Best Microphones For Miking French Horn

The French horn is a beautiful instrument that is usually only heard in classical ensembles. Perhaps, in the ensemble, the French horn has an important solo to play. Should we close-mic the french horn, and if so, with what microphone? Which microphone should we use in the studio to record a french horn? This article offers my answers and recommended microphones for the French horn.

  • Coles 4038: Broadcasting microphones lend themselves well to the French horn. If we’re really trying to capture the warm sonic character of a French horn, there’s no better microphone than the Coles 4038 (link to check the price on Amazon). This BBC-designed microphone is top-notch and well worth the price. It works particularly well in capturing the sound intended by the trumpeter.
  • Cascade Fat Head 98: Sticking with ribbon mics, the best budget option for a French horn mic would have to be the Cascade Fat Head 98 (link to check the price on Amazon). This microphone sounds beautiful on brass instruments (especially on French horn) and it’s a fraction of the cost of a Coles 4038.
  • Electro-Voice RE20: There’s a lot of good points for different microphones for French horns in live situations. If you do not feel comfortable bringing your ribbon mic on stage with you, I’d recommend another fantastic broadcasting mic: the Electro-Voice RE20 (link to check the price on Amazon). This is an excellent mic for nearly any instrument in a live setting, and particularly for French horn.
  • Shure Beta 98H/C: My recommended clip-on microphone is the Shure Beta 98H/C (link to check the price on Amazon). This is a wonderful close-mic clip-on option for live French horns and can easily connect to a wireless transmitter. The Beta 98H/C sounds amazing and does an excellent job at isolating its French horn from the rest of the stage noise.

Let’s go into further detail about the Coles 4038, Cascade Fathead 98, Electro-Voice RE20, and the Shure Beta 98H/C and discuss why they make for great French Horn microphones.


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 French Horn Sound Like?

To make a better microphone choice, it’s important to understand the sound of what we’re miking. So what does a french horn sound like?

The french horn is made from a long tube, and so its fundamental frequencies are fairly low (down to 62 Hz in the common F/B♭).

A french horn sounds warm, full and triumphant. It is less bright than a French horn. The French horn also has a relatively gentle attack when compared to other brass instruments.

The backward-facing orientation of the bell causes a further subdues the warm sounding french horn from the audience’s perspective in orchestral settings. From the player’s perspective, the french horn sounds warm and full.

Near and in front of the bell, the french horn will sound unnaturally bright and not so full. We typically wouldn’t listen to a french horn in this position, but our microphones often must be placed in this viscinity.

So if we are to close-mic a french horn, we want a microphone to decrease the brightness and add body to the sound if at all possible. Doing so will capture a more natural sound of the french horn.

Frequency Range Of French Horn (F/B♭)

  • Overall Range: 62 Hz ~ 6,000 Hz
  • Fundamentals range: 62 Hz – 698 Hz (B1-F5)
  • Harmonics range: 124 Hz ~ 6,000 Hz
  • Formant range: 400 Hz – 500 Hz 

Let’s make sense of these peculiar values.

The french horn is a tube that’s mostly conical and closed at one end. Physics states the horn should have a fundamental wavelength 2 times the length of the tube.

The French horn plays a full overtone series (both odd and even harmonics).

The formants or “strong harmonics” that give the french its unique sound are found roughly between the 400 Hz to 500 Hz range.


What Factors Make An Ideal French Horn Microphone?

Let’s discuss a short list of the critical specifications that make up a great French horn mic:

  • Gentle high-frequency roll-off: A smooth roll-off of high frequencies helps achieve the “warm” sound of a French horn. Extended frequency responses often yield too bright a sound for horns.
  • Flat low-end frequency response: Choose a mic that will accurately reproduce low-mid and low frequencies. This will capture the natural sound of the French horn’s fundamental frequencies.
  • Directionality: Pick a microphone with some directionality. When recording French horn, off-axis colouration can actually be your friend. By positioning the microphone at various points around the bell, many different sounds may be captured. A good directional mic will also help isolate the horn from other instruments when close-miking in an ensemble.

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.
  • 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 French horn? There are pros and cons to both.

