What differences can you hear when comparing inexpensive and expensive equipment? As I do a lot of vocal recording, I'd like to splash out on a really good microphone. But how can I be sure that an expensive microphone is worth the money? What am I listening for?
Sarah Betts, via email
SOS Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns replies: The benefits extend far wider than just the sound, but basically you're listening for an improvement over your current mic, and you then need to decide if the price justifies that improvement, bearing in mind the law of diminishing returns. Going from a very low‑budget£50 mic to a mid‑range£200 mic will usually bring about very obvious sound improvements. Going from there to a high-end model £200 to £1000 will bring smaller improvements, which may not always be obvious. And going from there to a mic worth several thousand dollars £1000 to £5000 will bring smaller benefits still. Some people will believe the improvements are worth the expense, others won't!
However, you'll know immediately and quite instinctively when you find a mic that is well suited to your voice, and that doesn't always mean the mic needs to be expensive. If you're looking for a general-purpose mic, expensive usually equates to increased flexibility in use. But if it's a mic that will always be used on your voice and nothing else, finding a mic that suits your voice is the prime directive.
Sonic fidelity or accuracy is generally an expensive thing to engineer into a microphone, and the most expensive mics are generally pretty accurate. But recording vocals is rarely about accuracy. It's more to do with flattery, and different voices need to be flattered in different ways. When working with a new vocalist, I'll usually try a range of mics to see which one works best with their voice. Sometimes the most expensive mic gives the best results, but it's equally likely that it will be a less expensive model. U2's Bono famously records his vocals using a Shure SM58, and he seems happy with the results!
But, as I said, there's more to an expensive mic that just the sound. More expensive mics tend to be built to higher standards. They tend to include internal shock-mounting for the capsule, to reduce handling noise. They are thoroughly tested to comply with the design specifications and provide consistent results. Being better constructed, they tend to have longer working lives and can be maintained by the manufacturer relatively easily. They also generally deliver a very usable (although that might not necessarily equate to 'the best') sound whatever the source, without needing much EQ to cut through in the mix.
Less expensive mics often sound great on some things but terrible on others, often needing a lot of EQ to extract a reasonable sound within a mix. Often they're less well manufactured, which reduces their working life expectancy and, once broken, can rarely be repaired.