A microphone guide for Singers and Songwriters
Turn on the radio to any station and you will hear people singing. Regardless of the musical genre, I can assure you that at some point a singer sang into a microphone and it was recorded by an engineer. This journey has been taken by countless individuals since the dawn or audio recording. No matter how advanced the recording medium or technology has become, the basic formula remains the same. Singer sings into a microphone, which feeds a pre-amp to amplify the signal, possibly processing such as compression or eq, then the signal is recorded to tape (Pro Tools for us).
As you can tell by now, it all starts with the microphone. Singers, engineers, and producers have for years proclaimed their love for a specific model of mic. They will proclaim that (insert famous name singer) used it on their best sound work and everything else is not as good. I believe it’s great to have a favorite mic that you use as your “go-to”. However, before you can really decide which mic to buy, and how much money you are willing to spend, let’s take a look at what makes microphones different.
Microphones: Cheap vs. Expensive
What exactly makes a microphone “good” or “bad”? Most people will tend to look at the price and make a snap judgement such as: expensive = good, cheap = bad. It really is a lot more complicated than this as there will always be an element of taste involved in the decision making process. Everyone of us has different ears, each hearing things slightly different. None of us are wrong or right, we are simply going by what appeals to us individually. A singer we recently completed a project for stated “That mic sounds like it’s picking up all the colors of the rainbow, this other mic seems like it’s blending all the colors of sound together”.
There are many factors that determine how a microphone will sound which always begin in the development and manufacturing stages before it ever lands in your studio. Part of the expense of is how much research and development money is invested into making the microphone a reality. This initial investment not only determines what price-point the mic will sell at, it also determines the quality of components used, quality of manufacturing, and overall quality control. That word “quality” keeps coming up.
One of the key differences you will encounter between microphones is how well they are assembled inside and out. However, as part of every manufacturing process there is a final Quality Control inspection that takes place before it gets to your hands. The degree and amount of quality control can lead to differences in price: it costs money to perform more tests. While it’s hard to state the different quality control processes used by different manufacturers, we can reference the Neumann website for their take on the matter:
Quality Must Be Measurable
To meet the operating conditions encountered in the studio the microphones are subject to testing throughout their manufacture. The capsules alone undergo more than 50 different tests before final assembly.
Since the very beginning in 1928 Neumann condenser microphones have always operated on an audio frequency circuit, with the capsule consequently acting as a very high impedance generator, rendering it highly sensitive to moisture. And as moisture represents one of the most common operational hazards of a warm recording studio, Neumann has paid great attention to all aspects of insulation.
Quality control devoted to this aspect includes a moisture chamber, in which capsules are placed until both the diaphragm and microphone body are dripping wet. Even under these conditions insulation resistances to the order of 20 x 106 Mohms are measured in the capsules.
Another test is to cool the microphones to slightly above freezing point and then place them in a chamber with 100% humidity, at a relatively high temperature. The spontaneous moisture formation that follows infiltrates not only the capsule but the entire electronic circuitry. It would have to be an extremely uncomfortable studio to recreate such conditions to say the least, but just in case, we would like to point out that every type of Neumann condenser microphone will pass this test.
While meticulous attention to detail and testing can yield an increase in price, it can also mean very long term use from the microphone. Take for for example how many “vintage” are still used in modern recording. Mic’s such as the Neumann U 47 released in 1949, Neumann M 49 released in 1951, Telefunken ElaM-251 released in 1959, AKG C 12 released in 1953, along with countless others, are not only used daily, but they can be sold for lots of money. Their value does not diminish over time, it generally increases. A quick search on eBay confirms this as we were able to find a Neumann M 49 on sale for no less than $10,000! A microphone in this category is not only functional but also an investment.
In today’s recording environment there are still several companies producing “high-end” microphones such as Neumann, Sony, Manley, Brauner, Bock Audio, Blue, and several others. Due to the large initial investment all of these type of mic’s require, they are not always the best purchase when you are first building your vocal tool kit, they are something to aspire for down the road. Although these mic’s represent the top-of-the-line, there are several other alternatives that will work equally as well for you.
