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.
is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of