Best Microphones For Miking Alto Saxophone

Saxophones are some of the most beautiful and expressive instruments on the planet. It’s no wonder this class of instrument is so popular in music.

The alto saxophone is smaller than the tenor sax and bigger than the soprano sax.

The sound of the alto saxophone is comparable to the human voice (though it lacks the changing formant information of the voice). Therefore, I like to think of miking the sax similarly to miking vocals. The microphone obviously plays a vital role in the miking of the alto saxophone. So what microphones suit this instrument the best?

Here Are My Top 4 Alto Saxophone Microphone Recommendations:

  • Coles 4038: The Coles 4038 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a ribbon microphone designed for broadcasting applications by the BBC. Broadcasting microphones lend themselves well to saxophones due to the similarities between the sax and human voice. The Coles 4038 captures a warm, accurate representation of the alto saxophone and is my recommended ribbon microphone.
  • AKG C414 XLII: The AKG C414 XLII (link to check the price on Amazon) is a multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser microphone. The immense versatility of the C414 makes it a top recommendation for many instruments. On alto sax, the C414 XLII yields an accurate and bright capture of the saxophone’s sound. It can be used in nearly any miking technique in order to best reproduce the alto saxophone sound. The AKG C414 XLII is my recommended condenser microphone for alto sax.
  • Electro-Voice RE20: The Electro-Voice RE20 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a large-diaphragm cardioid dynamic microphone that does not exhibit any proximity effect. This is another standard microphone for broadcasting. I’d recommend the RE20 for close-miking situations and for live alto saxophone performance.
  • Shure Beta 98H/C: The Shure Beta 98H/C (link to check the price on Amazon) is a miniature condenser clip-on microphone for woodwind and brass instruments. When a clip-on mic is needed or wanted for an alto sax performance, the Beta 98H/C is a cost-effective solution with a quality sound. The Shure Beta 98H/C is my top recommended clip-on alto saxophone microphone.

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 An Alto Saxophone 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 an alto saxophone sound like?

The alto saxophone is a single reed woodwind instrument. Though it is typically made of brass, it is not a brass instrument.

The alto sax is considered a close-end/open-end conical tube. Thus, it produces both even and odd harmonics with a fundamental frequency being twice the length of the tube.

The saxophone has a series of holes in its tube with a system key mechanisms to open and close these holes. Opening and closing these holes causes the physics within the tube to change and, therefore, the pitch of the instrument.

The alto saxophone’s sound is projected from its bell, through its open sound holes, and by its reed. The instrument is fairly directional, becoming more omnidirectional at lower frequencies.

A Note On Miking Alto Saxophone

There are basically two ways to mic up a saxophone: close-miking (spot-miking) and distant-miking.

Close-miking a saxophone works best in live settings or when the saxophone is being played alongside other instruments in the same room. Close-miking, as the name suggests, places a microphone close to the alto sax.

The benefit of close-miking is the isolation of the alto saxophone. The main con of close-miking is the incapability of capturing the full sound of the instrument.

Pointing a cardioid microphone at the keys above the bell about a foot away from the alto sax is a good place to start. Experiment with mic position to find the best location for a close mic.

Clip-on mics are another strategy for close-miking alto saxophone. Simply clip a small microphone (like the Shure Beta 98H/C) to the bell of the alto sax and point it at the instrument. Again, experiment with mic position to find the “sweet spot.”

Distant-miking works best to capture the full sound of the alto saxophone. This technique works best when the saxophone is playing by itself (like in a studio overdub session) and the room around the sax sounds nice. Positioning a microphone several feet from an alto sax allows the sound of the instrument to develop before getting picked up by the microphone.

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

Frequency Range Of Alto Saxophone

  • Overall Range: 139 Hz ~ 12,000 Hz
  • Fundamentals range: 139 Hz – 831 Hz (D♭3-A♭5)
  • Harmonics range: 278 Hz ~ 12,000 Hz

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


What Factors Make An Ideal Alto Saxophone Microphone?

