Choosing a microphone is a fascinating process. Every process has a first step, and in our case, the first step is simple: context.
What is the context in which you are going to microphone a source (small club, huge open air stage, big band, close or far from the source, etc.)?
Why is this the first step? Because vocals (whether using an IEM monitor, normal monitors, recording for a voice-over track, for a live take in a movie, for a pianist, for guitar player that sings, for a live recording in a small smoky New York club), all have very different production needs.
Is tone not the most important thing when looking for a microphone? Yes and no.
Yes. Ultimately you want the microphone to complement the source and deliver an amazing sound. No. A microphone that you can hardly use within the context of your application is no good to you or the artist you trying to mix/record for even if it delivers the ultimate tone you are after.
If tone is the only or first thing we look at, we might end up considering an option that is not viable within our usage parameters. Essentially, we are narrowing down the options, and to do so we should keep the following factors in mind:
1. Isolation of the source from other sources around it. This can vary from not being a consideration at all (like in a lead vocal studio session) to being a serious need (like on a crowded stage with loud instruments) while microphoning a very soft source or interviewing people in a loud street or commenting at a live event in a loud stadium filled with screaming fans.
2. Level of the source. How loud/soft is the source. A microphone that can handle high levels might not do so well when faced with soft sources as their intrinsic noise/level capacity combined with the pre-amp intrinsic noise could taint the source (i.e. like a hiss that you cannot hear on the snare, but you will hear when using the same set up for a voice over). The opposite is also true that microphones that can handle soft sources well might struggle with their counterparts.
3. Level before feedback. This is a combination of microphone, monitor choice, characteristics, and their relative positions (with normal monitors). We have all worked with “screamers” and “whisperers” (if you haven’t encountered a whisperer, I am truly glad for you), and the levels needed before feedback are very different. As said, the microphone is not the only variable in the equation, but it is one of them.
4. Proximity to source. Does the production (or the sound you are after) require you to microphone the source closely or from a distance? If from a distance, do you need to preserve the bottom end of that sound or can you go without it?
5. Sonic details needed. Does the production context require this source to be reproduced/recorded preserving its details and nuances, or is all you need a download of level so that you can push it above everything else?
The answers to these 5 questions (and a few more, I just don’t want to overdo it) will narrow down your options before you even need to engage your hearing. At this point of the choosing process, all you need to know is:
A. The context of the source, which will determine
B. What type of specifications the microphone you are looking for needs.
Do you need an omnidirectional microphone with a very low noise to signal ratio?
Or do you need a hyper-cardioid microphone that can handle in excess of 120 dbSPL?
Would the detail and transition period accuracy of a condenser microphone be essential?
This leads me to the real point of this short article. To take the first step in the microphone choosing process, all you really need is to develop an understanding of the specifications of a microphone (those funny numbers and names that are written in the paper that comes with the microphone – readily available online). You don’t need to understand it all, but you need to understand enough to choose a microphone that on paper will thick all the boxes of your production needs.
Learning how to understand the specifications of a microphone (and their implication), is crucial in choosing and using a microphone correctly. (For more, you can have a look here:
That will narrow down the options substantially. Then the listening can commence.
Next week, we will be looking into the essential, yet forsaken art of matching a source to a microphone using your ears!
Read the previous article:
THE PERFECT MIC – PART 1