No two human voices are the same, and no mic will be the perfect fit for every voice — so just how do you go about finding the best match for a vocalist?
We've published countless reviews of microphones of all shapes, sizes and prices in the pages of SOS over the years, but how often do you see us write something along the lines of "but every voice is different, so do your best to try before you buy”? Why is it, you might wonder, that we can't simply tell you what's the best vocal mic you can get within your budget?
A review can tell you plenty about the sonic characteristics and build qualities of a microphone, and while it's easy enough to find information about the frequency response of most mics (via the handy and comprehensive www.microphone‑data.com web site), the characteristics of all mics are complex — and those of each voice even more unique. So, although it's possible to identify a mic that's likely to be a solid all‑rounder, there's no way to tell just how a mic will work with a given voice unless you can try them together.
This presents many readers with an awkward problem: if you have a limited budget and/or are stuck in the back of beyond, it's not easy to try out a lot of mics before buying. With this in mind, we decided to bring a few vocalists together and audition them on a range of mics at different price points. We were keen to see how some capable performers with little experience of mic auditioning would react — whether they'd hear much of a difference between mics, which factors would affect their preferences, and whether there was an obvious 'stand‑out' mic for each of the vocalists.
So, last month, Hugh Robjohns, Paul White and I visited the University of Westminster in Harrow, North West London, roping in four vocalists from the second year of the university's BMus Music Performance degree to do exactly that — and also captured some audio files from the sessions, which you can download and hear for yourself (see the 'Audio & Video On‑line' box for details). This article sets out how we went about the sessions, gives an account of the subjective comments we made about the sound of each mic in relation to each voice, and attempts to draw some more general conclusions about how you can go about comparing mics for yourself. Some of the results came as little surprise — but others were pretty astonishing!
We didn't know an awful lot about the vocalists before we arrived — just that there were two male and two female singers, each of whom would perform in a different style — but we'd heard a couple of demos, so we drew up a 'long‑list' of 14 mics that we thought would cover most bases. This included large‑diaphragm condensers, of both solid‑state and valve varieties, ribbon mics (both active and passive), and some more conventional dynamic mics, too. Most came from our own collections, or the University's mic cabinet, though FX Rentals, Coles and Sound Technology all helped us augment the list. For more background on the mics used, see the 'Meet The Mics' box.
It turned out that the vocalists encompassed a broad range of styles: male rap, male 'crooner' style, female jazz/rock/pop, and female classical (soprano). Each had done some recording before — but as students of music performance, not of production, their knowledge of mics was largely limited to singing into whatever the engineer had put in front of them. We ran through our plans for the day, and when asked, they all said that they'd noticed that some recordings brought out unwelcome resonances in their voice, and they were keen to learn more about how the choice of mic could affect the recorded sound of their voice. So hopefully they'd be able to learn something on the day...
Before moving on to the tests themselves, I should mention the recording system and how we agreed to evaluate the mics, because this can't really be considered a scientific shootout. The AEA R92 ribbon mic, for example, works very much better when teamed with a dedicated ribbon preamp, such as the AEA RPQ, because it's such an insensitive mic — and many preamps simply don't offer sufficient gain to get the best out of it. Rather than trying to find the perfect match of preamp and mic for each singer (a logistical nightmare!), we opted to put each mic through exactly the same signal chain, adjusting the gain on the console to suit each mic, and then to balance the levels in the DAW for playback. That way, loudness would play no part in skewing our perceptions of which mic sounded best (louder sounds grab your attention and are often perceived as sounding better, when in fact they're just louder). Each mic was patched into a preamp on an Amek Angela console, and from there the signal was routed through Prism Sound ADA‑8XR converters into a Pro Tools 8 session running on a Mac.
In a further attempt to keep all things equal, we decided to set all of the multi‑pattern mics to cardioid, to keep things consistent with the fixed‑cardioid mics in the selection (although the ribbons were all figure‑of‑eights, of course). For the same reason, we also chose not to engage any optional low‑cut filters: we'd be able to roll off the bottom end on the desk or in Pro Tools should this prove a particular issue.
