Do not buy a microphone until you have read this.

Do not buy a microphone until you have read this!

By Paul Johansen.

Disclaimer:

Please note many of the opinions and ideas expressed in this article are those of the author alone and while the advice given is with the best of intentions no responsibility will be accepted for any interpretation correct or otherwise that implies an error of judgment on the part of the author. If you follow any of the advice or ideas given the risk lies entirely with you. Some of the statements are highly controversial and I make no apology if they upset the purists out there. I make no comments that I would have problems proving in a blind test.

It is aways worth remembering that there is never any substitute for a top quality product and there is a saying that "we get what we pay for" but having said this, some of the cheapest mics in the world are now getting rather close in terms of their sound quality to some of the very best!

I have designed more than 50 products and done more than 200 hundred permanent installations, around 100 of them in nightclubs and bars. Many of these used equipment we built ourselves. I have also supplied the sound for thousands of concerts and live shows. I like to see my clients get good value for money and since you took a punt with your money on this article this goes for you to. All you have to do is read the following information carefully and if you take it on board you won’t be disappointed or make a silly mistake in buying a microphone. I have even included a section that explains how microphones actually work, so if you want to increase your knowledge base then please read this too and while it may not make you an expert on mics you will certainly have a much better idea about how they function.

This article is offered in an effort to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding microphones. If you have a need to purchase one or more then the following text will help you buy the one you really need rather than the one the salesman said you need and hopefully save you some money!

I have done my best to keep the language as simple as possible so that anyone with only a very basic knowledge of sound can understand it. Where possible confusing and complicated technical language has been deliberately omitted and avoided.

The simple fact is you only need a mic that is equal to the purpose for which you intend to use it for. Sure you can spend a lot more money if you like, whether it be for ego gratification or the hope it will outlast a cheaper one or because you think a particular mic may look flasher or feel a bit better in your hand but in the end it only needs to do the job, whatever your selected application may be. If money is not an issue then ask a reputable sound engineer what the best mic for your application is and go buy it! Don’t be surprised though if you are relieved of over $500 when you may have got an equivalent result for $80!

There is a great deal of myth surrounding microphones and a lot of this is due to the fact that the marketing companies are doing their jobs well. A mic is just a transducer. It only reproduces what is already there and if it adds something then there is probably something wrong with it. Macs pick up vibration movement in the air and convert it into signal level AC electricity that flows down a cable and into the input of an amplification system. Some microphones cost a lot of money and it is human nature to assume that because something costs more it must be better and in many cases this is quite true. But! This statement has been challenged since the arrival of the Chinese on the scene. Going back a few years it was common knowledge that anything with made in China written on it must be rubbish. You only bought a product with a Chinese origin if you wanted to save money or you weren’t very concerned with quality. In recent years however this situation has changed considerably to the extent that many Chinese products are not only worthy of more than a second glance, they actually out-perform some products that cost many times more. In the case of microphones the improvement has been just as significant with companies such as Superlux making some truly amazing devices that are hard to fault. Even if they were not priced so economically they would still be good value because they perform very well indeed. When you bring price into the equation the situation gets even more convincing and in a double blind test against a high profile brand you may well end up getting the two products mixed up!

Another issue worth mentioning here is the myth that you can only use mics in certain applications or they won’t work. This is largely balderdash although it is true to say that in extreme situations one pickup pattern (polar pattern) may work better than another and in other situations; high-level sound pressure that challenge the dynamic range should be a consideration. For example using lapel mics in a kick drum may not be such a good idea, while hanging kick drum mic around someone's neck would obviously look totally absurd and be very uncomfortable for the wearer! A lot of misconceptions prevail though and it is very easy to go along with this, if for no other reason than to look good in front of one’s peers. I remember working with a drummer on one occasion who was insisting that we use a Sennhieser 421 in his kick drum. I didn’t have one so I slipped an SM57 Shure into it without him knowing. Even with a drum fill fold back speaker full in his face he never knew the difference and he later thanked us for the awesome drum sound! So much for convention. Many soundmen would argue the toss about this of course and in an A B test may well be able to tell the difference between certain mics but on a cluttered stage with 18 mics in use there would be very few who if any who could name what mic was in place in what position when the band was playing and the PA was cranked up. Very often, all it takes is a little equalisation and knob tweaking for any two mics to sound identical in a live situation and this is generally not too hard for me to prove. There may be the odd guy with a really good set of ears though, who just might surprise me, and so I’d better not get to pedantic about this! There are exceptions to every rule.

