Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Super Cheap Condenser or Mid Range Dynamic? MXL 990 vs SM57

I've gotten this question a couple times now:
Should you use a cheap condenser or an established dynamic mic for voice over?

It's a tricky question to answer.
There are pros and cons to each approach, and largely I think it still comes down to budget and experience. This seems a little bit cop out, as ideally we would make audio decisions with our ears alone, but there are several "bang for buck" points that need to be addressed.

Since this question is so tricky to answer, I thought I'd throw down some equipment to see if it helps. I recorded myself on a Marshal MXL 990 and a Shure SM57. The MXL is largely known as one of the cheapest budget condenser mics you can find, often retailing for just under $60. The SM57 is the gold standard of studio dynamic mics, and retails for about $100.
I recorded myself on each, plugged directly into my FW410 at matched gain. I was about 7 inches from the 990, and about 1 inch from the SM57. No editing was done other than to Normalize volume (second batch of recordings), and to mix down to 320Kbps MP3. These are really raw and noisey! Yay!

Which one sounds "better"? Let's take a listen!
Here's my (awful) reading of Shakespeare's Sonnet 17 (Mrs. Audio Guy picked it out for me, woot).

SM57 Raw Output:

MXL990 Raw Output:

OK, so the SM57 is audible, but I can't hear it as well as the 990. To get a better listen at whats going on, let's boost both samples and match the output volume (peak normalized to 90%).

SM57 Normalized:

MXL990 Normalized:

Alright that's better. I think the 990 is a little bright, maybe even a tad harsh, but it definitely sounds clearer and more present than the SM57. Where the SM57 succeeds is in lower noise, higher tolerance for peaking, and a richer tone for vocals, but out of the box (and plugged directly into a Soundcard without any other gear) I'd have to say I'd prefer the sound of the budget condenser.

Would you really use a mic this way though? Well. not really. The SM57 really needs to be driven by a dedicated preamp, so since we're comparing budget gear, I dug up my old Behringer T1953, which at $150, is about as budget as you can get. Plugging the SM57 into this gives us a nice little 20dB gain boost.

SM57 on Preamp:

Now listening to that, I'd much rather use the 57. The tube adds a ton of hiss (which after listening back I should've tried a little harder to clean out...), but I sound richer and fuller.

So what can we conclude?

It all comes down to budget and experience.

*To use a budget condenser, you need a soundcard with Phantom Power (at least $150), to use a dynamic you should really drive the mic with a dedicated preamp (at least $150) into a decent sound card (at least $50).
M-Audio FireWire 410 4-In / 10-Out FireWire Mobile Recording Interface

*Out of the box the condenser will have a slightly lower learning curve (plugging directly into soundcard) and give you slightly clearer recordings, but will sound brighter (or harsher) and thinner. The dynamic will have a slightly steeper learning curve (mic into preamp into soundcard), but will be more tolerant of peaking or clipping, more directional (wont pic up as much room noise), and will probably sound richer.

So I know that's a cop out, but it really will come down to which one you sound better on, versus how much you're able to spend to get there. Hope that helps, and comments/questions always welcome!

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