So what of the listening tests? It's important when A/B testing anything to conduct 'blind' tests, so that your perceptions are not influenced by any preconceptions, (whether conscious or unconscious) that you might have. With 14 mics and several people in the control room, though, it just wasn't going to be practical to do that for every mic and every vocalist — so we decided that we'd skip the blind testing for the long‑list of mics, whittling the 14 down to a shortlist of four or five for each vocalist. The shortlisting stage would be done in full knowledge of which mic we were hearing, and the four or five on the shortlist would then be auditioned under blind‑test conditions, with only the engineer knowing which mic was being played back.
We began our test with Hugh 'performing' some spoken‑word prose into each mic, as the neutral tone of spoken‑word, and the variety of sounds, can be quite revealing of a vocal microphone's general character. As with all the other recordings discussed in this article, these are available on the SOS web site. It's worth having a listen to the spoken‑word files before listening to the subsequent singing tests if you want an idea about the general sort of qualities each of these mics offers.
Chuck Pinkett trained as a jazz singer and is now working in a contemporary Jazz/Pop/Rock style. She has had some studio experience, but had never been asked to evaluate different microphones, so we were keen to find out what 'issues' she'd had with her recorded sound.
There's always something of a langauge barrier when trying to discuss the tonal qualities of recording gear — one person's 'warm' may be another's 'woolly' — but Chuck told us that her voice on recordings always seems to be a little more 'clean' and 'flattened out' than her live performances. It sounded to us as though she'd be looking for more character, warmth and body, and when we asked if those terms made sense to her, she agreed. She wasn't aware of any major issues with popping, sibilance and so on.
After the usual technical gremlins (dodgy cables and connectors, a crashing Mac, and so on), we got things started. Chuck sang a short vocal phrase, with plenty of dynamic range and a change in register, into each mic, working her way down the line, and taking care to keep a similar distance from each mic. We then got her back into the control room to listen to and discuss the effect of each mic on her voice, and put a few models on the shortlist. Rather than quoting everyone directly, I've summarised the impressions of the 'panel' below, and a quick listen to the files should clear up any misunderstood terms!
Shure Beta 58A: This mic offered up a robust‑sounding vocal, with a nice bottom end, but a rather raspy top end.
Electro-Voice RE20: The RE20 produced a sound with really nice lows and plenty of body. However, it sounded a bit 'honky' and 'shouty' on the more 'pushed' notes of the performance.
Shure SM7: This mic gave a very full‑bodied sound. It sounded rather 'shouty' on stronger notes — though in general it was quite a mellow sound. Hugh suggested that the SM7 signal sounded almost as though it had already gone through a compressor.
Neumann U47: As expected, the U47 resulted in a big, 'brown' and forward sound. It felt nicely balanced, but was still a little shouty. At lower levels it was better‑balanced, but there was still something of a 'honky' resonance.
Rode Classic Mk1: The Rode Classic seemed a lot breathier than the U47, and slightly warmer, too, if less full‑bodied at the bottom end. Again, there was a little honk, but less than with any of the previous mics. The overall character was more mid‑rangey than the U47.
AKG C12VR: At lower levels, the C12VR provided a nice, immediate sound… but as with other mics, it still seemed a bit 'shouty' on the second, much louder, part. Generally, though, it did a pretty good job on Chuck's voice, and we all agreed it was the best one so far in the tests.
Microtech Gefell M92.1S: The Gefell offered a sound that was similar to that of the C12VR, but it seemed a lot smoother when Chuck switched between the two tonalities: Nice, we thought, and again the best so far.
Audio Technica AT2020: The AT2020 sounded quite edgy, and thus had pros and cons. In the right mix it should help the voice to cut through quite nicely, but it also felt a bit brittle. We'd lost a lot of the warmth that was there on the more expensive mics, but as this vocalist had no problems with sibilance we felt that it should prove a capable mic on this voice, albeit in need of a little EQ.
Blue Dragonfly: The Dragonfly brought out a resonance in Chuck's voice that we could only describe thus: 'aaaahhhhheee'. It wasn't honky, exactly, but was far from pleasant. The Dragonfly also sounded a bit flat on this vocal, almost sucking it back between the speakers. It was definitely not one for this shortlist!
