Best Microphones For Miking Xylophone

When thinking of tuned percussion, the xylophone is often the first instrument that comes to mind. The instrument is fun to play (and spell), and has a unique, sharp sound that can really stand out in orchestral settings and add value to musical productions.

But how do we best capture the sound of the xylophone? The answer to this question starts with the microphone. Here are my top two recommendations for xylophone microphones:

  • Neumann KM 184: The Neumann KM 184 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a small diaphragm condenser microphone with a cardioid polar pattern. A pair of these microphones works very well on xylophone, particularly in live settings where the xylophone requires close-miking. The KM 184 is excellent at capturing the top end and the transient response of the xylophone with precision.
  • Royer R-121: The Royer R-121 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a famous ribbon dynamic microphone with a bidirectional (figure-8) polar pattern. Miking a xylophone with a single R-121 or a pair of R-121s is a great choice. The accuracy of this ribbon mic effectively captures the important transient information in the xylophone’s notes while its natural high-end roll-off lessens the harshness of the high xylophone frequencies. The result is a microphone capture that sounds strikingly similar to the way we’d hear the xylophone with our ears.

Let’s talk about each of these recommendations in more detail after discussing the sound of the xylophone.


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 Xylophone 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 xylophone sound like?

The modern orchestra xylophone is made of chromatically tuned wooden bars. Each bar is isolated from its neighbouring bars by pegs, so that it hangs and can vibrate freely. Each bar also has its own resonator tube (located underneath the bar), which amplifies the sound and softens the tone of the xylophone.

The tone of the xylophone depends on the material used in the bars. Softwoods yield softer tones, while hardwoods yield harder tones. Because wood is very susceptible to changing environments, many xylophonists prefer synthetic bars.

The unique sound of the xylophone comes from the way the bars are tuned. The fundamental and 3rd harmonic (an octave plus a fifth up) are the two prominent partials of the xylophone sound.

Softer mallets dampen the higher partials, creating a darker sound, while harder mallets excite the higher partials, creating a brighter sound.

A Note On Miking Xylophones

Xylophones come in various sizes depending on the number of bars (octaves) of the instrument. 2 ½ octave concert xylophones are typically less than a meter (less than ~3¼ feet) in length. 3 ½ octave concert xylophones are usually about 1.5 meters (~5 feet) long. The width at the low end is greater than at the high end due to the physical nature of the bars and their pitches. 

Miking a xylophone, like any instrument, is a matter of taste, accessibility, and using the resources you have.

With shorter xylophones, one microphone may capture the entire sound of the instrument effectively. Longer xylophones benefit from two (or more) microphones. One mic positioned toward each end of the xylophone’s length (equidistant from center) will capture a fuller sonic picture of the instrument than one microphone above center.

The xylophone has resonators under its bars, and while miking them could be to your advantage, it will not yield the truest sound of the xylophone. Miking the resonators works best along with miking the top of the instrument, or when it’s the best option available.

If you’re recording xylophone in an iso-booth or by itself in a room, the instrument would likely benefit from room mics. A spaced pair of large diaphragm condensers would work well. However, this article will discuss the closer, dedicated xylophone microphone recommendations.

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

Frequency Range Of Xylophone

  • Overall Range: 261 Hz ~ 15,000 Hz
  • Fundamentals range: 261 Hz – 4186 Hz (C4-C8)
  • Harmonics range: 784 Hz ~ 15,000 Hz
  • Important harmonic: 3rd harmonic

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


What Makes An Ideal Xylophone Microphone?

There’s really no such things as an ideal xylophone microphone since the instrument has so many different tonalities and there are so many ways of miking the instrument. No one size fits all, but let’s talk about some key points that could help us make a microphone choice for xylophone:

  • Flat/extended frequency response: Choose a microphone with a flat frequency response to accurately capture the unique sound of the xylophone.
  • Sensitivity: A sensitive microphone will yield a stronger output signal than a less sensitive microphone. Choosing a mic with a higher sensitivity rating for miking a xylophone will allow us to position the microphones further from the instrument without losing the nuances of the xylophone’s sound.
  • Accurate transient response: It’s always preferable to have a pronounced transient response when miking percussion instruments. Percussion instruments, generally speaking, have very strong transient information that should be captured accurately. The xylophone is no exception.
  • Low self-noise: Small diaphragm condenser microphones are often considered a great choice for miking xylophone. These mics are active and therefore have self-noise. Choosing a quieter active microphone will help to further capture the subtle nuances in the sound of a xylophone and better reproduce the quiet moments of a xylophonist’s performance.
  • Directionality: Select a directional microphone to better suit the miking technique you’ll be using to record the xylophone.

Let’s now discuss the recommended xylophone microphones according to the above criteria:


The Neumann KM184

Neumann KM184

The Neumann KM184 is a small diaphragm condenser microphone with a cardioid polar pattern. It’s a top recommendation for plenty of instruments, including the xylophone. Whether we use a single KM184 (on a small xylophone) or a pair of them, they should yield an excellent, accurate capture of the xylophone’s sound. Let’s talk a bit more about this SDC and why it’s a great choice for xylophone recording and reinforcement.

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:

Image from Neumann KM184 data sheet

The KM184 has a beautifully flat response in the range of the xylophone’s fundamental frequencies and harmonics. This yields a clean, accurate capture of the xylophone.

The slight roll-off in the lower frequency range helps to naturally remove rumble from the xylophone channel without causing the xylophone to sound thin. The roll-off happens below the typical xylophone’s lowest fundamental.