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

  • Presence Boost: The saxophone and the human voice both benefit from a presence boost (3-7 kHz) due to the increased clarity a boost in the range provides. Because saxophones typically do not compete with the voice, a presence boost will give the saxophone more clarity in a mix without negatively affecting the vocals.
  • Natural High-Frequency Roll-Off: A gentle, natural roll-off of high frequencies will “warm up” the alto saxophone sound. There’s not a whole lot of harmonic information in the upper frequencies so a roll-off will not overly alter the character of the alto sax. Rather, it will simply yield a more natural sound on the sax channel.
  • Directionality: Choose a microphone to best suit your miking techniques and performance situations.
  • Wide Dynamic Range: The alto saxophone has a wide dynamic range. Choose a microphone capable of accurately reproducing the quietest and loudest moments of an alto saxophone’s performance.

And For Live Applications, A Few More Considerations:

  • Durability: Choose a microphone that can withstand some physical abuse. Chances are, at some point, your live microphone will encounter some rough times.
  • Price: Pick a microphone you can afford to replace. This is important for performers and crucial for venue owners and audio technicians.
  • Cardioid Directional Polar Pattern: Select a cardioid directional microphone to work well with fold-back monitors and on noisy stages.
  • Size: Though not a major factor, size does play a role in microphone placement live.
  • Mounting: Is it best to position the mics on stands or clip them to the alto saxophone? There are pros and cons to both.

So we have a general idea of what we’re looking for. Let’s discuss the recommended alto saxophone microphones through this lens:


The Coles 4038

Coles 4038

The Coles 4038 studio ribbon microphone is a BBC design for broadcast and recording applications. The legendary 4038 has a flat frequency response with a high-end roll-off and an incredibly accurate transient response. It sounds absolutely amazing on alto saxophone and other woodwind instrument and is my favourite and recommended ribbon microphone for alto saxophone.

Frequency Response Of The Coles 4038

The frequency response of the Coles 4038 is given as 30 Hz – 15,000 Hz ± 3 dB. The 3048 frequency response graph is as follows:

Image from Coles 4038 Specification Sheet

As we can read and see above, the Coles 4038 has a fairly limited frequency response. Though the microphone is, in fact, sensitive to the frequencies across the human spectrum of hearing, the 4038 is most effective between 30 Hz – 15,000 Hz.

Looking at the response graph, we see the Coles 4038 is relatively flat. This captures the sound of the alto saxophone with great accuracy.

Note that there is barely a presence boost in the Coles 4038. The microphone, therefore, sounds incredibly natural on alto sax but may benefit from an EQ boost in the presence range to help the saxophone shine through a mix.

The high-end drop off inherent in the Coles 4038’s frequency response makes it sound warm and rich. This warmth benefits the sound of saxophones quite nicely, reproducing a full sound without excessive brightness or harshness.

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

Polar Response Of The Coles 4038

Like most ribbon microphones, the Coles 4038 has a bidirectional polar pattern. This bidirectional pattern is accurately maintained in both horizontal and vertical planes, helping to ensure a consistent tone as the alto sax moves slightly during a performance.

This directionality is partly due to the odd shape of the 4038 microphone grille.

A bidirectional microphone benefits the sound of an alto sax in the studio environment by capturing the natural sound of the sax in front and some room sound from the back.

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

Dynamic Range Of The Coles 4038

The Coles 4038 has a fairly wide dynamic range. Because the 4038 is a passive ribbon microphone, it has no self-noise. The microphone also has a maximum sound pressure level of 125 dB SPL before 1% total harmonic distortion. This, in theory gives the Coles 4038 a clean dynamic range of 125 dB SPL.

An alto saxophone rarely makes sound louder than 125, so the risk of distortion is very low. The chances of exceeding the max SPL of the 4038 are further reduced since we’ll typically mic the saxophone at a safe distance when using the Coles 4038.

For more information on max SPL ratings, check out my article What Does Maximum Sound Pressure Level Actually Mean?

The ribbon diaphragm is incredibly thin. At 0.6 microns, it is among the thinnest ribbons in professional ribbon mics. The ribbon diaphragm of the 4038 is amazingly accurate and picks up the subtlest variations in the sound of the alto saxophone.

