Music Production: Let’s Talk About Mics
First that comes to mind is that Disclosure song ft Khalid, lol. “Can’t we just taallllk”.
Anyways, let’s dive in.
I had someone ask me this week about mics. I won’t quote the specific question, mostly because the question itself was kind of funny when you understand how mics work, but I will tell you my answer.
First, if you’ve watched any pro studio tours or been to a pro studio, you’ve probably seen the legendary “mic” locker. One of the studios I interned at literally had an entire locked room full of mics. Really cool. But the real question is why?
Why do you need a full room of mics? What’s the benefit?
Well, I’d highly recommend reading an article about the different styles of microphones and microphone response patterns first. There are pros and cons to every mic style (and who built it), so really, each mic is designed for a different recording purpose. Depending on the manufacturer and the model, even when a mic is designed pretty similarly, can sound very different and react differently to the same sound sources.
That’s a big fancy way of saying “each mic has a different purpose and a different flavor”. Really, unless you’re a tracking engineer, a mic locker is usually superfluous. Each of those (decent) mics costs anywhere from $500 — $4000, so the cost adds up real quick. If you’re a tracking engineer, this cost is more justifiable, but if you’re a producer like me, it really isn’t. So what are your options?
First, in the game of budget, versatility is king. You want something that will sound relatively good on just about anything. Unfortunately, not many mics are designed this way, so it can be a difficult choice.
The first mic I usually get asked about is the “legendary” SM7B. A dynamic microphone designed specifically for broadcasting. It’s been around since the 70’s and it seems like everyone uses them, right?. Michael Jackson used one, right? If he used it, I can use it, right?
Uhh, no. I bought into the hype years ago and was pretty disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great mic, but its use cases are extremely specific. I would use it for a podcast in a heartbeat. Easy to set up, close proximity so you don’t get as much room sound, pretty much indestructible… pretty much an ideal broadcasting microphone. It’s almost like that’s what it was designed for. Oh wait…
Just to be clear, I do own one. It sits in the corner of my studio gathering dust most of the time, but I pull it out every so often for very specific use cases. Live studio performances, exceptionally bright/harsh vocalists, and every so often for background vocals, pretty much. That’s it. I get “exceptionally bright/harsh vocalists” maybe twice a year, so otherwise it sits in the corner.
What about really famous mics like the Neumann U87? Excellent mic, for sure. Overpriced? Most definitely. Should you save up and buy one? Nope. Not unless you own a studio and have the gear to really make it shine. I’m not sure anything makes me as sad as someone trying to track a Neumann into a Focusrite 2i2. I mean, your wallet your choice, but do your research before jumping into something big like that.
My own personal experience with the U87 is that it’s pretty bright for most sources. It’s more versatile than a SM7B, that’s for sure, but definitely not something I’d try and use for anything more than vocals, guitars, and maybe a multi-miked piano (if that’s the sound I’m going for). For dark vocalists (which I get more often than any other vocals), it’s definitely a go-to. Brilliant sounding mic. There’s a reason it’s become the standard for most voice-over work and general vocal tracking stuff.
But in most cases, I’ve always enjoyed the sound of the U67 better. Less bright, more usable in a variety of situations, and still quite exceptional on vocals. If I personally owned one, it would be my workhorse, for sure.
Either way, both mics are a bit of a pain to set up. Be prepared for a good bit of work if you decide to get one.
So what do I use, then? What’s the good balance choice?
To all the old-school guys, this will sound tacky. But sorry, mate, most of us don’t have any desire to have a huge mic locker, nor the funds to do so. So we’ll take the next best thing.
Modeling mics have risen to popularity a lot in the past 4 or 5 years. They use special circuitry and switchable polar patterns in order to mimick some of the most famous mics on the market. Oh yeah, and they sound awesome. Every modeling mic I’ve used is built with quality components and most of the models are passable. Depending on which one you get, that quality will vary, but all the ones I’ve tried have been an exceptional value for the money.
I personally use the Antelope Edge Duo, but I’ve also used the Slate VMS. Both are great quality mics and can be used in a variety of sources. They’re the kings of versatility and value. Will they ever be a perfect match for the mic they’re modeling? Probably not, but they’re definitely enough to work with. Honestly, if someone sent me a Slate VMS track and said it was a U67, in most cases I’d probably believe them.
Overall, the value is exceptional. You get a versatile usable sound for literally 1/10th the cost of most of the mic lockers I’ve seen. I use them all the time and highly recommend them.
Side note, I also have an SM57, lol, but I rarely use it. Once in the past year, lol, on some guitar stuff, I think. Great for really loud sounds, which is pretty much why I bought it.
Anyways, as always, make sure you do your own research and decide for yourself what you want. Every engineer’s opinion is different, especially when it comes to gear.
In the meantime, good luck and have fun!