Recording the fiddle well can be a challenge because its sound and harmonics can be quite complex. I tried for a couple of years before I managed to get a recorded fiddle tone that I was happy with, and that didn’t sound brittle, harsh or unbalanced. Like recording any instrument, the player and the instrument itself will affect the overall tone the most- if we have a good sound source to begin with, it’ll make it easier to capture and mix the sound. The main thing to remember is that the sound of a fiddle needs some ‘air’ to develop, which means that backing the mic off a bit (2 to 4 feet usually does the trick) will generally yield better results than close-miking. For classical and quartet music you will probably want to increase the mic distance even more, but for most fiddle music such as bluegrass, a more present, up-front sound is desired. Of course, if you are recording live in the same room as the rest of the band your options are more limited. The room you are recording in also has a big impact on the sound, so room treatment and mic positioning within the room will need to be considered- room reflections, modes and standing waves can ruin a recording. Large rooms with high ceilings and wood floors or walls usually work better than small rooms.
Which microphone? Most of us home and project studio owners can’t afford a vintage tube or ribbon mic, but there are lots of affordable mic options out there. Condenser mics tend to be really popular in general due to their durability, sensitivity, versatility, and price. One of my favorite condenser mics for the fiddle (and many other instruments as well) is the Shure SM-81 ($300-$350 on ebay). I’ve also had good results with an AKG c414, Oktava MK-012, and AT 4050. However, condenser mics tend to hype the upper midrange and high end (2 to 12 kHz), which is the ‘harsh’ frequency range where fiddles put out a lot of energy. An increasingly affordable alternative to condenser mics are ribbon microphones, which use a very thin metal ribbon element suspended between magnets. I recently bought a Cascade Fat Head for $175 new, which included a shock mount, wooden storage box and a carrying case. Ribbon mics tend to have a warmer, richer sound, and work very well for recording anything that requires the taming of upper frequencies- but they are also quite fragile and are not recommended for the stage. They usually have a figure-of-eight pickup pattern, so placement within the room will need to be carefully considered. You will need a good clean preamp with lots of gain, and remember to turn off the phantom power!
Mic placement: When recording acoustic instruments I’m a big fan of recording in stereo (using two microphones on an instrument to capture a stereo ‘image’), especially when multitracking with good isolation from other instruments. The fiddle is no different- two mics will capture the complex sound of the fiddle better than one, and will yield a fuller, more balanced sound. However, if the fiddle will be a relatively small element of the mix stereo recording may not be practical. One setup that has worked well for me when the fiddle is the main focal point is to use a ribbon mic and a condenser mic in a mid-side configuration. This setup combines the warmth and fullness of a ribbon mic with the clarity and presence of a condenser mic to form an accurate stereo image that is adjustable during mixing. As always, careful placement of the mics in relation to each other and the source is crucial to avoid phase problems.
Processing and mixing: Now that you’ve got your raw tracks sounding like gold, they’ll probably need some tweaking in your DAW to ‘sit’ in the mix. As I stated earlier, fiddles generally put out a lot of energy in the upper midrange (2 to 4 kHz), so you may need to dip out a little in this range with your EQ plugin. Do this carefully, as this is also the frequency range that the human ear is most sensitive to- too much EQing in this range can take the life out of a track. I’m a big fan of the Waves Renaissance plugins for general multi-purpose EQ and compression. Another transparent way to deal with the high end is to use a sidechain compressor such as Waves’ C1-SC used as a high-frequency limiter. Set the sidechain frequency to about 1.5 to 3 kHz and adjust the Q and the threshold to taste- set a fast attack time and this will essentially limit everything above the sidechain frequency, and works great for taming bright or shrill fiddles. You may also need a little bit of overall compression on the track to make it sit in the mix better. Again, use compression carefully; I’ve found that setting slower attack times (50 ms or so) works well for acoustic music to let the transients through.
Our options for on-stage miking are definitely more limited, especially in loud environments where a lot of gain is required. I play mostly bluegrass-related music, and there’s nothing like the whole band working around a single large-diaphragm condenser mic. This setup has its limitations, however, especially when a hot monitor mix is desired or larger festival-type venues where more gain and volume is needed. Most situations will require individual miking of each instrument, and in my experience small-diaphragm condenser mics such as the Shure SM-81 offer the most flexibility if the situation allows- the monitors will need to be carefully positioned and adjusted to avoid feedback. Of course, it is hard to beat the good ol’ SM-57 dynamic mic for general instrument miking in a variety of settings.
Pickups: While I normally wouldn’t recommend the use of pickups for bluegrass-type music, they can really come in handy for louder environments such as dance halls or clubs, or playing in an electric band with drums. I own a Fishman V-100 bridge pickup, and use it with a Fishman Pro-EQ Platinum, a combination preamp, EQ and direct box. This handy little box can plug straight into the mixing board via an XLR cable, and the preamp will work off the board’s phantom power. However, fiddles project a complex sound envelope that resonates from the whole body, consequently I have never really been happy with the tone of a simple bridge pickup. There was one venue I played where the sound guy set me up with a Schertler dynamic pickup, a small mic that attaches to the front or back face of the fiddle with an inert putty that won’t damage the finish. I was amazed with the rich quality of sound from this little unit. I once borrowed an Audio Technica ATM 350 clip-on condenser mic from a friend, and although they are not cheap (MSRP $489 new) the sound was incredible. I hear the L.R. Baggs systems are good, though I have never used one.
I hope these tips help you get that golden fiddle sound- and remember to let your ears be the final judge.