Can you record a full orchestra with a single microphone?

Can you record a full orchestra with a single microphone?


norman lebrecht

June 10, 2017

Apparently, yes…. although I don’t get a full, close sound picture through my headphones.

Others may hear it differently.


The device is called Zylia.


  • Anon says:

    For 50 or more years it is being done. And quickly recognized as not satisfactory for music reproduction through loudspeakers.
    Dummy head microphone anyone? The product here is an Ambisonics microphone.
    Has been tried, people don’t like it. Case closed.
    There are always new people trying to sell sand on the beach.

    • Mike Hatch says:

      It will only work if the following conditions are met:

      1) The Recording location is wonderful
      2) The Orchestra has perfect internal balance
      3) The Conductor knows how to balance the orchestra
      4) The Music is properly orchestrated
      5) The client is not going to ask you for “more x” after the recording
      6) You like the sound of the microphone system
      7) It’s the perspective that you are after and suits the music

      In other words, hardly ever!

    • Bob Amos says:

      The Schoeps Spheres would seem to prove that “Anon” is more opinionated than knowledgeable. Not all spherically-shaped microphones are alike – or sound the same. The widely used Schoeps Spheres are not binaural microphones like the various ones that attempt to emulate the physiology of the human head. A Schoeps KFM 360 produces a convincing image of an instrumental group that’s very satisfactorily heard on both loudspeakers and headphones.

      I don’t have the ability to play Ambisonic recordings, but most of the Nimbus recordings sound perfectly fine in two channels.

      In short, I prefer it when people offer opinions based in fact.

      • Anon says:

        Yeah, the Schoeps spheres are so widely used that Schoeps dropped it from their portfolio, due lack of demand. Really wide use that one 😉

        • Bob Amos says:

          More misinformation! Both the KFM 6 and KFM 360 are available at least in the United States, from Redding Audio (Schoeps’s US distributor) and from Jerry Bruck’s company, Posthorn.

          You’re probably right that in my eagerness to set the record straight, calling these Schoeps products “widely used” represented a bit of a stretch. They’re expensive, and because they’re most often used as elements in a surround sound set-up, they’re sometimes hard to find listed separately.

          I’ve been recording large instrumental and choral groups for almost fifty years. My KFM 360 has made a number of my favorite recordings, and it well might be that when someone like you comes along and makes comments that betray a lack of real knowledge on the subject of stereo microphones, I get a bit defensive.

          You might want to check out Erato’s last set of complete Bach organ works – these recordings were reportedly made with a Schoeps sphere; also, look up Jerry Bruck’s work.

          Nonetheless, thanks for setting off an avalanche of comments, many of which bring up valid points. The microphone that spurred all the discussion would have, because of its USB output, very limited professional use, I would expect. But remember, it’s an ambisonic-type product, not to be confused with the spheres and dummy-head microphones from Schoeps and Neumann.

          • Anon says:

            check your sources. Schoeps has discontinued the product years ago.

            The KFM is a very limited tool. It is not flexible in matching stereo recording angle to the desired direct/diffuse ratio. Very rarely are both points in the room coincident.
            Either the phantom sources are placed awkwardly, or the direct/diffuse sound ratio is not ideal. Not surprisingly the tool has its fans in the very ambient sound camp.
            Of course if the circumstances are right it can give beautiful results. But again it’s a small niche of professional recordings where this can be the case.

            Furthermore all the sphere/dummy head stereo mics have the known deficiency of distorted phantom sources in loudspeaker reproduction, low frequencies pulling to the phantom center, high frequencies pulling to the outside.

            To the recording professional who needs tools that allow him to shape sound flexibly and to a wide range of preliminary parameters, it is only an exotic additional tool, never for the ‘bread-and-butter’ work.

            Also, people defending these niche tools, have apparently never worked with the world’s leading conductors and soloists. Since they apparently never have been asked in listening to a first take or in postproduction to do “more of x and y, less of z”.

  • Harvey Seigel says:

    I played in the Detroit Symphony in the 1950s under the legendary conductor Paul Paray. We made many recordings in the Mercury ‘Living Presence’ series, which are still available in newer formats. The mono recordings were made with one microphone. Here is a link to a description of the process, which incidentally neglects to mention the many great recordings made in Detroit.