Let’s discuss some key points about vocal mics.

Here is some of the up market brands sold in NZ: Shure, AKG, Beyer, Sennhieser, Neumann, Electrovoice, Rhode, Audio Technica. Sorry about those I have forgotten! These companies are among the well-established microphone manufacturers and have a high standard of quality and credibility but do tend to cost a lot of money. If you do not mind spending a lot then you cannot really go wrong buying their products but it could be argued that at least to some extent you are paying for a high profile name. It is not the intention of this article to downplay the efforts of any of these fine companies rather I have made the offer of saving you considerable money so this is what I have set out to do.

Vocal mics.

Vocal microphones are mics that we are led to believe have been designed and optimised to be spoken or sung into. There is no mystery about this and as far as sound quality and handling goes the main issues are outlined below.

Condenser versus dynamic mics.

If I was asked to generalise about the relative performance of these two technologies I would be inclined to say they can sound very similar indeed and in many situations almost impossible to tell apart.

Both these technologies have improved substantially over the years and get ever closer to the ideal specification. Condenser mics are associated with very good high frequency response and sibilance and are often used for miking musical instruments especially in classical situations where a high level of clarity is essential. They are often found being used as drum kit overhead mics and are also used to mic up hi-hats and snare drums. Much of these preferences come down to the individual engineers.

It has been said many times that they work very well with female voices. One disadvantage is that they need a power supply and this is usually provided by the mixing consoles - 'Phantom' Power supply or a small separate unit that has a battery or plugs into a mains wall socket. It is an unfortunate appendage that can make things awkward sometimes as its extra stuff to lug around.

Electret condenser mics have a battery that loads into the mics handle to provide power but this type are fading in popularity and are more easily overloaded than externally powered ones.

Dynamic mics don’t need a power supply making them easier to use than a condenser but may not have a frequency response that an engineer may consider good enough to mike up certain instruments in a recording situation. In the real world this rule is broken all the time and it often tends to come down to using what you have available, what you can afford and what you like personally.

Dynamic range, which is the measure of how well mics cope with loud sounds used to be an issue, but not anymore, with both capsule types having very good sound pressure level handling abilities. In all honesty I would say choosing between condenser and dynamic mics all come down to taste and personal preference.

Try both types and buy what you feel best about but don’t go too cheap if you are buying it for stage or recording vocals. Neither type like being dropped hard nor getting trodden on.

Frequency response.

Frequency response is how smoothly they reproduce the amplitude of the notes that are fed into them. Generally speaking the more you spend the better this is but remember you do not need mic that has a frequency response of 40 Hz to 18 kHz if you are only using it to run a raffle! Frequency response is what gives mic its characteristic sound and is very important in selecting mics. There is no such thing as a frequency response that is too good and developers are constantly trying to improve it. Remember that a mics characteristics are often altered by the way it is held especially if fingers or thumbs are wrapped around the pop filter by some vocalist who trying to look impressive. Also proximity effect (caused by a singer gobbling the mic) can boost the bass consderably.

Think about your application and don’t spend a lot of money if high performance is not necessary because it will not benefit you in any way at all. Most people would not have any idea if a radio announcer were using a Sennhieser MD 431.or a Wharfdale DM-3. Yet the difference in price is around $500! However there is very little or no chance of finding a Wharfdale DM-3 mic inside a broadcast studio because there is a serious credibility issue here. It comes down to the engineers who design these studios needing to look good in the face of their employers or competitors and others in the know who may see a cheap mic being used and use it as a criticism. These guys would tell you the Sennhieser sounds far better but they may very well fail a 'Blind test'. Especially if they were over 50 years of age.

Feedback characteristics.

The next issue of concern is the mic's feedback characteristics, which is how well it works close to, or in front of the loudspeakers without causing feedback. This is the loud mind-numbing scream that occurs when common sense deserts you and you get far too close to the speakers with the pointing towards the open cones. However this one is difficult to prove, without actually using the mic live and it is worth noting  that the difference between mics in this area is relatively small and not likely to be the main reason you would or would not buy a mic. It is a different story with highly directional mics called super or hyper-cardioids because the reason you buy this type of mic is because it is very good at not feeding back. Highly directional mics are used when an engineer either wants to avoid feedback in critical situations or is hoping to avoid spill from other sound sources he does not want in a recording. These mics are sometimes called shotguns because they are long like a rifle barrel. They are used for theatrical, broadcasting and recording use and should only be used by experienced people in specialised situations.