So we have a general idea of what we’re looking for. Let’s discuss the recommended French horn 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 provides a beautifully flat frequency response and incredibly accurate transient response. It sounds absolutely amazing on French horn and brass instruments and is my top recommendation for a high-end French horn microphone.

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

Ribbon mics are our best bet to capture the warm tones of a French horn naturally and accurately. The Coles 4038 is a top-of-the-line ribbon microphone and sounds great on French horn in a studio environment.

With a quick glance at the 4038 frequency response graph, we see that this ribbon mic compliments the sound of a French horn in two ways:

First, the Coles 4038 (like most ribbon mics) has a gentle roll-off of high frequencies. This helps to maintain the “warmth” of the French horn sound. Even when the 4038 is placed in a “bright” position (like on-axis in front of the horn bell), the response remains natural sounding.

Second, there is a gentle boost in sensitivity between ~2,000 Hz ~5,000 Hz. This slight boost helps accentuate the formant frequencies characteristic of the French horn.

Although slight, the natural boosts and cuts in the 4038’s frequency response really do play a big role in capturing the best sound from a French horn!

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

Directionality 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 if the French horn happens to move off-axis during recording.

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

The bidirectional pattern of the 4038 picks up the early reflections to its rear, and does an excellent job capturing the sound of the room along with the horn. Cardioid mics are a bit dull and phasey sounding when used as rooms. Omnidirectional microphones often reproduce too much of the reverberation of the room.

Bidirectional microphones exhibit the greatest amount of the proximity effect. If the 4038 makes the horn sound too muddy, try distancing it from the bell. By the same token, if the 4038 makes the horn sound too thin (which likely won’t happen), move it closer to the bell.

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

Durability Of The Coles 4038

Because the Coles 4038 is a ribbon dynamic microphone (with a very thin ribbon 0.6 microns thick), it’s a bit fragile. Dropping or hitting this mic may damage the ribbon element (diaphragm) or the 4038, and so caution should be practiced when using this mic in the studio and in live settings.

Price Of The Coles 4038

At over $1,000 USD, the Coles 4038 is the most expensive mic on this list. What you’re paying for here is a very high quality microphone that outperforms its “budget” counterparts and sounds amazing on most sound sources (notably the French horn).

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 Coles 4038

The Coles 4038 is a odd-shaped, but small microphone. It can be mounted close to or far from the French horn. If possible, keep the microphone upright so that the ribbon element does not sag.

I wouldn’t recommend clamping the 4038 to the bell of a horn due to its weight and fragility.

For more information on microphone mounting, check out my article How To Attach A Microphone To A Microphone Stand.


The Cascade Fat Head 98

Cascade Fat Head 98

The Fat Head is my top “budget” microphone for capturing the sound of a French horn. This mic has a symmetrical ribbon design and outperforms the other ribbon mics in its price range.

Frequency Response Of The Cascade Fat Head 98

The Fat Head has a frequency response of +/-5dB between 60 Hz and 12,500 Hz. Here is the frequency response graph:

Image from Cascade Fat Head Mic Report

What can we gather from the Fat Head’s frequency response graph?

First, the curve is fairly flat in the fundamental frequency range of a French horn. This makes for an accurate capture of this important frequency band.

The Fat Head doesn’t boost the French horn formants, but it doesn’t cut them either. This sounds fine.

As we get to the upper notable harmonics of the French horn (~6 kHz), the Fat Head has a slight boost in sensitivity. This helps the French horn to stand out a bit in the mix and accentuates some of its character.

Finally, the high-end roll suits the french horn beautifully. The French horn sounds warm and full of body when recorded by the Fat Head, which is exactly what it should like (in most cases).

Directionality Of The Cascade Fat Head 98

The Fat Head, like the vast majority of ribbon microphones, exhibits a bidirectional polar pattern. Here is the graph of the Fat Head polar response:

Image from Cascade Fat Head Mic Report

The bidirectional pattern of the Fat Head picks up the initial sound of a French horn and the early reflections to the rear of the mic. The Fat Head’s polar response also exhibits quite a strong proximity effect, making the mic more sensitive to bass frequencies as it moves closer to the sound source. Experiment with the positioning of the Fat Head relative to the French horn to find your “sweet spot.”

