A student ensemble featuring primarily traditional Chinese instrumentation came through Audrey’s studio recently. In this article, part of her series on recording strings, Audrey shares her pre-session research and microphone selection and placement for the guzheng, erhu, and pipa, and includes some audio examples as well.
An interesting ensemble came by my studio recently - The University of Wisconsin’s Asian Musical Instrument Community (abbreviated AMIC), directed by Jeff Chou. This is a student group who focus primarily, but not exclusively, on traditional Chinese instrumentation. This led to a very interesting input list! In advance of our session, the group very kindly sent me their finalized instrumentation line up: guzheng, erhu, pipa, bass flute, bamboo flute, djembe, violin, suona, piano, glockenspiel, and drums.
Drums, percussion, piano, violin, and all sorts of flutes regularly come through the studio but my ears perked up at the mention of guzheng, erhu, and pipa since I’d never recorded them before. I did some research and listened to recordings of each instrument to get an idea for what microphones to use.
In this edition of my series on recording strings, I will share my research and cover microphone selection and placement for the guzheng, erhu, and pipa. Here are the first 3 articles in the recording strings series…
My first point of research was Wikipedia which says…
“The zheng or guzheng is a Chinese plucked string instrument with a more than 2,500-year history. The modern guzheng commonly has 21 strings, is 64 inches (1.6 m) long, and is tuned in a major pentatonic scale. It has a large, resonant soundboard made from Paulownia. Other components are often made from other woods for structural or decorative reasons. Guzheng players often wear fingerpicks made from materials such as plastic, resin, tortoiseshell, or ivory on one or both hands.”
The guzheng (gu-CHENG) has a wide dynamic range as well as wide range of pitch thanks to the 21 strings. Most of the fullness of the sound comes from the soundhole located underneath the instrument. Even though I chose to isolate the drums, djembe, and suona - a small, but loud, double reed horn, because most of the musicians were going to be in the same room for the session, I wanted to choose a microphone that was relatively clean sounding and could handle the dynamic range with good off-axis rejection. I opted to place a Shure KSM44 in cardioid directly underneath each of the three guzheng. If more inputs were available, I would have also placed a second mic on each guzheng (probably a small capsule condenser) above where the strings are plucked to blend with the lower mic.
From Wikipedia, the pipa (pee-pah) is...
“a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments. Sometimes called the Chinese lute, the instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26... The pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for almost two thousand years in China..."pí" is to strike outward with the right hand, and "pá" is to pluck inward towards the palm of the hand.”
The unique sound of the pipa comes from the playing technique of plucking the strings in the opposite direction to the way a guitar is usually played. Unlike the guitar where the fingers and thumb pluck inward towards the palm of the hand, when playing pipa, the fingers and thumb flick outward. A pipa also has very tall frets so that the player’s fingers don’t actually touch the fretboard. This allows the player to do dramatic pitch changing effects and vibrato.
I wanted to capture all the nuance I could, while making sure the instrument didn’t sound twangy or have too sharp an attack so I used a Warm Audio 47 jr. A word of warning, placing the microphone too close to the pipa did result in too much plucking and not enough resonance in the sound so the final placement was about 2 feet in front of the instrument.
Here are a couple of samples of the pipa during an overdub…
Lastly, the erhu (er-hoo) is a two-stringed instrument played with a bow. The sound resonates from the hexagonal shaped sound box at the bottom of the instrument. It is another popular instrument in China, whether played solo or accompanied by an orchestra. The erhu is heard across genres from pop to jazz and classical.
Unfortunately, I was unable to get a picture of the musician playing the erhu, but it is played vertically so the soundbox rests on your leg and the tuning pegs are near your shoulder. The erhu can have a dark, melancholy sound or bright and energetic depending on how it is played. I wanted to bring out the depth of the instrument without highlighting the sound of the bow on the strings, so I opted to use a Neumann TLM103, placed right in front of the soundbox.
Here is a sample of the erhu during an overdub…
Here are two time lapse videos of the setup for the session.
This video is the first time-lapse video where we prepped the studio and pre-rigged the microphones.
This video is the second time-lapse video where the musicians arrived and set up their instruments.
The Final Result
I’m sure you’re probably dying to hear the whole ensemble as a group, so here is their final mix of a song called “Calorie.”
What About You?
Have you recorded any of these instruments or any other Asian instruments? I would love to hear about your experience in the comments!