Choosing a Saxophone Microphone for Recording and Live Sound

In this post, we’re going to turn the spotlight on an essential instrument in the horn section: the saxophone. To help us do it, we’ve turned to a trio of pros: ADAM HILL from Memphis’s legendary Ardent Studios (where everyone from Big Star to the Staples Singers and Isaac Hayes has recorded), FOH Engineer FRANK GILBERT who mixes sound at Chicago’s hippest live music venues and our own DEAN GIAVARAS, a sax player and the chief recording engineer at Shure’s state-of-the-art Performance Listening Center.  We also have a couple of useful tips from engineer MATT DEFILIPPIS (FOH for The Drive-By Truckers, former house audio tech at The Georgia Theatre in Athens, Georgia) and educator MIKE SCHULZE (trombonist and Audio Production and Recording Technology Lecturer at the University of Denver).

Along the way, we’ll illustrate some basic miking techniques for saxophone to help you achieve the sound you’re after.

Sax Appeal: Miking the Saxophone for Recording and Live Sound

Sax as Axe

Fun Facts: It might surprise you to know that the saxophone hasn’t been around that long compared to other instruments.   The first working model was invented by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax whose vision it was to create a woodwind instrument with the power of brass.  No stranger to brass and woodwind instruments, he is also credited as the inventor of the modern trumpet and the re-inventor of the bass clarinet.

The first saxophone was actually called a bass horn, but by the time Sax patented the design in 1846, the instrument was known as le saxophone or “saxophone”.  And while Adolphe didn’t live to see his dream of the saxophone as an orchestral instrument realized by the turn of the last century (his prickly personality didn’t win him many champions), the saxophone was firmly established as a military band instrument.  And that, of course, led to its discovery by New Orleans musicians as integral to early jazz.

Here’s another Sax fact:  Music historians consider Adolphe the father of the “Battle of the Bands”, having successfully pitted a military-style band of his own against the French infantry band. He won.

Miking Considerations: Placement

The sound of a saxophone is fairly well distributed between the finger holes and the bell. The bell at the end of the saxophone produces only a part of the sound. Any open hole on the instrument also produces sound. As a result, the saxophone radiates sound in a much wider pattern than brass, for example, and a common technique is to position microphones to pick up sound from the holes and the bell.

DEAN GIAVARAS That’s the crux of miking a saxophone well: recognizing and acknowledging the fact that the sound is a column of air that moves through the horn from the mouthpiece to the end of the bell. For any notes where all the keys aren’t closed (high notes especially), much of the sound comes from lowest or last open sound holes on the body of the horn. That’s just a fact.  So shoving a microphone straight down the bell of the horn isn’t always the best way to do it.

ADAM HILL Imagine a triangle, where the top of the horn and the bottom of the horn and the mic and make an equilateral triangle. You get a nice, balance of the reed and the low-end from the bell, all in one go.  The distance of the mic is dependent on the size of the horn: the larger the horn, the farther away it’s going to be to create the equilateral triangle.

Over the shoulder micing for Saxophone using KSM32

Over the shoulder – KSM32

ADAM HILL I’ve also had luck with placing a mic over the shoulder of the sax player. The bell of the horn, unless it’s a soprano is going to be pointed up anyway, and the concept is that you’re miking what the horn player is hearing.  They’re reacting to what’s coming out of the horn. What they’re hearing might be the best place to put the mic.

Miking Considerations: Cartridge Types

DEAN GIAVARAS I typically choose a condenser mic like the KSM32 that has a flat or natural sound. A condenser mic has good transient response, so it captures the high frequencies well with less of a hyped response in the highs and mids. It’s flatter through that range, which can be more pleasing. Another good choice is a KSM137.  It’s a conveniently small condenser microphone that works really well, but in either case, you have to make sure you don’t have someone who roams a lot.

ADAM HILL I usually start with a condenser mic, a large or a small diaphragm condenser. But sometimes you want an in-your-face kind of sound, and sometimes I’ll move to a dynamic mic where you can get closer to the bell. In fact, you can bury it right in there as long as you pay attention to key and mouth noise and those kinds of things. That can be for more of a dirty rock-and-roll sax sound instead of the prettier picture that rounds off the edges with a farther-away condenser.

FRANK GILBERT For saxophones, I almost always use a dynamic mic live. My preference is the good old SM58.

Aimed straight at the bell - Sax Micing Technique with an SM57

Aimed straight at the bell – SM57

MATT DEFILIPPIS My favorite sax mic is an SM57. Put it on a straight stand, point it down towards the bell, sounds great. Nuff said.

Miking Considerations: Pickup Pattern

MIKE SCHULZE Because these instruments already have lots of energy in the 2–5 kHz range, it’s important to use a mic that doesn’t overemphasize this range and maybe even de-emphasizes it. You’ll probably need a cardioid mic that picks up sound from the front and rejects sound increasingly as you move off to the side. The rest of the decisions you need to make are to insure that you choose a microphone complementary to the already bright sound of horns.