    • Brian B says:

      And Minneapolis as well in mono era recordings by Mercury. Many still sounding splendidly faithful and impactful–and no second guessing of conductor and orchestra balancing and dynamics.

    • NYMike says:

      And Chicago Symphony recordings under Kubelik in the same series.

  • Anon says:

    It’s actually 19 microphones (!) in a sphere.
    Total cost (not always a factor, but as a guide) less than just one of the ‘standard’ microphones you might expect a professional recording engineer to reach for when recording an orchestra.
    It offers audio at a 48kHz sampling rate, but most of the classical world has moved on to 96kHz or higher (192kHz, DSD, etc.).
    It’s a slightly gimmicky consumer product, and that’s about that.

  • Bernard Labadie says:

    For many years Craig Dory, founder of Dorian Recordings, recorded everything from solo lute to a full symphony orchestra with a single pair of microphones perfectly positioned at the ideal place in the hall. Ideal balance would be achieved by positioning everyone properly. It was a very demanding process for the performers (it’s a lot easier to set up twenty microphones all over the place and move them around rather than move people around a single couple of mics), but results were astonishing. I had the privilege of making many recordings with this great artist and the orchestra I founded (Les Violons du Roy), and to this day it remains my gold standard for recorded sound of any kind.

    • David Richardson says:

      Historical note. The Mercury Living Presence series in the 1950s and 60s boasted of using one microphone placed 25 feet above the centre point of the orchestra. By always recording orchestras on stage, so as to benefit from its acoustic design, it was claimed that the sound would have the same natural balance that an audience would experience. I remember hearing some of these recordings, the sound was actually shallow and brash. It was an evolutionary dead-end and as far as I know no other companies adopted this practice, but continued to develop the multi-mike technique with the orchestra in a larger, less defined space, in which the microphones had a greater role in locating and balancing the sound.

      • Bruce says:

        I’ve never understood why record companies claim to ‘reproduce the experience of a live concert’ by placing microphones where no audience member could ever be.

        (P.S. Does “25 feet above the centre point of the orchestra” mean 25 feet above the orchestra itself, or the “orchestra” section of the auditorium? Because I can’t imagine the sound directly above the group would be anything one would want to hear. Then again, I only ever bought one or two of those “living presence” recordings, and didn’t like the sound, so…)

        • Peter says:

          The unfortunate circumstance that people can’t enjoy the places in a hall where it sounds best shouldn’t stop recording professionals to place microphones there.
          For loudspeaker and/or headphone reproduction. Not for live listening.
          Apples and oranges.
          A hall layout and the position of seats is due to many constraints and compromises.
          Gravity for instance. 😉
          Think about it as if you could levitate, where would you like to be in the hall to listen?

          • Bruce says:

            Well yes. It’s just a case of claiming to sell apples when you’re actually selling oranges. That’s how I see it, anyway.

            I would love to levitate. In every hall I’ve been in, I always imagine that the best sound would be about 20-25 feet in the air, 2/3 toward the back of the auditorium. (Maybe higher, if it’s a place with a high ceiling like the Met or La Scala).

        • Max Grimm says:

          The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in preparation for their new hall, has dedicated a site on their webpage on the topic of “Sound and Space” (
          It includes a portion titled ‘From Concert Hall to Radio’ that touches on your comment. At the bottom of the linked page below are audio samples of recordings from the audience section (unaltered), above the conductor (unaltered) and the final, engineered recording for broadcast.

          • Anon says:

            Very good comparison by BR. Only major problem is, that all recordings are done in the empty halls. But all these halls sound substantially different, less ambient, when occupied with audience.
            Shoeboxes all the way. Nothing new actually. Let’s hope reason prevails in Munich too, and they don’t build another silly circus for visual spectacles with bad acoustics there, like they just did in Hamburg.

          • Anon says:

            I was referring to the sound comparison of different halls the BR orchestra did while on tour in Europe.


    • Robert Holmén says:

      In college one of our theory professors played us a comparison of two LPs of the same orchestral piece, one done with Mercury’s single mic, the other done with a “modern” multi-mic setup.

      The single mic recording was obviously better. The solos projected better, the tuttis were one rather than parts, everything was better. It seemed a paradox, everything had been forced through one point and yet it was clearer and more appealing to hear.

      The multi-mic process gave conductors a way fix balance problems after-the-fact but balance is what conductors should be getting in the performance anyway.

