Best Microphones For Miking Cello

The cello is a beautiful sounding string instrument that belongs to the violin family. It is the second largest string instrument after the double bass. The cello finds itself in orchestral, chamber, and string ensembles, as well as in some modern genres and as a solo instrument.

Recording this beautiful instrument starts with the microphone. These are my top recommended microphones for cello:

  • AEA R84: The AEA R84 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a ribbon microphone inspired by the legendary RCA 44 but with a modern twist. The mic offers an incredibly warm and detailed “ribbon” sound but with extended high-end and reduced proximity effect. The R84 is an absolute joy to use on cello, making it my top recommended.
  • AKG C414 XLS: The AKG C414 XLS (link to check the price on Amazon) is a multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser microphone that sounds amazing on cello. The C414 sounds great in many of its polar patterns and work amazingly well in different mic positions around the cello. Its sheer versatility makes it a top recommendation.
  • Heil PR40: The Heil PR40 (link to check the price on Amazon) is the only dynamic microphone on the list and is my top “budget” recommendation. The PR40 has a large, low-mass diaphragm, giving it excellent transient response and the microphone has a surprisingly wide frequency response that works particularly well with the cello.

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 cello.


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 Cello 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 cello sound like?

The cello possesses a wide variety of differing tones and colours. Depending on the playing style and the string(s) being played, the cello can range from calm and solemn to passionate and lively and most things in between. The beauty of cello is certainly, in part, due to its versatility as a bass instrument and as a mid-range melodic instrument.

The cello 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 cello while the hollow body and sound hole amplify the lower, fundamental frequencies.

The sound of the cello is, of course, more than the notes played. There’s also characteristic string and/or bow noise as the player moves positions.

Frequency Range Of Cello

  • Overall Range: 65 Hz ~ 7,500 Hz
  • Fundamentals range: 65 Hz – 659 Hz (C2-E5)
  • Harmonics range: 130 Hz ~ 7,500 Hz

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


What Factors Make An Ideal Cello Microphone?

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

  • Wide/Bass Frequency Response: Choose a microphone that will effectively reproduce the fundamental frequencies and the important first harmonics of the cello. It’s also important to capture the “upper” harmonics (that extend above 7 kHz). It’s also critical in many genres that feature the cello to have an extended high-end response that will capture the room and “air” of the performance.
  • Directionality: Directionality: A directional microphone will help to isolate the cello if it’s in a room with other instruments. A directional microphone will also exhibit the proximity effect to some degree, boosting its bass response to better capture the low fundamentals of the cello. This is less important when recording in an iso-booth or when recording an entire ensemble with only a few mics.
  • Sensitivity: Pick a microphone sensitive enough to pick up the nuances in the cello sound. This helps to capture the fullest sonic picture possible. There’s more to the sound of a cello than the vibrating strings!

Now let’s see how the top recommended microphones stack up against the criteria that make a great cello microphone.


The AEA R84

AEA R84

The AEA R84 ribbon microphone was inspired by the legendary RCA 44 ribbon mic. The classic smooth sound, high-frequency roll-off, and reduced sibilance make the R84 a top choice for miking the cello in the studio. The microphone has a lovely low-end response to capture the essence of the instrument and an upper-end response to capture the upper harmonics of the cello and the sound of the room. The result is a microphone that “hears” the cello very similarly to the way we do, naturally.

The Frequency Response Of The AEA R84

The frequency response of the AEA R84 is given as <20 Hz to >20 kHz. The specification sheet gives us the following frequency response graphs:

Image from the AEA R84 Specification Sheet

As we can see, the R84 has an excellent bass and low-mid frequency response. This is exactly what we want when miking a cello, which has strong fundamentals in this range.

We notice, too, that the AEA R84 slowly becomes less sensitive as the frequencies get higher. This works well when capturing the physical space along with the cello. The harmonic content of the cello doesn’t lose integrity when picked up by the R84, and the microphone picks up the sound of the physical space similarly to the way our ears would, naturally.

