Home Recording Guys Generally Don’t Need Mega Microphones
Beginning home recording guys are always looking for explanations as to why their recordings don’t sound like their favorite recordings.
For whatever reason, people usually blame their gear first. This article will discuss why it’s probably not your microphones fault for your recording problems.
What Is A Good Mic for a Home Recording Studio?
I hear the expression all the time and I find it totally confusing. The expression is “x is a good mic” or “x sounds good”. What does that mean? The answer should be very simple, but this recording thing is a little more complicated than that. We’ll talk about why describing a microphone as “good mic” does little good to anyone.
Yes, you heard me. I’m totally confused how a mic can be a good mic vs a bad mic. Just for fun, let’s discuss what a bad mic is.
Obviously, a bad mic is a mic that doesn’t function. I would say that a bad mic is probably sitting in the “fix me in 3 years” box with all the other bad mics.
I would say that you could classify a microphone that doesn’t always work but intermittently works as being a bad mic. Poor reliability makes a microphone a “bad” microphone.
Now here is where you need to put on your thinking caps. Is a harsh mic a bad mic? Before you just jump in and say “yes, a harsh mic is a bad mic” think about what you are saying.
I would probably go as far as to say that a recorded track that sounds harsh in the mix is probably a bad thing. (Notice, I used the word probably twice).
However, before you just say that a mic is bad because it is harsh, at least consider the notion that you are recording a very dull source that you are probably going to need to use parametric equalization to fix. If you are going to add the harsh frequencies with EQ wouldn’t it just be better to use a harsh mic?
When I need a mic to add a little bit of bite to a recording, I want a harsh sounding mic. I’m going to argue that if a harsh sounding mic gets me the exact sound I’m looking for, then the harsh mic is far and beyond being a “good mic”. In this application, it’s a “great mic”. (Honestly, if any mic ever gets you exactly what you are looking for, tell me about it. I’ll fly out to your studio and you can show me how to do it…I don’t know if it’s ever been done).
Let’s talk about the Royer R121 ribbon mic for a second. Almost everyone considers this a very good mic. Maybe even a great mic.
Guess what. It sounds like crap. That is why everyone likes it.
Yes, you heard me. The R121 sounds like crap. It’s dull. It has this way of ignoring the hifi quality of a signal you capturing with it. Vocals sound “wrong” when compared to the sound of a high-end condenser microphone in most cases. Acoustic guitar is the same.
So why does everyone seem to love this mic?
The answer is simple. When you need a dull sounding mic, the R121 is often the perfect choice. It’s a favorite on guitar amplifiers because it knocks the fizz off. I use it when doing vocal layers. It knocks the high end off in a pleasing way.
When a drummer brings in overly bright cymbals, the Royer R121 has a way of getting the cymbals right, whereas using the usual condenser would prove to be way too bright and just make the problem worse.
When a person says a mic is a good mic I must say that I’m confused. I’ll often say “good for what?”. Then they act like I’m questioning them or not trusting them. I’ve never seen a mic that was good for everything. I’m not sure that I ever will. I’d like for people to tell me that a given mic is good and then tell me what is its good for. I’d also like them to tell me what it is bad for.
For example, an SM 57 is great on darker sounding guitar cabinets because the upper mid push of the 57 helps the guitars cut through. The 57 is not so good on a really fizzy, biting guitar sound, once again because the upper mid bump causes the sound to be too thin.
One other way of looking at it. Is a mic a good mic to own? I have mics that I’d recommend because they are good mics to own. They have a flavor that seems to always get used for something. Since a mic cannot be great on everything, maybe saying that X is a good mic to add to your collection is all you need to hear.
Changing Your Home Recording Microphone Probably Won’t Change Your Life
First of all, I want to point out that this article is geared toward struggling home recording engineers who are not happy with the recordings they are cranking out of their basements or garages.
I realize the quality that a $2,500 mic will have over a $250 microphone in certain circumstances, but for those struggling at home, this article illustrates why expensive microphones are probably not the first place to look to improve recording quality.
Simply put, microphones don’t make THAT big of a difference in the quality of your recordings. While there are certainly some microphones that should NOT be used in certain situations, for the most part, the price of the microphone has very little do to with the actual quality of your recordings. Let me explain further.
You see, people are convinced that expensive microphones have higher fidelity than others. They think that if they put a $3,000 mic on a guitar cabinet, it’s going to sound magically bigger and better than using a $100 mic.