Neumann TLM103: We liked the sound of this mic very much. It seemed much smoother than those we'd tried earlier. One criticism was that it didn't capture the deep, 'chesty' character of Chuck's voice, although we thought that might be improved by working the proximity effect. Also, it seemed quite an honest, flat response, which was pleasant enough in isolation but might not be so good at 'cutting through' in a mix.
C414B ULS: This was nice: it just seemed to work well. Evidently a very capable mic, it captured both the chesty tones and the top end. All in all, it yielded a nicely balanced sound.
Coles 4038: The Coles sounded very 'vintage' in character, and we could see it working well in a very stripped‑down arrangement, but suspected that it could fail to cut through in a mix. If Chuck were aiming for a smokey jazz sound, this could be the one... but not for her busier mixes, or poppier/rockier tracks. We also perceived a slight hint of mid‑range 'honk', which would need to be tackled with EQ.
AEA R92: Chuck sang into the brighter of the two sides of this microphone (as did all the vocalists). It was a very smooth sound, and a bit more modern than the Coles.
SE Electronics RNR1: The Rupert Neve‑designed ribbon gave a brighter sound than the AEA. More open and warm, it had the smoothness of a ribbon, but a clearer, more condenser‑like high end. The vocal sounded very natural, and the mic seemed to tame the resonances in Chuck's voice.
Chuck had obviously formed some opinions of the different mics when hearing them back in her headphones while recording — but it was important that we got her back into the control room to listen, as there's no way she could make any objective judgment about the sound she heard when she was actually singing!
Based on the discussions summarised above, we whittled the 14 mics down to a selection of five: the SE RNR1, the AKG C414B ULS, the TLM103, the AKG C12VR, and the Microtech Gefell M92.1. It was interesting to see that, other than the dynamic mics, every category was represented on the shortlist for more critical listening — which came as quite a surprise.
For the second set of tests, we rearranged the shortlisted mics to be as close to each other as we could physically achieve, and had Chuck sing a full song (along with live piano accompaniment to provide a little context) into each of the mics. As mentioned earlier, the engineer played each mic track 'blind' to us, and in random order, so we had no means, other than our ears, of identifying the mic. Everyone present agreed that the best two mics on this voice were the AKG C12VR and the MG M92.1S. There was very little to choose between the two, but the C12VR just nudged it — though it was a question of 'very good' and 'even better'! So at the end of the first vocal test, the results were apparently quite predictable, with two expensive large‑diaphragm valve mics offering the best result.
Josephine Permaul sings both pop and classical, but for the purposes of the day's tests she was keen to find which mic best suited her voice for classical recordings. Again, she had no previous experience in comparing microphones, and no known issues such as sibilance. We ran through the same process as we had with Chuck, and here are the comments in summary form.
Shure Beta 58A:This sounded a little grainy, and slightly harsh — even shrill — at the top end. There was plenty of clarity in the mid‑range — which that suggested it might be good for live use with a bit of reverb — but it definitely wasn't the sound we were looking for here.
Electro-Voice RE20: The RE20 sounded rather flat and 'far away'. Subjectively, it was better than the Beta 58, but again this wouldn't be one for the shortlist.
Shure SM7: This was the best of the dynamic mics on Josephine's vocal, but sounded slightly two‑dimensional, and again a bit shrill. Like the other dynamics, it seemed to iron out a lot of the character in her voice.
Neumann U47: As expected, the U47 brought out a nice breathiness in the sound, but it didn't feel right for this style. On the plus side, it offered presence without being aggressive, and added body — but it was a little unsympathetic to the higher register.
Rode Classic Mk1: On a first listen, while tracking, some of us thought this sounded rather nice: there was a slight tendency to 'essiness', but also a bit of air and life around the vocal. We changed our opinion after hearing the files played back, as the dynamics seemed a little compressed and more controlled — a feature that might be useful in some circumstances, but probably not for Josephine. We also felt the upper‑mids were a bit aggressive for her.
AKG C12VR: There were few surprises here. The lower‑mids were lovely, adding a richness to Josephine's voice. There was a slight tendency to shrillness higher up, but in general it was a good sound, and one to add to the shortlist.
Microtech Gefell 92.1S: The Gefell seemed to iron out most of the shrillness that had been an issue for the previous mics. We felt that it managed to capture some of the 'in‑your‑faceness' of the U47, but offered a more complementary character to Josephine's voice. On this first listen, we thought it seemed the nicest of the lot so far — and were interested to hear how it would sound both in a mix and with a touch of reverb.
