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 actor 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?
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.
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? The answer may surprise you.
DON’T JUDGE BOOK BY ITS COVER
Ultimately, it shouldn’t really matter what a microphone looks like. Clients are paying us for our sound, 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 a 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.”
Be honest: Does that help you make a $1,599 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? It only tells us that the maker is trying to sell his gadget to a wide audience.
Here’s a quote from the Sound On Sound review of the JZ Black Hole. You can usually count on them for an unhyped writeup.
“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 …”
Tell me, did that sell you on this pricey microphone?
The problem with words is that they are inadequate. They attempt to describe an experience or object, but they are not the experience/object itself. Words are always open to interpretation. That’s where the trouble starts.
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 if 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 (the voice-over mic I use), 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 s/he 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. If you’re not careful, your microphone might also produce a sharp s-sound (sibilance). Most of the time the narrator’s lack of technique is to blame.
• Was a pop filter used? A pop filter keeps a mic nice and dry and it softens plosives, but some filters muffle the sound like a dirty old sock.
• If a microphone has multiple settings, which setting was used during the test recording? Omni, cardioid, figure-8, or another setting?
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 in a Studiobricks booth? How was the microphone placed in relation to the narrator? The sound of a microphone differs depending on the acoustic environment. Microphone tests recorded in a manufacturer’s lab don’t reflect how that same mic will sound in your walk-in closet slash home studio.
• Two mics 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. 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.
• Preamplifiers used to bring the low-level microphone signal up to line-level, may add a subtle signature sound to the signal, too. You’ll often read that tube preamps are supposed to add “warmth” to the sound, whatever that means.
Of course, we also know that audio engineers use a bag of tricks to alter the sound of a mic, such as compression, equalization and all kinds of fancy filters to manipulate what comes out of the loudspeakers.
FROM RECORDING TO LISTENING
All those things happen in the recording studio. Now let’s look at how we receive the sound of that microphone we’re evaluating. What variables are we dealing with on that end?
• Is the sound file you’re listening to a lossless sound file such as FLAC, or is it compressed, such as an MP3? Compressed files take up a lot less space for faster downloads, but in order to achieve that, a lot of data needs to be deleted. Compression leads to loss of quality and clarity. Hint: all audio on YouTube is compressed. When’s the last time you watched a microphone shootout on YouTube?
• 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 we’re evaluating.
Compare listening to a track on your iPhone through cheap earplugs, to hearing it in a soundproof recording studio equipped with Genelec 8260A 390W Active Tri-amped studio monitors that cost over $5,000 each. 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 taste.
• 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.
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 video comparing the Prodipe Lamp Studio Pro ($299), the M-Audio Sputnik ($679) and the Neumann U47 ($1,599.95). As I watched the video, it told me when the engineer switched from one mic to the other. Click here to access the video.
I don’t know about you, but I found the differences between these mics to be very subtle.
I listened on my Beyerdynamic DT 880 Studio headphones, and when I closed my eyes, I often didn’t even hear when they moved from one mic to to the other. 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 brand name to play the game? Is expensive always better? Do clients even care?
This I can tell you: Making a wise choice based on online info only is virtually impossible and silly. When you change just one of the fifteen 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 specs can ever reveal the microphone that most flatters your voice in your recording environment with your recording setup.
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.
Should you always trust the dot-com critics that give a mic four out of five stars? Too many online reviews are actually written by people who are paid to say nice things about a product. Even some veteran voice-over colleagues you may trust, are compensated to endorse a brand. I’m not going to name names. Click here instead.
At the end of the day, you have to rely on your own judgment in your own studio, and ask a few professionals.
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. Maybe you’re a member of a voice-over meetup group. 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 seven-day inspection period. If you decide to send the mic back, you’ll pay for shipping, insurance and a 15 percent 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.
LET EXPERTS HEAR YOU
Once you’ve recorded a few audio samples with your small collection, send them to an expert such as Dan Lenard, George Whittam, Dan Friedman, or Roy Yokelson for evaluation. Take their feedback into account, and then make your choice.
I have to warn you, though. Playing around with gear can be way too much fun!
Eventually, you might end up like me – a hopeless gearhead for life.
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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