Some people take it a step further. They think that an SM 57 is like a 24kps mp3 and a $3,000 condenser mic is like a DVD-Audio or something. In this instance, there is a clear and objective distinction in “quality”. The 24kps will never win any shootout.
But microphones are much different. A $3,000 mic doesn’t have “more quality or fidelity” in it necessarily. And people will argue as to which mic sounds better on a given source.
While at a music conference we lined up 16 microphones and we recorded sample vocals through each one. It was NOT clear which microphone sounded best. I had been recording 5 years and I had no clue which microphone sounded “best”. They were all pretty close.
The conference organizers had to really teach me what to listen for. I mean we had an SM 58, SM 7B, and a AT4050 (all mics that I own). These were no better or worse than U47s and Korby versions of the 251 and C12.
I have a feeling that trained engineers would probably pick mics in the same ballpark, but your typical home recording guys would be content with just about all of them.
In fact, I bet most home recording guys would hate the U47 because it sounds really woofy and midrangy (not at all hifi like people tend to think).
The same thing goes with ribbon microphones. Those mics are so lo-fi that most people are discussed when they first hear them. Although U47s and Royer R121s are some of the most used microphones in professional recording studios., these lo-fi mics put instruments in a certain place that helps fill out a mix.
This suggests that audio engineering is not nearly as simple as putting up a fancy, hi-fi sounding microphone and hitting record. It means that engineering is a complex science of understandings the layers of various frequencies and how they react with each other.
I can speak from experience, a fancy mic will not boost your quality level to the point that artists are willing to pay more for your recording services.
Here is just a brief summary off the top of my head that determines audio quality.
- The song
- The musician
- The instrument
- The room
- The performance
- The microphones
- Microphone placement
- The preamp
Assuming that you have $3,000 to throw in whatever category you want here, do you think that tossing all that money into a microphone will make a mega difference?
It can make a nice difference. However, a lot of that depends on how badly the other 8 factors are screwing everything else up. I like to think of these factors as having a multiplier effect. For example, if you have 100% in everything, but the song is absolutely terrible, the song will multiply everything by 0 and you end up with nothing.
Let’s take a look at everything here.
These Are More Important Than Mic Price
#1 The Song
The song you are recording has the most tremendous impact on the recording of the song, obviously. This seems like it should fairly clear to everyone. It is not.
I’ve never heard a boring song with an exciting production. It doesn’t work that way. So if you didn’t hit a home run on the song, you can forget about some microphone helping out.
A more expensive microphone has NEVER improved a shitty song ever and never will! However, if your song is a kick-ass tune that you really stand behind and believe in, you may move on to the next door.
#2 The Musician
Are you dealing with badass musicians who can play extremely tightly? Do these musicians sound good? In other words, when they pick up an instrument can they squeeze more tone out of it than your average Joe.
I’ve seen a lot of guitar players in my day who play on similar rigs. There are certain guys who can just pull out huge tones out of the guitar by the way they play. These guys make it easy to record.
Of course, the opposite is true.
Do you think a guitar player with a boring sound is going to be affected one way or another with a more expensive microphone?
NO!! Exciting guitar playing is in the fingers. It’s not in some mechanical device. This is why some guitarists are famous and most simply aren’t.
Some guitar players have balls and soul in their tone. For those guitar players who have no balls or soul, an expensive mic isn’t going to do a damn thing for you.
#3 The Instrument
In a lot of ways, this sort of goes hand in hand with the musician. Bottom line, if the sound the musicians are creating in the room isn’t happening, you’re done.
A great drummer probably would never beat on a grossly out of tune snare drum, but assuming he did, it just wouldn’t sound that good. There is a reason that the big boys tune a snare before each and every take. The same goes for guitar players or any other musician.
There are certain acoustics guitars that sound big and boomy, but they may not be right for a certain part of the song. Even a great player won’t sound right with the wrong instrument.
If an instrument is flat out wrong for the part, an expensive home recording microphone won’t do a bit of good. Now, the right microphone may be able to fix some of that, but that has nothing to do with price.
Back to our example, if we have a big boomy acoustic guitar that has too much bottom end for the part, a lot of engineers will reach for an SM 57 and back it off the guitar a little bit to avoid the proximity effect.
#4 The Performance
It’s incredibly important to give your clients a place to record where they feel comfortable. Getting the right performance is everything.
