The mandolin is a bright and joyful sounding instrument and is the smallest, highest pitched instrument in the mandolin family (that sees regular use). The mandolin can be heard often as solo serenader, or as part of orchestral ensembles and musical genres including folk, country, bluegrass, etc.
When recording the mandolin or reinforcing it live, the signal path starts at the microphone. To capture the best sound from a mandolin, 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, including the mandolin. It is my top recommendation for capturing the mandolin 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 mandolin.
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 mandolin.
“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 Mandolin 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 mandolin sound 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 harmonic content of the mandolin is full and bright, especially with new strings. The instrument’s sound contains a strong array of even and odd harmonics.
The mandolin 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 mandolin while the hollow body and sound hole amplify the lower, fundamental frequencies.
The sound of the mandolin is, of course, more than the notes played. There’s also characteristic string noise as the player moves positions.
Frequency Range Of Mandolin
- Overall Range: 196 Hz ~ 20,000 Hz
- Fundamentals range: 196 Hz – 1,975 Hz (G3-B6)
- Harmonics range: 392 Hz ~ 20,000 Hz
So we want a microphone that will accurately capture the true sound of the mandolin. Knowing the fundamental frequencies and the harmonics of the mandolin is a great place to start. On top of this, there are a few more criteria to keep in mind when choosing the best mandolin microphone.
What Factors Make An Ideal Mandolin Microphone?
Let’s discuss a short list of the critical specifications that make up a great mandolin microphone:
- Wide Frequency Response: Choose a microphone that will effectively reproduce the wide range of the mandolin’s frequencies.
- High-end frequency roll-off: Because of the mandolin’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 mandolin 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 mandolin. 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 mandolin performance.
- Directionality: A directional microphone will help to isolate the mandolin if it’s in a room with other instruments. This is less important when recording the mandolin in isolation.
- Sensitivity: Pick a microphone sensitive enough to capture the nuances in the mandolin sound. This helps to capture the fullest sonic picture possible. There’s more to the sound of a mandolin than the vibrating strings!
Now let’s see how the top recommended microphones stack up against the criteria that make a great mandolin microphone.
The Neumann KM184
Since my first mentor showed me a pair of Neumann KM184s, they’ve been my go-to for miking plucked string instrument. They are the preferred microphone of many engineers for both mono and stereo recording of mandolins. 184s sound clean, professional, and really allow a mandolin to “pop” out in a mix. Let’s look at the important specs here:
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:
The KM184 has a beautifully flat response in the range of mandolin frequencies. 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 mandolin’s sound. It does so without making the mandolin sound overly harsh. So although there’s no high-end roll-off, the KM184 still works wonderfully on the mandolin.
The slight roll-off in the lower frequency range helps to naturally remove rumble from the mandolin signal without causing the mandolin to sound thin.
For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).
Also note that the 184 is a cardioid directional mic and so the proximity effect will likely bring up some of the low end if the mandolin 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 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 mandolin.
There’s so much information in the transients of mandolin strings (both in the fundamental frequencies and harmonics). The KM184 provides a beautifully accurate reproduction of this nuanced info.
Self-Noise Of The Neumann KM184
Speaking of nuances, self-noise is an important specification to look out for when choosing a mandolin mic. The quieter the mic, the better it’s suited to capturing all the finer details of the mandolin.
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 dynamic range of the mandolin.
For more information on microphone self-noise, check out my article What Is Microphone Self-Noise? (Equivalent Noise Level).
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 mandolins 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 mandolin from a distance (about 4-8 feet) will capture a clean, full sound of the mandolin with no worries of an exaggerated bass response (due to the proximity effect). The 184 will “hear” the mandolin similarly to how our ear do naturally.
When close-miking a mandolin 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 mandolin. 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 mandolin.
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 mandolin, the more bass response it will have to the mandolin.
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 mandolin.
If we’re tasked with close-miking the mandolin 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 mandolin perfectly. This roll-off helps greatly in reducing the harshness of the mandolin, 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 mandolin, 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 mandolin’s sound.
So these are two of the best microphones for capturing the sound of a mandolin. Of course, there are many microphones that sound amazing on mandolin, but these are my top 3 recommended mics. Let’s recap:
- Neumann KM184 small diaphragm condenser microphone: Best sounding condenser mic on mandolin in studio and live performances.
- Beyerdynamic M 160 ribbon microphone: Best sounding ribbon dynamic mic on mandolin in
studioand live performances.
- AKG C414
- 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.