Best Microphones For Miking Viola

The viola is a wonderfully warm and dark member of the violin family. Though “duller” sounding than the other string instruments in its family, the viola has found its place complimenting orchestra, chamber, and string ensembles, as well as in some modern genres and as a solo instrument.

When recording the viola or reinforcing it live, the microphone is an important piece of equipment to consider. These are my top recommended microphones for viola:

  • 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 viola and other string instruments. The C414 sounds great in many of its polar patterns and work amazingly well in different mic positions around the viola. Its sheer versatility makes it a top recommendation.
  • Electro-Voice RE20: The Electro-Voice RE20 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a low-mass large diaphragm dynamic microphone that is a staple in the broadcasting world. The RE20 accurately captures the low-end of the viola while helping to accentuate the upper harmonics, allowing the timbre of the viola to shine through.
  • DPA d:dicate 4011C: The DPA d:dicate 4011C (link to check the price on Amazon) is a small diaphragm condenser mic and is my top recommended “clip-on” viola microphone. The 4011C is an expensive microphone, but its quality is second to none when it comes to close-miking viola in both studio and live settings.

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 viola.


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 Viola 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 viola sound like?

The viola’s characteristic sound is in the low and middle registers, which are covered by the three lowest strings. The sound of the viola is actually quite bland, but in a great way, allowing it to work well with other string instruments in ensemble.

The harmonic content of the viola is not overly powerful, giving the viola a warm, dark sound. The viola has a lower range than the violin and a higher range than the cello, but sounds darker than both.

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

The sound of the viola 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 Viola

  • Overall Range: 131 Hz ~ 6,500 Hz
  • Fundamentals range: 131 Hz – 1,319 Hz (C3-E6)
  • Harmonics range: 262 Hz ~ 6,500 Hz

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


What Factors Make An Ideal Viola Microphone?

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

  • Wide/Bass Frequency Response: Choose a microphone that will effectively reproduce the fundamental frequencies and the important first harmonics of the viola. It’s also important to capture the “upper” harmonics (that extend above 7 kHz). Having an extended high-end response that will capture the room and “air” of the performance.
  • Directionality: A directional microphone will help to isolate the viola if it’s in a room with other instruments. This is less important when recording the viola in isolation.
  • Sensitivity: Pick a microphone sensitive enough to pick up the nuances in the viola sound. This helps to capture the fullest sonic picture possible. There’s more to the sound of a viola than the vibrating strings!

And For Live Applications, A Few More Considerations:

  • Durability: Though unlikely in most genres that require viola, live microphones do tend to get bumped every once in a while. Pick a mic that can withstand a bit of abuse.
  • Size: Though not a major factor, size does play a role in microphone placement live.
  • Mounting: Choose a microphone that can easily clip-on to the viola in multiple positions.

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



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 viola, it’s a great choice.

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

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 80 Hz high-pass filter (HPF) engaged, the response of the C414 is nearly perfectly flat from about 100 Hz to about 1,000 Hz. The fundamental frequencies of the viola fit within this range and so they will be captured accurately by the C414. By using this HPF, we’ll also filter out much of the possible low-end rumble and electrical hum that may be present in the space.

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 viola.

Though the viola is not a bright instrument, the extended high-end response will help pick up some of the brightness of the room (if the room is bright).

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

Directionality Of The AKG C414 XLS

As mentioned, the AKG C414 XLS has a whopping 9 selectable polar patterns. A common choice for recording viola 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 viola, 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).

If the room and viola would better benefit from a figure-8 or omnidirectional pattern microphone, the C414 offers these modes as well as 6 others!

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

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

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.

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

However, 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 viola sound.

For more information on microphone self-noise, check out my article What Is Microphone Self-Noise? (Equivalent Noise Level).

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 viola and many other sound sources.


The Electro-Voice RE20

Electro-Voice RE20

The Electro-Voice RE20 is a standard microphone in the broadcasting world. It’s a dynamic microphone with a low-mass diaphragm that reacts to sound very similar to a condenser. The RE20 exhibits no proximity effect due to its Variable-D technology and so it makes for a consistent choice when close-miking and distant-miking the voila.

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).

As we can see, the RE20 is relatively flat in the range of the viola’s fundamental frequencies (131 Hz – 1319 Hz) and gets a bit coloured in the upper harmonics of the viola. All-in-all, the RE20 does a fantastic of capturing the essence of the viola, and the frequency response has quite a bit to with that.

