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An RP visitor finds an inconsistency in David Mellor's advice. Or does he...?

You could buy an SE Electronics Z3300A for $500, or a Shure SM57 for $100. If they are both capable of pro results, why not save $400?


An Audio Masterclass visitor finds an inconsistency in David Mellor's advice. Or does he...?

Dear David,

I look forward to the newsletters from Audio Masterclass and read them with interest.

I’m curious, though, about a comment in this week’s newsletter. In the article, “Is It Possible to Make a Quality Song Using Nothing but Pro Tools and a Laptop,” you recommend the SE Electronics Z3300A condenser microphone, providing a link to zZounds.com, where the microphone retails for $499.95.

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Reading that, I recalled something from the “50 Great Record Producer Tips” document that is available from your website. Tip #3 states, “Buy yourself one great microphone. You can buy a great microphone from around $100 and that’s all the mics you need to succeed.”

In the “Pro Tools and a Laptop” article, you go on to state, “The differences between microphones are huge.” This is leading me to believe that it makes a big difference whether one spends $100 or $500 on a studio microphone.

It would certainly make a big difference to me. On the one hand, like everyone else, I want to get the best sound possible. On the other, I don't have much money, I’m just a hobbyist, there’s really nothing “at stake” in my recordings except for my own enjoyment, and I’d like to avoid spending 400 extra dollars on something I don’t really need.

So my questions are:

When you wrote that a great microphone could be purchased for around $100, which microphone(s) did you have in mind?

If I need to spend $500 on a microphone to make “a quality song,” what is so “great” about the cheaper microphones?

Your article mentions “huge” differences between microphones. What are these differences?

I’ve been shopping for a condenser, and it seems to me that, price-wise, there is a “class system” in the condenser world. Some microphones cost $100 or less, there seems to be another group at around $200, and another in the $300-500 price range, and another group from about $1000 and up. What are the distinctive characteristics of each group?

Granted, I’m just an amateur, and probably pretty clueless even for an amateur, but I’m having a hard time finding telltale differences between microphones, even after reading the specs. Most condensers from $100 and up seem to have similar frequency responses, similar signal-to-noise ratios, similar SPL handling capabilities, similar features such as attenuation switches and low-frequency roll-offs, etc. What makes one microphone cost $100 and another cost $500? Is it something objective such as materials or durability? Or is it something subjective, like brand name and reputation?

The Z3300A, you write, has an “expensive” sound. Given the technical similarities between microphones that are evident from the specifications, I’m not surprised that a $500 microphone could sound like a $1000 microphone. But I’m also wondering if, and why, a $100 microphone couldn’t sound like the $500 microphone which in turn sounds like the $1000 microphone, if the specs are comparable. As you’ve written elsewhere (sorry, can’t find the exact quote), almost every piece of equipment does exactly what it says on the box. Are microphones an exception?

Believe me, this is an honest question. Please don’t take this as a flame. I’m not trying to point out inconsistencies in your newsletters. There may not even be any. I’m just curious and confused.

I’ve appreciated your candor in the past with regard to certain manufacturers of both software and hardware. When I read that you recommend Pro Tools software and Yamaha digital recorders, I feel like I’m learning something—even if it’s only that I’ve made the wrong choice by going with Cubase! So I hope you’re not put off by my asking for a specific recommendation.

But I’m wondering why someone would spend $500 on a microphone if it is true that a “great” microphone can be had for $400 less. What is this “great” $100 microphone, and how does the $500 microphone improve on it? What would I get in exchange for the extra money?

Thanks very much for your consideration. If for some reason you deem my questions worthy of answering in a future newsletter, would you be so kind as to withhold my name? I don't want anyone at my day job finding out how seriously I take this.

Thank you once again.

David Mellor replies...

Yes, I can see how this does all look rather inconsistent. Still, consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, so they say...

Bottom line? A skilled engineer could make a great recording with any mic of professional quality, starting with the Shure SM57 or SM58 up. He or she would adapt the recording, including all of the instrumental tracks, to the sound quality of the mic. Many successful recordings have been made with mics no better than these.

However, the currently popular 'pop' music style demands a large diaphragm mic for vocals. It would be better if it has a tube, but having a big fat mic with a big wide diaphragm goes more than halfway. (It also looks 'pro' and makes the singer feel good.)

Saving yourself $400 would not prevent you making a pro quality recording. But you wouldn't be able to get the large diaphragm sound.

Skilled engineers regard the differences between mics as 'huge'. The more you gain experience the greater these differences will seem, and the more you will want to use particular mics for particular purposes.

But when you're learning, it's easy to think that because you only have a $100 mic (a Shure SM57 or SM58), then you can't possibly achieve results comparable to a $500 mic. That's not so. You won't get the same sound, but if you are not getting professional sounding results, it is not the fault of the $100 mic, but down to the fact that your skills haven't developed yet.

Just as buying a textbook doesn't give you knowledge until you read and digest it, buying a piece of equipment doesn't make you a great engineer. You need to develop great engineering skills.

By David Mellor Sunday September 18, 2005