Miking the Flute

This article is all about miking the wooden flute for Irish music but may well interest players of other kinds of flutes.

The first thing to say about miking flutes is there is no single answer. Different solutions suit different situations. The greatest distinction lies between miking for stage and miking in the recording studio. We'll treat them separately. A second distinction lies between owning your own mike and relying on those provided in sound systems.

About stage mikes There are a few things you should know about stage mikes before we get into it. Almost all stage mikes are directional - i.e. they pick up better from the front than the rear. This helps reduce the risk of feedback. The most common directional pattern is "cardioid" - called that because if you draw a plan view of the pickup pattern it is approximately heart shaped.

Cardioid pattern mikes exhibit a very interesting side effect called "proximity effect". In simple terms, as you get closer to the mike, the bass is amplified more than the rest of the signal. If nothing was done about this, such mikes would sound very boomy, particularly on male voices with the user "eating" the microphone.

Cardioid pattern mikes are also very sensitive to handling noise, a major problem for the vocalist who wants to hand-hold the microphone. It's also a problem for the Irish band who tap their booted feet loudly on hollow wooden stages and then blame the bodhran player for the arythmic din.

For both these reasons, the bass on stage mikes is fairly savagely roll

ed off by an internal filter, often starting from around 500 Hz. It is clear that, if you are not using the microphone for the very application that the designer intended, you may not get the results you want.

Cardioid mikes are also very wind and breath sensitive. The designers provide them with metal mesh basket wind shields, but these are not particularly effective. Obviously, wind noise can be a real issue for the flute player.

Using the mike provided Most hired or venue sound systems will come with a bundle of the kind of mikes mentioned above. The brand names will change - Shure, Sennheiser, AKG, Realistic - but the principles are the same. If we have to rely on the mikes provided, how do we get the best out of them?

As mentioned above, these mikes are designed for very close use. Move back a bit and the bottom end drops out of them. But the poor windshield makes closeness a real problem for the flute player. Simple answer - carry your own additional windshield. Most stage mikes are about the same size. For about $7.00 you can buy a foam plastic windshield from any good music shop. Get a few sizes if necessary, or get a largish one and carry some rubber bands to keep it on. With the additional protection, you can play with your nose actually touching the foam windshield!

Getting really close also helps avoid some of the other problems. Because you are getting a lot of sound into the microphone, its level can be brought down on the mixer, reducing the chance of feedback and also reducing the impact of foot tapping.

Get Your Own Mike

Apart from the various problems with normal stage mikes outlined above is my biggest dislike - having to sit or stand glued to a microphone stand. I find it distracting to have to concentrate on staying in the same place, possibly for hours on end. I find in a long gig - e.g. four hours of playing for dancing - my shoulders stiffen and my back starts to complain. And a stage covered with mechanical hardware like mike stands somehow doen't sit well with the nature of this music. Solution?

Easy. Buy yourself a small electret condenser mike of the lavallier or tieclip type. Attach this to the flute just above the embouchure. Now you are free to move around and to concentrate on your playing.

Most of these mikes are omnidirectional - i.e. they pick up from all around. This is normally frowned upon in PA situations because of feedback problems. Because this mike is so close to a powerful source of sound, this has never proved to be a problem for me.

I put mine about 25mm above the embouchure and on the front of the instrument - ie ninety degrees around from the line of holes. Even though mine has no windshield, wind noise has not been a problem - largely due probably to the natural immunity to wind noise exhibited by omnidirectional mikes.

Mine is not a particularly expensive one, but it would pay to try out a few before buying if possible. If you can, compare omni and cardioid types. You can usually tell the difference. Cardioid mikes may be marked cardioid or unidirectional. Sometimes a small heart shaped graphic is used to imply cardioid, and a circle to indicate omnidirectional. A cardioid mike must have somewhere for sound coming from the rear to enter the back of the capsule - sometimes a ring of holes or grill or sometimes a head that is fully mesh covered. Omni directional mikes usually have only a sound entry at the front.


Practical Matters How do you hold your flute mike on? Over the years I experimented with all sorts of fixing methods including specially formed plastic coated wire clips, rubber bands and Blu-Tack. Blu-Tack is as good as any of them and looks better.

Some such mikes have on Off switch, others require you to remove the battery to turn it off. Remember always to carry a spare battery.

Often such mikes come with inappropriate connectors, such as minijacks for use in cassette portable recorders. The sound engineer won't like that! These connectors also give a lot of trouble. Replace the connector with whatever is popular in your part of the world - probably a three pin XLR (Cannon) connector. The microphone lead should end in a male XLR. The male has pins, not holes. It's like life, really.

Unfortunately the wiring for these is not standard throughout the world. If your mike is balanced (ie has two wires inside a shield) this presents no real problem. If, as is more likely, the mike is unbalanced (one wire inside a shield) you have to get it right. Your local PA company can advise you.

The two popular standards I am aware of are:

  • Most places: Pin 1 - Earth (Shield); Pin 2 - Hot (Centre wire); Pin 3 - Connect to Pin 1
  • United States: Pin 1 - Earth (Shield); Pin 2 - Connect to Pin 1; Pin 3 - Hot (Centre wire)
Many desks provide "phantom power", a form of power needed by some microphones to operate. This can usually be turned off, but may be needed by another mic in the system. Unbalanced electrets don't enjoy having phantom power applied to them. One way to prevent this happening is to put an electrolytic capacitor (say 10uF 50Volt) in series with the centre wire. You can usually conceal this in the XLR connector. Connect the negative end toward the microphone, the positive end to Pin 2 or 3 as indicated above.

If this is all too technical for you, show it to your supplier. If they can't understand it, get a better supplier!

The cable connected to these mikes is usually rather short. Carry a spare mike cable (XLR male to XLR female) to make up the difference.

Boehm system players wishing to go the whole hog can purchase a special stopper (the cork inside the flute just above the embouchure) with a built-in microphone connected through a socket in the special cap provided with the stopper. These can be adapted to suit older system flutes.


Miking for the recording studio. No matter how happy you are with your mike or bug for stage use, forget it when you enter the recording studio. Your bug, when recorded, will probably sound foul by comparison with the mikes the studio has. If not, look for a better studio.

I generally opt for a large diaphragm studio condenser mike (Neumann U87 or later, AKG C414, etc) for flute. If the studio is using stage style microphones (Shure SM67 etc) be very suspicious. Many studios set up for rock music have very little in the way of good microphones.

These large diaphragm condensors are very wind sensitive so keep them well out of the way above the embouchure. Some experimentation in placement is usually needed to optimise tone and minimise hiss. Somewhere a little to the left of the embouchure is a good place to start.

Hope all of that is some value. Comments or more information, email me!

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