The banjo is a wonderful instrument that’s heavily featured in bluegrass, country, folk, and even pop/rock music. Its unique sound makes it stand out in a mix, but it also can be tricky to record. If you’re not sure how to record banjo, or just want to take your banjo recordings to the next level, consider these tips.
When recording a banjo, there are several factors to consider in order to capture the best possible sound. From microphone selection to comping your performance, these considerations will help you get the most out of your recording sessions.
Make sure your banjo is set up
Before you even think about pressing record, it’s important to make sure that your banjo is sounding at its best. There’s nothing worse than trying to record an instrument that has old strings, won’t stay in tune, or is not in good playing shape.
We suggest giving your instrument a quick setup before you start recording to make sure it’s in proper playing shape! Check out this video from Jim Pankey if you need help setting up your banjo!
While some banjos have an on-board pickup, we suggest using a microphone to record banjo. This allows much more flexibility when it comes to sound, and most external microphones are nicer than the inexpensive pickup that is included with most banjos.
The first step to recording banjo is microphone selection. The type of mic you use can greatly affect the sound of the banjo. For a more traditional sound, a dynamic or ribbon mic may work well. For a brighter, more articulate sound, a condenser mic may be a good choice. Consider the characteristics of the mic and how they will complement the sound of the banjo.
Dynamic Mics vs Condenser Mics for recording banjo:
Dynamic microphones are often considered a good choice for recording banjo because they are able to handle high sound pressure levels and have a relatively flat frequency response. This makes them well-suited for capturing the wide range of frequencies produced by the banjo, including the bright, punchy sound of the strings and the warm, resonant sound of the body. If you’re looking for a solid condenser mic for recording banjo (and almost any other instrument), the Shure SM57 is an absolute staple.
Condenser microphones are often considered a good choice for recording banjo because they have a wide frequency response and are able to capture a lot of detail and nuance in the sound. This can be particularly useful for capturing the bright, punchy sound of the strings and the warm, resonant sound of the body of the banjo.
Condenser microphones are also known for their fast transient response, which means they are able to accurately capture the quick, percussive attacks of the banjo strings. This can be particularly useful for recording fast, intricate banjo playing.
The best microphone for recording banjo will ultimately depend on the sound you’re trying to achieve and the characteristics of the microphone. If you have multiple microphones already, experiment with different mics to find the one that works best for your needs. If you are looking to buy a microphone to record banjo, there’s a buyer’s guide at the bottom of this article that can help you decide which mic is right for you!
Where you place the mic can also greatly affect the sound of the banjo. For a more traditional sound, try placing the mic about 6 inches away from the banjo’s bridge. For a brighter sound, try placing the mic closer to the banjo’s strings, somewhere between the 12th and 15th fret. Experiment with different placements to find the sound you’re looking for, and consider these factors when doing so:
- Distance from the banjo: The distance from the microphone to the banjo can have a big impact on the sound of the recording. A closer distance will result in a more intimate, detailed sound, while a further distance will result in a more ambient, reverberant sound.
Also consider the proximity effect: this is the boost in bass frequencies that occurs when the microphone is placed close to the source. This can be useful for adding body and warmth to the banjo sound, but it can also be too boomy if the microphone is placed too close. Experiment with different distances to find the right balance.
- Angle to the banjo: The angle at which the microphone is pointed towards the banjo can also affect the sound of the recording. Pointing the microphone directly at the banjo will result in a more focused, direct sound, while pointing the microphone at an angle will result in a more diffused, distant sound. If you want the banjo to be the highlight of your mix, consider a more direct approach. If it’s meant to blend into the mix, an angled approach might be better.
- Room sound: The sound of the room in which you’re recording the banjo can also affect the final recording. A livelier room with more reflections will result in a more ambient, reverberant sound, while a drier room with less reflections will result in a more direct, focused sound. Consider the acoustics of the room and how they will affect the sound of the banjo. It may be useful to move around the room and find a spot with more or less room noise, depending on the sound you want. This will be more of a factor if you’re using a condenser mic, since dynamic mics do a better job of rejecting noise.
Gain staging refers to the process of setting the gain (input level) at each stage of the recording chain in order to achieve the optimal signal level. This is an important consideration when recording banjo because, because it’s an instrument that often goes from quiet to loud depending on the composition of the song.
When setting the gain for your microphone, you’ll want to account for the dynamics of your song. If the banjo in your song starts off quietly, and then gradually gets louder, set your gain levels to accommodate for the loudest, most percussive section of your song. That way, you won’t have any surprise clipping in your recording when you get to the loudest part.
If you need help setting the gain for your recording, check out this quick video (starting at 3:57):
Performance and Comping
Now that you’ve got your mic and preamp set up, it’s time to start recording. Make sure that your banjo player sits in the same place for every take, and that they don’t make any excess noise like heavy breathing, foot tapping, or shuffling their arms or feet. Since you’re using a mic to record their performance, it will pick up all of that background noise. Record a take, listen back to it, and see if there are any adjustments you want to make before continuing. That way, you’ll know that you have your tone dialed in before you spend a lot of time recording tons of takes.
When recording a banjo (or really anything) to a metronome, you may want to record multiple takes and choose the best parts to create a composite performance, a process called “comping.” This can help you get a more polished and cohesive final recording. Just be sure to choose the best parts of each take, and take care to ensure the transitions between takes sound organic. The best method of comping will vary from DAW to DAW. In Pro Tools, you can use Playlists to store extra takes. In Logic Pro, they are called Takes Folders.
Mixing is such a subjective process, and it will vary from song to song, so you’ll really need to experiment for yourself. However, here are some general tips to consider when mixing your banjo performance!
Panning: If the banjo is the star of your song, you may find it useful to double the performance. This is when pan one take to the left and another to the right, creating a wide and immersive sound. If the banjo is part of a larger ensemble, it might make sense to just use one take, and pan it to the left, right, or keep it in the center.
EQ: The banjo can have a very bright and high-frequency-heavy sound, so you may want to use EQ to tame some of the harshness in the 800-1,500 Hz range. You can also boost the frequencies around 250 Hz to give the banjo more body and warmth.
Compression: Depending on the style of music you’re recording, you may want to use compression to even out the dynamics of the banjo. This can help the instrument cut through a mix better and give it more presence. It will also help improve the consistency in the volume of the performance you captured.
Reverb and delay: You may find it helpful to add a touch of reverb to your banjo recording to help it fit into your song. Delay isn’t typically used on banjo, but if you’re working on a song that’s a bit more experimental, it could be a cool effect.
So now you know how to record banjo!
By keeping these considerations in mind, you can effectively capture the unique sound of the banjo and get the most out of your recording sessions. With a little bit of experimentation and attention to detail, you can achieve great results.
Now, let’s take a look at some microphones that you can use to record the banjo.
Any of these microphones will produce great quality banjo recordings! Whether you’re new to recording, or just looking for some tips to get the most out of your banjo recording sessions, hopefully you’ve found this guide helpful! If so, feel free to check out more of our articles!