The vibraphone is a tuned percussion instrument with a very unique sound. Vibraphones have metal bars are tuned chromatically, like a piano. The bars, resonators, and rubber mallets of the vibraphone yield deep tones with a relatively dark harmonic profile (compared to other tuned percussion instruments).
When recording the vibraphone, the microphone (transducer) is an important piece of the signal flow. Mics also provide an effective way to reinforce or amplify the vibraphone in live situations. So which microphones suit the vibraphone best? Here are my recommendations:
- Neumann U 87 AI: The Neumann U 87 AI (link to check the price on Amazon) is a multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser mic that gets the top recommendation for miking vibraphones. A pair of U87AI’s, though expensive, will efficiently capture the sound of a vibraphone in nearly any situations and in many common microphones positions.
- Electro-Voice RE20: The Electro-Voice RE20 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a large diaphragm cardioid dynamic microphone that exhibits no proximity effect. The RE20 is the top recommendation for close-miking vibraphone and for miking the resonators of the instrument.
Before we discuss each of the recommended microphones, let’s get to know the sound of the vibraphone a bit better:
“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 Does A Vibraphone 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 vibraphone sound like?
The vibraphone is made of chromatically tuned metal bars. Each bar is separated from the next by small isolating plates, which stabilize the bars and allow them to vibrate freely.
Each bar also has a corresponding resonator tube to amplify its fundamental frequency. These resonator tubes are at 90-degree angles from the bars and have closed ends.
The vibraphone also features a vibrator disc and motorized spindle combination. When the motor is on and running, the spindle periodically opens and closed the open end of the resonator tube, causing a vibrato effect.
The sound of the vibraphone is lacking in overtones and is often distinguishable simply by the aforementioned vibrato effect. On top of lacking overtones, the fundamental is the only frequency that gets amplified by the resonator tubes, further accentuating the fundamental note over the harmonics.
A Note On Miking The Vibraphone
The vibraphone is a large instrument (roughly 4’8″ or 1.5 meters long). Close-miking the instrument with a single microphone may not yield the best results. If we are to use a single microphone, I’d suggest the U87AI in omnidirectional mode positioned about 5 feet from the instrument in order to capture the full sound of the vibraphone.
A pair of LDC (large diaphragm condenser) room mics are a common way to mic a solo vibraphone or a vibraphone in the studio. Depending on the room, this is likely the best bet (with U87AIs).
In live situations, it’s often necessary to mic the vibraphone with a single mic of a pair of mics positioned above the vibraphone, pointing down. LDCs work well in this application as well.
Finally, it’s sometimes beneficial to capture the resonators of the vibraphone with a close-miking technique. In this case, one or more dynamics would do the trick (like the recommended RE20).
For more information on microphone placement, check out my article Top 23 Tips For Better Microphone Placement.
Frequency Range Of Vibraphone
- Overall Range: 131 Hz ~ 6,000 Hz
- Fundamentals range: 131 Hz – 1,397 Hz (C3-F6)
- Harmonics range: 784 Hz ~ 6,000 Hz
So we want a microphone that will accurately capture the true sound of the vibraphone. Knowing the fundamental frequencies and the harmonics of the vibraphone is a great place to start. On top of this, there are a few more criteria to keep in mind when choosing the best vibraphone microphone.
What Makes An Ideal Vibraphone Microphone?
There’s really no such things as an ideal vibraphone microphone since there are so many ways of miking a vibraphone. No one size fits all, but let’s talk about some key points that would make for a great vibraphone mic here:
- Versatility: There are countless ways to mic a vibraphone. This is due to the size of the instrument, the rooms the instrument would find itself in, and the mechanics that go into producing the vibraphone sound (bars on top, resonators on bottom, pedals, and butterfly valves). Choosing a microphone that works well with the many vibraphone miking techniques will yield better results and greater options.
- Flat frequency response: Choose a microphone with a flat frequency response to accurately capture the distinct sound of the vibraphone. The sound of the vibraphone is dark, and so a slight boost in the upper frequencies of a microphone may help enliven the sound without adding unnecessary harshness.
- Sensitivity: A sensitive microphone will record more subtleties in the vibraphone performance than a less sensitive mic. Sensitivity also applies to the strength of the mic signal, which is an important value to consider when recording quiet vibraphone passages or when miking the vibraphone at a distance.
