There are many ways to record a cupola. Sometimes too much focus on the technical side can lead away from capturing the right emotion. And sometimes it is exactly what you need.
I have produced two albums as Kumea Sound that both have a strong sound design aspect to them. They are not just collections of songs played with cupolas and other instruments, but works of sound, where every detail has a reason to sound as they do. On the first album, I didn’t aim for the perfect, clean sound, but often the recording is saturated or otherwise colored with various audio effects. It was an exploration that lead to also many technical mistakes on the way, but for me, it is more about the emotions and meanings that certain sounds spark than perfect technical clarity.
In the last couple of years I have received numerous messages from people asking questions about how to record a handpan: which microphones should they use, how they should position the mics, what kind of reverb should they use, etc… These are all interesting questions, so I wanted to write some of my own thoughts and observations. However, don’t expect to find clear answers…!
Microphones and technology
The most common question that I get to answer is: ”Which microphones should I use to record a handpan?”
If you have ever done any work in a recording studio, you know, that this is a nearly impossible question with many possible answers. My answer: try whatever microphones you can get and when you find a sound you like, use them. For a simple answer I generally recommend a stereo pair of small diaphragm condenser mics, like Røde NT5’s or similar. They are affordable and can be used in many different ways. And if you want to add a third microphone, get a large diaphragm condenser mic (like Røde NT1, which I recommend for the same reasons as the NT5’s) and add it in the middle of the NT5’s. And if you want even more boom in the lower end, you can add a bass drum mic below the instrument, under the bottom hole (oculus, port, or ”gu”).
However, if you are using 4 microphones to record one instrument, you should already have an idea about what kind of sound you are aiming at. Usually a simple stereopair is enough to capture a good, full sound of the instrument. Heck, sometimes even a mono recording is enough!
When I recorded my second album (Real Music for Unreal Times) it was all about a certain kind of sound, that we produced together with Martin Kantola at Nordic Audio Labs. We used microphones that he had designed and built himself. The setup consisted of two different stereopairs placed at different distances, a bass drum mic to capture the bottom Helmholtz resonance of the instruments, a tiny tube mic that was intended to capture some of the attack and body sound, and a 360 degree stereo mic to catch overall sound and also some of the attack. If I remember correctly, there was also a large diaphragm condenser that we used to add some percussive edge to the overall sound, but in the end I can’t remember which of these were used to create the final sound on the album.
So, as you can imagine, it is a sound engineering puzzle, a patchwork, a combination of different recordings, that produce a certain sound. Some microphones catch the percussive attack and bring the sounds closer. Other microphones catch some of the warmth of the body. And some others catch the sustain and the room response. The weird beauty of the sound on that album is not in its realistic approach, but psychological. Some aspects of the sound bring the instrument very close to the listener, but others push it far away marrying it together with the lush reverb we created for that album. The result: the sound is everywhere. It is not only the instrument that we are listening, but also the space. Music is all around us.
This approach worked great for the concept of this album, but I would never recommend it as a general solution on how to produce a good handpan recording! The sound that I had in mind had to reflect both the human scale and something bigger than that. I think we managed to do that.
If you want a good handpan sound but don’t know exactly what you’re doing, get a pair of small diaphragm condenser mics and learn to use them. Even a portable recorder like Zoom H1 or similar will do its job. Don’t worry too much about the technology, unless you find meaning in it.
If you want to dive deep into details, you might be interested in watching this microphone comparison video, that my friend, percussionist David Kuckhermann made. It will give you some idea how the different microphones sound in a quiet and relatively dry room.
Space and acoustics
So, let’s say you’re happy with a good-enough recording. You won’t need much. A simple standalone stereo recorder or a laptop + audio interface + microphones setup will do. But there is one thing you will need and that is a good recording space!
I can’t stress this enough: even the greatest recording gear will produce a terrible recording, if the place where you record doesn’t have good acoustics. If there is a loud air conditioning or a noisy road next to your room window, it will be heard on the recording. Also, every room sounds different. Some livingrooms have a lot of bookshelfs, curtains, carpets and they might sound really nice and warm with no disturbing reflections. But some other rooms (especially unfurnished ones) might have horrible slap-echo kind of reverb and a disturbing resonant frequency, that fights your every effort to show off your musical ideas.
So, before you run buying new microphones to get a better sound, try finding a better sounding room. It may or may not have a strong reverb. It all depends on what you like. If you enjoy dry, detailed percussive sound, try a small livingroom in a wooden cabin. If you enjoy lush, majestic reverbs, record in a church. When you find the room that sounds nice to you, only then start experimenting with different microphones.
What do you want to say?
What do you want to say with your recording? Do you want the instrument to sound warm or cold? Should the instrument sound the way you hear it, or the way the audience hears it? Do you want the music to be close to the listener, as if you would sit and play intimately in his or her lap? Or do you want to sound distant and serious? Should the recording communicate clarity and detail, or are you after a more spontaneous, inspired effect?
If you think this goes too deep and you just want a good simple recording, get a Zoom stereo recorder, forget about the technology and keep your focus on the music you play.
And last, if you’re interested in a more technology focused reading about the same topic, check out my friend Spyros Pan’s article about his thoughts on how to make a great handpan recording. It’s a nice one.