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

The Directionality Of The AEA R84

Like nearly every ribbon microphone out there, the AEA R84 has a bidirectional (figure-8) polar pattern. The specification sheet gives us the following polar pattern graph:

Image from the AEA R84 Specification Sheet

As we can see here, the R84 is extremely consistent in its pick-up pattern. This means we can position this microphone off-axis without dramatically changing the timbre of the mic signal. Try tilting the R84 slightly off-axis when close miking a cello to avoid overloading. The sound characteristic with remain the same (only slightly quieter).

Bidirectional patterns typically exhibit a great amount of proximity effect. One of the selling points of the R84 is its reduced proximity effect. This means its bass response will not be overly accentuated when close-miking instruments. Experiment with the distance between the R84 and the cello to find the “sweet spot.”

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

The bidirectional pattern picks up on the early reflections from the surfaces behind it and does a great job at capturing the sound of the room along with the cello.

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

The Sensitivity Of The AEA R84

The sensitivity rating of the AEA R84 is given as 2.5 mV/Pa (-52 dBv/Pa). This is pretty sensitive for a ribbon microphone, but a quality pre-amplifier is still recommended to give the R84 mic signal the clean gain it needs.

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

But sensitivity can also be looked at as how good the microphone is at picking up subtle variations in sound pressure. In other words, how well does the mic capture the nuances and tiny details of the cello?

Ribbon mics are known for their accurate transient response and reactivity to changing sound pressure levels. The R84 is no exception. With a ribbon diaphragm only 1.8 microns thick, the R84 is capable of detecting even the slightest sounds from the cello.

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


The AKG C414 XLS

AKG C414 XLS

The AKG C414 is perhaps the most versatile large diaphragm condenser on the market today. With 9 selectable polar patterns, 3 different high-pass filters, and 3 different pads, there’s rarely an occasion that the C414 isn’t a good choice. On the cello, it’s a great choice.

The C414 XLS has a wide frequency response to capture the cello’s low frequencies, upper harmonics, and the frequencies of the room. It’s sensitive enough to pick up the nuances of the cello sound. The microphone is also very versatile and sounds great in all the usual mic placements for cello.

The Frequency Response Of The AKG C414 XLS

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

Image from the AKG C414 XLS/XLII User Manual

With the 40 Hz high-pass filter (HPF) engaged, the response of the C414 is nearly perfectly flat from about 50 Hz to about 1,000 Hz. The fundamental frequencies of the cello fit within this range and so they will be captured accurately by the C414.

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

We see that there is little variation of responsiveness though the upper frequencies as well. The slight boosts in the upper mid frequencies will help to accentuate the upper harmonics and string noise of the cello.

The extended high-end response will help pick up some of the brightness of the room (if the room is bright).

When used in conjunction with the aforementioned AEA R84, I’d recommend positioning the R84 low in front of the cello body while positioning the C414 higher and pointed at the fretboard. Apply a HPF to the C414 to taste. The R84 will pick up the body of the cello beautifully while the C414 will capture much of the nuanced sound emanating from the fretboard.

The Directionality Of The AKG C414 XLS

As mentioned, the AKG C414 XLS has a whopping 9 selectable polar patterns. A common choice for recording cello is the cardioid pattern. The cardioid pattern graph is shown below:

I chose to show you the graph the coincides with the cardioid mode polar pattern since it’s a common pattern for studio recording. That being said, please experiment with the 8 other patterns the C414 has to offer. You can check out the other graphs in the manual here.

But when speaking of the cardioid pattern, we can see that the microphone becomes much more directional at higher frequencies. This means that when pointed at the cello, the C414 will exhibit its full frequency responsiveness to the instrument, while subtly dampening other sounds and reflections of the room.

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

The Sensitivity Of The AKG C414 XLS

The open circuit sensitivity rating of the AKG C414 XLS is given as 23 mV/Pa (-33 dBV ± 0.5 dB). This means the microphone will output a strong signal.

