magic & myth
What you’re about to read may not endear me to some of my fellow producers and audio engineers, many of whom are good friends and for whom I have nothing but respect. Nevertheless, over a quarter century as a producer and mixer, I’ve found that there’s a lot of hype pinned on recording gear - and perhaps in no category more than microphones. Conventional wisdom holds that there’s a certain je ne sais quoi in many vintage European tube mics that cost $10,000 or more - and that in order to achieve the best (or “professional”) results, you really should track vocals through a mic like that if you’re to be taken seriously. Frankly, I just don’t think that’s the case, and there’s quite a bit of “gear snobbery” around this topic.
Now before I earn the eye rolls and condescension of my peers (especially those who happen to own expensive vintage mics!), let me offer some disclaimers. First and foremost, I do believe you generally get what you pay for, and there is certainly a place for those highly-revered classics. However, I’d contend that while a microphone is an important part of the recording chain, there are far bigger factors to achieving artistic excellence. In short, who you put in front of a mic - and behind the console - is far more important than the mic itself. To put it another way: microphone choice is important, but at the same time, it’s neither a barrier to nor a guarantee of excellence.
Now, I do not want to sound like I’m advocating for compromise or corner-cutting. Just the opposite; I have extremely high standards and I believe in investing as much as you can into your craft. If you have the resources to invest in (and maintain) a vintage mic, and/or the clientele to support it, more power to you! If nothing else, there’s a certain psychological element to having an artist stand in front of a mic like that. And yes, your peers will respect you. But is that the best place to sink a small fortune? That probably depends on your business model.
On the other hand, if you just need a good mic to record your own material at your own studio, there are a lot of great options that won’t break your piggy bank. I’ve gotten world-class results on A-level projects when using rather pedestrian mics. And that’s not because an expensive vintage mic wasn’t an option at the time, but rather, because another mic happened to be the perfect match for the singer. Either way, the results would have been excellent because of the singer’s performance and a competent engineer capturing it.
Yes, “countless artists recorded with a (famous German) mic back in the day.” But keep in mind, they didn’t have the kind of choices and affordable quality that we enjoy today. Also consider that in those days, manufacturing tolerances were as high as twenty percent, so no two of the same model would necessarily sound identical!
Now, does that mean that a $300 mic will give you results on par with a $10,000 vintage classic? Not necessarily. But it certainly doesn’t mean that a $10,000 vintage mic is necessarily 10 times better than a more accessible workhorse. I’ve been surprised many times to find that the “best” mic in the moment isn’t always the most expensive - and that ultimately the choice of mic made far less difference than I wanted to admit.
To explore these ideas, I decided to do a basic comparison between four mics that represent a wide price range (from $80 to $10,000), all capturing the same performance by a world-class singer: my good friend Vanessa Campagna. The idea is to let you hear the differences between these mics in context, and decide for yourself how much difference the microphone makes - or whether you can even tell which is the $80 mic and which is the $10,000 one!
So, decide for yourself. Listen to the video above and ask yourself how much the mic contributes to what you hear. Then import the test files below into your DAW. Do you feel like you hear a $10,000 difference between any two of the mics we used? Personally, I feel like I could have used any of the 4 mics and gotten great results. Ultimately, I hear a stellar performance, but you’ll need to decide for yourself!
1. I didn’t format this as a usual mic comparison where the video switches between mics throughout the performance. Instead, for the demo video above, I chose the mic that I felt best suited the singer, and mixed the track exclusively with that mic.
2. I’m providing the raw vocal tracks below, captured with each mic, with no EQ, compression, processing, or tuning on them. Along with the backing track, you can build your own session in your DAW and compare for yourself. I felt this would be more useful and allow you to see how each mic “takes” to compression, EQ, tuning, etc.
3. Although this is more of an artistic test than a scientific one, I tried to keep it as fair as possible. Still, there will always be some compromises when doing mic shootouts like this. All 4 preamps (Neve 1073) were gain matched as closely as possible, and all four mics were arranged so their capsules were as close as possible and on-axis with Vanessa. However, as it was a pretty passionate performance, it was impossible to keep her still; any movement will create some tonal and level differences between mics.
4. I picked this song because it’s a torture test for any microphone. It’s extremely dynamic; Vanessa goes from very soft and delicate to full-on belting on the high notes. As such, it needs a lot of automation and compression. There are also a few spots where she drove the mics & preamps really hard and I couldn’t back off the gain on 4 channels simultaneously. So, the tone is a tad strident on a few of those spots. In a normal session this wouldn’t be an issue, but it’s a consequence of trying to record with 4 mics at once on a very dynamic vocal.
5. Be sure to read the “READ ME” file in the test folder. The mics’ order is revealed on the second page, but don’t blow it - come to your conclusions first!
Mics used, and current street value:
MXL V67 - $80
MXL CR-89 - $200
MXL Genesis Tube Mic - $700
Korby KAT with modified vintage Elam 251 capsule - $10,000
Thanks to MXL for providing the mics for this little experiment!