What do you think an expensive microphone is going to do for someone who is nervous? What about someone who is too cold? What about someone who is just burned out from recording too long? Do you think an expensive microphone is going to help?
#5 The Room
This is a huge one and sort of combines with the song, the musician, the performance, and the instrument to create what I often refer to as “the source”.
As an engineer, you have control after the source. If you want/need control before the source, you are a lot closer to “producer” (I’ve determined that engineers have way too little control over the source and therefore I prefer to produce any project worth doing).
When audio engineers say “the room” they really mean the sound of the room. Imagine a tiled bathroom. It has a certain, signature sound. So does a school gym, a canyon, and a closet.
When it comes to recording, the room has an immense effect on the quality of the recorded signal. The difference is HUGE. There are sweet spots in every room that have certain frequency responses.
Even guys who record in $5,000,000 recording rooms look for the spot where the instrument sounds the best. There are places, even in that expensive room, where the instrument won’t sound that great.
Due to a few acoustics principals such as comb filtering (which is way beyond the scope of this article) a crappy room can flat out destroy the fidelity of the sound you are recording.
If you are recording at home, this is your problem. I already know. I don’t have to think about it. You’d be amazed at how badly a $3,000 mic can sound in a piss poor room. When a room just sucks the life out of an instrument, what is an expensive mic going to do to help?
For me, I’ve always had a terrible room. I’ve been able to limp by when recording vocals or guitar. However, drums are impossible to record in a tiny, crappy room. Especially, big rock drums. While it’s not the most exciting thing to spend your money on, a proper room will give you an edge over the competition.
#6 The Microphone
The microphone is the point where the engineer finally gets a say in the matter. An engineer will take a listen to the source and try to decide which microphone in his collection will pick up the tone a way that most compliments the tone. For harsh sources, a ribbon mic may be used. For thin sources, a large diaphragm condenser may be used.
While microphones have a frequency response, they also have a speed. (Preamps have this too). This refers to how fast they react to signals. This generally most important with transient based signals such as drums.
Generally, the faster the mic, the more crack it will allow in on a snare drum, for example. A slow mic won’t get nearly as much of the high-end attack in the snare, kick, or toms.
Some mics just have character. Character is not something you can just dial in with a parametric EQ. It’s kind of like the difference in pickups on a Strat or the difference between a clean Marshall and a clean Fender Twin, only not nearly as obvious most of the time.
Really, selecting a microphone is kind of like selecting the pickup on a Strat. Most of the time, any of the 5 positions on a Stratocaster will be just fine for the recording unless a mega specific tone is required.
I’m saying that there are usually two different pickup positions that work just fine for the song and no one would notice the difference one way or another. This is what it is often like when choosing a microphone. These are very subtle textures that are slightly different and you must select the microphone that compliments the source the best.
#7 Microphone Placement
As far as I’m concerned, this much more critical than the actual microphone used 99% of the time. Getting the microphone in precisely the right place is the name of the game.
Sound waves sound drastically different when you move just a few inches most of the time. The key to getting the magic snare sound is often getting the mic within ½” or so of the sweet spot assuming the snare is tuned extremely well and being played by a great drummer.
Proximity effect makes a huge difference on the tone of a recording. Some mics will gain over 12dB of deep low end as you get extremely close to the source. However, Omni microphones have no proximity effect at all. So putting a mic with multiple patterns such as cardioid, figure 8, and cardioid may have 12dB or more difference in bass response in the patterns.
Keep in mind that putting the microphone in the perfect position will only mean that the microphone is picking up the source the best it can. If the sound of the room, instrument, or musician sucks, the expensive microphone will be picking up a shitty tone, too.
This is a concept that people need to understand.
Typically, we can expect a $3,000 microphone to be more sensitive than a $300 mic. If this is the case and the room is terrible, it’s possible that the expensive mic will pick up more crap and actually sound worse. However, the same source in a great room may sound amazing with the more expensive mic because we want the extra room detail in there.
Of course, there are some very sensitive cheap microphones as well. Price doesn’t have a direct correlation with sensitivity. The only thing an expensive mic pretty guarantees is that it cost more to make the microphone.
#8 The Preamp
You may want to search for my article, Preamp Fundamentals I Learned At Wagener’s for a detailed analysis of preamps.
Basically, preamps fall into the same category as microphones above. They have a frequency response, a speed, and a character.
