Eight Ways to Mic an Accordion

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.

Piano Accordions

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.

Chromatic Accordions

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

Microphone:  KSM137

Position:  About 12” from the keyboard side

Shure KSM137 Microphone Micing an Accordion

2. Cardioid Condenser Mic on Floor Stand, Bellows Side

Microphone:  KSM137

Position:  About 4–6” from the bellows side

KSM137 Microphone Miking Accordion on Side

3. Two Unidirectional Condenser Mics on Floor Stand; Keyboard and Bellows Sides

Microphone:  KSM137

Position:  Mic 1 about 12” from the keyboard side; Mic 2 about 4–6” from bellows side

Two Shure KSM137 Micing an Accordion

4. Cardioid Dynamic Mic on Floor Stand

Microphone:  SM57

Position:  About 18” from the center of the grille

Shure SM57 Instrument Mic on Accordion

5. Clip-on Cardioid Condenser Mic Strap-Mounted, Bellows Side

Microphone:  MX185

Position:  Clipped onto shoulder strap, bellows side

Shure MX185 Microphone Miking an Accordion

6. Clip-on Cardioid Condenser Mic Strap-Mounted, Keyboard Side

Microphone:  MX185

Position:  Clipped onto the shoulder strap on the keys side

Shure MX185 Microphone on Accordion Shoulder Strap

7. Clip-on Omnidirectional Condenser Mic Taped to Grille

Microphone: MX183

Position:  Duct-taped to the middle of the grille on the keys side

MX183 Microphone on Accordion

8. Accordion Internal Microphone

Microphone: Condenser mics evenly spaced inside accordion (on buttons and keys side)

Position:  Keys side

Internal Accordion Mic

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?

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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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12 Comments

  • Frazer Mclellan says:

    Great work. As an accordionist I have never found a set of mike’s that do what I want, so I made my own. The best sound from any accordion without a doubt in a non live ,gig, but studio environment, is a mike on both sides, a reasonable distance from both left and right hand… couple of reasons, palate noise , keynoise and a the other squeaks and noises from it …. From a bass end sound point of view, remember , bellows goes in and out ,there is a variance on sound volume as the bellows moves away from the mike on the bass side and then comes towards it. So a microphone that provide a steady output from a volume variance of a couple of feet is best, a good uni directional, however , by adjusting the location of the mike, you get a compromise … Internal mike’s are good, however , a microphone up against the grill, on the right hand ,midi bass to emulate the bass, so no mike required for the left, gives the best performance in a live gig situation… Only if you are static though, if you have to move, internals with a radio mike … What’s the point of my mail??? Simple, there is no silver bullet , there is always a compromise between mobility, volume generated, feedback, palate noise, key noise , and of course your own personal taste on how it sounds, also remember there are cassoto tone chambers, that if not correctly.miked you loose the richness of the chamber, so there is another compromise on getting the balance between tone chambers and the rest of the reeds … One thing for sure , you will end up like most accordionists I know, and have a bag of mike’s for the correct situation … And of course if like me , you are trying to get the best sound out of your instrument , it can be fun experimenting …. Good luck , regards, Frazer McLellan.

    • Webmaster says:

      Thanks for the comment, Frazer! It’s great to hear about your experience miking your accordion. You’re completely right that every situation will vary, causing different miking techniques to be required. Great point!

  • Mark Rupsch says:

    I discovered a dual SM57 technique while filling Hispanic riders which uses a dual mic mount, on one mic stand, spread to cover the whole keyboard side. Sounded great to me. I had control over individual low and high end and could balance the two to fit. Only drawback was getting the stand/mount not to move as it’s a decent weight on a typically bouncing stage.

  • Edward F. says:

    Very handy article since I will be doing sound next month for a big cumbia group. I’ve delt with accordions in the past, but now I have a better understanding where the sound comes from and proper ways to mic. No more guessing.

  • Jimmy Keane says:

    Thanks for the article Davida!

    I’ve used a combination of microphone systems over the years on my piano accordion. The basic is just using the internal sennheiser microphone’s into a two channel preamp out to the FOH.

    The ideal setup I found was a combination of the internal mic’s plus two external mics split across the treble (right/keyboard) side of the accordion and one on the bass side.

    I started with three SM98s, switched to the Beta SM98s (although I didn’t care as much for the beta versions, but they were useable). I’ve also used a set of DPA 4099’s and still alternate between the three various external mics (depending on which gig bag I grab). I’ve tried various other manufacturer microphones too but am sticking with Shure and/or DPA for the foreseeable future.

    I attached the external microphones to the accordion using a combination of velcro and a U-shaped shelving channel (with the matching velcro on its underside)

    Here is a example of the channel attached to the accordion using two Shure mics (not the full three mic/internal mic combo):

    https://jimmykeane.com/files/24169/Jimmy%20Keane%204.jpg

    When using the external/internal microphone combination, I do a sub-mix onstage and send out right and left to the house.

    I’ve also used this combination approach in the studio but send out separate channels and add a couple of recording mics to the mix.

    Anyway, sorry for blathering on — good luck and looking forward to your next article!

    All the best,

    Jimmy
    jimmykeane.com

  • ALLEN SPOUSTA says:

    I have a Bell Gold” MIDI capable custom accordion with internal mics—-Sennheyser condenser mics with TEN on the treble side and FOUR in the bass. Both sides are controlled through the MIDI cable inputs to my mixer—–an eight channel. The resultant sounds are INCREDIBLE. The sound is crisp, clear, pure and with the number of mics installed, there are NO dead spots on either the treble or bass.
    Good article and I’m very happy to hear that “the ole stomach Steinway” is making a comeback. I’ve been squeezing my accordions for 77+ years and still enjoy the music it produces. And the nice thing of having a MIDI capable instrument, at my age, if I get tired of pushin’ and pullin” I just step on the MIDI volume pedal and make my accordion sound like ANY instrument I want.

  • Bruce Triggs says:

    Most interesting diy answer I’ve seen is an SM-57 capsule wired inside near the treble reeds. Vid here:
    https://youtu.be/gRAo4F8F4Sk

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