(That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for other types.)

DEAN GIAVARAS Back in the day when they were making the great Blue Note jazz records, Rudy Van Gelder used a distant miking technique where there was maybe one mic in the room for multiple players: an omni. That’s a miking technique still used today. It allows you to move around if the room sounds good.

Figure 8 miking - Micing a Sax Technique using a KSM44A

Figure 8 miking – KSM44A

ADAM HILL I’ve really gotten into figure-8 miking. I read Recording the Beatles and realized how handy the rejection in the null point can be. So sometimes with a room mic, I’ll use a figure-8 configuration and put the sax in the null, so it’s rejecting everything that’s coming directly from the sax and picking up the sides of the room where the sound is bouncing around.

ADAM HILL The nice thing about figure-8s is that even if you’re pointing right down the bell, it’ll capture mainly direct sound so you get that proximity effect, but you also get the back side of the mic picking up a little bit of the reverberant sound in the room, which can make it seem more natural. I like to get that on the recording rather than trying to add it digitally later. Since we have nice rooms here, we use them.

Miking Considerations: Form Factor

FRANK GILBERT If you have an energetic sax player who plays a lot of leads and jumps all over the stage, a dynamic mic in a fixed position will not do. Typically this type of player will be using a wireless bodypack transmitter. In this situation a Beta 98 with the gooseneck clip is a great choice. Even though the mic is a condenser, it’s small, very directional and the gooseneck attachment enables you to position the capsule far enough inside the horn that the bell will shield feedback potential a bit.

Clipped to the bell – Saxophone Micing Technique using a Beta 98H/C

Clipped to the bell – Beta 98H/C

DEAN GIAVARAS I clip the mic to the bell but aim it at the upper sound holes.   That’s how I get the best saxophone sounds. Not all clip-on mics allow you to aim the mic that way.

More than One Mic?

DEAN GIAVARAS Sometimes, you’ll see very elaborate miking set-ups where two mics are used. For instance, I’ve noticed that Joshua Redman uses a clip-on mic so he has the freedom to move around and get that super-impactful sound from the bell, and a second stationary mic for ballads and more detailed passages that he might walk up to.  This kind of multiple mic approach is not unheard of, but it’s much rarer.

Multiple mics – Saxophone Micing Technique using KSM44A and KSM137

Multiple mics – KSM44A and KSM137

ADAM HILL I’ve even miked a big, honkin’ baritone sax with a room mic, pretty far away and combined it with a close mic, obviously making sure that the phase is good.  Sometimes you want something real roomy. With the direct mic and the room mic, you can adjust the balance when you are mixing.

ADAM HILL Using a couple of nice condensers in a Blumlein configuration is really cool. It gives you great stereo imaging, and you can adjust the direct and reverberant sound of the room with distance.  I want the horns to get a good balance in the room before the sound even hits the mic. That’s why I start by taking a nice picture of it.  I’ll put close mics in there to add in a little bit of detail. There are a lot of mixes when I just use the Blumlein technique with a horn trio or quartet.

Pro Favorites

ADAM HILL I love ribbons.  I use them on horns, and they’re really perfect for that. A ribbon mic can really roll off the high end in a nice pleasing way, and you can get away with putting it closer because it rounds out the sound a little bit.  You don’t have that really nasally, wheezy top-end. I’m really thinking about baritone sax here.  I put some of that really nasty rock and roll bari sax on something just last week. Ribbons are great for that kind of stuff – really a great mic for horns.

Ribbon mic – Saxophone Micing Technique Using a KSM313

Ribbon mic – KSM313

DEAN GIAVARAS I also like ribbon mics on horns, more in recording but in live applications as well because they’re a lot more durable than most people think.  One thing to keep in mind is that you have to be close enough to a ribbon mic because the figure-8 pattern tends to be pretty closed. That means it has to be placed properly and you have to stay on it. A ribbon or a good dynamic in a stage application is going to work fine.  You can use an SM57 too or a Beta 57 because you’re trying to get it to cut through everything else that’s going on onstage. A Beta 27 sounds really good to me, too.

FRANK GILBERT In recording situations where bleed and feedback are not issues, I have had excellent results with large diaphragm condensers such as the KSM32 or its multi-pattern cousin, the KSM44. I especially like the darker KSM32 on baritone sax.