      I think the multi-mic technique captures an unnatural close “studio” sound that isn’t representative of classical ensemble acoustics.

    • Peter says:

      “…perfectly positioned at the ideal place in the hall…”

      that place does not exist. Sometimes there is such a spot for a moment. But rarely.

      And maybe sometime later there is again such a spot. But it’s in a different place.

      In short: It’s moving around with the score progressing, and only exists when the balance is good in a given moment. Which it rarely is.

      So a single microphone position is a good way to keep things simple and cheap. But it can never give a best possible result. Of course a talented snake oil sales man can sell such method as the second coming of the audiophile christ to gullible people.

      • Robert Holmén says:

        You’ve gone off the rails because of a small bit of advertising hyperbole (“perfect”).

        If we believe your claims then there is no point in attending concerts because every seat (a single location) is a hopeless flawed vantage point. Preposterous.

        • Peter says:

          straw man argument from your side. ‘hopeless’ is your hyperbole. no reason to reply.
          Again, there is no ideal place in the hall that is ideal at any given time, even for the same ensemble playing the same composition. What is ideal for the exposition of 1st movement might not work at all for the 2nd movement etc.
          Microphones are ‘stupid’, they lack the additional information the other senses give in supporting the ear.
          So we need professionals to create a sound that relays the music adequately.
          Single (stereo) microphone is not doing the job in most cases.
          Of course single stereo microphone is a business motto for some one-person recording businesses, because they can handle that and it is their niche…

    • Don Drewecki says:

      I myself was the audio engineer for Troy Chromatic Concerts from 1996 to about 2010, and for most of that time we used one of the earliest incarnations of the Calrec Soundfield MkIV microphone ensemble, hand-made in England by the original design team that included the late Michael Gerzon. We used it in the celebrated Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and the different but equally great Union College Memorial Chapel in Schenectady during those same years.

      With four capsules clustered in a tetrahedral design on one point, we were able to make recordings that had impact, clarity, a wide dynamic range and the deepest bass you ever heard — while the overall sonic picture was pinpoint-accurate and completely lacking the haze of spaced omni recordings. Plus, in B-format, we could record before the fact and fine-tune the image after the fact. It was remarkable.

  • Myrtar says:

    They don’t sell the microphone separately from their software. Bummer.

  • Brian Hughes says:

    Someone needs to stick up for Mercury Presence. I have a number of them in my collection as it was a label willing to record the early Eastman Wind Ensemble as well as the Detroit Symphony. The “best location in the hall” claim certainly applies to the DSO/Paray Saint-Saens 3 from the inauguration of (dreaded) Ford Auditorium. That recording is probably the only audio document in which one can hear the glory of that hall’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner organ, made impotent by horrible acoustics and an even worse installation. Of course, the hall was not originally designed to house an organ nor a symphony orchestra, but that’s another story altogether.

  • Andrew Collins says:

    Some of the old Mercury recordings (often with Dorati) had excellent (mono) sound.

  • Janice Mancuso says:

    The skill of the recording engineer in microphone selection and placement has a great deal to do with the final result. Great recordings have been made with a variety of methods. It all begins with the engineer and their mic choices.

  • Allen says:

    For information on earlier work, Google “Blumlein Pair”.

  • Gustav says:

    Weren’t Tadaaki Otaka’s BBC NOW Rachmaninov recordings recorded with one mic?

  • Robert Holmén says:

    I sense that many people here think “balance” means every instrument is heard equally at all times.

    No, you won’t get that from a single listening location, nor would you ever want to.

  • Nelson Curtis says:

    No, it doesn’t sound very good, but it’s not exactly placed in a place designed to be effective. Perhaps over the conductor’s head?

    Of course, it’s a complete joke that any of us claim to hear anything definitive from something on Youtube, for god’s sake. I wrote in another thread recently, but to repeat, Youtube limits all audio to a maximum of 192kbps no matter what the original is or whether the video is HD quality or not. It’s not possible to evaluate ANY audio quality this way! they really should raise that to 320kbps, which is the minimum that yields anything close to listeneable audio quality. What a shame that so many (especially students) only listen to music on Youtube!

  • PB says:

    Yes It’s all about finding the “sweet spot” with microphone placement. I have achieved outstanding results recording a choir in an excellent acoustic with a soundfield mic which is a four capsule tetrahedron array which can be “tuned” by adjusting the polar response of the capsules. However, when using multiple mikes regardless of the techniques chosen, it all depends on the skills of the engineers…… I have heard so many lazily mixed and processed multi-mike recordings…..

