Recording A String Quartet

In the world of sound recording, each subject and scenario poses new challenges, meaning production teams will often have to adapt their technique and approach to get the best results. Recording music presents a different set of requirements, especially where the genre is classical, and there are myriad nuances to try and capture. 

Recording a string quartet in a way where each instrument is allowed to shine without overpowering the rest of the group requires careful thought and meticulous set up of your recording equipment. Here we take a look at what you should consider. 

Understanding string quartets

A string quartet comprises an ensemble of two violin players, a cellist and a viola player. The first composer to truly write for this type of ensemble was considered to be Joseph Haydn, who helped to cement the string quartet's place in the chamber music world.

A string quartet will usually be arranged in a semi-circle, with the two violins on the left, followed by the viola and the cello on the opposite end. The first violin will traditionally play the melody in the higher register, with the other violin responsible for the lower-register harmony. 

While the viola and second violin will both have their chance to feature as soloists, generally the first violin and cello take the lead. However, rather than any one player taking the spotlight, a quartet must have an instinctive connection with each other to play as one ensemble. 

"In some other music, people just come and play together, but in a string quartet, like any ensemble, have to become one organism," remarked Professor Alan Wing, from the University of Birmingham. "It's remarkable."

Miking up a string quartet

To capture the full-bodied sound of a string quartet, there are several things to consider. As the quartet is generally so closely placed together, pickup with good stereo localisation can be difficult to achieve without being very close.

To combat this, John Eargle, in his 'Handbook of Recording Engineering' recommends asking the musicians to space out more, positioning a coincidental (X/Y) microphone configuration approximately 2.5-3 metres off the floor. 

Depending on the situation and environment where you are recording, your choice of microphone polar pattern can influence the ensemble's distinctive sound qualities. For example, a pair of figure eight studio microphones such as the RØDE NT2-A (which has a variable polar pattern) could provide a better sense of space, as well as including some of the atmospheric noise for a more natural sound. 

Alternatively, you can turn to a ribbon microphone like the RØDE NTR - making use of any top-end roll off to truly create a sense of space and distance, while the low noise captures sound in greater detail. 

Another option is to use cardioid mics, such as the RØDE M5. A compact, half-inch capsule microphone, the M5 produces low noise while offering a full frequency response. This permanent polarised condenser offers premium performance in both live and studio recording. The M5 comes in a matched pair, selected with the utmost care to ensure no more than 1 decibel of variation in sensitivity between the mics - ideal for a stereo miking X/Y set up. 

For easy configuration, we recommend the RØDE Stereo Bar, which enables you to secure the mics on top of each other at a right angle so that sound reaches both capsules simultaneously. This helps to prevent phasing and issues with mono compatibility later on.