However, expensive preamps are usually much more subtle that microphones so keep that in mind. You’ll hear big boys pushing that you need $20,000 in preamps and $50,000 in microphones but if the other criteria aren’t equally maxed out, you’ve wasted your money!
From a purely engineering perspective, mixing will make 2000x times as much different than anything else. All the nuances of a mega expensive microphone on vocals are probably lost when you run vocals through a guitar distortion pedal, don’t you think?
What about when you put a very short delay up pretty loud in the mix? Will the expensiveness still be there? Probably not.
On that same notion, the vocals that we hear on our favorite records were mixed by a badass. Those vocals could have been recorded with an SM 57 or something even cheaper but processed in a while that made them sound great.
When combined with a great song, we (as engineers) strive to achieve that same sound by buying $3,000 mics but the magic probably came entirely from a great song, with great musicians, in a great room, being mixed by a great mixing engineer.
The amount of impact a mixing engineer can make is outstanding. Even if we keep the vocals dry (which is when you usually hear the expansiveness the most) a mixer can always turn the vocal down 20dB (which means you won’t even know it’s there in a dense mix. So level alone can make an enormous difference in the tone of your vocals.
I remember when I was at the Michael Wagener Workshop. I thought the vocals sounded a little dull the entire time. Then when we were finishing up our mixes, Wagener whipped out his Manley EQ and added quite a bit of top end to the entire mix.
It turns out that he was keeping everything equally dull until the very end where with one EQ he sort of balanced it out for the entire mix. I made a drastic impact on the mix. What I remember most though, was how much the vocal sound changed when Wagener added some 2Bus stuff (that most of us leave to the mastering engineer).
Try it yourself. Take the stereo mixdown from one of your mixes and mess with the EQ. The vocals will change dramatically.
The Best Microphones Simply Pickup Sound
In the end, even the very microphones for home recording are simply devices that convert sound waves into electricity. There are so many factors involved that stating that an expensive microphone will sound better than a cheap microphone is totally ridiculous.
Without a doubt, a $5,000 microphone will sound different than your $500 mic, but “better” is a crazy word to use. No engineer I’ve ever met or talked with ever said a certain mic was always better any of the time.
Big Records Sometimes Use Cheap Microphones
I remember seeing some DVD of Stone Template Pilots and the singer was going to town with his face in a Les Paul. He was singing into the pickups. For this sound, no studio mic would do it. It turned out that this sound was only possible with an electric guitar.
My buddy’s band is going through the major label production right now and being shopped to numerous labels. While the record was mixed in Nashville in a mega room that has done numerous platinum records, the microphones used on vocals were mega cheap.
Oddly enough, there were $200 vocal mics used quite a bit, but all vocals were run through a $4,000 LA-2A compressor. Interesting!
So, What’s the Best Microphone for Home Recording Studios?
The sooner you realize that you are not an engineer competing with engineers, the sooner you will win the game.
Engineering is a crock anyway. The sound of major label records is mega different from record to record and band to band. The key is to find the right sound for that band.
The right sound has nothing to do with money, in most cases even though some sounds are simply expensive. Focus on making every link your chain as strong as possible.
I’d make microphones and preamps the last on my list.
Whether they admit it or not, the big boys put mics and preamps last on their list too. Big boys don’t record shitty bands. Big boys very very seldom work in less than amazing rooms. Big boys usually pay someone else significantly less to engineer anyway so they can focus on #1….the song.
Shure KSM141 Multi-Pattern Studio Condenser Microphone
The Shure KSM141 is a dual polar pattern end-addressed condenser microphone that is designed for use in the recording studio, yet sturdy enough to withstand live performances with ease and great quality!
The extended frequency response and low self-noise levels make the Shure KSM141 a perfect mic for recording many different types of musical instruments.