  • Susan says:

    this is fine for an archival recording, but it would not be any good for a commercial recording. There is no depth, no clarity, there is an audible lapse of time between sound reflections. I don’t get the bite of the cello or the attack of the winds. All that being said, I have heard worse quality from multitrack recordings with tens of thousands of dollars of microphones from engineers who don’t know how to use the gear.

  • Misha says:

    For those who understand these things, Horenstein’s Mahler 8 was recorded using a single Neumann SM2 stereo capacitor microphone with crossed figure 8 polar diagram.

  • Duo Petrof says:

    Yes it can, this is the latest option:

  • TonyF says:

    No news here. Move on.
    Recording an orchestra with ultra-simple microphone techniques has been going on for a very long time. It started with performers huddling round the horn of a cylinder or disc recorder. Mike Hatch’s comments are spot on.

  • mr oakmountain says:

    The still famous Previn LSO recording of Debussy’s Nocturnes – a very early digital recording for EMI – was made in Abbey Road Studios with a single pair of cardoid microphones angled at 90 degrees, the capsules brought together as to almost form a single spot. While the recording might not be perfect – all of Mr Hatch’s comments are correct, and he surely knows a thing about recordings 🙂 – the recording is very satisfying indeed and lacks any superfluous artifice.

    • mr oakmountain says:

      Actually my comments might only be correct for the “Images and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” on that CD. I’ve just realised the Nocturnes were recorded later and I cannot vouch for the microphone technique used.

  • simonelvladtepes says:

    I have a collection of hundreds of recordings done with just a pair of omnis over 15 years. I read all the arguments – it can be done with the right mics, it’s even easy, and it sounds better, even in Mahler and Shostakovitch. But this issue is like religion, people have their convictions and they wouldn’t budge.

    2 years ago Schoeps has decided to rename its venerable MK 3 omni capsule to “MK 2 XS” so that all Schoeps omni capsules will have an “MK 2” designation of some kind.

    The MK 2 XS is the one with flat response in a “diffuse” sound field, i.e. at a distance (and in an environment) where the predominant sound energy is reflected rather than direct–farther from the sound sources than most of us would probably prefer to place our mikes most of the time. It isn’t sold in very large quantities, but it has a definite value and purpose.

    When you graph a microphone of this type on axis in an anechoic chamber (as microphone frequency response curves nearly always are done), its response curve will show a ~6 dB elevation at high frequencies. But at the prescribed distance in a normally reverberant environment, the high-frequency elevation isn’t heard as brightness or hardness, which it would be if the mike were placed more closely. The overall, integrated response (considering all angles of incidence equally) is flat–and in a diffuse sound field, that’s what matters; only a small amount of sound energy arrives directly in front of the capsule, and even that sound isn’t mostly direct sound.

    This type of omni was used more commonly back in the mono era for single-mike pickup of large orchestras, orchestras with chorus and/or soloists, etc., while in the stereo era it is less often used; many people, I think, shy away from using a spaced-omni pickup at that kind of distance. But this is precisely the type of omni that can compensate well for losses due to the high-frequency absorption characteristics of the various surfaces that the sound bounces off of. And especially when add-on spheres are used (such as the Schoeps KA 40), this type of microphone can make recordings with good focus even at surprisingly great distances from the sound sources.

    There was a project to tape all Mahler symphonies on DENON with Inbal with just 2 channels, and they could use 2 mics only in the 4th; in all the other symphonies they needed more mics to capture the entire orchestra, though always 2 channels, and still they didn’t get as much detail and an open sound as in the recordings in my collection, and the chorus in the 2nd sounds recessed. They should have used mics with a significant high frequency bump (they used Bruel and Kjaer mics, the precursors to DPA – some have a high frequency bump, I don’t know which model they used).

    • Anon says:

      “The MK 2 XS is the one with flat response in a “diffuse” sound field”

      Nope. Wrong. it is a microphone with a strong peak around the frequency the diameter of the membrane dictates. The “diffuse field” nomenclature is simply a misnomer in marketing, to make some problem inherent to the construction into something that sounds desirable.
      It’s just a very bright sounding mic on axis.