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

In live settings, I’d recommend applying the HPF of the RE20 to help increase the gain before feedback of the microphone signal (by reducing the amount of low-end rumble that gets picked up by the mic).

Directionality Of The Electro-Voice RE20

The Electro-Voice RE20 is a top address cardioid microphone. The microphone is sensitive to the sound coming from the direction it points and rejects the sound from behind it.

Here is the polar pattern diagram of the Electro-Voice RE20:

Image from the Electro-Voice RE20 Specification Sheet

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.

When miking a viola in a room with other instruments, this cardioid pattern will allow for a decent amount of isolation (depending on the placement of the mic and other instruments relative to the viola).

Because the RE20 does not exhibit the proximity effect, we can close-mic the viola live without having too great a boost in the lower frequencies. Though close-miking isn’t always the best option, when it’s the only option, the RE20 makes a great choice.

Sensitivity Of The Electro-Voice RE20

The RE20 has a sensitivity rating of 1.5 mV/Pa. This is low, but not out-of-the-ordinary for a dynamic microphone.

The RE20 is exceptionally reactive to sound pressure relative to other moving-coil dynamic microphones. The performance of the RE20 is due to its large Acoustalloy diaphragm in combination with an exceptionally low-mass aluminum voice coil.

Though not as sensitive as the condensers on this recommended list, the RE20’s sensitivity and reactivity make it an excellent choice in capturing the nuances of the viola sound.


The DPA d:dicate 4011C

DPA 4011C

The DPA d:dicate 4011C is a compact small diaphragm condenser microphone. This microphone was designed to be out of view and to sound breathtakingly accurate. It’s my top recommendation for a live clip-on viola microphone.

Frequency Response Of The DPA d:dicate 4011C

The d:dicate 4011C is rated as having a frequency response between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz. Here is the frequency response graph:

Image from DPA d:dicate 4011C Specification Sheet

The frequency response of the 4011C is extremely flat. This tells us the microphone will capture the sound of a viola very accurately. We can also see that the rear of the microphone does an amazing job at rejecting sound and noise.

What we get with the 4011C is a natural, accurate sonic picture of the viola even when close-miking.

Directionality Of The DPA d:dicate 4011C

The d:dicate 4011C is a cardioid microphone. Here is the polar response graph for the 4011C:

Image from DPA d:dicate 4011C Specification Sheet

The cardioid pattern of the 4011C allows for isolation of the viola in live and studio settings. The microphone is so compact that it can safely attach under the strings near the tail piece of the viola. Pointing the 4011C toward the neck picks up the body and strings of the viola, fully capturing the sound of the instrument.

Sensitivity Of The DPA d:dicate 4011C

The d:dicate 4011C has a sensitivity rating of 10 mV/Pa; -40 dB re. 1 V/Pa. This may be considered low for a condenser microphone, but is preferable for live settings. The microphone is not overly sensitive to the natural movement noise of the viola nor to the other instruments and extraneous noise.

The small diaphragm of the 4011C is very reactive to changes in sound pressure and will effectively reproduce the slight timbre changes the viola has to offer.

Durability Of The DPA d:dicate 4011C

The DPA d:dicate is a very expensive and small microphone. I would never suggest foul play with this microphone. However, the microphone is designed for film, theatre, and concert, so it’s fairly durable. That being said, exercise caution when using this beautiful microphone on viola.

Size/Mounting Of The DPA d:dicate 4011C

The DPA d:dicate 4011C is a very small microphone with a 19mm (¾”) diameter and a 64mm (2½”) length. This includes the MMP-C preamplifier. With various mount options, this microphone is very easy to clip onto a viola.

A common position for the 4011C is to attach it to the strings of the viola between the bridge and tailpiece, and between the strings and the top-board. Point the 4011C slightly up toward the neck of the viola. This position is easily attained, sounds great, hides the microphone from plain view, and keeps it out of the way of the performer!

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


Let’s Recap

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

  • AKG C414 XLS condenser microphone: Best sounding condenser mic on viola.
  • Electro-Voice RE20 dynamic microphone: Best sounding dynamic mic on viola in studio and live performances.
  • DPA d:dicate 4011C condenser microphone: Best clip-on microphone for viola in studio and live performances.

Honourable mentions:

  • AKG C214
  • AEA R84
  • Royer R121
  • Neumann U87
  • Sennheiser MD441
  • Shure SM7B
  • Heil PR40

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