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Micing the banjo

By Kenneth Rainey. Filed under: TweedBlog.

We’ve come full-circle in our approach to live sound. Our earliest gigs were done without the benefit of amplification. When we moved to larger venues, we wanted to keep that same feel, so we used a pair of Oktava MK-012 condenser mics for the band. We had a hard time being loud enough for some venues, though, and we also had some very bad experiences being at the mercy of incompetent soundmen.

So we switched to pickups for our instruments. Ryan, Scott, and I used transducers on our banjo, guitar, and mandolin respectively. This allowed us to be loud. Very very loud. But it didn’t sound good to our ears, and, equally important, we lost a great deal of our dynamic range when we switched to pickups.

We switched back to microphones for everything again (see Know Your Mic, part I, part II, and part III). Scott and I settled on the AKG C-1000 condenser mic with a hypercardioid adapter, and we’ve been very happy with it. Many venues don’t own high-quality condenser mics, so we’re in the habit of bringing our own.

Finding a good banjo mic solution was a little more challenging. On the surface, the banjo is a very easy instrument to capture. The ubiquity of the banjo in the history of early (pre-1927) recorded music is testament to this. The challenges of live sound are different, though. We like to set our instrument mics hot, and then back off for rhythm playing. This allows us to, essentially, mix ourselves. We back off to be quiet, and step up to the mic when we play a solo.

Ryan was having problems with feedback when we used a cardioid condenser mic on his banjo, so we switched him to an SM-57. The 57, as almost everyone knows, is one of the most useful microphones on the planet, the gold standard for micing guitar amps, and useful on almost any instrument in a loud situation. The 57, like our C-1000 mics, is hypercardioid, which means that it cancels out sound interference from the sides very well, and doesn’t let the monitor mix bleed in. We’ve used a 57 on banjo for several gigs, including large outdoor shows and last night in a small, noisy bar, and the results have been good.

That said, for our banjo player Ryan, the best solution is probably the Beta 57, a souped-up 57 with a supercardioid pickup pattern. The supercardioid pattern is even more focused than the hypercardioid pattern, allowing us to jack the microphone up a lot louder without it feeding back. It turns out that I’m not the only one who feels this way. recommends the Beta-57 should one choose a microphone over a transducer. It’s a well-made, versatile, and very good-sounding microphone for the banjo.