Audio Technica AT2020: For a cheap mic, the AT2020 put in a very workmanlike performance — even if the sound seemed a little 'contained' in comparsison with the C12VR and the Gefell. Some of us thought it sounded perhaps a little too breathy for this vocal style, but agreed that it was something that it should be fixable with EQ. All in all, considering the price, we thought it worked really well with this voice.
Blue Dragonfly: This gave pretty nice results. It wasn't too shrill on the highs, and there was plenty of 'air'. However, there was a lack of body lower down, and paradoxically it seemed both a bit 'essey' and 'lithpy' all at the same time — something we chalked down to the complex high‑frequency response of the mic.
Neumann TLM103: The TLM103 offered a slightly richer sound than the Dragonfly, with plenty of body at the low end. However, it seemed rather more shrill than the Dragonfly at the high end. All in all, it worked well enough, but wasn't the best on test for this particular voice.
AKG C414B ULS: This impressed us initially. Again, it was a little shrill, but certainly not enough to worry about, and the voice felt much more controlled, in a similar way to the AT2020.
Coles 4038: As we'd anticipated from the 'BBC' mic, the results were lovely and smooth, but it still captured all the detail well. However, even when we applied a low‑cut filter, we felt it was a little too dark on some phrases, slightly lacking in life on dynamic changes, and also lacked the '3D' sound of some of the earlier mics.
AEA R92: The R92 offered a well‑controlled vocal sound: it's evidently a pretty capable mic, and it gave a nice sound, but it wasn't quite 'there' in this instance, lacking, like the Coles, that three-dimensionality, and sounding a touch 'reedy'.
SE Electronics RNR1: This mic yielded a very nice, natural and smooth sound, and we all agreed that for Josephine's voice it was the best of the ribbon mics on offer. There was warmth, but it didn't mask pronounciation, which seemed clear. The vocal sound seemed 'close up', almost like a natural reverb (possibly due in part to the figure‑of‑eight pattern picking up room coloration). Bits of 'breath' were revealed, but smoothly, and not in hyped detail. 'Silky', 'smooth' and 'natural' seem good words to describe this mic.
For Josephine's second‑stage tests, we narrowed the selection down to the AKG C12VR, the SE RNR1, the AT2020, the Microtech Gefell M92.1S, and the AKG C414B ULS. Josephine had supplied a backing track so that we could hear the voice in context, and we also used 'comfort' reverb this time round.
Back in the control room after the recordings, we again conducted some blind listening tests, and agreed that all the mics sounded pretty good. Two in particular stood out, but we all picked out one as the favourite. To universal surprise, it was the Audio Technica AT2020. The C12VR came a very close second place, the difference being that the AT2020's sound just seemed to put the vocal in its rightful, prominent place up-front in the mix. So that was the cheapest mic on test, followed closely by one of the most expensive!
Adam Glover says that his musical style is inspired by jazz, blues and 1920s popular music, such as that of Cole Porter /and George Gershwin, but with a crooning vocal style reminiscent of artists like Dean Martin and Michael Bublé. He'd done some recording previously and though he'd not had the opportunity to do mic comparisons in the past, he told us that he hated it where the sound was too thin and 'tinny' — as if he were "singing into a tin can”. As with the other artists, we started by auditioning all 14 mics with a short, but dynamically varying vocal part.
Shure Beta 58A: Having already heard several really good vocal sounds we were evidently getting impatient! For Adam's voice, we felt the Beta 58 sounded "boxy, light and horrible”. It would probably have sounded better with a stronger proximity effect, as would usually be the case in live performance, but it was clearly the wrong mic for this application.
Electro-Voice RE20: By contrast, the RE20 offered pleny of warmth and thickness, while still providing a little clarity. In fact, for a dynamic mic, the results weren't bad at all, and the panel agreed that they'd be happy to use this mic on Adam's vocals if it were essential.
Shure SM7: The SM7 offered yet another take on the dynamic mic sound. It was more open than the RE20 — and we could clearly hear Adam's diction — but there was also less warmth. If Adam were to work closer to the mic, taking advantage of the proximity effect, the general tonal balance would probably work pretty well for him.
