address mic that has a hypercardioid pattern (both rarities in ribbon microphone design). The M 160 sounds absolutely stunning on string instruments and especially on the bright sound of the mandola.
The Beyerdynamic M 160 is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones)
• Top Best Passive Ribbon Microphones On The Market
Beyerdynamic is featured in My New Microphone's Top Best Headphone Brands In The World.
Frequency Response Of The Beyerdynamic M 160
The M 160 is rated as having a frequency response ranging from 40 Hz to 18,000 Hz. Here is the frequency response graph:
The first thing I notice when looking at the above frequency response graph is that there are 3 bass-response curves. Like nearly all directional microphones, the M 160 exhibits the proximity effect. The closer the M 160 is to the mandola, the more bass response it will have to the mandola.
At one meter, the M 160 has a relatively flat frequency response. The microphone, at this distance, would also pick up the fullest, most accurate sonic image of the mandola.
If we're tasked with close-miking the mandola with the M 160, caution should be taken to not overdo the proximity effect.
The gentle high-end roll-off of the M 160 suits the mandola perfectly. This roll-off helps greatly in reducing the harshness of the mandola, which is crucial in achieving the best signal possible.
Transient Response Of The Beyerdynamic M 160
Like most ribbons, the transient response of the Beyerdynamic M 160's double ribbon element is superb. The thin ribbons are very reactive to any transient change in sound pressure.
Self-Noise Of The Beyerdynamic M 160
The Beyerdynamic M 160 is a passive ribbon microphone and so it has no self-noise.
Directionality Of The Beyerdynamic M 160
Although a typical ribbon microphone is side address and bidirectional, the M 160 is a top address hypercardioid mic.
Here is the polar pattern diagram of the Beyerdynamic M 160:
If you decide to use the M 160 live for mandola, be aware of the foldback monitor positions. Having a fold back monitor at 120-degrees (or 240-degree) from the microphone will give the most gain before feedback. The default 180-degree position of a foldback monitor may give you microphone feedback issues.
For more information on the hypercardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Hypercardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
Sensitivity Of The Beyerdynamic M 160
The M 160 has a sensitivity rating of 1.0 mV/Pa = -60 dBV. This is low, but not out-of-the-ordinary for a ribbon microphone. The M 160 will, therefore, require a preamp with good, clean gain to really shine through like it should in a mix.
However, the double-ribbon element of the M 160 is very reactive to changing sound pressure, so the M 160 will, in fact, capture the nuances of the mandola's sound.
So these are two of the best microphones for capturing the sound of a mandola. Of course, there are many microphones that sound amazing on mandola, but these are my top 3 recommended mics. Let's recap:
- Neumann KM 184 small-diaphragm condenser microphone: Best sounding condenser mic on mandola in studio and live performances.
- Beyerdynamic M 160 ribbon microphone: Best sounding ribbon dynamic mic on mandola in
studioand live performances.
- AKG C 414
- AEA R84
- Royer R121
- Neumann U87
- Sennheiser MD441
- Shure KSM32
- Shure SM81
For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.