- Accurate transient response: It’s always preferable to have a pronounced transient response when miking percussion instruments. Percussion instruments, generally speaking, have the strongest transient information that should be captured accurately. The vibraphone is no exception.
- Low self-noise: Large diaphragm condenser microphones are usually considered the best bet for miking vibraphone. 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 vibraphone and better reproduce the quiet moments of a vibraphonist’s performance.
- Directionality: Select a directional microphone to better suit the miking technique you’ll be using to record the vibraphone.
Let’s now discuss the recommended vibraphone microphones according to the above criteria.
The Neumann U87AI
The Neumann U87AI microphone is modelled after the legendary vintage U87. The AI model sounds slightly brighter and “hifi” while the original U87 sounds slightly darker and “vintage.”
The Neumann U87s are multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser microphones. They are recommended as vibraphone microphones due to their great versatility, wide frequency response, and accurate diaphragms.
These microphones are both excellent choices on vibraphone. I’ll discuss the U87AI here since it is currently in production, whereas the original U87 is not.
Versatility Of The Neumann U87AI
The Neumann U87AI has various settings to choose from. The U87AI can play a role in any of the common microphone arrays or positions used when miking a vibraphone. Let’s quickly run through the switchable options of the Neumann U87:
3 Selectable Polar Patterns
- Bidirectional (Figure-8)
For more information on microphone polar patterns, check out my article The Complete Guide To Microphone Polar Patterns.
1 Selectable High-Pass Filters
- No HPF
- 3 dB/octave HPF @ 1000 Hz
For more information on microphone high-pass filters, check out my article What Is A Microphone High-Pass Filter And Why Use One?
1 Selectable Passive-Attenuation-Device (PAD)
- -10 dB Pad
For more information on passive attenuation devices, check out my article What Is A Microphone Attenuation Pad And What Does It Do?
Having all the above options available in the U87 makes it an ideal microphone for many of the vibraphone miking techniques.
Frequency Response Of The Neumann U87AI
The frequency response of the Neumann U87 is listed as 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. Here is the frequency response graph of the U87 in omnidirectional mode:
As we can see, the Neumann U87AI has an incredibly flat frequency response from roughly 60 Hz to 5,000 Hz. This range encompasses all the fundamental frequencies of the vibraphone and most of the important harmonic content as well. And so the Neumann U87AI is exceptionally accurate at capturing and reproducing the character and music of the vibraphone.
The U87AI exhibits a noticeable boost in its upper frequency response. This helps to accentuate the upper frequencies of the vibraphone. An enrichment of these frequencies helps to enhance the character of the vibraphone (especially the sound of the mallets hitting the bars). This boost also help to bring out the character of the room.
Note that one of the biggest differences between the U87AI and the vintage U87 is that the newer AI edition sounds slightly brighter than the original.
The high-pass filter of the U87AI is designed mostly to counteract the proximity effect when used in close-miking situations. If we are to use the U87 in a close-mic array on a vibraphone, try engaging the HPF and listen to which version of the signal sounds best to you. That being said, the U87AI sounds best at a distance from the vibraphone, where there’s likely no need to engage its HPF.
For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).
Sensitivity Of The Neumann U87AI
The sensitivity ratings of the U87AI vary depending on the selected polar pattern:
- 20 mV/Pa in omnidirectional mode.
- 28 mV/Pa in cardioid mode.
- 22 mV/Pa in bidirectional mode.
These are typical ranges for a condenser microphone. The U87AI will output a usable signal even when capturing the vibraphone from a distance.
For more information on microphone sensitivity, check out my article What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.
Let’s talk about a couple of specs that are related to microphone “sensitivity,” including transient response and self-noise.
Transient Response Of The Neumann U87AI
There’s no explicit measurement for a transient response specification, but if there was, the U87AI would get a great rating. The light-weight large diaphragms of the U87AI are very reactive to changing sound pressure levels, giving the microphone an accurate transient response. This helps to capture a true, accurate sound of each bar that is struck on the vibraphone.