Handling noise.

Handling noise is an easy one to test. You just need to juggle the mic around in your hand and listen to how much rumbling sound comes from the speaker when you do it. If you only intend using the mic mounted on a stand then handling noise will not worry you but the vibration that may come up the stand from a loose or wobbly timber floor may, so you do need to think about this one. Handling noise is a problem often associated with low cost mics but not always. Beyer M88s are said to be one of the world’s best sounding ( and most expensive) vocal mics but the first time I tried one I was very disappointed by its poor handling noise. The sound quality was fantastic, but if I was going to handle it a lot I would need to be careful not to move it around too much. Excessive handling noise can also be caused by a faulty microphone. Usually where the capsule has broken away from its shock mounting system internally or the output connector has worked loose.

Handling balance.

This is only mildly important but you will need to consider this aspect of performance if you are a lead vocalist in a rock band or a soloist because your mic is likely to spend a lot of time in your hand.

What you are looking for here is an idea of how good it sits in your hand and how comfortable it feels when you hold it up to your mouth for a long period. You don’t want a mic that feels like it wants to fall forward in your hand or one that wants to slip out backwards. This is obviously easy to test.

Balanced XLR output connector.

This is an essential increment of any professional microphone. Never buy mics with a moulded cable or any other output connector fitted. XLR males are the industry standard and nothing else will do! Especially if you want any resale value!

Proximity effect.

This one is quite interesting. (Mentioned briefly earlier.) It is the effect that occurs when you sing very close to a microphones pop filter compared to how it sounds when you are a couple of inches away from it. Put simply it will sound 'Bassie' or boomy if you choose to gobble it. This effect can sometimes be increased if the hands are wrapped around the mic's pop filter deliberately by a vocalist. Some microphones use a filter that looks like a golf ball and this is done to place the capsule further back so proximity effect is reduced. You need to decide whether or not you like the idea of this effect or if you would prefer to avoid it. Mics with large pop filters are by their very nature more bulky but are less likely to suffer permanent damage if dropped and tend to remove wind noise better than pencil mics.

Pop filter type.

The two main types of pop filter are golf ball and pencils, so named as the result of their appearance. As previously mentioned the so called golf ball design has the prime purpose of placing the mic's capsule much further away from the effects of the high pressure breath output from the vocalist’s mouth. This extra isolation makes diaphragm overload less likely as the breath pressure has ample air space to escape without overdriving the capsule. This usually causes a low frequency woofing or popping noise that is considered undesirable and is characteristic of pencil mics. Instrument mics are often the pencil type as the breath pressure situation is never an issue. In normal instrument use there is little air movement, or impact as far as overall sound quality is concerned.

Voice compatibility.

 This is one of the more subjective issues and it is very hard for me to give you intelligent advice about this, because it comes down to a mixture of taste and impressions. The only test that makes sense in this case is to sing into various mics and at the same time record them. Listen very carefully to the playback result and then make your mind up about which one sounds best to you and perhaps someone who has an opinion you respect.

On off switches.

An on off switch can be a blessing or a big nuisance depending on your application. If it is accidentally moved during a performance it can be very embarrassing for you. At the same time if you wish to have conversation with your band on stage and you don’t want the audience listening to you it can be a good idea to have one. Kids can be a worry using mics with a switch, as they tend to fiddle with them.

Credibility.

 This is an issue if you want to look cool or convince others that you know your mics or think you do. Certain microphones have a lot of credibility and others don’t even though they might sound very good. Some of this has a lot to do with myth but not all of it. The more expensive Shure, Beyer, Sennhieser and AKG mics have a lot of cred. There is no doubt about this and some of this reputation is well earned. They sound nice, look good, feel good and have long been proven very reliable. BUT! There are much cheaper mics that do all this equally well and cost much less money. Remember though if you choose to go the cheaper 'Chinese' way, then make sure you do all the above tests or buy a mic that someone else has tested thoroughly and who’s opinion can be trusted. A real bargain is the Wharfdale DM-3 for about $50NZ which sounds amazing at the price. The Audio Technica Pro 4 at $90NZ is also great value for money and has more creed than the Wharf dale but I don’t think they sound as good. Superb mic for the money is the Superlux Pro 248 at about $120NZ which sounds close to Shures Beta 58 which is the updated version of the standard 58. Sennhieser's E825S is a good mic for around $80NZ. The Beyer Opus 39 has a good following and priced at around $120NZ.  It is worth the money if you want to own a top brand mic. The AKG D88 at $60NZ is also excellent entry-level vocal mic that is made by yet another high profile manufacturer.

