Did you know that two of the so-called “industry standard” voice over microphones were never specifically designed to record voice overs? Come to think of it, no microphone I know of, was ever developed for voice over work only.
Even Harlan Hogan’s VO: 1-A mic was based on an older MXL Model. According to recordinghacks.com, the frequency-response graph is identical to that of the MXL 2006, which also shares the VO: 1-A’s body and grille. Is that a coincidence?
THE KING AND THE SHOTGUN
Let’s talk about a true industry standard. Neumann’s venerable U87. It’s a versatile all-round studio microphone designed for single miking acoustic instruments such as strings and woodwinds, as well as vocals. It was never built to live in cramped voice over booths, and in poorly treated rooms it is extremely unforgiving.
Had it been up to Sennheiser (the company that now owns Neumann), their celebrated MKH 416 shotgun mic would never have made it into the voice over studio. It would have stayed on the boom pole it was developed for. But thanks to the antics of announcer Ernie Anderson, it became a VO staple in many studios.
Ernie didn’t like that audio engineers and session producers were always talking about him while he was in the soundproof booth, so he insisted on joining them in the same room. The engineer on duty grabbed the most directional mic he could find to record in the control room, and that happened to be a 416.
According to someone who worked with him, Anderson never insisted on only using a 416, but word got around and other promo guys started doing what he was doing. It was only a matter of time before engineers in the LA area got used to the sound of VO’s close-miking the 416, and the rest is history.
Now, the original 416 was developed way back in the seventies to capture dialogue on film sets. It became popular for two reasons. To quote the B & H website:
“The directivity of the MKH-416 reduces the amount of background noise through off-axis rejection, and its small diaphragm capsule helps improve the directivity of its high-frequency pickup while reducing the effect of plosives from compromising the recording (“popping”).
The second reason for the MKH-416’s reputation is the durability of its construction, its resistance to humidity, and its usability outdoors.”
As a voice over I don’t care that my microphone can survive in Antarctica and the Amazonian rain forest, but the ability of a shotgun mic to pick up my voice and not much of my surroundings is very useful, especially in rooms that are not built to keep ambient noise out.
That’s precisely what I discovered when I moved into my new studio space a few months ago. It’s a generous 14′ by 11′ by 9′ basement room with no isolation, just absorption panels for dampening and deflection. I don’t need to be surrounded by triple walls because there’s barely any ambient noise in the secluded Vermont area I live in.
My noise problem came from inside: the adjacent boiler room that has a pretty loud furnace that likes to kick in at the worst of times. On top of that I didn’t like the sound I captured with my trusted Gefell M930 Ts.
In spite of the installed bass traps and acoustic panels, the room sounded a bit too hollow to my ears. When I used my Synco D-2 shotgun microphone, however, the room sounded nice and dry. That’s because the Synco has a hypercardioid pattern as opposed to the Gefell’s cardioid pattern. (click here for more on polar patterns)
I had been using the Synco on and off for about twelve months, and not once did a client complain. On the contrary. They liked my new punchy sound. But I have to be honest. Advertising myself as a “Synco talent” doesn’t exactly instill confidence in a new client or agent. As much as I would like them to evaluate me purely on my talent and on the quality of my home studio setup, I felt it would be wise to invest in a new microphone of a brand most people would recognize and trust.
So, the search for a new microphone was on!
LOOKING FOR MY FOREVER MIC
Why didn’t I just buy a 416, you may wonder? It has earned its reputation, and with good reason. My motivation is simple: a microphone has to fit the voice that’s using it without any correction or sweetening in post. That’s my rule of thumb.
I have used the 416 many times in professional recording facilities, and I never sounded my best. That’s because I have a light tenor voice and the 416 has a hyped high end. This is a relic from the tape era in which it was developed. The high end boost also comes in handy when using the shotgun mic with a deadcat or zeppelin. These wind shields muffle the sound and you can add clarity with a heightened presence boost. It’s a boost that makes my voice sound overly bright and sibilant.
With the 416 ruled out, I looked at Rode shotgun microphones. The NTG3 (with a somewhat extended low end) was supposed to be the Australian answer to the 416, and their new and much cheaper NTG5 earned high praise from the team at The Pro Audio Podcast.
In fact, they preferred it over the MKH 416, especially because it was using the latest technology at half the price ($499 versus $999). But like it or not, Rode still doesn’t have the same reputable ring as Neumann or Sennheiser. In fact, the NTG3 is sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s 416.” Yuck!
I market myself as a premium voice, and such a voice has to have premium equipment.
A 416, BUT EVEN BETTER
That brought me to the microphone Sennheiser released in 2011 to succeed the 416: the MKH 8060 (see photo). I believe the only reason they didn’t retire the outdated 416 was because people kept asking for it.
