Hands On - Quality Microphones (part 1)
Have you got some money in your pocket? OK, go down to your local record store and buy one of the current top ten chart singles on CD. Better still, buy them all and think of it as an investment (And keep this article to show to your income tax inspector!). Before you listen to your new singles collection you need to be in the right frame of mind. Firstly remember that, whatever you think of the musical styles involved, these are currently some of the most successful recordings around. More people chose to buy these particular recordings last week than any others that are available. It follows therefore, that there must be something about these recordings that is right - even Shaggys Oh Carolina which is still Number 1 as I write! (Yes I have bought it). Now that your frame of mind is tuned up, listen to the quality of the recording of each CD and make comparisons with your own recordings. Does your work match up?
If you can honestly say that the standard of your engineering matches that on the ten most popular recordings then either you are one of Sound on Sounds top professional readers or you are one of the great undiscovered (as yet) geniuses of our time. A more likely scenario is that you can hear a difference in the recordings, but you cant quite figure out what actually makes that difference. I can confirm that anyone who reaches the stage of recognising deficiencies in their own recordings is well on the way towards being a good engineer. It would be very easy to put down any lack of professionalism to your equipment and say that the mixer isnt good enough or the multitrack isnt up to scratch. In fact, the sound quality achievable on modern semi-professional equipment is very close to that obtainable in a pro studio. Indeed, if you had a Soundcraft Spirit mixer or equivalent teamed up with an Alesis ADAT or Tascam DA-88 mixing onto DAT, then you would be hard pressed to measure any technical difference between your set up and the best studios with the biggest mixing consoles. The differences must be elsewhere.
As you already know that this Hands On is about microphones, then its pretty obvious that I am going to suggest that you acquire a better quality microphone for your work. But how good - and how expensive - does the mic have to be? What makes the difference between a good mic and an average one? And precisely what benefit does a better quality mic have on the recording? Lets find out
How good is good?
Modern mics are very good. Theres no doubt about that, only about what the word good means precisely. If I had to start again from scratch and select a microphone kit I would be looking in the catalogues of the major mic manufacturers - AKG, Beyer, Bruel and Kjaer, Electrovoice, Neumann, Sanken, Schoeps, Sennheiser and Shure, among others. I would select a number of Shure SM57s or SM58s at a relatively low price, safe in the knowledge that these have been standard rock and roll mics for years, and Ill use these when I want the dynamic mic sound. Ill also select a couple of medium price capacitor mics such as the AKG C460 series or Neumann KM100 series because they are always useful to have around. But, most importantly, I would also buy at least one very high quality microphone for vocals, which might be a Neumann U87, AKG C414 or Beyer MC740. The first two of these have been around for donkeys years in their various incarnations and are to be found in just about every serious sound recording and broadcasting establishment in the world. The Beyer MC740 is a bit more recent, but its a high quality mic in the same style. These arent the only high quality mics and other contenders for the studio dollar include the AKG The Tube, Neumann TLM170 and U47. And how much can you pay for one of these mics? Unfortunately we are talking about nearly a grand, or more, including VAT, but believe me it will be money well spent. Besides the three mics I mentioned earlier, I have also chosen to illustrate this article with the Sanken CU41. I had to mention this because its one of the most expensive microphones available and also fairly well-known in the industry. A shiny new Sanken CU41 will cost £2360 including VAT excluding haggling! I suppose I also should mention that in my view the main use of one of these is as half of a stereo pair. Try not to think about the cost!