In the past few years I’ve become more and more of a gearhead. I like to look at new audio equipment; I like to read about it and I like listening to sound samples.
On any given day, I have to spend at least a few minutes studying reviews, gazing at pictures and drooling over obscure objects with buttons, switches, cables and meters.
Dear Abby: Is this weird and should I be worried?
I mean, my equipment is fine. There’s nothing wrong with my microphone and I don’t need another preamp. For a voice-over like myself, a simple studio setup will suffice, so why am I staring at all this stuff?
I know I’m not alone.
My photographer friends are always looking for the latest cameras, the best lenses or software that will revolutionize the industry. Musicians wonder what they would sound like on a new instrument. Professional chefs can’t wait to get their hands on a new set of sharp-looking knives. Even quilters go gaga over new gadgets. Why is that?
WANTS AND NEEDS
There’s a constant battle in our brain between our wants and our needs. It’s scary how good most of us have become at justifying purchases that make no logical sense whatsoever. All of this to answer the basic question:
What if I bought this new guitar? What would it do for my sound, my creative abilities… my career? What would this new high-tech camera allow me to do? Would I finally be able to take those impossible shots? And what about this new editing software? Could it save me time? Would it make my colleagues green with envy?
All these questions and unfulfilled desires can create massive tension inside an otherwise rational mind. No longer happy with what we already have, we start looking for the next best thing. And trust me: as long as we’re alive, there will always be a next best thing.
The industry feeds on our never-ending desire for new and improved products, and brands big and small are masterful at pushing all the right buttons at the wrong time.
SELECTING THE RIGHT GEAR
When it comes to selecting the perfect audio equipment, I have a hard time answering the following question:
Having decided on a budget, how do I know a certain product is right for me?
Let’s say I’m in the market for a new microphone. Is staring at pictures, reading reviews and listening to audio samples helpful? Ultimately, it shouldn’t really matter what a microphone looks like, don’t you agree? Clients are paying us for our sound and not because our JZ BH3 microphone has a hole in it.
So, if we forget about looks for a moment, are descriptions -whether from critics or manufacturers- actually helpful?
Take this JZ Black Hole mic as an example. The maker writes:
“fantastic vocal mic, is great on every application it is used. Unbelievable clarity and definition, smoothness and full transparency.”
Does that help you make a $1599 investment? Once you start reading up on microphones, you’ll be amazed at how many makers call their mic “great on every application.” It might be a true statement, but it doesn’t say much, does it?
Let’s pick a quote from the Sound On Sound review of the JZ Black Hole. Perhaps that can clarify things a bit:
“Tests with spoken word revealed a clear, well-focused sound that balances low-end warmth with high-end clarity, and because there isn’t much in the way of coloration, the Black Hole should work well as a general-purpose studio vocal mic (…)”
The problem with words is that they are inadequate. They attempt to describe an experience, but they are not the experience itself. Words are always open to interpretation. What I describe as a “smooth” or “warm” sound, is colored by my personal biases. If anything, it probably tells you more about me. This so-called “warm” sound, might be perceived by someone else as “muddy” or “dark”.
So, if words can’t properly describe a specific sound and looks don’t matter, wouldn’t it be helpful to listen to some recorded audio? Surely, that must be the best way to select a microphone online!
In my review of the Microtech Gefell M 930 Ts I wrote:
“It is easy to forget that any microphone is part of a recording chain, and when you change one link in that chain, everything changes. Of course the source of the sound is very much part of that chain.”
Let’s examine the variables in more detail:
• The person recording the track. Does he/she have a decent mic technique? Some mics are known for their proximity effect (bass boost) if you get too close. At the right distance, a mic might sound clear and open, but when you’re almost eating the thing up, listeners could get the wrong impression.
• Was a pop filter used? A pop filter keeps a mic nice and dry and it soften plosives, but some filters can muffle the sound.
• If a microphone has multiple settings, which setting was used during the test recording: omni, cardioid, figure-8 etcetera. Some mics have a low cut switch which activates a high-pass filter that reduces the amount of low frequencies in the output signal from the microphone. This obviously alters the sound. Some mics even come with multiple capsules.
• Where was the track recorded? In Carnegie Hall, at 3 Abbey Road, or on the factory floor? The sound of a microphone can differ depending on the acoustic environment. Microphone tests recorded in a lab don’t necessarily reflect how that same mic will sound in your walk-in closet slash home studio.
• Two of a kind don’t necessarily sound the same, either. Especially classic microphones go through some remodeling over time. The famous Neumann U87 has a vintage model, the U87i, and the current production version, the U87Ai (click here for more info).