The gentle boost in the high frequencies adds “air” and “brilliance” to the sound of the xylophone. Depending on your tastes, this could be good or bad.

Because the xylophone is a piercing instrument already, some would argue that a roll-off of high-frequencies in a microphone is a better choice than an extended frequency response. A roll-off would tame the “harshness” while an extended response may accentuate it. A high shelf EQ on the mic signal could easily solve this issue if the KM184 yields too bright of a sound.

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

Sensitivity Of The Neumann KM184

The sensitivity rating of the KM184 is given as 15 mV/Pa ± 1 dB. This rating is not out-of-the-ordinary for a small diaphragm condenser microphone. The KM184 will output a strong enough mic signal to allow for accurate capture of the xylophone’s sound at a distance. Miking with KM184s a few feet above the xylophone yields great results and a strong mic signal.

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

Transient Response Of The Neumann KM184

Other than thin diaphragm ribbon mics, small diaphragm condensers (SDCs) generally offer the most accurate transient response.

Some SDCs even overshoot, producing an exaggerated transient response. However, the KM184 is nearly spot on, and therefore excels at capturing tuned percussion instruments like the xylophone.

Self-Noise Of The Neumann KM184

Speaking of nuances, self-noise is an important specification to look out for when choosing a xylophone mic. The quieter the mic, the better it’s suited to capturing all the finer details of the xylophone.

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 xylophone.

Directionality Of The Neumann KM184

The Neumann KM184 is a cardioid microphone with the following polar response graph:

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 KM184 holds a fairly consistent pattern up to 16 kHz (where it starts becoming more directional). This is typical of a cardioid pattern microphone. Although the off-axis colouration is minor, it’s still worth thinking about.

Microphone positioning is critical when using cardioid microphones due to the off-axis colouration and the decreased off-axis sensitivity of the microphone. Try positioning a pair of KM184s several feet above the xylophone, having them be equidistant from the centre of the instrument and pointing downward at the bars.

This will yield a consistent pickup of the instrument and provide a bit of isolation if the xylophone happens to be playing alongside other instruments.


The Royer R121

Royer R121

The Royer R121 is the flagship microphone from the ribbon mic manufacturer Royer Labs. The R121 a top recommendation for plenty of instruments, including the xylophone.

This microphone has an excellent transient response, an incredibly natural sounding pickup, and a frequency response that helps to tame the sometimes harsh sound of the xylophone. Let’s talk a bit more about this ribbon microphone and why it makes for an amazing choice for xylophone recording and reinforcement.

Frequency Response Of The Royer R121

The frequency response of the Royer R121 is given as 30 Hz – 15,000 Hz ± 3 dB. The R121 frequency response graph is as follows:

Image from the Royer R121 Specification Sheet

As mentioned, the R121 sounds incredibly natural. This is partly due to the frequency response.

We see that the response is pretty well flat over the range of a xylophone. The slight boost the R121 offers in the upper mid-range helps accentuate the middle and upper registers of the xylophone and enhances the harmonic content of the instrument.

The gentle high-frequency roll-off of the R121 proves to be helpful when recording the xylophone. The xylophone has a naturally bright timbre and often sounds too harsh (particularly when captured by condenser microphones). Though this quality is subjective, the xylophone will benefit from the R121’s high-end roll-off and reduced harshness.

Though these boosts and cuts may seem small (± 3 dB), they play a big role in determining the sound of the R121.

Sensitivity Of The Royer R121

The sensitivity rating of the R121 is -47 dB (re. 1v/pa). This, on paper, is low. After all, this Royer is a passive ribbon mic. I would strongly recommend getting a high-quality preamp with a good amount of clean gain when using ribbon mics on the xylophone.

Try positioning the R121s a bit closer to the xylophone than you typically would with condensers. This will help with getting a stronger mic signal.

Transient Response Of The Royer R121

Though the R121 has a low sensitivity rating (which shouldn’t be an issue if the signal is sent through a quality preamp), the microphone is very reactive.

The diaphragm of an R121 is a 2.5 micron-thick aluminum ribbon. Its transient response is extremely accurate and it doesn’t take much to make it move.

The responsiveness of the R121 ribbon makes it an ideal microphone for capturing the unique transients of the xylophone with pristine precision.

Self-Noise Of The Royer R121

The Royer R121 is a passive ribbon microphone and, therefore, has no self-noise.

Directionality Of The Royer R121

As discussed, the Royer R121 is a ribbon microphone. Ribbons are naturally bidirectional (have a “figure-8” polar pattern). Here is the polar pattern graph for the Royer R121:

Image from the Royer R121 Specification Sheet

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

As we can see above, the R121 has a standard “figure-8” bidirectional polar response. It’s equally sensitive to sound coming from the front and from the back while rejecting sounds from the sides.

Though the bidirectional pattern doesn’t explicitly benefit the miking of a xylophone, it does provide a few advantages.

The directionality of the R121 (to the front and back) is wider than most cardioid patterns. This allows for closer miking of the xylophone without as much worry of off-axis colouration and decrease in sensitivity.

A bidirectional mic like the R121 also provide some isolation for the xylophone when the xylophone is not the only instrument making sound.


The Recap

So these are my two top recommended microphones for xylophone. Of course, there are many microphones (and microphone pairs) that sound amazing on the xylophone, but in considering price and setting, these are my top 2:

  • Neumann KM184: best small diaphragm condenser/live microphone for xylophone.
  • Royer R121: best ribbon/studio microphone for xylophone.

Honourable mentions:

  • AKG C414 XLII
  • Rode M5
  • Rode NT5
  • AEA R84

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