For many horn lovers, there’s nothing better than hearing a saxophone live. The full-bodied resonance and voice-like quality attract countless listeners from the dive bar to the major music festival stages. And, even though the saxophone is a naturally loud instrument, when playing in louder settings, you need to be able to cut above the band. A good mic can do that. So, let’s take a look at what makes the best microphone for saxophone.
Stand-alone microphones can do the trick, but wireless microphones allow saxophonists to be in their element. Free movement to hop from one side of the stage to another breathes life not only into their playing but the whole performance.
In the confines of the recording studio, finding the best microphone for saxophone can make or break your recording. To capture all the overtones and resonance, you need a quality microphone that brings out the best in your saxophone sound.
As a performing saxophone player, I rely on my wireless microphone to not only project my sound to the audience but to allow me the freedom to know what I express reaches those ears, whether I’m front and center or at the back jamming with the drummer.
My recent experience at the STRAB festival would not be as epic if I did not have my wireless microphone. Let’s dive into what makes a great microphone for the saxophone, both in the studio and live.
Most important aspects of a saxophone mic
What makes a good saxophone microphone is the same as any microphone. Here are several points to consider for a microphone destined to be in the firing line of a saxophone:
- Durability to handle the air pressure of the saxophone hitting the diaphragm.
- A large diaphragm to capture a wide frequency spectrum.
- A microphone that does not overly accentuate the mid frequencies around 2-5kHz.
- For studio work, multi-polar patterns switch to either track for ambient or direct sound.
- A good transient response to capture high frequencies and more neutral sound.
- For stage clip-on mics, the bell attachment mechanism must be strong and secure.
How to mic a sax in the studio
Here we get into studio territory where there are no strict rules. The main rule is: does it sound good? Where to place a mic depends on the room, style of music, and potentially the number of players in the recording space.
For simplicity, let’s look at tracking a solo saxophone in a properly acoustically treated room. Usually, for live performances, sound engineers use dynamic microphones, as they are highly robust and can handle loud frequencies directed towards the diaphragm. Engineers prefer dynamics on stage as they can raise the volume higher without picking up too much of the surrounding sounds.
Dynamic mics are valuable microphones in recording studios, but as sound engineers are looking for nuances in the sound, condenser microphones are the first option. For saxophonists seeking a classic or vintage tone on their recordings, ribbon microphones are the go-to choice and usually run through a valve preamp.
For a standard high-quality recording, a large diaphragm condenser microphone is the best option. The larger and sensitive diaphragm captures a broader frequency spectrum and overtones produced by the saxophone and can bring out the best in your saxophone sound.
When recording saxophones, try to use condenser mics that don’t exaggerate the high mid-range frequencies. By doing so, you can reduce the amount of hiss and pops in your recordings. It would be useful to have a multi-pattern microphone that allows you to switch between omnidirectional, figure-8 or cardioid pick-up patterns. Depending on your requirements, you might want the ambient room to sound from an omnidirectional pattern, or a more direct sound with a cardioid pattern.
Positioning your mic
Next, the position and distance you wish to place the microphone depending on preference and your recording goals. As a general rule for saxophones, place the microphone around 12 – 24 inches from the saxophone bell. Position the microphone so it’s between the bell and the mouthpiece and keep it off-center to reduce key noise and excessive bursts of sound directly towards the diaphragm.
The saxophone resonates throughout the whole instrument. The air column moves from the mouthpiece out to the end of the bell and at every point on the saxophone air escapes. Placing a mic directly at the bell of the saxophone is not always the best choice depending on what sound you’re going for.
Placing the mic in different positions and distances will give you a variety of different tones. For brighter and direct sounds, place the mic closer, and for a fuller, ambient sound, place the mic further away. Lower notes on the saxophone get louder the closer you get to the mic so keep that in mind when tracking.
For a group of saxophones, you will want to keep the microphones further away to capture the group sound. In this situation, think of the group as one saxophone and adjust your levels to get the best tone out of the group. It’s not uncommon to place acoustic shields between players if you want to have some isolation between horns during the mixing process.
How to mic a saxophone on stage
Setting up microphones for acoustic instruments can be a challenge. Live-sound engineers will be quick to mention the trouble of having more than one acoustic instrument on stage when it comes to feedback issues. Also, as the mixing desk is not getting a direct electronic signal, acoustic signals vary. Depending on monitoring, a saxophonist can suddenly play louder or move closer to the mic which can cause feedback.
For live sound, dynamic microphones are the obvious choice. Being rugged enough to take a beating from a bright saxophone sound is the main requirement. But, as dynamic mics are usually cardioid, they can eliminate unwanted frequencies and focus directly on the sound source.
Clip-on mics on stage
Depending on the kind of show, some saxophonists want the freedom to move around on stage.
This is where clip-on or wireless microphones come in handy. Clip-on mics are usually condenser mics that capture a broader frequency spectrum compared to stand-alone dynamic mics.
Clip-on microphones use a radio transmitter and a receiver unit to send and receive the signal from the mic and relay it to the mixing desk. With decent-quality wireless systems, receivers can select different frequency channels as well.
