A question I get a lot while teaching is: “Which microphone do I use for (insert instrument)?” This is of course a very common question for people beginning with recording and new to microphones. A question that may seem like it warrants a simple answer. But the answer is not as simple as it seems, as it often is in music.
There are of course many different ways to look at the differences in microphones, including but not limited to:
- How they work: ribbon, condenser, dynamic etc.
- Pickup pattern: cardioid, omni-directional, figure of eight etc.
- Hardness factor. Explained by Michael Stavrou in his book “Mixing with your mind“. Looks at high frequency response/excitation and transient response. Also a useful way for looking at other gear.
- The electronics inside: is it solid state or does it use tubes/valves? Does it use a transformer or not?
- For condenser mics: is it a large membrane or a small membrane mic? Large membranes are tuned to a lower frequency than their smaller counterparts, so the sound is differentd.
- Price. Every microphone manufacturer wants you to believe that expensive = better, which definitely isn’t true for a lot of cases.
- Age. An old microphone seems to bring with it an image of a ‘warm’ and less defined or ’round’ sound. However, sessions have been brought down by poorly maintained microphones.
Versatility versus character
Beginners are often looking for a ‘versatile’ microphone that works on a lot of sources (looking at you, Rode NT-1A). If they have some cash to spend, they’ll probably spend it all on one microphone, a very ‘middle of the road’ mic. The downside to this approach is that everything is recorded with that mic, so everything you record also sounds ‘middle of the road’.
Take the Neumann U87 for example. A standard, and a workhorse for a lot of studios. It costs $3,000 new, with second hand models from the 80s and 90s costing about the same. And that’s exactly what it sounds like, like an expensive microphone. A lot of high frequency detail and excitation.
On some singers with a more laid-back voice, it works great for bringing the vocal out in the mix and giving it a ‘polished’ sound. On others, it brings up too much sibilance that’s nearly impossible to get right in the mix.
“I’m constantly reminding students at schools I visit, as well as attendees of my workshops, that simply placing a mic near a source is not enough. Even if it’s a great mic, one recommended by a professional for this very same source and it’s running into a high-end mic preamp, it still might be the worst sound ever. (…)
Is this the correct mic to get the sound we need? Does it pick up too much other information?
Does the mic need to be baffled from another source or room sound in any way?
Am I hearing what I expect and want out of this mic?”
Splitting your bet
My advice: take your budget, split it up and buy a few microphones that sound very different from each other. Very decent microphones these days can be bought for relatively low prices (companies like Sontronics, Aston Microphones, and even Thomann’s own T-Bone mics come to mind). Knowing what kind of sound these microphones impact onto your sound is a great skill to have as an engineer.
This allows you to get creative with the sounds of these microphones, and use their characteristics to make your productions more exciting to listen to. Make something you like in a certain sound stand out by choosing a mic that highlights that area. Recording a room mic in a particularly nice room? Make sure you like the off-axis response, a characteristic that varies a lot between mics. Recording a bright piano? Try ribbons, that due to their nature have a reduced treble response.
To me the most boring records to listen to are the ‘middle of the road’ records. The records where there was no one at the wheel saying: “We’re going to go this way”. It kind of tastes like a bland soup, no real flavours that pop out, just salty water. Don’t make the salty water. Make something worth listening to!