The tubular bells (otherwise known as chimes) are an interesting tuned percussion instrument. Initially, the idea of tubular bells was to get a tuned church bell type sound in the music without the need of large belfries in the drum pit. Since then, the tubular bells have been a mainstay in many percussion pits of many orchestras.
Whether we plan to reinforce the sound of tubular bells, record them, or do both, the signal path starts with a microphone. So what mics work best to capture the sound of tubular bells? Here are my recommendations:
- Shure SM81: The Shure SM81 (link to check the price on Amazon). This small diaphragm electret condenser microphone works marvellously in capturing the true sound of tubular bells. The SM81 is very reasonably priced and sound excellent on tubular bells in both studio and live applications.
- Shure SM57: The Shure SM57 (link to check the price on Amazon) is nearly always a recommendation of mine. This microphone is very affordable and works well in live situations and cramped stages. Since the tubular bells often do not require much reinforcement, the SM57 is more than enough to effectively capture the tubular bells sound.
Before diving into the reasons why these are my top recommendations, let’s talk shortly about the sound of tubular bells to better understand what we need from our mics.
“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)
- 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 Do Tubular Bells 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 do tubular bells sound like?
The tubular bells have very complex timbres and many inharmonic partials. This makes it difficult to perceive them as having a definitive pitch. Each bell can be thought of as a mixture of tones.
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 Tubular Bells
Tubular bells stand in a vertical position (similar to the strings of a harp). The instrument’s pipes are connected near the top of the frame along a horizontal line. The longer pipes produce lower pitches and hang lower than the higher pitched pipes. The conductor stands on one side of the bells that has a dampening pedal at the base.
A common mic position for the tubular bells is on the side opposite of the conductor. Position the mic closer to the ground and point it up toward the bulk of the bells. Experiment with the microphone distance from the instrument to get to ideal pickup and isolation.
For more information on microphone placement, check out my article Top 23 Tips For Better Microphone Placement.
Frequency Range Of Philharmonic Tubular Bells
- Overall Range: 156 Hz ~ 15,000 Hz
- Fundamentals range: 156 Hz – 784 Hz (E♭3-G5)
- Harmonics range: 784 Hz ~ 15,000 Hz
So we want a microphone that will accurately capture the true sound of the tubular bells. Knowing the fundamental frequencies and the harmonics of the tubular bells is a great place to start. On top of this, there are a few more criteria to keep in mind when choosing the best tubular bells microphone.
What Makes An Ideal Tubular Bells Microphone?
Let’s discuss a short list of the critical criteria that make up an ideal tubular bells microphone:
- Flat/extended frequency response: Choose a microphone with a flat frequency response to accurately capture the sound of tubular bells. The instrument has meaningful harmonic content up to about 15 kHz, and it’s important to capture these frequencies accurately. Having a low-end roll off is sometimes beneficial since the tubular bells do not produce a great amount of sound below 150 Hz.
- Sensitivity: A sensitive microphone will record more subtleties in the tubular bells performance than a less sensitive mic. When miking tubular bells on their own, a sensitive microphone is more versatile. However, when miking tubular bells live, it’s often best to choose a less sensitive microphone for better isolation of the tubular bells from other sound sources.
- Accurate transient response: It’s always preferable to have a pronounced transient response when miking percussion instruments. There is a lot of information in the transients of the tubular bells that should be captured accurately.
- Directionality: Select a directional microphone to suit the miking technique used on tubular bells.
Let’s now discuss the recommended tubular bells microphones according to the above criteria.
The Shure SM81
The Shure SM81 is a small-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone with two optional high-pass filters, and a switchable 10 dB pad. This microphone is a workhorse in both live and studio applications and works excellently on tubular bells. Let’s dive into some of this mic’s critical specifications.
Shure is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use
• Top Best Headphone Brands In The World
• Top Best Earphone/Earbud Brands In The World
Frequency Response Of The Shure SM81
The frequency response of the Shure SM81 is given as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. The SM81 frequency response graph is as follows:
The first thing we’d notice when looking at the graph is the 3 options we have with the SM81. There are 2 different high-pass filters (HPFs) we may engage: one gentle slope starting around 300 Hz, and a steep slope starting around 120 Hz.
For more info on high-pass filters, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Is A Microphone High-Pass Filter And Why Use One?
• Audio EQ: What Is A High-Pass Filter & How Do HPFs Work?
I’d suggest engaging the 120 Hz HPF in order to reduce low-end rumble and electrical hum in the mic signal while still preserving the entire range of the tubular bell’s sound.
