Sunday, July 22, 2007

SomeAudioGuy Microphone Shoot Out!

I do quite a bit of business teaching people how to record themselves. Working in voiceover, this is becoming more and more necessary. Not that VO artists need to be full on recording engineers, but having a basic understanding of how to make their voices sound presentable is becoming more important.
At work we recently worked on a promo job where the budget was so low, that to pay for union talent they had to be able to record themselves, and send the audio back as quickly as possible. They didn't care about whisper rooms or ISDN, just a decent clean recording and a good performance. The job would've covered 30+ national promos.

Not a bad incentive to invest in some recording equipment!

My favorite setup to recommend is an external soundcard and condenser microphone. For newbies I tend to start low, say a USB MobilePre and MXL 770 (I can't say I'm a big fan of USB mics, as they don't give you anywhere to go, say you want to upgrade the mic or soundcard, you're starting from scratch all over again, not to mention adding a mixer, preamps, or monitors). Good flexibility, good sound, and all starting at under $300 (including stands and cables).

So, why not use a more expensive mic?

I get this question quite a bit. Every VO actor seems to have dreams of recording at home on a U87 or some vintage ribbon mic, and expensive mics are great, but an expensive mic wont make something sound "good-er". You get an expensive mic because it has a particular character that you are wanting to use. Personally I prefer the sound of an AKG 414 to the U87 FOR MOST PEOPLE. This is of course totally subjective as no one's really going to sound "bad" on either of these, but the Neumann will run you two to three times as much. Will you sound two to three times better?

AKG C 414 B-XL II Condenser Microphone

It's all about bang for buck. For a newbie at recording, who wont understand about monitors, mixing, preamps (where mics really start to shine), and sound proofing/isolation it makes little sense to spend more than a couple hundred bucks to start experimenting. This kit can get really expensive really fast.

So all that being said, I've setup a little experiment. I've taken 3 of my favorite mics (and one beater) set them up under the same conditions, and two at a time, recorded the same piece of text (the first paragraph of 'Under Milk Wood' by Dylan Thomas, one of my favorite plays). All mics were connected directly to my Firewire 4-10, with gain set at half for each. Mic diaphragms were set approximately 10 inches from my face. After recording I punched each track through Sound Forge 9 and boosted the volume about 300% (exactly the same for each), then mixed each down to an mp3 @ 320kbps.

The mics we'll be hearing are:

*The M-Audio Aries @ $120 - Hand held condenser mic I got for free with my soundcard.

*The M-Audio Solaris @ $300 - This was the first multi-pattern condenser I've ever purchased, and it's served me very well for years.

*The Neumann KM184 @ $700 - I inherited this mic, before I was serious about recording, from an internet news "broadcast" station I worked at briefly in college. None of us knew about phantom power, so this mic "never worked". Years later I figured it out, and this has been a great utility and over head mic.

* The Sennheiser MKH 416 @ $1400 - This is THE L.A. mic. Originally used for outdoor broadcast, it also found a home in studios thanks in part to it's laser like focus.

With introductions out of the way, let's take a listen! While listening try to keep your headphones or speakers set to the same level. Each clip is about 40 seconds long.

M-Audio Aries:

M-Audio Solaris:

Neumann KM184:

Sennheiser MKH 416:

Wow! The Aries sounds not great at all! To be fair it is meant to replace dynamic mics like the sm57 (which I originally planned on using but sounded even worse), and even though it's phantom powered, the Aries really is meant to be passed through a preamp just like the Dynamic mics it competes against.

The Senny 416 sounds great. This thing is meant to be attached to video equipment or thrown on a boom, run off batteries, and get ONE person's voice even in noisy environments. Little wonder it handily beats the living crap out of the budget "studio" mics, and at twice the price of the Neumann, it had better.

But here's where a little know-how comes in. What if we normalized the volume of the Neumann and the Solaris to match the volume of the 416? Would the Senny still sound that much better?
Let's see!



OK! That's much better. The Solaris comes in a little brighter. The Neumann made my voice a little muddy, but now we're much closer in terms of "quality".

Now can we really say the Senny is twice as good as the Neumann? FOUR times better than the Solaris? Or if you're just starting out do you just boost the volume after the fact with a budget mic?

Thin voice? Movie trailer voice? No one mic is going to be the best. Matching a mic to a voice is as personal as the right pair of shoes/jeans/etc. Dumping a ton of cash on a "good" mic is kind of useless unless you've got the time, money, know-how, and effort to put into the surrounding kit as well.

Let me know what you think! Comments always appreciated!
Hopefully I'll be able to do more of these as time goes on.


  1. thanks! I found this guide to be very useful.

  2. Appreciate it Bevil!
    Thanks for reading!

  3. This will be a great help in choosing a mic. Also, I'm looking at the Firewire 410. My desktop has firewire ports. With a mic, is the 410 computer ready? No extra mixer, interface, or preamp necessary? Thanks.

  4. Cool!
    Glad it helped.

    I think the 410 is a GREAT box. It's very flexible (tons of outputs), 66dB gain, really good dynamic range, great SNR,low latency, and you can find them for under $300 pretty easy now (every now and then under $260).