For more information on microphone diaphragms, check out my article What Is A Microphone Diaphragm?

So not only does the Coles 4038 have a dynamic range that will effectively capture the range of the alto sax, but it also is sensitive enough to accurately reproduce the dynamic changes in the alto sax sound.

The sensitivity rating of the Coles 4038 is given as -65 dBV re: 1V/Pa. This is very low and the 4038 requires a quality preamp with lots of clean gain in order to reap the full benefits of its beautiful sound.

For more information on microphone sensitivity, check out my article What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.


The AKG C414 XLII

AKG C414 XLII

The AKG C414 XLII is a multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser microphone modelled after the legendary C414 microphone. With 9 selectable polar patterns, 3 high-pass filters, and 4 pads, the C414 is king when it comes to versatility. Nearly any alto saxophone miking technique will benefit from the C414 XLII.

The XLII is the model specialized for vocals, whereas the XLS is specified to instruments. Though the differences are slight, I recommend the XLII over the XLS since the saxophone family sounds similar to the human voice and often plays the same lead role in musical genres. Both microphone models deserve a recommendation but I’ll be talking about the XLII here.

Frequency Response Of The AKG C414 XLII

The frequency response of the AKG C414 XLII is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The C414 XLII (omnidirectional position) frequency response graph is as follows:

Image from the AKG C414 XLS/XLII User Manual

I chose to show the frequency response of the C414’s omnidirectional polar pattern (of the 9 polar pattern options). This is because omni microphones often yield the most natural sound when miking a solo alto saxophone. You can check out the other polar patterns and frequency response graphs in the manual here.

The C414 has a very flat frequency response. This means the microphone will reproduce sound (in the form of a mic signal) with pristine accuracy.

The slight boost in the upper presence range will help to accentuate the alto saxophone in a studio mix. The boost of the upper-frequency range helps enhance the “brilliance” or “air” of the alto saxophone and the space in which it is being played.

The high-end boost and the brightness that comes with it could be subjectively good or bad. It all depends on the role of the saxophone, the room, and how we want the sax to sound. The roll-off at the very top of the frequency response range help to keep the sax sound bright but not overly harsh.

As for the high-pass filters (HPFs), the C414 will capture the entire alto saxophone’s range with the 160 Hz HPF engaged. I’d recommend experimenting with the filters, listening to which sounds the best to you. I typically end up with either the 80 Hz or 160 Hz HPF on alto sax.

For more information on microphone high-pass filters, check out my article What Is A Microphone High-Pass Filter And Why Use One?

Polar Response Of The AKG C414 XLII

As mentioned, the AKG C414 XLII has a whopping 9 selectable polar patterns. A common choice for recording the natural sound of a solo alto sax is the omnidirectional mode. The C414 omnidirectional pattern graph is shown below:

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

I chose to show you the graph the coincides with the omnidirectional mode polar pattern since it’s a common pattern for solo alto saxophone studio recordings. In other settings, different patterns would likely work better. You can check out the other graphs in the manual here.

Dynamic Range Of The AKG C414 XLII

The max SPL rating of the XLII is 140 dB SPL with no pads engaged. The self-noise of this active microphone is a very low 6 dBA.

For more information on passive attenuation devices, check out my article What Is A Microphone Attenuation Pad And What Does It Do?

This gives the AKG C414 XLII a dynamic range of 136 dB! The C414 is capable of accurately reproducing any alto saxophone performance.

The large condenser diaphragms of the C414 are also very sensitive to changing sound pressure levels. Therefore, the mic’s accuracy is spot on when capturing transients and nuances in the alto saxophone sound.

The sensitivity rating of the AKG C414 XLII is given as 23 mV/Pa (-33 dBV ± 0.5 dB). This means the microphone will output a strong signal when miking the alto sax.


The Electro-Voice RE20

Electro-Voice RE20

The Electro-Voice RE20, like the aforementioned Coles 4038, is a standard broadcast microphone. The similarities between the human voice and the saxophone make these mics excellent choices for capturing the sound of an alto sax. I recommend the RE20 as a stationary microphone for capturing alto saxophones in live settings. The RE20 is also an excellent choice in the studio, especially when recording an alto sax live-off-the-floor with a band.