Before forking over $1500 on an 8060, I did my research. I visited all the forums where experienced gear geeks congregate, and discovered that most commentators thought the 8060 was the “sweeter, lighter, and less noisy, better overall mic.” “It has less distortion and sounds more natural and uncolored while still being very directive.” But these are just words, of course.
Sensitivity refers to how hot a microphone is. Sensitive microphones need less signal boost from a preamp which results in cleaner recordings. The lower the number in the specs, the hotter the microphone is.
There’s an added bonus for voice overs. If your microphone is more sensitive, you can stay further away which leads to less popping. PersonalIy, I prefer a more sensitive microphone for medical reasons. After my stroke in March 2018, I lost my vocal stamina. I cannot project as much, and my vocal folds tire out more easily. These days I tend to speak at a lower volume making my voice last longer. The MKH 8060 picks up my voice perfectly, even when I speak softly.
To illustrate: when I’ve plugged in the Austrian Audio OC18, I have to set the gain of my SSL2+ preamp at five ‘o clock. It almost needs as much gain as a dynamic microphone. But when I plug in the 8060, the gain is at twelve ‘o clock!
Self noise (or equivalent noise) is noise produced by the microphone itself even when no sound source is present. Cheaper mics tend to have more self noise (a faint hiss), which translates in higher numbers and a less clean recording.
Here are some of the microphones I was comparing. The first number refers to sensitivity, and the second is self-noise (SN):
Synco D2 -32, SN 12 dB A-Weighted
MKH 416 -32, SN 13
Rode NTG 3 -30, SN 13
Sennheiser MKH 8060 -24, SN 11
Rode NTG 5 -23.5, SN 10
As you can see, the NTG 5, which retails for a third of the 8060, outperforms the Sennheiser by just a bit. I don’t think these differences are even audible, and clients never get a side-by-side comparison anyway. These numbers do demonstrate how much more sensitive and quiet the new 8060 is, as compared to the 416.
This should also tell you that it’s not a microphone for beginners. This mic hears everything that comes close to it and will reproduce it as realistically as possible. That’s why it is a favorite of foley artists. Good mic technique is a must.
The comment I heard most when I shared an 8060 audio sample was that I “never sounded more like me.” You can interpret that any way you want, but I took it as a compliment.
BUT HOW DOES IT SOUND?
This is always the hard and unfair part, because the same microphone can sound different, depending on the recording space, the mic placement, the equipment it is plugged into, and the person using it. Plus, you’ll be listening to it on your studio monitors, headphones, or earbuds which color the sound as well.
To my ears, the MKH 8060 sounds less in-your-face than the 416. It is more refined and does not accentuate the highs in my voice as much. The microphone is still clear without sounding shrill. The pickup pattern is a bit more forgiving compared to the 416. This means I can move more without running the risk of my sound discoloring when I’m not precisely in front of the microphone.
I don’t own a 416, but I can let you listen to a comparison between the Synco D-2, and my new microphone. The audio has not been processed in post, I just turned the file into an mp3 for faster loading. A warning: it gets a little louder when I move to my new mic because it’s a hotter microphone.
If you’re interested in more comparisons, YouTube is your friend. Just be aware that most people comparing shotgun microphones are not voice overs but people who evaluate microphones for their use on (outdoor) film sets. And also know that YouTube uses compression, which negatively influences the quality of the audio.
It’s worth remembering that shotgun mics don’t magically make a distant source sound closer, they just help isolate it from its surrounding noise. If you’re far from the sound source they will pick up ambient sounds in addition to whatever you’re pointing the mic at. That long interference tube is for rejecting off-axis sound. So, how well does the MKH 8060 do in terms of rejection? After all, it is a bit shorter than the 416. Have a listen.
You may say that it’s a little unfair to compare a $249 microphone to a $1500 shotgun mic… except… I didn’t pay $1500 for the 8060. I found a previously loved one for $999 at Music Go Round in Greenfield, Wisconsin. It was in pristine condition. Not a scratch or dent, and I think that the Nextel® coating just looks very classy. By the way, it is resting in a Rycote InVision INV-7 HG mkIII Microphone Shock Mount.
If the MKH 416 is considered an industry standard microphone, and the 8060 is the new and improved version, why hasn’t it caught on the way the 416 did? I think people have a tendency to go with what they know. Plus, $999 is already a lot of money for most people, let alone $1500.
To me, the 416 is technology from the seventies. It’s a relic from the past.
Solid, but surpassed.
PS If you’re thinking of buying a new voice over microphone, here’s an article I have written especially for you. Click here to read it.