THE PERFECT MIC – PART 3: The Matching

Once we have narrowed down the options to a few, then your listening needs to guide you further.

I learned a very fascinating way of matching sources to microphones from a great engineer called Michael Stavrou.

It is a rather simple concept, based on establishing the hardness level a sound possesses. There is no hardness meter out there, hence your ears will have to suffice.

If a hardness scale existed, we would have on the one side of the scale “hard sounds” and on the opposite side “sweet sounds” (it is obvious that I am not referring to loudness, but to tone and perception of a sound).

If we were to use a 10 step scale, we would have the following: 1= Sweet 10= Hard, and 2 to 9 will be the in-between. Thus we can categorise sounds accordingly.

Let us use brass as an example: a trumpet would generally be a hard sound (H7), while a trombone generally has a sweet sound (H4).

Using the same “scale”, we can start to “measure” microphones for their hardness level. You can simply use your voice as a source and check out how the different microphones change your vocal’s intrinsic sweetness/hardness level (just use the same sentence i.e. count from 1 to 10).

Using the “hardness” scale, we will end up with microphones that range from H1 to H10.

Now that we have measured both sources and microphones, we can simply match them by using the universal “opposites attract” principle, compensating for the hardness of a source with the sweetness of a microphone and the other way around (a H3 sound will go with an H6-7 microphone and so on). This essentially prevents us from ending up with an extremely hard sound, with a very aggressive tone or an extremely sweet sound where the tone cannot stand up in a mix.

You will end up with a hardish microphone like the Senniheser MD421 (H7) on a sweet sound like a trombone (H4), or a Shure SM 57 (H8) on a “sweet” Vox valve amp (H3).

Below is an audio clip example of a male vocal (a mid hardness – not too hard and not too sweet –  vocal: H4) and how it sounds over 6 different microphones. In order:

AT M610
Shure SM58
AT AE6100
AKG C535
Shure Beta 58
Shure Beta 87

(Clips courtesy of Renown Music – from the setting up of the album Surrender All

As you can hear with a hard microphone (SM58 for example) the voice became to “hard” but with sweeter microphone (the AKG C535) the voice subtly stands down, and in the mix might struggle to come out. Guess which microphone we ended up using? Not the sweetest or hardest of them, but rather a mid-hard mic the Shure Beta 87 (H6) that complements well .

Let us recap:
1. You are probably in an environment (studio or rental company) where you often use the same range of microphones. Take some time (using your voice while listening with headphones to the different microphones) to record your discovery on paper. (Try to do this before your next tour / recording session)
2. Learn to listen acoustically to the sources you need to microphone, and discern what type of hardness / sweetness they possess.
3. Now the simple part: matching up a source to a microphone, remembering that opposites attract (an H7 source goes with an H3 microphone).
Happy listening!

Next week part 4, The Tonic Tone.


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