Neumann U47: The contrast between the U47 and the dynamics that had gone before was like night and day: "This just works,” as Hugh remarked.
Rode Classic: The Classic offered up a very smooth result, which worked reasonably well — though we felt it a bit too 'soupy', with the smoothness taking away some of the character of Adam's voice.
AKG C12VR: The C12VR was nice in a different way from the U47, bringing out rather more detail at the top end, but not giving as much wieght and body.
Microtech Gefell M92.1S: Again, we were impressed by the Gefell. It had already done very well on almost everything we'd thrown at it, and the same was true here — enough for someone to comment that this was the best mic so far for Adam.
Audio Technica AT2020: The AT2020, again, gave an honest, workmanlike performance, punching well above its weight (or price, at any rate). However, to make this mic work, we felt Adam would need to work the proximity effect to give more fullness and low end.
Blue Dragonfly: The Dragonfly seemed quite usable, with plenty of low end, although it didn't seem to offer anything special on Adam's voice — but it was certainly a step up from the AT2020 on this occasion.
Neumann TLM103: The TLM103 gave Adam's voice plenty of body, but also brought out a little 'honkishness' — though we'd stress that it was only a little.
AKG C414B ULS: The results from the C414B ULS impressed us all. There was more thickness at the low end — as with the Dragonfly, the low-frequency extension was clearly helping nicely with Adam's voice — but it did a much better job further up in the frequency range, pulling out a lot of the interesting, subtle nuances in the vocal.
Coles 4038: Listening over his headphones while singing, Adam immediately loved the sound of "the mic with the holes in it”! The rest of us also felt that it sounded lovely: lush, and with a nice low end. There were a few pops and rumbles, but a 90Hz low‑cut filter removed those, and some of the flabbiness too, resulting in a really nice, vintage, smoky sound that brought out all the throaty details of Adam's voice in a very distinctive way, and seemed to suit the musical style.
AEA R92: The R92 offered plenty of detail, but arguably a bit too much 'middle'. Closer singing, to make use of the proximity effect, or a little EQ, we thought, could be used to improve the tonality, given that all of the desired detail was there.
SE Electronics RNR1: Similar to the AEA R92, this was a capable sound but probably not the right one here, as it seemed to smooth over some of the character in Adam's vocals.
The choices for the shortlist seemed rather less clear‑cut than for the ladies, but we succeeded in agreeing a shortlist of four: the Neumann U47, the Microtech Gefell M92.1S, the AKG C414B ULS and the Coles 4038. So, once again, all types of mic other than dynamic were represented: solid‑state and valve condensers, and a ribbon.
Adam did an a capella performance of Gershwin's 'Someone To Watch Over Me' and we tracked the results using the shortlisted mics before we once again conducted the blind tests. We unanimously narrowed it down to two, which we later learned were the U47 and the C414B ULS — and of these, Adam and most of those present preferred the C414. We found this particularly interesting, given Adam's initial enthusiasm for the 4038: on this second test it didn't sound nearly so 'right', even when a little of the low end was rolled off.
Like the other performers, Danny Cager had little knowledge of different types of mics before this workshop. His told us that his style was a hybrid of hip‑hop and rock, with both rapping and singing on his tracks.
Shure Beta 58A: This mic seemed to work well for rap vocals, handling the transients and giving plenty of 'bite' to the sound.
Electro-Voice RE20: All were agreed that the RE20 offered yet more body and more bite, and impressed all round in this application.
Shure SM7: Diction seemed clearer via the SM7, and everyone thought this mic would work fine, though it lacked the special something that the RE20 had provided.
Neumann U47: The U47 opened up the sound, offering more depth. There was still fullness and body, but it didn't feel as 'solid' in this application as the dynamics.
Rode Classic Mk1: The Classic's sound was thinner than the previously tried mics. It had a certain compressed density, but it lacked openness, and the panel agreed that it would not be the first choice in this application.
AKG C12VR: In a busy mix, we thought, this might cut through nicely, but it slightly lacked body and was on the verge of becoming sibilant.
Microtech Gefell M92.1S: As on other tests, this mic provided an open, natural sound: it was nice for a valve mic in this application, though we still preferred the dynamics.