Potential Performance Applications for the Shure KSM141 Include:
- Various acoustic instruments: strings, piano, percussion, drums and guitar
- Various ensemble performances: orchestra or choral performances
- Lower frequency instruments: kick drum, double bass and electric bass
- Wind instruments: woodwind and brass
- Picking up room ambiance: drums or guitar amps
- Overhead mic usage: for percussion or drums, for example
Features of the Shure KSM141:
- Great flexibility in a wide variety of recording applications and capabilities
- Includes a mechanical polar pattern switch for incredibly uniform cardioid and true omnidirectional polar patterns
- Includes the highest quality electronic components, including gold-plated internal and external connectors
- Incredible transient response due to the ultra-thin, 2.5 micron, 24 karat gold-layered, low mass Mylar diaphragm
- Class A, discrete, transformerless preamplifier for minimal harmonic and intermodulation distortion, transparency, no crossover distortion, and extremely fast transient response
- Subsonic filter eliminates low frequency rumble (less than 17 Hz) caused by mechanical vibration
- 3 position switchable pad (0 dB, 15 dB, and 25 dB) for handling extremely high sound pressure levels (SPLs)
- 3 position switchable low-frequency filter to counteract proximity effect and lessen background noise
- Extended frequency response
- Low self noise
- Superior reproduction of low-frequency sounds
- Able to withstand high sound pressure levels (SPL)
- High output level
- No crossover distortion
- Has uniform polar response
- Premium suppression of radio frequency interference and common mode rejection
Shure KSM141 Specifications:
- Type of Cartridge: Permanently Biased Condenser
- Directional Polar Pattern: Cardioid/Omnidirectional
- Frequency Response Used: 20-20,000 Hz
- Phantom Power: 48 Vdc+/- 4 Vdc (IEC-C268-C15/DIN 45 596), positive pins 2 and 3
- Low Frequency Response Switch: Flat; -6 db/octave below 115 Hz; -18 dB/octave below 80 Hz
- Current Drain: 4.65 mA typical at 48 Vdc
- Output Impedance: 150 Ohms (actual)
- Attenuation Switch: 0 dB,15 dB, or 25 dB attenuation
- Polarity: Positive pressure on diaphragm produces positive voltage on output pin 2 relative to pin 3
- Sensitivity (typical, at 1000 Hz; 1 Pa = 94 dB SPL): -37 dBV/Pa
- Self-noise (typical, equivalent SPL; A-weighted (IEC 651)): 14 dB
- Maximum SPL: 5000 Ohm load: 145 (160, 170) dB, 2500 Ohm load (Attenuator on): 139 (154, 164) dB, 1000 Ohm load: 134 (149, 159) dB
- Output Clipping Level: 5000 Ohm load: 15 dBV, 2500 Ohm load: 9 dBV, 1000 Ohm load: 3 dBV
- Dynamic Range: 5000 Ohm load: 131 dB, 2500 Ohm load: 125 dB, 1000 Ohm load: 120 dB
- Signal to Noise Ratio: 80 dB
- Shure KSM141 Dimensions: .8 inches (20 mm) in diameter, 5.75 inches (146 mm) in length
- Shure KSM141 Weight: 5.5.ounces (156 grams)
- Warranty: 2 Yr Microphones; 1 Year Wireless Transmitters & Receivers
Buying the Best Mics for Recording Vocals
One of the first things that you’ll need to be aware of is the environment where you will be using the microphone most frequently.
Mics react differently in various spaces and you will want a certain kind of microphone for a live performance in big locations versus home recording within your smaller studio space.
Typically a condenser microphone such as the Shure KSM141, would be great for a recording studio setting because it does a good job picking up vocals with accuracy. These types of mics are also great for recording instruments in the studio. Condenser microphones tend to have a flatter frequency than dynamic mics which are much less sensitive.
Dynamic microphones would be the better choice for live performance settings typically as they are more adaptable to the increased noise levels and interference from outside sources. This type of mic does not require phantom power typically which is often not the case when it comes to condenser microphones. You will need to go for some gain on your preamp, however, in order to get decent levels while using the dynamic microphone.
If you are recording acoustic instruments such as guitars, this will require a different set-up altogether when it comes to microphones. Oftentimes, you will find that a mix of microphones work best with your instruments and particularly with acoustic instruments to be able to pick up all of the subtle sounds and such.
Microphones for use with drumming is yet another animal altogether. You will definitely want to do your research when it comes to finding the best mic situation for your drums. The most important thing will be the ability for your mic to handle a high sound pressure level. If you do not have this covered, you will definitely be faced with a large distortion level.
Whether you choose the KSM141 or some other type of condenser microphone for your recording studio or live performances, do take the time to do some research on the front end before making your decision. Looks at the different manufactures that come up when searching to determine some of the bigger and more popular brands with the market. Going with any microphone from Shure is certain to be a good choice as this is a brand that many people have come to know and trust as one of the better companies to buy from.