Project Studio Essentials Part I: Choosing the Right Microphone

Recording your own musical projects in the comfort of your own home. Sounds like a snap right? In many ways, it really is. Digital technology has all but wiped out the comparatively labour intensive process of recording with analog tape (unless you want to, of course).

Assuming you have the requisite ducks in a row, recording can be fluid, spontaneous and fun. But about those ducks – what are they, and how do you know what’s right for you?

The following series of articles is for those curious about putting together their own project studio. Not just for simply recording basic ideas, but for getting the most out of every link in the chain, to get the best result possible.

The first crucial interface between performer and recording? The microphone.
 

So you’ve decided to set up your own project studio. Get to the know the essential gear you need to make great recordings. This time, it’s the all important microphone.

In a project studio, sans soundproofing, the sound sources you’re most likely to record are going to be quiet. There might be some acoustic guitar, quiet percussion, but if you’re a songwriter, vocal miking is going to be crucial.

To the uninitiated, there are three main types of microphones: dynamic, condenser and ribbon.

The Workhorse

Dynamic microphones tend to be cheaper, and are typically very robust. And even to non experts, the shape of dynamic microphones like the Shure SM58 is unmistakable.

Depending on the quality of the dynamic, they may not be suitable for the voice. For one thing, they are not particularly sensitive, so nuanced and delicate vocal performances don’t always translate well.

That’s not to say all dynamics aren’t sophisticated enough to handle vocal duties. The Sennheiser MD 441 and ElectroVoice RE20 are high end vocal mics (with prices to match).

And sometimes, the aforementioned lack of sensitivity can be a positive when recording a vocal alongside another instrument. The Shure SM7B, for example, is specially designed for broadcasting, with features that reduce plosive sounds (distracting air blasts resulting from B and P words) and effectively reject off-axis sounds (like an acoustic guitar or piano).

All About Detail

The most common type of microphone for capturing vocals in a studio setting is the condenser. Condensers feature a diaphragm fixed to a backplate. The sound pressure from a voice vibrates the diaphragm.

This arrangement makes for a much more detailed picture of the sound source when compared with a dynamic. Therefore, condensers are routinely favoured for recording the ever so subtle nuances of the human voice.

They also excel at reproducing other delicate sounds. Recording the acoustic guitar isn’t outside the realm of possibility in a small environment and it can often benefit from the condenser’s characteristically refined character.

The price tags attached to condenser microphones can also vary wildly. The best of the best in this family of microphones will soar into the many thousands of dollars, (see the Neumann U67 for example) but they can also be absurdly cheap (and sometimes nasty).

A Touch of Class

Ribbon microphones are the rarest of the three categories and possibly the least suited to tracking vocals. Compared to dynamics and condensers, their character is smoother, with more of a tendency to accentuate lower frequencies – which doesn’t make for increased vocal intelligibility.

If you are in the market for a more “vintage” character, ribbons have it in spades. Their extended reach into the lower end of the spectrum, combined with their absence of a noticeable upper frequency peak makes for a rich and refined vocal tone.

Modern ribbons like the Royer R121 are also typically more robust than their vintage counterparts.  Some ribbons, the Audio-Technica 4080 for example, actually utilise phantom power to increase their output level.

Don’t Forget to Listen

With all microphones (especially your vocal mic of choice), a rigorous test drive is recommended. The good news is that it’s easy to do! Simply run the mic through a preamp, and monitor your voice through headphones.  

Headphones are really handy in this case, because you’ll be able to hear how microphone translates the finer details of your voice.

Condensers will make your voice sound considerably “brighter” by accentuating the high frequencies. The benefit of this will be the detail and intelligibility that it offer in the context of a mix.

Dynamics will more subtly boost the top end and the boost won’t reach as far into the high frequencies. Detail and sensitivity is somewhat sacrificed, but that might be just the thing you’re looking for, especially for a more aggressive vocal delivery.

Ribbons have less high end presence, and a richer bottom end. So, less “cut-through” in the mix, but more warmth and intimacy.

With all this talk of vocal miking, it’s easy to neglect other sounds. Every engineer will have their own opinion on which microphone is the most versatile, but it could be argued that testing a microphone on a source as personal to you as your own voice will give you the best understanding of a mic’s capabilities.

Whichever your choice, listening to your voice (and more sounds, if you can manage it) through at least one of each of the three categories will help you make an informed decision about which mic will compliment you best.

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