Recording a marimba is tricky due to its massive size & wide range. Over the past 5 years, I have found the below techniques to be most effective.
- capturing low end and high end
- phasing between mics
- external room sounds (marimba records best at low volumes which make other room sounds (AC, neighbor, etc) much louder)
- microphones that can handle the wide frequency range
- pre-amps that run super clean & have plenty of head room.
I started playing the marimba as a high school student during the mid-90s, then went on to obtain a college degree in percussion. After college I spent most of my musical career playing drums. Recently, in 2016, I started playing the marimba in my home studio.
The 3 big issues I have dealt with are room sound, quality of mallet choice, mics/pre-amps.
The marimba is full of rich tones and textures; it has a 5-octave range. I find it has the best tone when played at a low dynamic range. This requires setting the pre-amps levels fairly high to capture the nuance and subtlety of this instrument. The issue is that those hot preamps are also catching any minor sound in your room and home from your pet, AC unit or even a truck passing by. All of these sounds can be picked up and blur the focus of the recording.
The marimba is often recorded in a concert hall or big room with plenty of echo. While this certainly works for a lot of repertoire, it doesn’t give the mix engineer much opportunity for post eq, reverb and compression. I don’t record classical marimba pieces, so fitting the sound of the marimba into a track for background music or production music is very important.
Mallet choice greatly affects the sound of the marimba. There is no wrong mallet for the marimba, but I’ve found that the right mallet for the music makes a lot of difference when recording.
We’ve grown accustomed to the sounds of instrument libraries; the marimba is more often heard through a midi triggered sample than a real instrument and player. Often, libraries will have a sharp attack and very even levels. A real player will often have the opposite approach: when recording background and production music, I’ve found it helpful to learn from the sound libraries as mixing this instrument is very important. It is something the sampled versions have done well.
Softer fabrics give a much warmer sound without much attack. This is great for rolls and phrases that need a lot of sustain.
Usually woven with yarn, these mallets do a good job of being an all-around solid choice for lighter and heavier articulations.
Hard mallets are generally a good choice for the marimba. They should be used with great care and only in the upper octave or two of the marimba. I would not recommend using anything without some sort of wrap.
Microphone & Pre-Amps
The two main characteristics here are a very wide frequency range and a large amound of head room with very clean channels.
The frequency range of a 5-octave marimba is 65Hz to 2093hz. In my experience, it is not easy to find a signal path that can hand the lower and higher frequencies simultaneously.
After starting out with some pencil condensers, I finally settled on some large diaphragm condenser mics— specifically, Neumann’s U 87 Ai model. While this version is certainly not cheap, I have found it to be effortless in the high, mid and lower range.
Once you have your room treated and external noises removed, you’ll want a signal that has lots of headroom and a very low floor noise level. I experimented with a few options and finally landed on the Milennia HV-3C stereo pre-amp. It has an incredibly wide range and always allows more headroom than needed. In addition, its incredibly clean signal removes any coloration or trace that most pre-amps end up leaving.
In conclusion, I believe the environment, mallets & recording techniques make the most difference in recording non classical marimba. With this set up, I’m able to provide high-quality marimba recordings that can compete with instrument libraries. Whether you need the marimba on your next track as a supporting or lead instrument, I am confident that you’ll have a sound your mixing engineer will be happy to receive.