Albert Einstein and the Microphone Mystery

My story begins with a microphone. The Austrian Audio OC18 to be exact.

It’s a microphone I called “an instant classic.” This mic is mostly handmade in Vienna by people who used to work at AKG.

Click here for my impressions.

I’m not the only blogger who fell in love with this new microphone. Do a quick online search, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one bad review. No matter what you throw at it, the OC18 performs extraordinarily well. I think it offers exceptional value for money, especially for vocal applications. 

Inspired by my review, A Dutch colleague decided to take the plunge and order one. A week or so ago, he got in touch with me to say that he was disappointed in the OC18. He said he’d expected “a more beefy sound.”

He sent some sound samples of his new mic to two audio engineers in Amsterdam. One of them really liked what he heard and said that the OC18 made it easier to edit the recording in post. The other disagreed, and said that he had to add more bells and whistles to make it sound good, compared to the old microphone the talent was using, made by SE Electronics.

Same microphone recorded in the same home studio. Two professional opinions. Who is right and who is wrong? Or is there even such a thing as right and wrong?

THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

It was time for me to dig deeper. I asked my colleague to send me some raw OC18 audio from his studio. The sample sounded fine, but there was something strange going on. His OC18 had more lows than my OC18, yet he noted that his new mic “lacked the punch” he had been hoping for.

I firmly believe that you can never evaluate a microphone in isolation, or by looking at the spec sheet alone. After all, a cake recipe in a cookbook doesn’t tell you anything about how the cake is going to taste, and whether or not you will like it. It doesn’t even take into account how good you are at baking a cake.

As you no doubt know, a microphone is part of an entire recording chain with many variables. Every element within that chain can color the sound. On top of that, the recording space and the way we reproduce and analyze the sound, makes a huge difference to our perception.

I once attended a recording session at the famous Abbey Road studios, and the vintage Neumann U 87’s sounded majestic. Taken into a cramped voice over booth, that same, venerable microphone just didn’t do it for me. To my ears, the sound was a tad too muddy.

Well, I discovered that my Dutch colleague had his OC18 plugged into an Apogee Duet 2 preamp that’s been described as clean, quiet, and detailed.” I have an Audient iD22 in my studio that I would describe as clean, quiet, and detailed. As it turns out, even notoriously neutral preamps add some character to the mix. Perhaps that’s why my OC18 sounded brighter.

ANOTHER OPINION

Just to be sure he hadn’t bought a lemon, my colleague talked to Austrian Audio and had them listen to a sample. Their senior acoustic engineer Christoph Frank confirmed there was nothing wrong with the microphone. He suggested that my Dutch colleague was probably so used to the sound of his old microphone that the OC18 didn’t meet his expectations.

I have to concur. Our perception is constantly colored by our senses, our memories, and our expectations. 

You see, in order to function as a human being we are continuously comparing and adjusting. It’s an unconscious process. In order to determine whether or not we’re getting closer to our goal, we have to compare where we’ve been and where we are, to where we want to go. It’s a feedback loop.

Sometimes the place we want to arrive at is very concrete and explicit. For instance, if I want to go to the Easton Farmers’ Market, I have to know where it’s located and what to look for so I will recognize it once we get there. Then I get into my car, and as I am driving I am comparing where I am to where I want to be. Every comparison is a measurement. A judgment. The better the instruments are that I’m measuring with, the more precisely I can determine my progress.

But quite often, the goals we’re trying to reach are vague. So many people simply say: “I want to be better at….blank.” The question is “What do you mean by better? Compared to what?” That’s where the trouble begins.

I see so many colleagues on social media saying: “I want to buy a better microphone. Which one do you recommend?” This is immediately followed by a whole string of suggestions. The cure has already been offered without a proper diagnosis, and without knowing what someone’s criteria for a better microphone are, let alone the available budget.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

In this case my Dutch colleague wanted a microphone with “more oomph,” but what the heck is oomph anyway? “More oomph” means different things to different people, and is it even fair to expect more oomph from something that might not even be capable of delivering it?

As Einstein said:

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

The other question we’d have to ask ourselves is this: Are there other ways to give a microphone more punch, for instance by using some compression? Perhaps the mic is not the problem.

What I’m ultimately trying to get across is that your expectations are telling a lot more about you, than about the object of your anticipation. Expectations are mostly built on your past experience, your subjective taste, and your personal preference.

Part of our expectations also comes from social proof, such as the reviews we read and the videos we watch. I mean, if Mister Booth Junkie (whom I love) says this $250 Synco shotgun sounds exactly like a $1000 MKH 416, it must be true!

CONFIRMATION BIAS

Let’s face it. We can’t help being biased, and the tragedy is that so many people are not consciously aware of it. And here’s the kicker: I can make you biased if I want to!

For instance, if I would tell you that you’re about to listen to a recording that was made using a pricey Neumann microphone, chances are that you would give it higher marks than if I had told you it was done on some cheap Chinese brand you’ve never even heard of.

That, by the way, is the same reason why people are convinced more expensive wine tastes better. It’s an example of the confirmation bias where we favor ideas that confirm our existing beliefs and what we think we know. 

For most people, it’s hard to have an open mind, especially if you haven’t been taught to think critically, and you’re more of a follower than a leader. Just turn on the news, and see for yourself how confirmation bias colors people’s perceptions and actions. Our political affiliations do not matter. We’re all guilty.

Luckily, my colleague was aware of his limitations, and asked for outside help. After our conversation he invited a trusted audio engineer over to his home studio to test the microphone at the location where it would be used. In about two hours, the engineer carefully tweaked the settings of the Apogee Duet, and installed a few updates. He also adjusted the input levels which had been way too low.

In musical terms I guess one could say that he tuned the entire recording chain like a grand piano.

Once he was done, the Austrian Audio mic began to sing with a full dynamic spectrum. The clarity that had been missing was back, and the microphone now produces a rich and bright sound that totally flatters my colleague’s voice. He’s not going to send it back to Austria. That’s for sure!

The moral of the story? 

Be aware of your limitations, your biases, and your expectations.

In the studio, and in life.

In doubt, always ask an expert.

And never expect a fish to climb a tree.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Gear, Reviews, Studio

8 Responses to Albert Einstein and the Microphone Mystery

  1. Steve Stansell

    Great article Paul! You nailed it perfectly.
    This line that you wrote, sums it up best:
    “we favor ideas that confirm our existing beliefs and what we think we know.”
    I narrated an audio book called “Your Mind Is A Liar” and the message was, we believe what we believe based on conditioning from life experiences that we may not always be consciously aware of. Thanks for this read!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re so welcome, Steve. I firmly believe that we don’t listen with our ears but with our brain. All the years of conditioning have clogged our filters with good stuff and with bad stuff.

    [Reply]

  2. John McClain

    Excellent article, thank you! You touch on one of the most important but most overlooked things, setting levels too low, well said!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’d like my blog posts to be of a very high level, though 😉

    [Reply]

  3. Dan Lenard

    Just killer right on Netherboy!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you, mustache man!

    [Reply]

  4. Mike Harrison

    A “good” microphone is a device intended to convert analog sound waves into electrical signals (as our ears are) as accurately as possible, and send those signals elsewhere in an audio chain. That’s all. Any “oomph” must be produced elsewhere. 🙂

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    That’s what I thought. Yet, some people claim certain microphones have certain characteristics. Some are more susceptible to sibilance, others have a more pronounced proximity effect et cetera.

    [Reply]

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