There is no more appropriate place to start speaking about recording studio equipment choices than the microphone. As an engineer first and owner of a retail company, I interact with hundreds of recordists, artists, and music producers every year, with varying degrees of training and professional success. From multiplatinum artists to weekend warrior hobbyists, newbies in their dorm room to Grammy winning engineers; many seem to be forgetting this fact: proper microphone selection is king. The answer to the oft-asked question, “how do I get a better sound?” Lies in how the sounds are captured. If instrumentation and arrangement have been made to the best of your ability, now it is time to capture your instruments just as you envision.
You’d like sweet and creamy bass? Hot and chocolaty toms? Loose and limber mellowing agent needed on your high hat? Agitated, slightly compressed cutting vocals? Roomy atmospheric backing vocals? Nearly all of the character that you need for your source can be captured with judicious microphone selection and placement.
The microphone is the primary instrument used to capture the essence of a sound source. Shaping the timbre of a source to fit within the context of a larger musical framework can, and most times should be made at the onset. Like a choice of lens, for angle and depth of field in photography, what better place to start by capturing the overall energy and timbre of the source properly than at the onset? Of course this choice requires vision, forethought, planning, trial and error, which can seem daunting to the untrained engineer. Is all of this effort choosing the right microphone truly worthwhile? Many budding engineers hope to skip this vital initial step, which seems to have somehow been marginalized by the overwhelming myriad of hardware and software processors available. How have we as engineers been led so far astray?
There are likely many contributing factors to these phenomena, so lets take them one at a time. First, marketplace and profit motive: manufacturers of gear would like you to purchase their gear! There are at least 25 software or hardware based processors released for every one microphone. If you were getting it right the first time with a microphone, retailers would certainly have much less to sell to you! “Are you telling me that you don’t have our latest and greatest nickel tranny, chicken head knob festooned, Bakelite bejeweled, made in china, designed in Germany, with good old American marketing, “suck removal” tool for your mixes?” This hype engenders something that most all of us fall prey too: gearlust.
I propose that this obsession with gear has biological, psychological, and social underpinnings, which we are not conscious of. I must confess that I too have been completely prey to the following at one point or other:
- Keeping up with the Jones’
- Magical thinking (this purchase will fix everything)
- Gear Envy
- Lack of education and field experience
These are all poor reasons to make a gear purchase. The following are clips taken at a symposium that LFA did at SAE Miami, where we tracked the same vocalist on a wide range of microphones, costing between $199, and $25,000k. The differences are not subtle. Perhaps each would be an excellent choice for a different source. Each has its own unique ability to accentuate different qualities in the source. Which is your choice? Is price a clear determinate of how well suited a microphone will be to it’s source?
Because there are a myriad of microphone designs, with pickups and circuit topologies of all sorts, I think it is a good idea to become familiar with each class of microphone and all of the subcategories within. We will go through these classifications one at a time, becoming familiar with their nuances in coming posts.