George, a reclusive, world-renowned wildlife photographer, was invited to a posh dinner party at a New York brownstone. His host, a vivacious heiress to a rapidly declining fortune, took him aside and said:
“George dear, I want you to know that I am a huge fan of your work. Your photographs are simply stunning. You must only use the very best cameras.”
Without missing a beat George retorted:
“Thank you for your kind words, Dorothea. Dinner tonight was absolutely divine. You must only use the best pots and pans.”
Dorothea was not amused, but George had made his point. Even the most expensive cameras or pots and pans are of little use in the hands of an amateur. They are tools. Nothing more, and nothing less.
The same is true for microphones. Owning a pricey Neumann U 87 Ai just tells me you can afford one. It doesn’t say anything about your talent or experience.
Even if you happen to be better than Don LaFontaine and Mel Blanc combined, that new Neumann is not going to make a poor performance or a crappy recording environment sound any better. It will probably expose all its flaws. You can’t fault the microphone for that of course, but it goes to show that you cannot fix everything with a more expensive mic.
If you’re in the market for a different microphone, ask yourself this:
Apart from wanting a new toy to impress my colleagues, what problem am I hoping to solve?
Here are a few valid reasons to buy a new mic:
- SOUND QUALITY: Your current microphone just doesn’t flatter your voice. It’s too muddy, too dark, it accentuates the highs too much, it doesn’t handle plosives or sibilants very well, there’s way too much self noise.
- TRAVEL: You need a sturdy mic for on the road; a microphone that’s built like a tank with excellent side and rear rejection so you can use it in less than ideal recording environments.
- SOUND MATCH: Your client wants you to closely match the sound quality of previous recordings done in another studio at another time. E.g You recorded a script using a Sennheiser 416, and you only have a Neuman TLM 103 in your home studio. Time to buy a shotgun.
- UPGRADE: You want to move from a cheap USB microphone to a regular XLR condenser mic. Go ahead. Exchange that Snowball for a Worker Bee.
- COMMUNITY SERVICE: You are a vlogger or blogger like me who enjoys reviewing audio equipment to inform, entertain, and educate the unwashed masses.
Before you start the search for a new sound catcher, here’s what you should consider.
THE MICROPHONE MISTAKE
I believe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we evaluate microphones. We talk about them as if they’re separate entities.
We compare the specs pretending they tell us anything about the way the mic is going to sound as part of the recording chain and acoustics in our personal studio. That just doesn’t make any sense.
Of course you should be familiar with the basic characteristics such as polar patterns, self noise, phantom power and whether or not the mic comes with high and low pass filters. Anything beyond that is just marketing mumbo-jumbo and fluff.
And even when you read the specs, keep in mind that manufacturers measure the characteristics of their microphones in anechoic chambers. In other words, ultra isolated, echo-free rooms covered in sound absorbent materials that come nowhere close to the repurposed clothes closet you call your “professional home studio.”
I’m pretty sure that in your search for the next best mic you’ll spend a few hours, even days, watching a parade of mic testing dudes on YouTube. For some silly reason, only men review microphones. Usually, they’re either videographers with too much time on their hands, or musicians that look like they were kicked out of their bands.
Here’s the one exception, and I think she’s absolutely adorable.
Apart from voices dot com-member and Booth Junkie Mike Delgaudio, and the team at VOBS, there are very few people from the voice over industry weighing in on the tools of their trade. That’s a problem (and an opportunity!).
You don’t need to know how a mic sounds on electric guitar, or on a boom arm, fifteen feet up in the air. All you really need to know is this:
How does my voice sound on this microphone, plugged in to my equipment in my studio?
And that, my friends, you won’t find out by watching a dude like Bandrew on YouTube. You won’t even know what a microphone really sounds like because of the standard compression YouTube applies to every video.
YouTube uses a lossy audio format, meaning that any audio has been compressed using a compression algorithm. Compression leads to loss in sound quality and how aggressive the compression is can be determined by the bit rate of the audio. So, a 128 kbps AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) will sound worse than a 256 kbps AAC. Standard YouTube audio comes in at 128 kbps AAC, and you can only get 256 kbps if you’re a YouTube Premium subscriber. As a comparison, Apple Music is streamed at 256Kbps in AAC.
Are you still with me?
HOW DO YOU LISTEN?
