Mention miking an accordion to some people, and you might get the same reaction you’d get when talking about bagpipes. Why? Or you might hear a joke (there are hundreds of accordion jokes) like this one:
Dude leaves his accordion in the back seat of his car in a not-so-good part of town and goes inside a store. Coming back, he realizes he left his windows down. When he gets to his car, he looks into the back seat and finds … (wait for it) a second accordion.
Despite being the target of many jokes, accordions are re-emerging after a decline in popularity that followed their golden age in the 1950s and 1960s. John Lennon’s first axe was an accordion. Rumor has it that so was Brian Jones’s. What sparked the recent embrace of the accordion’s sound by popular music acts remains unclear, but you don’t have to strain your ears to hear an accordion in the music of Arcade Fire, John Mellencamp, Dropkick Murphys, The E Street Band and lots of others. In fact, here are a dozen popular tunes that feature the accordion.
Different Types of Accordions
The principle that gives the accordion its voice dates back to the creation of a woodwind instrument called the cheng (or sheng) in 3000 B.C. China. It took European instrument makers almost 5,000 years to incorporate the free vibrating reed principle to the 19th-century harmonium (pump organ), the harmonica and the accordion.
Modern accordions can be classified into three types.
This is the type most familiar to Americans, whether your reference is Clifton Chenier, Frank Yankovic or David Hidalgo. There is a piano-type keyboard for the right hand. For the left hand, there is an array of buttons for the bass accompaniment. A full-size accordion has 41 treble keys and 120–140 buttons for the bass.
These are much more common in Europe. They have buttons for both the right hand (treble) and the left hand (bass). The arrangement of the buttons is similar to the arrangement of the bass buttons on the piano accordion.
Diatonic or Melodeon Accordions
There are buttons for both hands. The pitch of a single key changes as the bellows are pushed or pulled.
Since piano accordions are the type most often used in zydeco, folk, Celtic, Western and rock music, that’s where we’re focusing our attention.
The Challenges of Miking an Accordion
Miking a piano accordion for sound reinforcement or recording is a mystery to most players and even sound engineers. This is not an easy instrument to mic, and here’s why:
- The sound comes from both sides of the instrument.
- The action of the bellows means that the instrument is always in motion.
- An accordion radiates a different timbre in every direction, and each accordion surface produces a distinct timbre.
- An accordion makes other sounds besides musical pitches (the sound of the keys being depressed, the wheezing sound of the bellows), so you have to consider those sounds when choosing a mic technique.
On the bright side, in a band with a bass player, it may be less important to capture the buttons side of a piano accordion. That reduces some of the complications of miking the accordion.
Accordion Miking Techniques Put to the Test
Tonal balance can be dramatically altered by adjusting the mic’s position relative to the accordion. Experts tend to agree that an accordion sounds best when the microphone is positioned at a distance of about one to two feet from the instrument. At that distance, the sounds radiating from the accordion’s surfaces combine into a pleasing composite.
In contrast, a mic placed very close to the accordion tends to emphasize the surface nearest the microphone. The sound from a closely placed mic won’t accurately capture the sound of the whole instrument.
We decided to put this theory—and several others—to the test.
Shure Associate and accordion player Chris Frantisak tested out different accordion miking techniques in the Shure Performance Listening Center. We had all the microphones we needed: two KSM137 cardioid condenser mics, an MX185 cardioid condenser mic, an MX183 omnidirectional mic, the ubiquitous SM57 cardioid dynamic mic, and finally, the tiny onboard condenser mics built into Chris’s accordion.
1. Cardioid Condenser Mic on Floor Stand, Keyboard Side
Position: About 12” from the keyboard side
2. Cardioid Condenser Mic on Floor Stand, Bellows Side
Position: About 4–6” from the bellows side
3. Two Unidirectional Condenser Mics on Floor Stand; Keyboard and Bellows Sides
Position: Mic 1 about 12” from the keyboard side; Mic 2 about 4–6” from bellows side
4. Cardioid Dynamic Mic on Floor Stand
Position: About 18” from the center of the grille
5. Clip-on Cardioid Condenser Mic Strap-Mounted, Bellows Side
Position: Clipped onto shoulder strap, bellows side
6. Clip-on Cardioid Condenser Mic Strap-Mounted, Keyboard Side
Position: Clipped onto the shoulder strap on the keys side
7. Clip-on Omnidirectional Condenser Mic Taped to Grille
Position: Duct-taped to the middle of the grille on the keys side
8. Accordion Internal Microphone
Microphone: Condenser mics evenly spaced inside accordion (on buttons and keys side)
Position: Keys side
At the end of our session, there was general, but not unanimous, agreement on what sounded best to the five pairs of ears present.
Chris favored his accordion’s internal mics for live performance because they’re convenient, but he thought two condenser mics positioned on both sides of his instrument did the best job of capturing its distinctive sonic qualities for recording applications. We all agreed on one thing: the ubiquitous industry workhorse SM57 did a pretty good job.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think?