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You're Better Off Using An Inexpensive Microphone...

The Tent (STUDIO BUMS® Official Blog).

Studio Blog


You're Better Off Using An Inexpensive Microphone...


Festival Recording Studio Microphone cabinet. Photography by Artemis Perry

Festival Recording Studio Microphone cabinet. Photography by Artemis Perry


A high percentage of home studios are just not equipped with good recording spaces. If you didn’t tune your room/recording space, expect nothing less than trouble. Throwing money at the problem, like investing in high-end gear, will do more damage than good. 

Getting star-quality vocals can be done in your “death trap” recording studio if you’re careful.  High-end microphones and preamps are usually best suited for the job, but are not necessary.  Most STUDIO BUMS® are addicted to gear and keep a healthy wish list of expensive toys to buy.  Building the Death Star is a never-ending black hole and you’ll never stop spending money to improve the quality of your recordings. 

Every studio should be equipped with the most popular professional microphone of all time.  Yes, the Shure SM57.  This microphone is priced under $100.00 and, if you’re resourceful enough, you can find it cheaper on eBay or Craigslist.  There are a few other microphones that will perform and not kill the pocket.  Check out these toys on the short list:  SM7B, RE20, Heil PR20, Heil PR40, and the Telefunken M80.  Yes, these are all dynamics. 
The reason for this particular choice revolves around the way dynamics typically capture sound; they tend to be less sensitive to the environment than, say, your everyday AKG 414 or Neumann U87.  As an end result, you get less “room funk” in your recording that would ultimately muddy and cheapen your vocals.  You don’t want that, so it's best to stick with the tool that makes sense for the environment. 

I find that you’re really on your own when shopping for studio equipment.  Most sales associates just don’t possess enough knowledge, or they’re just trying to move inventory.  Remember, Gear Pimps/Salesmen are no different than Slick Willy at Wacky Wheels Dealership.  They see you coming. So, as always, caveat emptor (buyer beware!). Reading online articles like this one still doesn’t answer every question you may or may not have.  There’s too much information and not enough patience to make a "sound" decision.  We are in the middle of The Clone Wars.  Microphones, in many ways, are like a pack of Newports, except that the cigarettes have a warning label about improper use and its consequences, whereas microphones have a picture of a dude throwing up some devil horns saying “YEAH, DUDE!”.

High-end microphones, like the Neumann U87, Sony C800G, or AKG C-12, will not perform better than the inexpensive microphones in your Death Trap studio; they are incredibly sensitive to the environment. Literally, they pick up what’s called “room noise” which is the sound of the air moving through your house/apartment.  Normally, in a professional environment, the natural flow of air is controlled and prohibited by air-locking doors and seals in each room.  As well, high end mics pick up the reflections in a space just as much as they pick up the vocalist in that room.  
Professional studios employ acoustic treatment (NO FOAM) that works to control the reflections and acoustic signature of a space. This is expensive not only in cost but also intellectual currency.  If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t spend any money until you get the facts from an expert. But, on average, a home or bedroom studio doesn’t employ these methods due to the cost involved. So instead of a beautiful controlled capture, that Tax Return microphone is going to sound like donkey piss next to a good sounding dynamic. We won’t even talk about what happens when trucks roll by your house or a toilet gets flushed downstairs.

Avoid Reflection filters like the plague. While they do reject sound from the rear of the microphone, they encourage singers to eat the microphone to get the “result” of a drier controlled vocal sound, which, in turn, defeats the entire purpose of having a Reflection filter. 
Most professional vocals are recorded from at least 4 to 6 inches away, sometimes even 8.  Please, no simpstagram photos of Rapper X with his Reflection filter. If you really buy into what that guy does, then buy those Zebra Print Leggings he wears too, and you just might be America’s Next Top Model. Dynamics, in short, have an element that is less sensitive to sonic energy than, say, the condenser/professional studio microphones of the world. A direct side effect of this is that dynamics have more of a built-in “distance” to their sound. This means that a dynamic could be 2 or 3 inches away from your mouth and sound like it's further away, compared to a U87 at the same distance. A pop filter is still necessary, so there’s no free lunch in that regard, but the dynamic will deliver better for regular and louder vocals without as much worry about proper chain-staging. 

So, let’s say you score an SM57 off Craigslist, plus you have a decent preamp (not hard to come by; a good deal of modern recording interfaces have preamps that are good for the first 30 to 40 db of gain, which is plenty) and monitoring for the talent. Once you have the equipment necessary to record, it is equally important that the vocalist is comfortable and relaxed to deliver a stunning performance.  Some clients indulge in a healthy supply of "Green Goodness" to get their mind right.  I’m known to cater my studio sessions with a nice variety of top shelf alcoholic beverages and scented candles.   

The environment plays an instrumental part of capturing star-quality vocals.  Knowing how the room sounds requires good ears and microphone placement tips.  An experienced recording engineer is equipped with more skills and techniques than the high-end gear used in recording studios.
You should do as many takes as needed to get the absolute best sound.  Use loop record or takes/lanes if your DAW has that capability.  You should tweak each take accordingly, using EQ, Compression, and effects to achieve the best results; each song requires a unique approach.  Recording in different rooms will also help with your process.   

Try a few different microphones and use your ears and not the price tag when making your decision.  It sounds like bullshit until you do a blind test and discover that a Shure SM7 has defeated the almighty Neumann U87 at times.  If you are really pressured to use the “better looking” microphone, remember... this is your house.  It is ultimately on you whether or not the record sounds its best.  Many great engineers leave two mics in the recording space/booth and lets the talent “think” they are recording with the “best” microphone. However, if the dynamic is the “best” mic for the job, but the fancier-looking one serves as a confidence booster for the talent, then you let them think what they want and the power of the mind does the rest. Once you play back the recording, they will not know whether or not it's the U87, the SM7, or The Magnificent 7.  Only you will know, only you will get the credit for making it sound so damn good.  And that’s show business.