Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Upgrading Microphones

I've really been debating with myself about this post. (There's an obvious joke I could use here about what debating with yourself makes you. I will avoid that joke.) You see, I promised that I would give some advice to voice artists starting a home studio regarding the next microphone: the step up from the basic. The trouble is, this is the jumping off point where an individual finds his or her voice, quite literally. What I like may not work for you.

I could be Mr. Mike Envy, and tell you things like, "Nobody will take you seriously unless you drop a grand on a condenser." Really? I've never had a potential client ask me what mic I'm using. On the other hand, I have had potentials ask me for a demo, and that's what your next priority should be. If you can't get a good demo with the equipment you have, then an upgrade is definitely in order, or you should fine tune what you have. Otherwise, I wouldn't get anxious about spending money on a new mic.

The only reason you should upgrade mics is to sound better. That's it. If you buy a Neumann because you saw some other guy use one, you may be buying the wrong mic for the wrong reason. This mic is for you and nobody else.

For the most part, when you look at mics priced above $200, you're entering a level where the mics give you rich, full sound, bringing out your lower frequencies naturally without artificial enhancements. These mics are designed to be mounted on a boom and connected to a preamp that can bring out the best in that mic. These mics come with a switchable hi-pass filter/low end roll off. Now you decide if you want to record everything down to 20Hz. In this price range, you get to decide if you want a cardioid pickup pattern, or a figure-of-8, or a mic that can switch to any pattern. Had you started out with one of these mics, you wouldn't have known what to do with all these choices. Now, you know what you want.

This price range includes The Three Amigos of broadcasting: the ElectroVoice RE20, the Sennheiser MD421, and the Shure SM7. All three of these stalwarts of radio are cardioid, and all are dynamic mics, simply because most broadcast mixing boards do not have phantom power. (!) Plus, the myth persists that condensers are too fragile for the likes of Hopalong Cassidy on Froggy 93. Even so, it's hard to beat the price for performance on these models. The RE20 is the ballsy one of the bunch. (Don't believe the ads. This mic has proximity effect... starting about a foot away.) The MD421 now ships as the "Mark II" version with a 5, count them, 5 position bass roll off switch. And the Shure SM7 now ships as the SM7B with 2 windscreens, the best choice if you work so close you can taste the mic. (The jocks at WEBN used to swap mic condoms for each shift. The joke that used to go around was that if the windscreens ever got mixed up, you could tell which one was yours by sniffing for your brand of cigarette.)

Heil dynamics have been getting some good press lately, and Neumann has just lowered itself to making its first and only dynamic for broadcasters. Just in time for American radio to go out of business. It's hand-crafted, it's ugly, it's $900. I don't know, but to me buying a dynamic from Neumann is like ordering a hamburger at a five-star restaurant.

Just gotta have a use for that phantom power button on your preamp? Go condenser. The myths about condensers are just that. There's more affordable studio condensers these days than you can shake a mic cord at, and they'll stand up to abuse about as well as a dynamic. Condensers are sensitive to extreme weather, but who doesn't have air conditioning these days? Even if you pay full retail for an Audio Technica AT2035 it's still a reasonable price. I've read raves about the Studio Projects C1, Rode has some serious contenders, and the Shure KSM27 gets high marks. And if you have the money and you insist on world-class quality, okay, fine, drop about $1,300 for the Neumann TLM103. Just don't be surprised if your spouse puts your car on EBay in retaliation. You've been warned.

Bottom line: get the mic that makes you sound good. It's your money, and it's your business. Don't get suckered into a $4,000 vintage ribbon unless you plan on recording the Kronos Quartet. Don't know what the Kronos Quartet is? Good. Then you don't need to flush $4,000 on a microphone. Problem solved.

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