First published in Victory Review, February 2003.
Recording technology gets more and more affordable every day, and more and more musicians are recording demos and entire albums in their own homes. I've discussed recording hardware and software in an earlier column (February 2001); this time I'll discuss how to evaluate microphones from an aesthetic perspective.
When looking for microphones, most budding home recordists drool over magazine articles about expensive microphones and try to interpret the arcane technical specifications themselves. They are in search of the best microphone they can afford. But how do you define "best microphone?" Price? Brand? Specs? The fact is, each model of microphone, regardless of price, has its own sonic character. And two mics with the same general design, price, and specifications can sound very different from one another. What you really need is the best microphone for the job. And that all depends on the musical context.
So let's look at your musical context. First of all, what sounds are you recording, and how would you characterize them? For example, if you're a singer, how would you describe your voice? Is it boomy? Reedy? Breathy? Raspy? Thick? Thin? Don't attach any value judgments to it, just objectively describe its sound. And what musical setting will your voice exist in? Will it be just voice and acoustic guitar? Piano? Acoustic trio? Rock band? Mariachi ensemble? Each setting will interact with your voice in a different way.
For example, if you're a male singer with a somewhat bottom-heavy voice and you're in a rock band, there will be a lot of other sounds competing with your voice in the lower frequencies. Therefore, you may want a microphone that provides some presence in the higher frequencies so that the breathy components and consonants are more audible, helping your voice to "rise above" the other instruments in the mix.
However, if you're a female singer, you may find that a brighter microphone makes your voice sound harsh and brittle, because you already have more high-end presence in your voice to begin with. In that case, a warmer microphone might be a better choice.
My voice is a challenge to record because it is both boomy and breathy at the same time. I need a microphone that delivers enough sound across the entire frequency spectrum, especially higher up, so that when I go to mix, I have enough to work with to get the voice to "sit" well in the music.
After struggling with the wrong mics for years, I finally started asking around, talking to salespeople, recording engineers, and other musicians about what microphone(s) might best serve my voice and my style of music. One model kept coming up again and again, the AKG 414. Before springing for it, however, I wanted to try it out. A recording engineer friend of mine was kind enough to lend me one for a few days, and I used it to track some lead vocals that my old mics had not been doing well on. The 414 made a huge difference, and I decided then and there to get one of my own.
Of course, the 414 may be a terrible microphone for you. The only way to know what mic will work for you is to actually record with it. So how do you find it? Ask. Ask other singers, ask engineers, ask musicians, ask salespeople. Some people make a real study of mics and have a lot of information to share with you. Take good notes.
Over time, you will probably arrive at a short list of promising mics. Borrow (or, if necessary, rent) these mics and test them out at home. To really see how each mic performs, record arrangements that are similar to what you would do on a real recording project (i.e. if you perform with a band, record a band arrangement; if you perform solo, record solo).
Eventually, one microphone will emerge as superior to the rest for your purposes: it will make you sound the way you want to sound. This is not to say that you won't have to do any tweaking at all; even with the best microphones, some equalization and adjustment is often necessary to get the right sound. But it shouldn't require too much messing about. It shouldn't take hours of frustration and scads of EQ. You shouldn't feel as though you're fighting with the mic.
Once you've found your mic of choice, get one. Even if it's more than you wanted to spend, you'll be glad you did. And don't be afraid to get a used one. The list price on my chosen model was more than I'd budgeted for, but I found a used one in pristine condition at a very reasonable price — not much more than some of the so-called "cheaper" mics. You can find used mics both in stores and online.
In general, it's true that you get what you pay for: a $4,000 mic will sound better than a $150 mic (it had better!). But there may be a model in the middle price range, say $400-800, that's just what you need. What you're looking for is the most affordable mic that makes you sound the way you want to sound, and allows you to create the recordings you want to create. Later on, as your listening and recording skills develop, you may find that you need that $4,000 mic after all. But only if it's truly the microphone that makes you sound your best.
This all may seem like a lot of trouble to go to, but trust me, it's worth it. You'll save yourself countless wasted hours trying to wring a musical mix from poorly recorded tracks that just don't have the sound you're looking for. Instead, you'll spend that valuable time on more creative things. And as your work flow becomes faster and more intuitive, you'll gain confidence and daring, and create recordings that you really feel proud of. So... happy hunting!
© Copyright 2003 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.
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