Some engineers will even tell you that the two U87Ai’s they own do not sound the same. There’s a reason most manufacturers will sell you “matched pairs” of microphones for stereo recording.
• True audiophiles claim that the quality of the cables used to connect various pieces of equipment can make a difference in the quality of the signal and ultimately the sound. Others believe we might as well send a signal through a coat hanger wire and save ourselves a lot of money (click here for the story).
• Preamplifiers that are used to bring the low-level microphone signal up to line-level, may add a signature sound to the signal too. You’ll often read that tube preamps are supposed to add “warmth” to the sound. Of course we know that audio engineers also use compression, equalization and all kinds of fancy filters to manipulate what comes out of the loudspeakers.
FROM RECORDING TO LISTENING
• Are we listening on cheap computer speakers, high-end studio monitors or are we using headphones? The quality of these devices is in part responsible for the character of the sound.
Compare listening to a track on your iPhone through earplug headphones, to hearing it in a soundproof recording studio equipped with Genelec 8260A 390W Active Tri-amped studio monitors. Even the position of the speakers as well as the position of the listener in relation to those speakers needs to be factored in.
• In which acoustic environment are you listening? Sounds bounce off the walls and resonate differently depending on the shape, size and treatment of the room. Are you focused or distracted as you’re listening? That too can play a role in how you evaluate the sound.
• Hearing in and of itself is a subjective experience. It’s an attempt to understand the world around us. Mechanical sound waves are converted into electrical impulses and sent to the brain for processing. Once in our brain, the hearing centers go to the memory banks to localize and identify the sound. Think about someone’s tone of voice. Whether a sound is labeled as “pleasant” or “warm” is a matter of personal interpretation.
• Then there’s the issue of hearing loss. In a world that seems to get noisier and noisier, hearing loss is on the rise among young and old. It’s hard to make a precise measurement with faulty equipment.
• The last factor that’s influencing how we perceive the quality of in this case a microphone, is one of my favorites. It’s our perception. It’s deeply personal, and it can also be guided by culture.
We all suffer from selective thinking (and hearing), which allows us to notice and look for information confirming our personal beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias. One such belief could be that all microphones under $300 (especially those made in China) are rubbish. Another belief could be that Neumann is the best brand in the world.
Imagine listening to a mic test, knowing in advance which mic you’re going to hear. Do you honestly think it’s even remotely possible to be completely objective?
The other day I was watching a comparison between the Prodipe Lamp Studio Pro ($299), the M-Audio Sputnik ($679) and the Neumann U47 ($1,599.95). As you watch this video, it tells you when the audio switches from one mic to the other.
I don’t know about you, but I found the differences between these mics to be very subtle. I listened on my AKG K240 Studio headphones, and when I closed my eyes, I often didn’t even hear when they made the switch from mic to mic. Perhaps this unmasks me as a complete audio ignoramus. Perhaps it demonstrates that you don’t need a sixteen hundred dollar microphone to produce a decent sound. You be the judge.
The question that remains is this:
How on earth do you find out which microphone is right for you?
Do you really need a big name brand to play the game? Is expensive always better? This I can tell you: Making a wise choice based on online info only is almost impossible. When you change just one of the variables mentioned above, you change everything.
Factory specs tell you a lot about pickup patterns, output impedance, frequency response, and the self-noise of a mic. However, no one can define what you find aesthetically pleasing.
When researching your next mic, it might be tempting to listen to the snobs and self-proclaimed experts on the gearhead message boards. That can be a frustrating and intimidating experience. Can you always trust the various dot com critics that give a mic four out of five stars? Some online reviews are actually written by people who are paid to say nice things about a product.
MAKE UP YOUR MIND
Ideally, try to get hold of a couple of microphones in your price range and take them for a spin. Maybe a colleague in the area is willing to lend you some of his or her gear. Perhaps you can find a maker or a pro audio store willing to send you something on a trial basis.
Kam instruments for instance, gives you 7 day inspection period. If you decide to send their mic back, you’ll pay for shipping, insurance and a 15% restocking fee. It’s better than wasting a whole lot of money on something that doesn’t meet your expectations. Harlan Hogan’s VO: 1-A mic is sold with a no-questions-asked money back guarantee.
Once you’ve recorded a few audio samples with your small collection, send them to an objective expert such as Dan Lenard, George Whittam or Dan Friedman for evaluation. Take their feedback into account and then make your choice.
I have to warn you, though.
Playing around with gear can be a lot of fun.
Eventually, you might end up like me…
A hopeless gearhead for life!
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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