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Can you tell which mic was used on a recording?

So you are listening to the latest hit by Katy Perry (we won't tell anyone!). But can you hear which mic she is using? Or anything else about the recording??

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There was a comment on my article Q: Which is the best compressor and equalizer that got me thinking. Here it is...

"Do you really think someone listening on their iPod or their home stereo is thinking 'that sounds like an Avalon to me'?"

So I asked myself whether I really think I can hear the difference between, say, an Avalon M5 preamp and a Behringer MIC100. Well I know the answer to that...

Having played with one of the most expensive preamps in existence, and almost the cheapest, on a live vocal at Abbey Road Studio 3 (I took the Behringer in myself), I am quite clear that although I very much enjoy using the Avalon and feel that it inspires me to greater feats of achievement, I am not absolutely confident that I could tell the difference on a blind A/B test, when both preamps are operated well within their limits. Not every time anyway.

When you are operating equipment though it is easy to hear the difference between one preamp and another, or one compressor and another. And that difference will make one piece of equipment, or plug-in, easier to work with and capable of greater achievement than another. But in the mix? Well it's so much harder to tell.

Microphones are a completely different kettle of fish though. Microphones are so much more different to each other than anything else we use, other than loudspeakers, that it is generally possible on a blind A/B test to tell any one model of microphone from any other. Indeed, as microphones age it is possible to hear differences in individual mics quite clearly.

But here's a deeper question...

Could you identify a particular mic, just from hearing a recording? Let's make it easier and ask if you could identify the mic being used if you had worked with the singer many times yourself, and the preamp is neutral and familiar to you?

I would say that identifying the type of mic should be possible for an experienced engineer. By this I mean whether the mic is a dynamic, small-diaphragm capacitor, large-diaphragm capacitor or vacuum tube. Perhaps the most easily identifiable would be the ribbon mic. I would still say that 100% accuracy would be a tough challenge.

I would say therefore that the most easily identifiable equipment - identifiable from a blind listening - is the type of microphone used on the vocal. Here are some other things you might ask yourself if you can identify, type or model, solely from listening...

  • Preamp
  • Compressor
  • Mixing console
  • DAW
  • Bus compressor
  • Summing mixer
  • Reverb hardware or plug-in

Ask yourself these questions and ask yourself hard. If you truly can identify these things by model just by listening to a finished mix, then you are a GENIUS! Don't be shy - tell us about yourself in the comments.

But there is one aspect of a recording that can be identified purely by listening...

I am told on good authority that BBC studio managers (as they call their engineers) soon learn to identify recording venues purely from their acoustics. They can listen to a recording and tell you exactly where it was made.

I can easily identify recordings made in London's Kingsway Hall...

From the sound of the subway trains passing underneath!

The rest, well I'm not so sure.

Your comments on the identification of equipment or software purely from listening will be very welcome.

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By David Mellor Wednesday March 2, 2011
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