Audio Technica AT2020: Although it had impressed on other tests, we found that the AT2020 wasn't particularly good on this voice.
Blue Dragonfly: The top end of the Dragonfly seemed to be all over the place. This was clearly not the right mic for this job!
Neumann TLM103: The TLM103 seemed, somehow, to be louder, but on checking the levels it was not! It offered bags of character and body.
AKG C414B ULS: The C414 was a bit sibilant here, though otherwise not bad at all. Rolling off a bit of the top end, we suspected, would take away the sibilance.
Coles 4038: The Coles proided a huge, thick low end. We found that it took some of the stridency away from the performance, the effect of which was to pull the vocal back a bit — even with a low‑cut filter inserted in the track.
AEA R92: The AEA did a similar job to the Coles, with the same characteristic slowness, though to a lesser degree.
SE Electronics RNR1: The smooth, natural sound of this mic was simply too polite for this voice and application. We suspected that a rap vocal might bring something quite different out of the mics on test, and that was indeed the case. In fact, so resounding was the vote for the RE20 as the best match for Danny's rap vocals that none of us, Danny included, felt the need for a second round of tests. The RE20 was the winner by a country mile!
Hugh, Paul and I had all done some mic shootouts before, but never on this sort of scale. It was fascinating to see how different the results were for different mics on different vocalists. The preferred mic for each vocalist was different in each case, with a valve mic, two solid‑state condensers and a dynamic coming out top in the different tests. We were impressed by lashings of character that some of the ribbons offered — though in each case here (that's not to say it would be universally so), they all seemed to produce a rather too thick or smooth‑sounding result.
Price didn't seem to be a particular factor, either. Although the pricier mics, such as the U47, C12VR, Microtech Gefell and RNR1, tended to do reasonably well in most tests, the 'winning' mics actually ranged in price from the Audio Technica AT2020 (£80$99) and Electro-Voice RE20 (circa £350$429), through the AKG C414B ULS (circa £600$999) to the AKG C12 VR (£3525$5000) — which suggests that even when you have a generous mic budget available, it is well worth trying cheaper models. However, it's also worth pointing out that the more expensive models tended to fare generally quite well in the tests, so it seems that the extra money gets you a reliably good all‑rounder for vocals: the sound from these mics seemed that bit more '3D' more often than many of the others.
If you're looking for attitude from a mic, for rap, or possibly for male rock vocals, for example, dynamic mics are well worth auditioning. Even though the priciest of these comes in at a fraction of the price of a high‑end, large‑diaphragm condenser, they all seemed capable of providing a solid, tight bottom end, and a bit more grit higher up the spectrum. So try to be swayed more by a mic's impact on your sound than the 'bling' factor.
The complex high‑end responses of some of the mics seemed to be revealed, for good or ill, more by the female vocals than the male — which confirmed our suspicions that female vocals tend to be rather more harmonically complex, and in particular in the area where classic mics seem to have subtly different frequency responses. The effects of this were most obvious where female vocals were being pushed hard, or into the vocalist's higher register, where a mic tended either to work or to produce shoutiness or unpleasant resonances. It's fair to say that female vocals can be rather trickier to match to the 'right' mic — although it was easy enough for us to find something that worked well enough. If kitting out a new studio, then, it would probably be worth investing in two or three different large‑diaphragm condensers — perhaps with a couple that stray either side of neutral and one with a pretty flat response.
It's worth pointing out that where we had the opportunity to try it, the collective opinion was different when hearing the sound of the mic in isolation than when hearing it in the context of some form of accompaniment. So simply lining up the mics and choosing your favourite vocal sound without any context is unlikely to give you the best result — and the result may indeed be different from song to song, or arrangement to arrangement. Presumably that's where the consistency of some of the higher-end mics wins out.
A few other things became obvious during the tests. Some of the mics that were apparently too 'boomy', such as the Coles 4038 ribbon mic, were tamed easily enough with a judiciously placed low‑cut filter. It didn't turn out to be 'the one' for anyone in these tests, but it did show that the mic was more versatile than it at first appeared. Similarly, when we had the opportunity to play with a bit of EQ (you can try this for yourself, using the session files), the two modern ribbon mics tended to respond quite well to EQ. Bear in mind that the overall tonality can usually be quite satisfactorily 'fixed' with EQ, whereas 'shouty' resonances are more easily tamed simply by using a more appropriate mic.
