Do You Really Need That New Microphone?

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.

RECORDING SOUND

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.”

MISLEADING VIDEOS

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.

BRANDING

There are more things people take into account when choosing a microphone:

  • Brand recognition
  • Price
  • 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!)

PRICING

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?

Come on!

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.

STATUS SYMBOL

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. 

SILVER BULLET

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.

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

16 Responses to Do You Really Need That New Microphone?

  1. Paul Strikwerda

    Agents requiring a gear list is giving them an easy way to separate the wheat from the chaff without having to actually listen to any demos. It’s Like saying: Only of you own a Hasselblad camera we think you’re good enough for our roster. As if you can’t shoot great pictures with a Sony mirrorless camera.

    [Reply]

  2. Jon Gardner

    Great article Paul. I was filling out an application for representation from an agent recently who requires a listing of your recording equipment. That got me thinking about how people in the VO industry assign credibility. The message is out there: if you haven’t spent the big bucks, you aren’t really serious, because all of the highly successful people in the biz use big name gear. Your article helped me to re-examine my motivations and think differently about lower priced options, which is more true to my nature anyway. Thank you.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Agents requiring a gear list is giving them an easy way to separate the wheat from the chaff without having to actually listen to any demos. It’s Like saying: Only of you own a Hasselblad camera we think you’re good enough for our roster. As if you can’t shoot great pictures with a Sony mirrorless camera.

    [Reply]

  3. Pingback: Seven Signs You’re Not Meant To Be A Voice Over | Nethervoice | Nethervoice

  4. David Gilbert

    Once again, Paul, you peel back the curtain and shine a mirror on another unspoken truth in this industry. Most valuable for anyone coming into this business or those most concerned with how their booth “looks” instead of how it sounds. I picked up my e100S through a deal and couldn’t be happier. If/when I upgrade, I will endeavour to remember your wise words before I enter my credit card #! Have a wonderful weekend!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    With a mic like the CAD E100 S, you’re probably not going to need an upgrade any time soon. Great Choice!

    [Reply]

  5. Joshua Alexander

    SUCH. A good blog, Paul! I confess I’m guilty of 2 things: bowing to peer pressure to invest in my shiny 416 when I had a perfectly capable TLM 102, and placing too little value on mics that don’t cost a thousand dollars. Eye-opening investigation, my friend. Makes you wonder how many jobs I would book if I found AND TRIED a mic perhaps more fitting to my pipes, like maybe the Gefell or the Synco. I just probably won’t ever get there given I’ve got what I’ve got, and resale value will never reclaim the top dollar spent. Oh well. Sermon accepted nonetheless, and lesson learned to boot. Blessings on ya!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m dreaming of a COVID-free recording studio, filled to the brim with different microphones for me to try. Something like this exists online: https://www.audiotestkitchen.com

    [Reply]

  6. Paul J Stefano

    But…But…It’s fun to buy new mics!

    Great article as always.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m with you, and as a blogger I have the perfect excuse!

    [Reply]

  7. Michael Shishido

    Thank you for this. Guilty! I will remove that 416 from my Amazon wishlist. And I’ll work harder at honing my VO skills. While spending less time dreaming about expensive gear.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Dream about affordable gear instead. You’ll sleep much better!

    [Reply]

  8. Humberto Franco

    They usually say “the golden voice”… not “the voice with the golden mic”…

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    But mic makers often boast about “gold-sputtered diaphragms and XLR-connections.”

    [Reply]

  9. Sumara Meers

    “Most of us are recording one track mono. Not a symphony orchestra.”

    I love this, Paul! Great article, thank you. 🙂

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Glad you do, Sumara. It needed to be said.

    [Reply]

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