Mid priced vocal mics that I believe stand out are the Shure Beta 58 at around at around $280NZ that has a nice smooth sound, the Sennhieser ME65, the Beyer M88 at $300NZ is a very versatile mic with a wonderful bass response and so is often also used in kick drums.

Possibly the most popular up market and most widely used professional vocal mic in the western world is Shures famous SM 58. The price of this mic was prohibitive for many years but more recently it has come down remarkably. At first listen this mic has a warm full sound that is very convincing indeed. However numerous engineers have commented on it’s over obvious presence peek at around 3 kHz and this annoyance resulted in the advent of the much acclaimed Beta 58 upgrade which has been a big improvement. As vocal mic the Beta 58 takes a lot of beating but there are plenty of much cheaper alternatives and the sound of some of these is extraordinary for the small outlay involved.

So how can I save you some money? (Or lots of money!)

It’s actually quite simple and while some may consider this technique slightly unethical, it involves retailers who make outrageous claims regarding discount prices so it makes good sense to me to play them at their own game! You shouldn’t have to look too hard to find a music dealer in your city whose advertising claims go something like this: "Definitely London’s lowest prices" and "We will not be undersold". The idea is to play both sides against the middle!

Firstly find out what the normal retail price of the microphone you are looking to purchase costs and ring the discount shark and ask him how much he will beat this price by. You will probably be offered a discount of about 10% but you may get lucky and do even better at 15 or 20%. Remember though he doesn’t really want to discount, as this carves up his margin and he will make much less money, so the first time round he may not give away much because he is not being played off against anyone else. Yet! Now go to another dealer who also has a reputation for offering better than retail prices and ask him if he will beat this already discounted price. If he won’t find one who will. Next, get the sales person to jot down the model number of the mic and his best price on his business card. This is important because you will probably only get one more bite at it before the shark catches on to what you are doing and backs away. Now go back to the first dealer, show him the card and ask what he will beat this price by. You are likely to save 20% or more by using this technique. Some of these stores are one step ahead and they will tell you to bring your cheque book or credit card with you to the shop before they will play ball. They are trying to avoid the veritable Dutch auction, which could see them caught up in a price cutting war with an opposition company that could mean no margin at all! If this happens just take along your best price so far and accept what they offer you. You will still do much better than retail price anyway. Discounters who do this are hoping to keep you coming back again and again. They are hoping you won’t always expect a cut price. Make sure you disappoint them and always use the above technique. It will often save you a packet. I got trade price on one occasion and saved over 30% so I know it works. Discount sharks are fair game and deserve all they get in my opinion. They put a lot of smaller less aggressive shops out of business so have no mercy on them. Just remember that discount sharks may not give you much in after sales service, so don’t expect much help if what you purchase fails under warrantee. By law they must still honour any manufacturer’s guarantees but there is no law against doing this very slowly!

Somw radio mic's can be drastically improved by changing the capsules!

Mipro is one of several radio microphone manufacturers who can make a very good tranciever but questions often get asked about the performance quality of their capsules. The following describes a way of modifying a Mipro handheld by fitting Beta 58 capsules to them. The result is a surprising improvement in sound quality that takes up to the strandard of some mics cost 4 times as much money.

I had a contact that I knew was one of our countries best wireless mic service men so I asked his advice about what I could do about substituting capsules. He told me that Micro made a diversity transceiver hand held system that had circuitry that was very similar to the most expensive Shure system. It was not a direct copy but it was fairly close and very well proven so I purchased the four of these systems at around $800 per channel each. I then telephoned the Shure master agents and ordered four Beta 58 hand held’s and removed the pop filter assembly and capsule from the bodies. This only took me a matter of a few minutes per mic and most good technicians could do it with their eyes shut. Next I did a sketch of an aluminum adaptor so the thread on the Shure Pop filters would mate to the Micro bodies. A local engineering company turned these up on an NC lathe and I had them in my hand within a couple of days. I was then easily able to solder on the lead in wires and screw the capsules and pop filter assemblies to the Micro bodies and found the sound was almost indistiuishable from the original sound of the Beta 58's! 