The second thing we may notice is the “1 Meter” written below the line. This is the frequency response graph the microphone portrays at a distance of 1 meter from tubular bells (or any other sound source). Moving the microphone closer could result in a bass boost due to the proximity effect. Typically, though, we will be miking the tubular bells at a distance, and so this frequency response applies.
The flat curve of the SM81 allows it to accurately capture the sound of tubular bells.
For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).
Sensitivity Of The Shure SM81
The sensitivity rating of the SM81 is given as -45 dBV/Pascal (5.6 mV). This is low considering the 81 is a condenser microphone.
However, this low sensitivity helps tremendously when it comes time to mic tubular bells live with the SM81. The decreased sensitivity helps to pick up the sound of the tubular bells while rejecting the other noise on a crowded and/or loud stage.
For more information on microphone sensitivity, check out my article What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.
Transient Response Of The Shure SM81
When it comes to transient response, ribbon diaphragms are typically the most accurate. However, small diaphragm condensers aren’t far behind. The Shure SM81 is nearly spot on with its responsiveness to transients.
There’s so much information in the transients of percussion instruments like tubular bells. It’s often important to capture these transients as accurately as possible.
Directionality Of The Shure SM81
The Shure SM81 is a cardioid microphone with the following polar pattern diagrams:
For more information on the cardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
Cardioid patterns work amazingly well when miking the side of tubular bells.
Pointing the SM81 at tubular bells from a distance will capture a clean, full sound of the chimes with no worries of exaggerated bass response (due to the proximity effect). The SM81, when positioned correctly, will capture the sound of tubular bells similarly to how our ears would naturally.
When miking tubular bells in a church, hall, chamber, or other reverberate room, the cardioid pattern will help to capture more of the direct source and less of the reflections and reverb. This may benefit the performance more than you’d think.
The Shure SM57
The Shure SM57 is an absolute workhorse microphone. With a price point less than $100 USD, this microphone is my top budget recommendation for nearly every application.
When miking tubular bells live on a cramped or loud stage, the SM57 is quite possibly your best friend. This is partly due to the SM57’s specifications; partly due to its popularity (you’ll likely have one laying around the stage somewhere); and partly due to the fact the the tubular bells are not likely to be the star of the show and, therefore, do not require an absolutely accurate microphone.
Frequency Response Of The Shure SM57
The frequency response of the Shure SM57 is given as 40 Hz – 15,000 Hz. The SM57 frequency response graph is as follows:
As we see in the graph, the presence boost of the SM57 is very pronounced. This boost helps to accentuate the harmonic content of the tubular bells, but can often cause an unnatural capture of the instrument. Use your ears when miking tubular bells with the SM57 and try applying EQ accordingly.
The gentle roll-off of low frequencies starts around 200 Hz. This helps the tubular bells signal “stay out of the way” of low frequency producing instruments. This roll-off also helps reduce the amount of low-end rumble and electrical hum in the mic signal.
The high-end roll-off happens nearly at the point where the tubular bells harmonic content drops off.
In live situations, it’s often best to only capture what we need from a sound source, and so in this instance, the high-end roll-off works well.
In studio applications, it’s often beneficial to have the high-end frequencies of the room present in the signal. The SM57, therefore, is likely not the best choice for tubular bells in the studio.
Sensitivity Of The Shure SM57
The sensitivity rating of the Shure SM57 is given as -56.0 dBV/Pa (1.6 mV). This low sensitivity will help to isolate the tubular bells when close-miking them in live situations. The SM57 will benefit from a quality preamplifier with good, clean gain.
Transient Response Of The Shure SM57
The transient response of the Shure SM57 is not nearly as accurate as the responses of condenser and ribbon mics. The slower transient response of the SM57 causes some loss of accuracy on the tubular bells transient, yield a slightly compressed sounding mic signal.
Directionality Of The Shure SM57
The Shure SM57 is a directional cardioid microphone. Here is the polar pattern diagram for the SM57:
The SM57 has a relatively uniform polar pattern. This helps the 57 pick up a consistent sound of the various individual pipes of the tubular bells.
Cardioid mics pointed at tubular bells will effectively capture the sound of the chimes while rejecting sound from the rear and dampening sounds from the side. This makes the SM57 a great choice for isolating the tubular bells in situations where other instruments will be playing at the same time.
So here is my top recommended mic and my top “budget” mic for miking tubular bells. Of course, there are many microphones that sound amazing on tubular bells, but in considering price and setting, these are my top 2. Let’s recap:
- Shure SM81: Top recommendation for miking tubular bells.
- Shure SM57: Best “budget” microphone on tubular bells.
- Neumann KM 184
- AKG C 414 XLS
- Rode M5
For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.