Frequency Response Of The Electro-Voice RE20

The RE20 is rated as having a frequency response between 45 Hz and 18,000 Hz. Here is the frequency response graph:

Image from the Electro-Voice RE20 Specification Sheet

Note that the frequency response graph of the RE20 also shows us what it picks up at 180-degrees (the opposite direction of where the microphone is pointing).

Applying the HPF on the RE20 effectively reduces low-end rumble and noise from the mic signal without thinning the sound of an alto saxophone.

Although there is no presence boost per se, the RE20 does a great job at capturing the harmonics of the alto sax. Perhaps an EQ boost after the microphone would help to accentuate the saxophone in a mixing situation.

The high-end roll-off warms up the sound of the alto sax and reduces brilliance and harshness that could be present on stage or in a lively room.

The Electro-Voice RE20 has a relatively flat frequency response, considering it is a dynamic microphone. An RE20 will capture the sound of an alto sax fairly accurately and consistently.

Polar Response Of The Electro-Voice RE20

The RE20 is a cardioid microphone with the following polar pattern diagram:

Image from the Electro-Voice RE20 Specification Sheet

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

As we can see from the graph, the RE20 does a great job at rejecting sound from 120-degrees to 240-degrees off-axis across its entire frequency response. The RE20 has roughly 16-18 dB rejection at 180-degrees.

Typically directional microphones exhibit the proximity effect. Not the RE20. This is due to Electro-Voice’s Variable-D technology. No proximity effect means a more consistent bass response and pickup as the alto sax moves closer and further from the RE20.

The cardioid pattern is ideal for close-miking and live-miking the alto saxophone. The rear null point makes it easy to position the RE20 in front of a foldback monitor with little risk of microphone feedback. Having the mic near a foldback monitor is beneficial to helping the saxophonist hear themselves on stage.

Dynamic Range Of The Electro-Voice RE20

The Electro-Voice RE20 is a dynamic microphone with a large low-mass diaphragm. It has no self-noise and no rating for a maximum sound pressure level since the value would be higher than any practical sound source we’d try to capture.

Needless to say, the RE20’s dynamic range will easily capture the full dynamic range of the alto saxophone.

The low-mass diaphragm makes the RE20 surprisingly reactive for a dynamic mic. Though not as accurate as a ribbon or small diaphragm condenser, the RE20 is fairly detailed in its capture of alto saxophone transients and nuances.

The sensitivity rating of the Electro-Voice RE20 is given as 1.5 mV/Pa. This is low, but not out-of-the-ordinary for a dynamic microphone. I’d recommend a mic preamp with lots of clean gain or a Cloudlifter in order to get the strongest results from the RE20 on alto sax.

Durability Of The Electro-Voice RE20

The Electro-Voice RE20 is a robust microphone. It’s a moving-coil dynamic mic with a solid outer body and no complicated/fragile internal circuitry.

I’d never suggest dropping or hitting your RE20, but it should be able to handle the “rigours” of live performance. In the studio, an RE20 should live a long, prosperous life.

Price Of The Electro-Voice RE20

The price of a quality live microphone is important. Chances are you’ll want several of the same mic for saxophone(s), and so the prices add up quickly.

The Electro-Voice RE20 can be purchased for under $500 USD (as of the writing of this article). This may seem like a lot, but the price is worth it considering the quality and versatility of this dynamic microphone.

For more information on the price of microphones, check out my articles How Much Do Microphones Cost? (With Pricing Examples) and Top 20 Most Expensive Microphones On The Market Today.

Size/Mounting Of The Electro-Voice RE20

When performing live, it’s important to see the performers. Microphone size and mounting plays a role in this.

The RE20 is a fairly large mic (~812” long and ~218” at its widest diameter), but it shouldn’t be a visible distraction on stage. It doesn’t require a pop filter to protect its capsule from trumpet plosives, and also has a built-in shock mount, so we can get away without mounting it inside a bulky external shock mount. This means the overall size of the mic when positioned is relatively small.