However, as we’ve mentioned, the microphone output isn’t the only way to talk about sensitivity.

Because the C414 XLS is a condenser microphone, it has electronics that cause self-noise. Fortunately, the self-noise rating of the C414 is only 6 dBA, which is barely noticeable even in the quietest iso-booths. This allows the C414 to capture the slightest amount of sound pressure variation and, therefore, the nuances of the cello sound.

The light-weight large diaphragm of the C414 is very reactive and the microphone has a very accurate transient response.

A Note On The AKG C214

As a cost-effective alternative to the AKG C414 XLS, take a look at the AKG C214 (link to check the price on Amazon). It’s a fraction of the price with a fraction of the options, but still sounds amazing on cello and many other sound sources.


The Heil PR40

Heil PR40

The Heil PR40 is moving-coil dynamic microphone with a large 1″ low-mass diaphragm. It accurately captures the frequencies and tonality that are characteristic of the cello. Although I’d always recommend a cello pickup first, the PR40 gets my top recommendation as a live microphone for the cello. This microphone is also very affordable, relative to the R84 and C414, making it the “budget” recommendation on this list.

The Frequency Response Of The Heil PR40

The frequency response of the Heil PR40 is listed as 28 Hz – 18,000 Hz. Here is the frequency response graph of the PR40:

Image from the Heil PR40 Specification Sheet

Immediately, we notice two lines in this graph. This shows how effective the cardioid pattern of the Heil PR40 is at rejecting sound from behind. More on this later.

If we look at the low-end, we’ll see a gentle roll-off of -6dB/octave starting around 100 Hz. This roll-off is gentle enough to still capture the strong low end of a cello.

Combine this low-end responsiveness with the proximity effect’s bass-boost and we have a mic fully capable of capturing the low-end we need from the cello. In live situations, we’d typically be required to close-mic the cello anyway, so the low-end roll-off actually works in our favour.

There is also the presence boost of the PR40 we should be aware of. This boost will help accentuate any upper harmonics that may otherwise not be heard. Hearing these upper harmonics makes the cello sound bright and more present in the mix.

The high-end roll-off ensures the microphone won’t sound overbearingly bright.

The Directionality Of The Heil PR40

The Heil PR40 is a top-address cardioid microphone. It is most sensitive to sound where it points and least sensitive (rejects) sound to its rear.

This directionality is great for isolating the sound of the cello when it’s in a room with other instruments. Simply point the mic toward the cello and away from the other sound sources.

Directional microphones also exhibit what is known at the proximity effect. The Heil PR40’s bass response actually becomes more and more sensitive as the microphone is positioned closer to the sound source. Careful placement of the PR40 in the “sweet spot” will enhance the already excellent bass frequency response.

Be cautious with the proximity effect on cello, as placing the PR40 too close to the instrument may cause an inappropriate amount of low-end boost.

The Sensitivity Of The Heil PR40

The sensitivity rating of the PR40 is given as -53.9 dB @ 1 kHz, which is typical of dynamic microphones.

Though not as responsive of “sensitive” as the other recommendations on this list, the PR40 will pick up an accurate sonic picture of a cello.


Let’s Recap

So these are three of the best microphones for capturing the sound of a cello. Of course, there are many microphones that sound amazing on cello, but in considering price and setting, these are my top 3 recommended mics. Let’s recap:

  • AEA R84 ribbon microphone: Best sounding mic on cello.
  • AKG C414 XLS condenser microphone: Best sounding condenser mic on cello.
  • Heil PR40 dynamic microphone: Best sound dynamic mic and recommended live cello microphone.

*Excellent results from using the AEA R84 for the body of the cello in conjunction with the AKG C414 for the fretboard of the cello.

Honourable mentions:

  • AKG C214
  • Royer R121
  • Neumann U87
  • Sennheiser MD441
  • Shure SM7B
  • Electro-Voice RE20

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