Playing with the whole band on stage
When you’re on stage, the main goal is to capture the sound with a limited chance of feedback and clashes with other instruments. Generally, you’ll be closer to the microphone than in studio setups, and depending on the style of music this can accentuate the signals that are most desirable.
No matter how loud you can blow, electric instruments have a volume switch and will always dominate. It’s wise to make sure the sax player has their own monitor to minimize feedback caused by other instruments running through the same monitor. Also, depending on which saxophone you’re playing, you will need to work with the engineer to make sure your tone does not clash with other frequencies on stage.
For example, if you’re playing tenor or baritone saxophone, the lower notes might conflict with the snare drum or electric bass. You can lose gain if you’re going for a warmer saxophone tone, so keep this in mind when you’re at a sound check.
Another aspect to consider is the saxophone mix onstage and in the front-of-house system. Saxophones require a good EQ to bring out the best frequencies. Depending on the type of saxophone and the style of music, engineers need to adjust their settings to bring out the warmth or brightness of the saxophone.
Do I need a wireless microphone for the saxophone?
It all comes down to preference and the needs of the music. As saxophone players, or any horn player, freedom of movement is desirable in a gig situation when you’re required to bring a vibe. If you’re doing a serious classical show or a sit-down concert where you’re seated the entire time, then movement is not the priority.
Even when you’re not trying to bust out dance moves, we naturally move to the music. This means that if you’re playing into a stand-alone mic, you will sometimes shift away from the mic diaphragm, either further or closer or sway off center. This creates inconsistencies in the sound which can make the sound engineer’s job frustrating.
Here is where clip-on and wireless mic systems come in handy. The freedom to move and jump around is the main selling point. But, there’s also greater control of the sound, as now the mic is fixed to a point and the signal stays consistent throughout the performance.
Depending on the brand and quality of the clip-on mic, you might have to deal with key noise issues or the sound not being as warm and ambient compared to what you’ll find in recording studios. As there are many brands out there, for the first-time buyer it can be tricky to figure out which clip-on mic to choose. Let’s check out five reputable brands and what they have to offer.
Best clip-on mic for saxophone
Several brands stand out for being best suited for the saxophone and offer durability and clarity of tone. It’s hard to choose which clip-on wireless mic is better than the other, so we have chosen five top brands for you to consider.
Note: Remember to check whether any mic you purchase requires phantom power or not.
Shure is a household name in microphone technology. They have been one of the go-to brands for wireless microphones for both vocals and woodwind/brass. The Shure Beta 98H/C series is a tried and tested wireless condenser designed specifically for saxophones and brass instruments.
The Shure Beta uses a cardioid polar pattern and has a high sound pressure level to handle over 140dB, perfect to handle wailing loud, raunchy solos.
Since it was founded in Tokyo in 1962, Audio Technica has produced some of the best personal and commercial grade audio equipment on the market. The 2000 series is one of their professional 10-channel UHF wireless systems with microphones for wind instruments and vocals.
The ATM350U clip-on mic uses a battery-powered belt pack and offers an affordable option providing a crisp, clear tone and durable design.
Samson Technologies started back in 1980 designing wireless microphone systems. Since then, they have been industry leaders in wireless technology and went a step further in 2005 introducing the first professional-grade USB microphones.
The Samson Airline and AWX series continue to be a formidable gear in the wireless mic world. They offer a true wireless experience with no belt packs for cables. The condenser mic and transmitter are mounted together onto the bell of the instrument.
AMT (Applied Music Technology) for over 30 years produced some of the best wireless mic technology on the market. AMT’s Q7-LS range is an industry leader in dual diversity wireless mic systems.
The mic consists of a floating condenser diaphragm with an attached AA-powered transmitter, sending signals to a 99-channel receiver. AMT went a step further to cater to the soprano saxophone with the TA dual microphone series.
As the soprano sax is a tricky instrument to mic up, AMT developed a dual mic system that has two separate diaphragms one pointed at the bell and the other at the body.
One of the leaders in acoustic instrument microphones, SD Systems produces a wide range of wireless microphones catering to woodwind and brass instruments.
In the 1980s SD systems designed the LCM85, bringing to the market a wireless system that rivaled the quality of studio condenser microphones. The fact that the founders were saxophone players meant that they knew what horn players wanted, and they continue to make some of the best saxophone wireless mics.
SD Systems caters to all horn players, with striking clip-on designs that clip around the entire bell like the LCM89 and the LDM94 models.
Best microphone for saxophone: Final thoughts
As saxophonists, sound and projection are a top priority. Having the best microphone for either the studio or on stage can be the difference between a hit record or a sold-out show, and not getting the call at all.
The saxophone vibrates and resonates throughout the entire horn and requires a microphone that can capture all the nuances while being strong enough to take the intensity of a wailing solo or powerful horn section chorus.
We’ve looked at several top brands that you can consider when shopping around for the best saxophone microphone to suit your needs and budget. Like your instrument and mouthpiece, your sax mic is a big investment, and a key part of your sound and artistic expression.
Let us know if you have a favorite sax mic in the comments. We’d love to hear your thoughts too!