The ribbon mics also seemed to impart a bit more 'roominess' to the sound, which is probably due at least in part to the figure‑of‑eight polar pattern. If that's something that appeals to you, it's worth looking at ribbons, or if you prefer something a bit brighter, or more valvey in character, experimenting with mics that offer multiple polar patterns, such as the C414B ULS or the Rode Classic that we used here.
Whereas some of the ribbons and dynamics sounded a bit 'thick' in some applications, some of the valves and condensers tended to sound rather thin, as did some of the more conventional dynamics. Remember, though, that cardioid and figure‑of‑eight‑pattern mics do exhibit the proximity effect, which lends weight and thickness to the sound when the source is close to the mic. The amount of proximity and the distance at which it starts to become significant also varies significantly with different mics and, in several cases during our tests, adjusting the mouth‑mic distance would probably have produced more appropriate tonal balances.
Although this isn't a review, a few mics deserve an honourable mention, as they were consistently amongst the front‑runners. The AKG C414B ULS, already a go‑to mic for a couple of us, surprised Paul White, who had been more accustomed to the rather more trebly sound of other C414 models: the B ULS seemed to work reliably on almost everything, and gave a much warmer, deeper sound than those other models. The Microtech Gefell M92.1S wasn't picked as the stand‑out mic for any vocalist but it was consistently there or thereabouts, and the recordings suggest that it might be a better all‑rounder than, for example, the C12VR. The Electro-Voice RE20 was another strong performer, particularly where solidity and warmth were required, so if you're looking for a dynamic mic, it would be well worth having on an audition list. Finally, the RNR1 offered an interesting combination of ribbon and condenser characteristics, with more high‑end extension than other ribbons.
If you plan to work with lots of vocalists, it's also worth remembering that all of the vocalists who participated in these sessions were quite new to the idea of comparing different mics. Nonetheless, they could all clearly perceive the tonal differences between the mics, and had opinions on how they wanted their voice to sound. In short, you don't have to be trained as an engineer to be able to give useful input into the process of mic selection: a musical ear is handy too!
The single biggest conclusion we can draw, though, is a reinforcement of what we've always said in SOS mic reviews: when it comes to choosing mics for vocalists, it really does pay to try several out, side by side and under blind‑test conditions. As I suggested at the beginning of this article, this obviously poses a problem for many readers: how do you gain access to such mics without buying them all in the first place? Is it really practicable to do such tests?
Well, with a modest budget, yes, it is, although exactly how you do it is going to depend on what sort of musician or engineer you are. If you're a student on a music technology course, for example, take some time to try the different mics available in your institution before you rush to record your album: even if you don't have £3000$5000 mics available, it's still worth getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of the mics you have at your disposal. It might also be worth clubbing together with your fellow students and borrowing each other's mics, or holding comparison sessions yourselves.
For small studio owners, it might similarly be worth clubbing together to hold mic 'tupperware parties', or maybe hiring in a different 'wildcard' mic on each new session, so that you get to know its characteristics without having to buy.
If you're not in either of these fortunate situations, you could try contacting a mic-hire company, such as FX Rentals or Richmond Film Services in the UK — or perhaps booking a studio with a decent mic cabinet for a day, to try the different mics out. It won't be cheap, exactly, but if it helps you buy a great mic later, it might just be worth it!
Thanks to Colm O'Rourke and Tushar Manek from the University of Westminster, who engineered the session, and to FX Rentals, Coles and Sound Technology for the loan of several microphones.
If this article has whetted your appetite for finding out more about the potential applications for different microphones, it might be worth reading the SOS Guide To Choosing & Using Studio Microphones, which appeared in SOS September 2006. You can read the article on‑line at /sos/sep06/articles/microphones.htm.
Here's a little background on the mics we used on these sessions. There are plenty of others we could have used, but there was only so much time and space available, and we wanted to make sure we had a broad range of different types of mic.
Shure Beta 58A: One of the best‑selling dynamic mics for vocals, this model is a popular choice as a live vocal mic. A bit of an unsung hero, it is a significant improvement on the original SM58. It was reviewed in SOS July 1996.