Some Traditional Approaches

Tonal Quality: Bright

Position:   A few inches from and aiming into bell
Notes:   Minimizes feedback and leakage
Shure Models: KSM137, SM81, SM137, SM57

Tonal Quality: Warm, Full

Position:   A few inches from sound holes
Notes:   Tends to pick up fingering noise
Shure Models: KSM137, SM81, SM137SM57

Tonal Quality: Natural

Position:  A few inches above bell and aiming at sound holes
Notes:   Good recording technique
Shure Models: KSM137, SM81, SM137SM57

Tonal Quality: Bright, Punchy

Position:   Miniature microphone mounted on bell
Notes:   Maximum isolation, up-front sound
Shure Models: Beta98H/C

A Parting Thought…

ADAM HILL I’m lucky. I’ve done sessions where some of The Memphis Horns were playing. And I’ve actually assisted in a session where Steve Cropper was producing the horn section overdubs. That was school. I mean, this guy watched Otis do everything. I’m still learning, and I’ve been here for eleven years.  It’s a combination of technical know-how and a lot of creative problem solving.

Want to comment on one of the techniques here? Got a sax miking tip you’d like to share? Join the conversation by commenting below.

Additional Resources

Recording Magazine (& Michael Schulze) – Miking Horns and Woodwinds
TCM Mastering – Recording Horns
B&H Photo/Video – Recording Brass and Woodwinds at Home
Mix Online – 45 Years of Ardent Studios, Memphis

And check out these publications from Shure

Microphone Techniques for Recording
Microphone Techniques – Live Sound Reinforcement

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Davida Rochman

Davida Rochman

A Shure associate since 1979, Davida Rochman graduated with a degree in Speech Communications and never imagined that her first post-college job would result in a lifelong career that had her marketing microphones rather than speaking into them. Today, Davida is a Communications Manager, lending her skills to a wide spectrum of activities, from public relations and social media to content development and sponsorships.

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  • Alvin Cornista says:

    With sax, and say a side address condenser (i.e. KSM44) in cardioid pointed just inches away from the center of the bell, you get the brightest sound, then once you start rotating the mic 45 degrees to 90 degrees you get your warm and darkests sounds. With this technique the lowend remains upfront with only the high frequencies being “eq’d”. In a recording studio situation when there is complete isolation you can even experiment with up to 180 degree rotation, as in pointing to the room with the sax bell facing the back of the mic. Then you get all room, very subdued highs and all the direct lows. Of course you can apply the same thinking to the figure 8 pattern. In a live situation, with say a dynamic mic, this concept can be used to not only “eq” the sax but also to take advantage pointing the mic away from unwanted sound like say the drummer or the floor monitors. This technique is basically inspired by the techniques used in micing guitar amps. I guess the most important thing to realize is every sax player sounds different so an open mind and lots of critical listening is key. For example attack and sustain… positioning the mic to “compress” the sound… oh my that’s a whole different topic.

  • Phil Shingler says:

    I,m looking for a clip on for my saxophones and was looking at the beta 98h/c Would this be the correct mic as I would prefer to have the mic hard wired to our PA. What other kit do I need to go with the mic ? also what would be the rough cost for the correct set up ?

    • Rebecca Senft says:

      Hi, Phil. You could consider these options:

      Beta 98H/C – wired use only, requires phantom power from mixer. This mic is permanently attached to its XLR preamp/connector.

      WB98H/C – “wireless” version with TA4F connector. Use with any Shure bodypack, or plug into RPM626 preamp (sold separately) for wired use.

      Our support team’s advice is to go with the WB98H/C if there’s any chance they ever would need to use the Beta 98 wirelessly. If you would like any further information, you can contact our support team at

  • Phil Anthony says:

    Tenor player here. My mic bag includes an SM57, SM58, Beta 57A, PG81, and Beta 98H/C wireless. My only non-Shure mics are the Beyer M201TG and an AKG C519M clip-on (hard wired). I use the mic that works best for me with the given PA, and the rest go to the band if they don’t have their own mics (usually the PG81 over the drums, SM57 for the guitar amp, SM58 for vocals, etc.). Lately, I’ve been using the Beta 57A but I prefer it to the right of the bell an inch or two below the top of bell flare and a few inches from the right side of the horn (above where my right index finger flutters). Whenever I put any mics on a stand a few inches from the bell with the classic setup (say, 2 to 6 or maybe 8 inches), the mic gets way too much reedy-whispery sound from the bell. The same goes for the clip-ons when they are in line with the bell opening. The position on the side of the horn eliminates the unwanted noise, leads a a warmer tone, and captures the full range of the horn (with some trial and error).

    • Davida Rochman Davida Rochman says:

      Hi Phil–thanks very much for the comment and sharing the mics/techniques you use. Nice assortment of Shure models, that’s great!

  • Greger says:

    I’ve used the SM57 many times for live gigs with my sax. Even if I normally use my wireless sax system. Really good mics.

    I did find some good (and new) information in this post that I didn’t know about that I’ll be able to incorporate in my Online Saxophone School at The Saxophone Hub,

    I’ve had plenty of questions about how to mic and what mics to use so I finally decided to do some type of tutorial on it. The dual mic method seems interesting too. I’ve got to try that out. Thanks again! //Greger

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