Durability Of The Cascade Fat Head 98

The ribbon element on a Fat Head is 2.5 microns thick, 1 3/4″ long, and 3/16″ wide and is made of pure aluminum. These dimensions insinuate a durable ribbon. However, the Cascade Fat Head is, after all, a ribbon mic. I wouldn’t suggest exposing this microphone to physical abuse.

Price Of The Cascade Fat Head 98

At about $200 USD (at the time of writing the article), the Cascade Fat Head 98 is at the top of its price range in terms of performance and when it comes to capturing the sound of the French horn.

I think this is an excellent budget ribbon mic for any project studio to pick up.

Size/Mounting Of The Cascade Fat Head 98

The Fat Head is a relatively small microphone, allowing it to fit inconspicuously in many positions. However, because it’s a ribbon mic, I’d suggest placing it upright so that the ribbon element doesn’t sag.

When using the Fat Head in a live setting, be cautious not to knock it over or put it in harm’s way. Though it’ll probably be fine if it’s bumped, there’s always a chance for the ribbon to sustain irreversible physical damage.

The Fat Head 98 would be an awkward microphone to clamp to a French horn bell. I wouldn’t recommend doing this.


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 French horn make these mics excellent choices for capturing the sound of a French horn. I recommend the RE20 as a stationary microphone for capturing French horns in live settings. That being said, it’s also a stellar choice in the studio.

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).

The flat response of the RE20 in the low-mids and low frequencies makes it an excellent choice for recording French horn. The low-end roll-off happens just at the lower end of the French horn fundamental range, keeping the capture accurate but clean.

The high-frequency roll-off helps somewhat to warm up the sound of French horns in live and studio settings.

Directionality 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.

The RE20 doesn’t have a great amount of off-axis colouration, which helps to maintain the sound of the French horn if it happens to move slightly off-axis from the microphone.

Speaking of colouration, the RE20 also does not exhibit any proximity effect, even though it’s a cardioid mic. This is because of its Variable-D technology. What this means is that there will not be an excessive bass boost as the French horn gets closer to the microphone. This makes it an excellent choice in live settings where the rule of mic placement seems to be “closer the better.”

More importantly in live situations, this cardioid pattern allows for placement in front of monitors with smaller risk of microphone feedback.

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.

The Price Of The Electro-Voice RE20

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 for live French horns and the countless other instrument the RE20 suits beautifully. The RE20 is also extremely versatile, so I’d say it would be money well-spent.

The 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 French horn 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 (Budget Live Recommendation)

Shure Beta 98H/C

The Shure Beta 98H/C is an amazing choice if the hornist will be moving around on the stage. It easily connects to a wireless system, too! This miniature condenser mic sounds great and effectively isolates the French horn 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 above, there’s quite a presence boost in the Beta 98H/C with almost a 5 dB boost around 6-7 kHz. Although this doesn’t necessarily coincide with the French horn formants, the boost will help the French horn stand out a bit in a live mix.

Directionality 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

It’s important to use directional microphones in live settings to help isolate the various sound sources. As we can see above, the 98H/C is pretty directional. And so clipping the mic to and pointing it at the French horn bell should effectively isolate the French horn from the other instruments.

The directionality also causes the 98H/C to exhibit the proximity effect. Close-miking the French horn will cause a slight bass boost in the Beta 98H/C.

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 really a great investment as far as clip-on mics go.

Size/Mounting Of The Shure Beta 98H/C

The Beta 98H/C has a simple clamp to attach it to the bell of a French horn. 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 a French horn. Of course, there are many microphones that sound amazing on horn, but in considering price and setting, these are my top 4 recommended French horn mics. Let’s recap:

  • Coles 4038: Best sounding mic on French horn.
  • Cascade Fathead 98: A great “budget” microphone for recording French horn in a studio.
  • Electro-Voice RE20: Best “non-ribbon” live microphone for French horn.
  • Shure Beta 98H/C: Best clip-on microphone for French horn.

Honourable mentions:

  • AKG C414 XLII
  • Royer R121
  • Sennheiser MD441
  • Shure SM57
  • AMT P800
  • MXL R77

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