Electro-Voice RE20: A versatile, US‑made dynamic mic that seems to be more popular (and affordable) Stateside than in the UK, the RE20's uses vary from kick drum and bass amps, through guitar cabs, to radio broadcast and vocals. Rather unwieldy as a live vocal mic, it's used much more frequently in the recording and radio broadcast studio. It features EV's patented 'variable D' design, which is intended to elminate proximity effect and help maintain a more consistent polar response with frequency.
Shure SM7: The SM7 is a more established design than the Beta 58A, and it's something of a traditional dynamic‑mic choice for vocals, amongst a number of other applications. Like the RE20, it's a rather cumbersome size and shape for on-stage vocal applications, and it is therefore more often seen in a recording studio or broadcast context.
AKG C414B ULS: One of several different 'flavours' of mic to come in the familiar C414 form factor, this popular model is now out of production, having been replaced by the C414X LS.
Neumann TLM103: A well‑known condenser at the more affordable end of Neumann's range of large‑diaphragm condensers, it's within the reach of many project studio owners, but is by no means a budget mic! It received a very positive review in SOS June 1998.
Audio Technica AT2020: The most affordable of the condenser mics used in these tests — by quite some margin — this is one of Paul White's favourite studio all‑rounder mics, with a reasonably neutral frequency response and negligible presence peaks, which suggests that it should work reasonably well on most sources and respond well to EQ. We reviewed it in SOS February 2006.
Blue Dragonfly: This mic was something of a 'wildcard' choice, chosen because it happens to work really well on my own voice. Like the C414B ULS, it has good low‑frequency extension, but the response is quite complex at the high end. It was reviewed in SOS back in February 2002.
Neumann U47: What's left to say about this mic? It's arguably the most well‑known and revered microphone on the planet. Famous — for the synaesthesiasts amongst you — for it's warm, 'dark brown' sound, it's a popular choice for adding a pleasing depth and thickness to a thin vocal sound.
AKG C12VR: Based on the classic AKG C12 — which is almost as well‑known as the U47, and certainly as revered — this design is famous for working well with female pop, rock and soul vocals. The C12VR isn't identical to the original, but has broadly similar characteristics. It tends to bring out more breath and sparkle than the U47, while still offering a little of the 'chest'.
Microtech Gefell M92.1S
This mic happened to be available at the studio on the day, and as we had not yet heard a bad mic from Gefell, we thought it would be interesting to compare it with the other mics! This model features the legendary Neumann M7 capsule, complete with PVC diaphragms.
Rode Classic Mk1: This mic is based around a GE6072 twin-triode valve, offers multiple polar patterns, and can cope with a healthy 130dB SPL. It met with acclaim in the SOS review, back in SOS October 1996. It has since been replaced as Rode's flagship mic by the Classic MkII (SOS December 1999), which is simlilar in character.
AEA R92: Like the Coles 4038, the AEA R92 is most often paired with a dedicated ribbon-mic preamp, such as AEA's own TRP, because it requires generous amounts of gain. This mic was reviewed in SOS April 2007, and has two differently voiced sides in its figure‑of‑eight polar pattern, one darker than the other. We used the 'bright' side in all of the tests.
Coles 4038: This distinctive 4038 was designed by the BBC back in 1955 and is well‑known for its widespread use by the BBC World Service. Despite a relatively even frequency response, it is known for imparting a very warm and 'vintage' sound, largely due to the proximity effect, being voiced for more distant applications.
SE Electronics RNR1: This was the first microphone to be designed by the famous console and analogue outboard gear designer Rupert Neve. An active design, the RNR1 uses phantom power to bring the signal up to a level that will work with most conventional mic preamps. It's not exactly cheap — but it received a rave review back in SOS May 2009 after tests in AIR studios, Hampstead.
We've placed a number of audio and video files on the SOS web site to accompany this article. The audio files are given in WAV format so that you can download them for comparison in your own DAW. For those of you using Pro Tools 8, we've also placed some of the original session files there to save you a bit of time in setting things up. You can find these files at /sos/jul10/articles/vocalmicsaudio.htm. We also took some video footage on the day, so for a taster, pay a visit to www.soundonsound.tv.