    It has a few foibles. It can only use two analog inputs at a time, and it is NOT hot-swappable (I had a client fry the firewire port on his computer by popping it out). But I don't think those really detract from its usefulness.

    Using a 410, there's really no need to use anything else. Plug in the firewire cable, plug in the mic, and record. As for "computer ready", I can't think of any cards at this price point with as many features, that play well with ALL DAW programs (I've used mine with Sonar, Pro Tools, Sound Forge/Acid/Vegas, Audacity, Traverso, Audition, and Sound Booth).

    I personally record with an ART Tube PAC in between the mic and soundcard, but the 410 by itself is a solid way to get some recording done, and is a perfect card to grow with (when you want to add a mixer, or monitors, or preamps, or etc).

    Lemme know what you get (email in profile). I'm always down to geek out!

  5. New to the nuance of recording.
    This is a very competent, scientifically minded approach to studying the mics. Grateful.

    What I notice about the condenser mics is that it's all about getting even volume across more frequencies than the dynamics, as they all say.
    So that's the measure of "quality".
    But it seems that there can be aesthetic drawbacks to it. The dynamic mic responds to strong sounds, not all the disgusting subtleties inside the oral cavity. Sometimes you just want to hear a person's voice, not the flesh slurping inside the throat and nose, or the nasal reverberations. Pick up too many frequencies and you feel like you're INSIDE their oral cavity, or like you're listening to someone who has a COLD or FLU! Dynamics give a more boring, more neutral, and perhaps just cleaner and more focussed sound.
    Looking forward to hear more such tests. Great blog.

  6. Hey XBoy. Thanks for the comment!
    What you say is generally true about condensers, but I've found budget condensers aren't really very "true". They tend to be hyped in the high EQ to augment the human voice. I find this a little obnoxious as it can make some voices sound a little harsh.
    It's funny how many people are now wanting the old distortion of vintage ribbon and valve mics. There's nothing particularly "honest" about those mics. They tend to distort the audio quite a bit actually, but now we don't call it distortion, we call it "warmth" LOL.
    I think that's why I'm such a big fan of the AKG C414 XLS. It's REALLY flat. That's probably why others don't like it as much. It doesn't do anything "magical" to their voice...

    I forget who said it, but someone once said of the Shure SM57 "it only records the important sounds", and I kinda have to agree. It doesn't have a wide dynamic or EQ range, but it really is one of the most versatile mics you can get (and anyone who records really should own one).
    A lot of those dynamics might not have the same level of accuracy, but seem to focus in on a certain range of EQ much better.

  7. The major thing bout this AKG C 414 B-XL II Condenser Microphone is that it has 5 switchable polar patterns: omnidirectional, wide cardioid, cardioid, hypercardioid, and figure 8 with 2-color LEDs indicate polar pattern and output overload. The signal-to-noise ratio of 88dB gives you best performance required for digital tracking sessions. It my opinion its value to your money.

  8. @Motor Scooter

    Appreciated, but I don't really like the idea of the presence peak built into the XLII.

    The first 414 I used was the EB (and I think it had the CK12 capsule), and from then on I've used the ULS. If I had to buy a 414 today I'd go with the XLS.

    There are other mics that do a better job of "influencing" what they're recording. I like the 414 for being a brutally honest reference mic.

    Thanks for the comment!

  9. I purchased a matched pair Of Neumann KM 184. I used them for my steel string guitar. Though These microphones really sound incredible , but a way more expensive than other ones.But one thing for sure is there is no coloration and It will be the sound that always seemed out of your reach. So If you wamt to only used them for guitar, neuman is better than others. You will definitely hear the difference. It's up to you to decide that it's worth the extra money or not.

  10. Agreed Jordan!
    I love my little KM184, now that I know what to do with it LOL!

  11. WEll The Solaris also fared well with the chimes, but there was evenness to the tones that, though clear and pleasant-sounding, lacked the precise shimmer and the dynamics. But then its what you can get for 300$

  12. Agreed Audio Mastering.
    I still maintain it's a LOT of mic for $300 though.

    At some point I should revist these mics with some different preamps, though that would radically change the objective (more of a preamp shoot out than a mic shootout). The Solaris on an expensive preamp can really shine (I'm using it now on an RNP).

    Of course that all has NOTHING to do with offering advice to newbie VO actors trying to record themselves on a budget LOL.

  13. Very nice, it will help me choose a mic, and i will let u know when i got one.

  14. Glad to be of service! Drop a line when you pick one up!

  15. he 416 doesn't quit on you and sounds fantastic. If you've read my review on the Schoeps CMIT 5 you'll know that I've finally met the microphone to steal me away from my 416's but only to a point. The 416 does have greater reach and a very proven track record for durability.

  16. I’ve been quietly reading your stuff, and have you to thank for pointing me to home recording. I’m looking forward to more in the future.

  17. I have to say, I thought the Neumann would have it, but the Senni was the best to my ears!