  • John Porter says:

    Chesky Records, one of the great audiophile labels:

    “I really believe that after two microphones, things go downhill for an acoustic recording. If you’re doing a rap or metal thing, anything goes.”

    • Anon says:

      It’s a load of crap. Many things to say. First of all, it’s not about capturing an acoustic, but capturing the music. Performed by musicians in an acoustical space, hearing themselves in it first of all, sure. But it’s not about the ability to capture acoustics. Not in music recording. It is about capturing the music, with spatial attributes that support it in the best possible way. Question of the right priorities.
      Minimalistic equipment setups are of course very desirable form the economical point of view… the rest is marketing…
      oh, and “silver cable”, I rest my case 😉 Voodoo ooga booga silver cable!

      • simonelvladtepes says:

        “First of all, it’s not about capturing an acoustic, but capturing the music. Performed by musicians in an acoustical space, hearing themselves in it first of all, sure. But it’s not about the ability to capture acoustics. Not in music recording. It is about capturing the music, with spatial attributes that support it in the best possible way. Question of the right priorities.” Read: if you don’t fulfill musicians’ requests, every single one of them, including chorus, to be heard clearly and upfront, you will not be hired again. They don’t care about “sound”, they don’t even hear it, all they want to hear is themselves.

  • GM says:

    I’ve made classical stereo recordings with a stereo mic (two capsules in one case, which visually appears to be one mic — the “single” mic used for this Shostakovich recording has 19 capsules), two separate mics adjacent to each other and angled outwards, two wide-spaced mics, two or three main mics with accent mics to improve balances, and the latter using digital delays on the accent mics to prevent distorting the acoustic perspective. I used what worked for the specific environments.

    As Duke Ellington said: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

  • Willi Philips says:

    Interesting melange of accurate, inaccurate, sophisticated and novitiate responses here. There are as many ways to record music as there are people. None is correct. Some are better than others. But in my experience, the hardest instrument to capture accurately is the piano, regardless of the number of microphones. This has been the bane of the existence of many a professional Tonmeister since about 1898.

    • SweetHomeChicago says:

      “There are as many ways to record music as there are people.”
      Maybe even more! It’s true – and engineers are opinionated about the matter. If you find one who’s indifferent about their techniques, don’t hire him/her!

      As far as this recording… Well, until visiting the hall and hearing this orchestra in person there is no way to determine if this is a good recording or not. The acoustic I’m hearing certainly does not flatter the music. However, in theory the mic could have captured the hall just as it sounds. So can you record with one microphone? Yes. Should you? It depends!

      To the above point about it being less expensive to make a recording with one microphone: This is not necessarily true. If done right (as I understand Chesky does), it requires the musicians to be moved closer to or farther from the mic. There can be heavy time costs associated with this. Once set, yes, in theory recording 2 tracks instead of 48 for example will take less disk space. On the other hand, hard drive space is cheap. There’s a good chance that disk space will be much less expensive than the cost of taking hours to re-position an orchestra around a space.

      I think some here may have forgotten that much (most?) classical music is recorded with a live audience. That poses many challenges leading to compromises with regards to approach. These challenges don’t exist in strict recording sessions in which you can, for instance, alter the hall’s acoustics to the needs of the ensemble size, repertoire, etc.

      Now can we get back to arguing over Schoeps frequency response characteristics?

  • Jonathan Kleefield says:

    Most interesting array of comments. As Mr. Seigel states, the use of a few, rather than the proverbial “forest” of microphones seen in most concert halls these days hanging above an orchestra, can achieve a wonderful stereophonic effect. Bob Fine of Mercury Records, as indicated above, pioneered this approach, and I agree with many of the observations that some of these recordings, most over 60 years in age, still sound wonderfully realistic. Jack Renner, of Telarc, continued and refined this approach for the digital age, and his numerous Grammys attest to his skill as both an engineer and musician. It seems more logical to use such a mnimalist approach, rather than risk extensive phasing and proximity issues with multiple microphones, but in the hands of Shawn Murphy, the results are usually spectacular!

    In terms of the Ambisonic microphone, a similar device, made by Calrec, is the default pickup for Priory Records, which produces superb pipe organ recordings. I have many of these discs, and they are generally very impressive.

    Honestly, it’s as much the musical judgment of the engineer as the mike(s) itself, and criticlally, the performance space, all of which play critical roles in the final result.