I have not tried, but it is possible to adapt many other brands of capsule to the Micro body as well, just as it is no doubt possible to upgrade many other brands of hand held transmitters in order to improve their vocal quality.  It is just matter of doing an accurate drawing of the adaptor and finding an engineering company (and they are everywhere) to match up the thread for you and then getting an electronics tech to do the simple soldering job and pad adgustments for you. The Mipros I own have been brilliant with no drop out with dozens of channels available, so you won’t ever have a frequency conflict. They have a very nice coulored LCD display that even gives you the battery status, RF and audio signal levels as well as frequency and channel numbers. The sound quality has never been questioned by anyone who has used them and the two double A batteries last about 12 hours which makes them highly economical.

Some other money saving ideas.

JTS and several other Chinese manufacturers make Shure look-alike mics that we have found difficult to tell apart from the real thing. Be careful here though because we have also come across fake radio mics with an illegal Shure label on them that were rubbish! Companies who put false brand names on their crappy mics are no more than laothsome crooks in my opinion.

Mic clips.

Always buy unbreakable mic clips. They cost a bit more but will never break and they don’t scratch the paint of the mic's body either.

Wind filters.

You can save a lot of wear and tear damage to microphones that may well end up on the stage floor if you leave a foam wind filter on it. If it falls face down on the floor the filter won’t be dented and the capsule is far more likely to survive the impact.

PZM microphones.

You can easily spend $800 or more on a Shure, Crown or Beyer PZM mic. I bought a Yoga BM-26 from Jaycar for the princely sum of $54. We placed it inside a kick drum in use at the time by one of our rehearsal studio bands and ran a cable out into a large PA rig we were testing on our factory floor at the time. The darn thing sounded amazing. No equalisation was used and we had a perfect kick drum sound coming from the speakers. We could not use this mic live because of the credibility issues but there is nothing stopping you from doing so yourself unless you would rather spend $800 to look cool!

Cases.

If you want to put your precious mic collection in a sponge lined flight case you could buy one from a case company for $250 or so. We found some at a Mitre 10 hardware store that were perfect for the job for $60.

Clip on drum mics.

These can cost a small fortune but they can save you the cost of a $120 mic stand and they are fast to set up and remove. They often come with a small pinch clip to hold them to a drum rim or saxophone bell.

I know of an opposition company that paid $5 each for some computer lapel mics from a surplus store and used pipe cleaners to hold them on to violins and milked up an entire NZ string section with them. The end result was never questioned. The saving to College Hill was thousands of dollars!

Headmics.

 

The good thing about headmics is that they overcome poor mic technique because they move with the head and always stay the same distance from the vocalist’s mouth. I was short of headmics for a big high school theatre production. Instead of spending around $350 each on buying new ones I made them instead. I used some short lengths of stainless steel wire to form the headbands and combined this with heat shrink and AKG lapel mics. I then painted them with skin collared lacquer. The saving was around $250 each! I still use these and they function perfectly. They can be easily bent to fit the different shapes and sizes of kids' heads and are quite comfortable. 

Musical instrument mics.

You would be surprised what you can get away with here especially if you are using one mic per instrument. Some instruments have very little harmonic content and so with a little equalisation (tone control adjustment) you can get a sound from a cost effective mic that will rival that from one costing considerably more. This is not to say there will be no discernable difference but the difference will probably be insignificant and unless it is a piece of junk that picks up everything under the sun you will get an acceptable result from mics costing as little as $80 each in many cases. STL, CAD and MXL all make some very nice sounding phantom powered condenser mics for this kind of money that sound as good in this application as many products costing several times as much from the up market manufacturers like Sennhieser, Neumann or AKG.

If you can substitute a direct inject (DI) box for a microphone you will greatly reduce the spill from other instruments that get into microphones not intended to pick them up. DI boxes generally speaking have the ability to reproduce an instrument with great accuracy and eliminate spill at the same time so this is worth doing especially when you consider that a passive DI box can cost as little as $50.

Serviceability.

Keep in mind that most low priced mics are what we call throwaways. Thney also have very poor resale value. This means that if you accidentally drop it and it fails, you are unlikely to be able to purchase a replacement capsule for it. Therefore rather than repairing it you are more likely to find yourself throwing it away. On the other hand all the upper market mics I know of are repairable but at a price. You may find that the capsule is not that much cheaper than buying a new mic with the capsules costing more than twice that of a Superlux or Wharfdale mic's retail price.

For any further information on this or other topics please call Paul Johansen on Ph: 444 8776

 


Stage Sound Enterprises

Stage Sound Enterprises Ltd
Unit 4-77 Porana Road, Glenfield, North Shore, New Zealand
Phone: 09 444 8776 Email: info@soundman.co.nz
Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 9 AM to 6 PM