The Shure Beta 98H/C

Shure Beta 98H/C

The Shure Beta 98H/C miniature condenser clip-on microphone is an amazing choice if the saxophonist will be moving around on the stage. It easily connects to a wireless system, it sounds great and it will effectively isolate the alto saxophone from other noise in live settings.

Frequency Response Of The Shure Beta 98H/C

The frequency response of the Shure Beta 98H/C is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The Beta 98H/C frequency response graph is as follows:

Image from Shure Beta 98H/C Specification Sheet

As we can see, the Shure Beta 98H/C has a smooth presence/upper-frequency boost that peaks around 6-7 kHz. This helps to accentuate the harmonics of the alto saxophone and help it to cut through a live mix.

Notice the frequency response graph says 61 cm (2 ft.) from sound source. The Beta 98H/C does exhibit proximity effect, and so when close-miking an alto saxophone with this clip-on mic, there will be an accentuated bass boost in the mic’s response.

Polar Response Of The Shure Beta 98H/C

The Beta 98H/C is a cardioid microphone. However, it’s graph shows a bit more of a supercardioid polar response:

Image from Shure Beta 98H/C Specification Sheet

The cardioid pattern of the Beta 98H/C is fairly consistent.

We want a cardioid when clip-on miking an alto saxophone. Simply clip the microphone on the bell of the sax and point it where it sounds best to you. Pointing the cardioid mic will pick up the sound from where it points while rejecting the sound from its rear. This helps with the clarity or the sax signal due to increased isolation from other sound sources.

Dynamic Range Of The Shure Beta 98H/C

The dynamic range of the Beta 98H/C is specified as 124 dB.

The microphone has a high maximum sound pressure level of 155 dB SPL, which easily handles the loudest alto saxophones. The self-noise rating of the 98H/C is rated as 31 dBA, which is very loud, rendering it impractical in studio situations, but definitely usable in live settings.

The small diaphragm of the 98H/C reacts appropriately to changes in sound pressure, though it is by no means the most accurate microphone for capturing the transient information of an alto saxophone.

The sensitivity rating of the Shure Beta 98H/C is given as –56 dBV/Pa (1.6 mV). This is very low for a condenser microphone but ideal for a close-range clip-on microphone. The reduced sensitivity allows for better gain control when using the 98H/C in live situations (where it should be used).

Durability Of The Shure Beta 98H/C

Shure is an industry leader in microphone durability. So, of course, durability was thought of when they designed the 98H/C. The mic has a dent-resistant steel mesh grille and enamel coated metal alloy construction to resist physical abuse and the wear and tear that comes with aging.

Price Of The Shure Beta 98H/C

At roughly $200 USD, the Beta 98H/C won’t break the bank. And with its reliability and durability, it’s a great investment.

Size/Mounting Of The Shure Beta 98H/C

The Beta 98H/C has a simple clamp to attach it to the bell of an alto saxophone. The mic capsule is at the end of a gooseneck and ratcheting swivel joint. The microphone is extremely easy to position and a gooseneck angle brace helps in retaining that microphone position.


Let’s Recap

So these are four of the best microphones for capturing the sound of an alto saxophone in different situations. Of course, there are many microphones that sound amazing on the alto sax, but in considering price and setting, these are my top 4 recommended alto saxophone mics. Let’s recap:

  • Coles 4038: Recommended ribbon mic on alto saxophone.
  • AKG C414 XLII: Recommended condenser microphone/most versatile microphone on alto sax.
  • Electro-Voice RE20: Recommended dynamic microphone on alto sax.
  • Shure Beta 98H/C: Recommended clip-on alto saxophone microphone.

Honourable mentions:

  • Royer R121 (another superb ribbon mic option)
  • AKG C12 VR (an excellent, but very expensive, large diaphragm tube condenser microphone)
  • Sennheiser MD441 (an excellent, but expensive, dynamic mic on alto saxophone)
  • DPA d:vote 4099 mic with STC4099 clip (a top-of-the-line clip-on microphone for saxophone)

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