Monday, February 11, 2013

Is the price of those swanky mics really worth it?

V/O Studio Gear Test:
Is the price of those swanky mics really worth it?
Over almost twenty years in broadcasting I attempted just about every conceivable method to get my voice to fit into the barrel of the microphones used in so many studios across the geography of our great land.  As an on air personality and production talent inside the radio station you are subject to whatever the engineer and IT department conjure up.  The following is an observation of what might have happened along the way down the yellow brick road of radio audio. 
The radio station engineer is generally skilled in the deeply analytical aspects of radio.  That is to say, that he knows how to whoop up some handy hand-made cables in a jiffy and put together an entire radio station in enviable do-it-yourself fashion.  What seems to be missing is the fine tuning of the glorious capture of the many unique voices within the establishment? The IT department, you may find, is primarily worried about file size and space as opposed to optimizing the sound card and pc for superstar audio performance.  There are many variables to consider and I am in no way indicating less than admiration for the two aforementioned professionals.  Now back to the microphone.   
First a bit of a disclaimer: Everyone’s voice tones are unique and there really isn’t a perfect one-size-fits- all in mic world.  There may, however, be a one size gets darn closer.  Actually, I should offer one more disclaimer.  The room is really, really , really important, ok? Ok! The mic I used more than any other in my fulltime work inside a radio station was the Electro Voice RE20 and RE27.  Prior to those was the Sennheiser 421 behind which I never thought that I sounded very good.  My first station had one of these on the FM side and I did a weekend show on the AM on the other side of the glass which had a Shure SM57 (yes the one used a lot for acoustic guitar and as a cheap stage mic).  For the RE 27 and 20 I never seemed to get the 27 to not sound very metallic and unnatural no matter how much crafty selecting of all those roll off switch options.  The EV 20 and 27 are supposed to be about the same; however I always thought the older 20 sounded a bit more natural. 
I should say that the mic pre into which these mics are plugged can do a great deal to make things much worse or much better.  Inside the radio environment the mic pre’s are usually our of air talent reach so us crazy on-air folk don’t run into the production room in a fit of inspiration and try to make ourselves artificially sound like the voice of God speaking to Moses during that “lift the staff and part the sea” episode.  You see audio is a tricky thing and what may sound like a good idea at the time might later reveal itself as not so glorious after all.  So the ongoing question across the great round earth is. . .”when will I die?”  No! It’s, “is the price of those swanky mics really worth it?” My answer, MAYBE.  Sorry, I know you were hoping for closure here.  The closure, it turns out, comes from seeking for your particular voice which mic and pre brings out all that you have to vocally offer for the betterment of humanity.  After years of scrounging around, trying to nickel and dime together something other than the real deal, I finally put the dollars on some real pro stuff.  My primary mic in the studio is a Neumann TLM 103 with a Safe Sound P1 mic pre.  This works for me.  It’s not a U87 and costs about half.  You may find that a mic that costs half of half of a U87 is the perfect fit for you.  Often you may hear from big boy studios that you should never add any or hardly any eq or compression to the voiceover, I now understand what they were talking about.   

When I record with this setup, it is top shelf on the raw playback.  If you find that you can’t seem to fit your entire voice down the barrel of the mic that you are stuck with, be assured that there probably is a mic out there that will one day make you very happy and it will be well worth every penny you spend on it.  And, get the room right, ok! Ok! Additionally you may notice that performing in front of a mic that represents you well is much easier and you may even find a new voice and increased capabilities.  You may find it to be, well, fun. 

Honorable mention goes to the Shure SM7B.  It is a pretty widely used radio station microphone and I like it better than the others mentioned above.  

-Don M.