How I Learned to Obsess over Microphones
Do you daydream about microphones?
I only ask because I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with microphones lately. I just want to know that I’m not alone. Tell me if this situation sounds familiar:
The other day, I was describing ribbon microphones to my girlfriend. She’s definitely a music lover, but I have a deeper love of production, something she doesn’t share.
After I went on at length about the merits of ribbon microphones, I realized her eyes had glazed over a little. I have to give her some credit for trying to share the enthusiasm.
Most people don’t consciously appreciate the sounds of microphones but they know they like a song. I’d place my girlfriend in that category, along with most of the world.
Most people who like music never give production a second thought. I know, it’s strange.
Anyway, a microphone is the first piece of gear in the process of translating sounds to “tape” or disk. It’s a critical link in your signal chain, which ends in a song that people enjoy.
Remember, in the end, your job in the studio is to translate the vision of the artist so that the audience grasps it clearly. The microphone is the first piece in the complex apparatus that translates a song from artist to listener.
The choices for mics are endless. And endlessly expensive. And what’s the difference between all these mics, anyway?
We’ll get there, but there are some things you need to know first. Loosely guarded secrets of home recording, if you will.
Loosely Guarded Secret #1: Amazing recordings are made with average, inexpensive mics. Every day.
You don’t need a fancy mic to make good recordings. Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen was made with two Shure SM57s, through a tape delay to a cassette that lived in his breast pocket for weeks before becoming a record.
It’s a beautiful record, if a little on the low-fi side. It’s one of his best albums. You can make a great record with pretty minimal equipment. And it can sound even better than Nebraska.
Loosely Guarded Secret #2: It’s not the gear. It’s the engineer.
No matter what gear you’re using, it’s the skills of the engineer that really matter. There is nothing about world class recording gear that guarantees a good record.
In fact, it makes your engineering expertise more obvious (READ: If you mess up, everyone can hear it). So, no matter what microphone you choose, you need to learn how to use it properly.
My Kingdom for a Microphone
There are thousands of microphone options on the market. You can spend $50 or $5,000 on a microphone. But which one is right for you?
Let’s look at a few vocal recording situations.
One Mic to Rule Them All
When you start out, before mic obsession begins, you probably just want one workhorse mic. The classic suggestion for a beginner is to make their first microphone a large diaphragm condenser. Solid advice. What’s the benefit?
Condenser microphones use a small electric charge between the diaphragm and another piece of metal behind it. When the diaphragm moves, the electric charge fluctuates and creates the all-important signal.
The greater surface area of the large diaphragm makes it easier for sound waves to move the diaphragm, leading to many of the characteristics of LDCs: greater sensitivity, louder signal, and more detail.
These are perfect attributes for a beginner microphone, and also makes them suited to a variety of recording tasks.
It also makes them great choices for an overall vocal mic. LDCs can be very spendy, but there are plenty of great options below the $400 range.
There are some fantastic options below $100, but you’ll never regret spending a little extra money on a microphone. In fact, it’s one of the areas where you see a huge return on investment.
A decent mic should never limit you, and a quality mic should make your technique shine in the recording.
You’ll get some great results on male vocals with a large or small diaphragm condenser, especially since the condenser microphone lends some detail to higher harmonics.
The greatest energy of male vocals lies in lower frequencies, and getting a little more detail above 10 kHz adds some “air” to the male voice.
There are many musical situations where a condenser isn’t the right choice. In music like rock, metal, or hip hop, you might get better results from a dynamic microphone.
Dynamic mics are far less detailed than condenser mics, particularly in the high end, which is often undesirable, but might be a benefit when recording a rapper, for instance.
The rhythmic nature of hip hop vocals might benefit from less detail. But there are other things to consider.
A frequency spike in the mid-range is pretty common in dynamic mics, contributing to a nasal quality. Dynamic mics are also subject to proximity effect, where bass response increases, evident as boominess, when sound sources are extremely close, generally less than 6 inches.
Dynamic mics also have a much weaker signal, requiring a preamp to boost the signal and avoid noise in your recording. All in all, dynamic mics are good for recording things like electric guitars, but they should be the exception, rather than the norm when recording vocals.
If you are going to use a dynamic for vocals, invest in a more expensive model that is made for vocals.
We have an entire post devoted to recording female vocals, but let’s take a quick look at the topic here.
Female vocals have incredible harmonic complexity, compared to their male counterparts. Unfortunately, that harmonic information lies in a range that LDCs are prone to uncovering. There is great potential to get an unflattering female vocal recording with the clarity of an LDC.
Female vocals are excellent candidates for using a ribbon microphone. Ribbon mics are very similar to dynamic mics, but have even less high frequency response.
Ribbon mics are said to have a smooth, dark, or warm sound. They also conveniently reject a lot of the high frequency information in the female voice that you’ll fight when it comes time to EQ the vocals.
Some producers won’t record female vocals with anything but a ribbon mic, and I’d agree that for the smoothest recording, sans upper harmonic artifacts, a ribbon mic is the way to go.
Loosely Guarded Secret #3: You get the best results by matching the mic to the voice.
This secret is where professional studios really have an edge. With a huge complement of microphones to choose from, they can find the best mic for the voice. And that is really the ideal situation. Particularly female voices benefit from a good mic pairing, like wine and cheese.
But remember when we said it’s not the gear, it’s the engineer? We still believe that, and you should too. You don’t need 20 or 30 mics, although it would be fun.
In Part 3 we’re going to look at a standard technique for recording any vocals, that you will use throughout your recording career. It’s time to see how the engineer and their environment make the recording.