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Q: “What makes some microphones good for the studio and others good for live work?”

Is it true that studio microphones are no good for live sound, and vice versa? Maybe the manufacturers want us to buy two sets of mics...

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Question from a Audio Masterclass visitor...

“What makes some microphones good for studio, and others good for live work?”

Well of course the first issue would be durability. It applies primarily to mics that are handled by live performers. Mics on stands shouldn't be subject to any more stress than they would be in the studio. But if a mic stops working in the studio, the engineer can easily replace it with another. In the middle of a concert the problem is rather more significant.

Particularly for vocal mics, there is a huge difference in what is typically used in the studio and what is typically used live.

In the studio, an engineer might choose a large-diaphragm capacitor (condenser) microphone, preferably a vacuum tube model. A vintage Neumann U47 would be perfect. And since it is a vintage model, it is fragile and valuable.

So there are already several reasons why you wouldn't want to use a mic like this in a live show.

Firstly, although modern microphones are generally pretty robust, you wouldn't expect an old microphone to stand up to rough and tumble. And you wouldn't want a valuable vintage microphone to 'disappear', as mics occasionally do on the road.

Secondly, although the sound quality of a large-diaphragm tube mic is excellent for vocals, you would generally use it at a distance of at least a few centimeters, perhaps with a pop shield.

You can't use a pop shield in live sound – the audience wants to see the singer's face! And keeping the mic at a suitable distance throws up other problems. For one, it's difficult to keep the distance consistent. For another, it is important in live sound for the singer to be as close to the mic as possible to prevent feedback.

So a vocal mic for live work is designed to be used very close up, without a pop shield. This inevitably compromises the sound quality compared to the studio mic, but overall this compromise is necessary.

In summary, a vocal mic for the studio should have a great sound. Nothing else matters. A vocal mic for live sound should be robust and capable of being used very close to the mouth without a pop shield.

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By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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