Not only is the sound quality of YouTube videos purposely compromised, the folks reviewing these microphones are probably not going to use the preamp you happen to have in your studio. The same microphone can sound differently plugged into a different preamplifier.
Now get this. What you actually use to listen to the audio samples, also colors what you hear. I listen to my audio in four ways: I use the built-in speakers in my iMac, and I listen to my Presonus Eris 5 monitors. I also put on my Beyerdynamic DT 880 headphones, as well as my Austrian Audio hi-X55 cans.
And guess what? The same audio sounds different depending on how I listen to it.
Our ears, by the way, aren’t exactly objective either. Hearing is interpreting. A sound engineer will hear things in your audio you aren’t even aware of. And you are probably the least objective person in the world to evaluate your audio.
There are more things people take into account when choosing a microphone:
- Brand recognition
- Peer pressure
Before I started writing about the E100 S, very few people in voice overs had ever heard of a small Ohio company called Conneaut Audio Devices (CAD). Yet, they were making one of the best VO mics on the market.
When I tell the average voice over colleague that I have an Austrian Audio OC18 microphone and a Gefell M930 Ts in my booth, they look at me with wonder and confusion. I then tell them that Austrian Audio came from AKG, and Microtech Gefell was founded by Georg Neumann.
Just because you haven’t heard of a particular brand doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. In fact, you will often get more bang for your buck by not buying a well-known brand because you’re not paying for a massive marketing machine. (A review of a Lauten Audio microphone coming soon!)
Now, let’s talk about the price of a voice over microphone. It’s a story about the law of diminishing return. Once you get past the $300 point, the more money you spend on a new microphone, the greater the chance that you’re paying for subtle improvements in sound quality most people won’t even be able to hear.
An affordable microphone isn’t necessarily a bad microphone.
Case in point: I just paid $156 for a brand new Synco D-2 microphone I found on eBay. Yes, that’s the one Minami was giggling about in the video you just watched.
Synco is actually Guangzhou Zhiying Technology Co., Ltd in China. Their D-2 is marketed as a cheaper alternative to the venerable Sennheiser MKH 416 that retails for $999.
Even though Mike Delgaudio couldn’t hear a difference between the Synco and the Sennheiser, some reviewers miraculously concluded that these two mics are not the same.
Wow! Stop the presses!
Here’s my point. Launched in 1962, the 416 may have the edge, but does it sound $843 better?
I just booked a $1500 job with the Synco, and the client loved the punchy sound. He didn’t ask:
“Can you please record the same script with a Sennheiser? I’d like to hear the difference!”
In the real world, clients don’t say: “I missed a bit of the airiness in the upper register the 416 is known for.” The audio is either acceptable, or it isn’t.
The truth is that so-called experts are more likely to give the Sennheiser higher marks because they know it’s the Sennheiser, just as higher-priced wine will score better on a taste test. It’s called cognitive bias.
Here’s the thing with high-priced mics. They’ve become a status symbol in the VO world. Look what I can afford, people!
Well, good for you.
Feeding my family is more important to me than impressing a peer with new gear.
But Paul, when I buy a German microphone, I know it’s made of high-quality materials. I don’t want a cheap Chinese knockoff.
Fine, but let me ask you this.
Do you know how many of these high-quality German microphones actually use parts that are Made in China? Try living your life for one year without buying anything that contains anything made in China. One of my friends actually did that. He only wanted to Buy American, and found out it was impossible.
That wasn’t his fault. It’s the way big corporations work. Buy cheap materials, pay as little as you can for manufacturing, and sell at a premium. It’s Western-style capitalism, courtesy of the People’s Republic of China.
But I digress. We were still talking about microphones, and I’m about to wrap things up.
What I wanted to say is this:
STOP being such a mic snob. Most of us are recording one track mono. Not a symphony orchestra. When narrowing your search for a microphone down, ignore most of the self-styled experts telling you what to look for in a mic.
You don’t look. You LISTEN.
In your own studio, using your own equipment.
And while you do that, think about the problem you want to solve.
And maybe, just maybe, your microphone is not your problem. Mic placement could be an issue, or a failing preamp.
Maybe you could benefit from some acting and improv classes… or some additional soundproofing. Just a guess.
The thing is…
Owning an expensive camera does not make you an award-winning photographer. Buying the best pans at Williams-Sonoma does not turn you into a Michelin-star chef.
No matter how shiny it may look, a microphone is not a magical silver bullet.
You bring the magic. The mic just records it.