Due to great advancements in manufacturing and engineering on a global scale, it is a better time than any to be in the market for a microphone. Several companies have emerged over the last decade that have brought amazing sounding microphones well within the range of most of us. Companies such as Mojave Audio, Peluso Microphone Labs, Lauten Audio, Miktek, Pearlman Microphones, all have incredible sounding microphones that are much more cost conscious. Both John Frye and myself have worked recently with clients that have brought in one of these microphones and the results have been fantastic! Many of these mic’s are modeled after classic microphones we discussed earlier, so they tend to have similar characteristics and tonality.
Don’t forget that several of the larger companies such as AKG, Neumann, Blue, etc… also make some incredible microphones that are well under $1000.
We are still presented with an interesting situation, how to determine which microphone best suits your taste. Not everyone has access to a Pro-Audio dealership that can loan these units out for testing. Our suggestion is to rent the different mic’s you’d like to try. Think of it as a try-before-you-buy program. There are several pro-audio rental shops across the U.S. that will ship to your door and for very little money. We have been using pro-audio rental facilities throughout both of our careers, companies such as Blackbird Audio Rentals, Dreamhire, Advanced Audio Rentals, and several others have an amazing assortment of new and vintage equipment for rent. For example, Blackbird is currently doing a special “$99/day Vocal Chain - choose almost any mic, pre-amp, with your choice of eq or compressor”. That is an amazing deal for equipment that would otherwise cost several thousand dollars!
Preamp: Giving the microphone life
Once you’ve settled on a microphone, the next step in the vocal chain is a pre-amp. Microphones (all types) require amplification in order to make the signal audible. A microphone on it's own cannot be heard, the signal it puts out is too low. The amplifier increases the level of the microphone so you can record a loud level to tape (hence the name pre-amp: it comes in line before the recorder)
Before we address taste, we need to address the various ways you’ll come across mic-pre’s. Pre-amps come in various states such as Stand Alone (rack-mount or desktop unit), Console (part of the console), Audio Interface Pre (built into the Audio Interface you are using). For the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on Stand Alone pre-amp units.
There are just as many flavor of pre-amp’s as there are microphones, and equally as many opinions on which one to use. The truth is that most units nowadays are very good and do not cost too much. Whenever we speak to clients we ask a few simple questions “What do you want to use the pre-amp for other than vocal recording?” “Will you want to record electric guitar, keyboards, turntable, or Line Level device?” If so, you might want to consider a pre-amp that has an Instrument / DI input as well as microphone.
There are so many different configurations it’s hard to keep track. There are plain Mic pre-amp’s, one’s with eq, compression, DI, or any combination of these components. Generally speaking, these type of pre-amp’s are known as “Channel Strip’s” since they mimic the channels on a large-format console. While it’s nice to have a single unit that combines a lot of different things, you can often get more use out of individual units that can be appropriated for different things other than just vocal recording. Also, a good Channel Strip can sometimes cost a lot more than piecing units together. Let’s take a look at some useful units you can look at for your studio arsenal.
There are so many awesome pre-amp’s available nowadays for very reasonable prices. Units such as Summit Audio 2BA-221, which is a hybrid Tube / Solid State unit with Instrument D/I. It not only gives you the ability to choose between the Tube or Solid stages, you can also blend a combined signal of the two. The tonal possibilities are endless! All for under $700!
Another great option to consider are table-top units such as the Daking Mic Pre One or Focusrite ISA One, they both sound fantastic as well as being very feature rich with Instrument D/I and eq filters.
Another really great development in the last few years has been the re-emergence of 500-Series modules. The 500-Series was invented and made popular by API Audio in the late 70’s. In recent years we’ve seen a revival of this format with countless companies developing modules for the 500-Series chassis.
The 500-Series has become appealing to many people due to how easy it is to create your own signal chain in a very small footprint. At the heart of it is the chassis (power supply) which can come in any number of slots from 2 - 10. Once you have a chassis you can pick & choose from a wide selection of units to place into the chassis.
This just scratches the surface of really exciting and crucial subject vital to your music creation. It’s a huge topic. We have covered the basics, but there is a lot more to discover. The human voice is an amazingly dynamic and nuanced instrument, there is no such thing as “one size fits all”.
Regardless of your budget, there are many alternatives to accomplish your goal of creating music either in a professional recording environment or in your spare bedroom. The tools are available. It’s up to you to make the choice to create something that is exceptional, something that is extraordinary. Something that the whole world beats a path to your door to experience.