Self-Noise Of The Neumann U87AI
Electronics are needed in order to have multiple settings within one mic and to supply charge to the capsule of the Neumann U87AI. These electronics inherently produce some noise, which is known as a microphone’s self-noise. The self-noise ratings of the Neumann U87AI depend on the selected polar pattern:
- 15 dBA in omnidirectional mode.
- 12 dBA in cardioid mode.
- 14 dBA in bidirectional mode.
The U87AI is by no means the quietest microphone on the market, but it’s definitely quiet enough to not deprive a vibraphone performance of its beauty.
The self-noise of the U87AI would barely be noticeable unless the vibraphone was set up in a soundproof room. This scenario is only sometimes the case.
For more information on microphone self-noise, check out my article What Is Microphone Self-Noise? (Equivalent Noise Level).
Directionality Of The Neumann U87AI
A common microphone choice for recording the natural sound of the vibraphone is an omnidirectional mic. The U87AI omnidirectional pattern graph is shown below:
I chose to show you the graph the coincides with the omnidirectional mode polar pattern since it’s a common pattern for vibraphone studio recordings. That being said, please experiment with the 2 other patterns the U87AI has to offer. You can check out the other graphs in the specification shee here.
As we can see here, the U87AI does become more directional (bidirectional to be specific) at higher frequencies in the omnidirectional mode. This is typical of omnidirectional microphones. When using the U87AI in omni mode, I’d still suggest pointing the microphone at the vibraphone for the best capture of the high-end frequencies.
For more information on the omnidirectional microphone polar pattern, check out my article What Is An Omnidirectional Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
But this is just the omnidirectional mode. The cardioid and bidrectional modes of the U87AI are also excellent choices depending on microphone placement technique around the vibraphone.
The Electro-Voice RE20
The Electro-Voice RE20 is one of my all-time favourite dynamic microphones. It has a light-weight diaphragm that reacts very well to changing sound pressure levels and exhibits no proximity effect even though it’s a cardioid microphone.
I’d recommend this microphone for close-miking the vibraphone. The microphone sounds great on the bars of the vibraphone and even better on the resonators.
Versatility Of The Electro-Voice RE20
The Electro-Voice is not versatile like the Neumann U87AI. However, it does have a high-pass filter that gives it a bit of flexibility.
Arguably, the versatility of the RE20 comes from its Variable-D technology, which removes any proximity effect from the microphone. That’s right, the RE20 is a cardioid microphone that does not exhibit the proximity effect. This means that there will be no bass boost as the mic gets closer to the vibraphone, allowing arguably better results from more microphone positions.
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:
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 the vibraphone. The low-end roll-off happens below the vibraphone’s frequency range, allowing the microphone to accurately capture the sound of the vibraphone while filtering out some of the low-end rumble that may be present.
The high-frequency roll-off helps somewhat to warm up the sound of the vibraphone in live and studio settings. Though the vibraphone likely won’t need any “warming up” due to its limited upper harmonic profile
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 low output of the RE20 requires a quality preamp to boost its signal to workable levels.
The low sensitivity of the Electro-Voice RE20 is one of the reasons why the mic is best used in close-miking situations.
Transient Response Of The Electro-Voice RE20
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.
This reactivity to sound waves makes the RE20 an excellent choice in capturing the important transient information innate in the vibraphone’s sound.
Self-Noise Of The Electro-Voice RE20
The Electro-Voice RE20 is a passive dynamic microphone with no self-noise.
Directionality Of The Electro-Voice RE20
The RE20 is a cardioid microphone with the following polar pattern diagram:
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 a consistent sound of the vibraphone.
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 mic gets closer to the vibraphone. 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.
Once again, close-miking isn’t necessarily the best way to mic a vibraphone. However, when it does become the best option, the RE20 should be a go-to microphone.
So these are my top two recommended microphones for capturing the sound of a vibraphone. Of course, there are many microphones that sound amazing on vibraphone, and this is strictly my opinion. Hopefully you’ve picked up some info that will help you decide on what microphone will work best for you when recording vibraphone.
To wrap things up, I’ll recap the two recommendations here:
- Neumann U87AI: Best sounding and most versatile large diaphragm condenser mic on vibraphone.
- Electro-Voice RE20: Best dynamic microphone for close-miking vibraphone.
- Telefunken U47
- AKG C414
- Warm Audio WA-251
For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.