When it comes to microphones, the task of selecting the right one for the job can appear to be one half art, one half science… and one half pure magic! The reason for this conundrum sits squarely with the misunderstanding that particular microphones can only be used for particular sounds. There is a lot of argument that specific microphones are ‘industry standard’ for specific sources (ie. the Shure SM57 on a guitar amp) but there is very little explanation as to the why. Some of these mic choices (or can we call them traditions?) are based purely on their reliable and repetitive use, and therefore the passed on inherent knowledge, over the years by countless engineers in countless studios. To put it simply, they get the job done! At other times, the choice can just be a personal one based on either the limited range of microphones available for use (due to budget or other constraints) or simply the engineer’s aesthetic. Either way, the arguments still rage whenever the question of ‘correct mic choice?’ is raised.
That being said however, there are still a small number of microphones that have clearly stood the test of time and have proven themselves as the ‘tried and true’ answer to just about any sound source problem.
Here are just a few of the microphones that audio engineers around the world have found to be the most successful at a large variety of applications throughout the history of recording. These microphones have appeared on countless recordings that we love and will continue to do so well into the future. Each one of these microphones would be a respectable and upstanding member of any decent microphone collection.
You cannot make a list of notable microphones that feature in the recording industry without mentioning the Neumann U87; probably the most recognisable microphone there is.
The U87i dates back to 1967 with it’s contemporary – the U87ai – being the current production model, sharing almost everything in common with its ancestor. The dual diaphragm is identical to the original, with only slight electronic improvements made to better it’s sensitivity and SNR margin. The U87ai retains all the characteristics that made the U87i arguably the best all round microphone and ‘first-choice’ vocal microphone in the world.
The U87i/ai is a side-address condenser microphone with three polar patterns (Omni, Cardioid, Figure-8), selected by a switch on the front. It also has a -10db pad and high pass filter which helps to increase the maximum SPL achievable without distortion and to reduce the proximity effect.
The U87 excels for vocals in the music, film, radio and television industries. From lead vocals to ADR, the U87 always delivers that sort after high mid-range vocal tone that allows the voice to sit on top of just about any mix. As an instrument or close mic, foley sound or even ambient mic choice for orchestras, the U87 is truly one of the most versatile microphones ever made, delivering a rich detailed mid range with a flat low and hi frequency response.
Arguably, it is the mark of a professional studio that they have at least one Neumann U87, if not more.
It is with little wonder then that it gained the crown of The Best Microphone in the World in 2012, as voted by Sound on Sound readers.
At 90 Degree Studio, we have a pair of hard-working U87ai’s. Whether its on vocals (male rock vocals in particular), as overheads in an AB pair for drum kits, ambient room mics, spot microphones on deeper stringed instruments or even percussion, the results are always outstanding. The mid range always has great detail and really comes alive with some aggressive compression. The U87 sound also takes EQ and gentle compression well.
A tip when mixing; the upper mid range can become a little harsh and bitey on some sources which can actually help your vocal sit in front and on top of the mix without getting masked by sources with a similar timbre.
The AKG C414 has been manufactured in many variations over the years. It’s origins stem from the legendary AKG C12 , one of the most sought after and lauded microphones in the industry. The AKG C414 originally shared the same famous CK12 ‘brass’ capsule as the C12 but offered a transformer-less FET design. During the production of the C414EB model (which had many improvements thanks to vast amounts of user feedback including onboard pad, more polar patterns and a cannon connector – circa 1976) the CK12 ‘brass’ capsule was discontinued and replaced with the ‘nylon’ capsule which never lived up to the original capsule’s sound. Nevertheless, technological improvements and further refinement of its design followed with numerous improvements in self noise, RF, sensitivity and design, all resulting in the current C414 XLS and C414 XLII models ( the XLII representing the slight presence boost that the original that characterised C12. Otherwise they are identical except for the colour of the grill).
Now days, the C414 offers the full nine selectable polar patterns, a multi stage pad, multi stage high pass filter, extremely low noise, high sensitivity, extremely rich and detailed frequency response, high SPL level handling and all it’s settings are stored from its last use. It may not be the original C414 with the CK12 capsule, but it has developed into an extremely versatile microphone in it’s own right.
At 90 Degree Studio, we have a pair of C414 XLII’s and a pair of AKG C414 XLS’s, along with a pair of AKG C12VR’s (just for good measure…and because we can!) and find them to be excellent all-round utility microphones. When we occasionally run into situations where there is uncertainty as to what to choose, the C414 will never be the wrong choice. Sure, there may be always be a better choice of microphone but as a starting point, you can never go wrong using a C414. Overheads, guitars, acoustic instruments, vocals, brass, percussion; the list is nearly endless.
While the C414 may not have a ‘colour ‘like some vintage tube mics or the lush dark tones of ribbon microphones, they are give a very detailed and ‘true’ sound, so much so that in themselves, their character IS their honesty…and a lot of times that is exactly what you need!
The Shure SM7b is the successor to the famed SM7, one of the most widely used dynamic microphone for recording the human voice in a broadcast environment. A lot of microphone development came about due to the needs of the broadcast industry, as radio and television was invented, microphones were needed to record the human voice with certain characteristics so as to be able to be transmitted to peoples radios. Early AM radio only had a limited frequency bandwidth and dynamic range, so microphones were designed to try and compensate for the loss in sound quality and frequency response caused by radio transmission. Radio microphones were designed to capture very low frequencies, often with large diaphragms and extended high frequencies as these would be lost through the transmission, so an increase in these frequencies would help deliver a more balanced sound to the listener. Due to this process over the course of history, development of microphones specifically for the human voice has been quite extensive, resulting in some very good microphones. The Shure SM7b embodies the adaptation method by which much of the music industry has evolved from. Engineers often only had radio specific microphones available to them and they made do with what they had as best they could. As it turns out, many radio specific technologies also worked really well when used in a music application. Many compressors and dynamic processors also sounded great on musical signals and so did many microphones. The Shure SM5, the precursor to the SM7 and SM7b, was designed for recording dialogue for radio, film and television, mainly on a boom or pole, with the aim of reducing background noise, wind and increasing the detail and clarity of the voice. The SM5 was hugely successful in these industries and inevitably began being used in the music industry to the point where Shure had the SM5 redesigned after the success of the SM57 to incorporate design elements of both microphones into the SM7. The SM7 saw widespread usage in the music industry with accolades such as being the vocal microphone used on Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ which sold over 60 million copies and is the best selling album of all time. In 1999 Shure released the SM7A with slight improvements to the humbucking coil and yoke mount and then in 2001 released the SM7b with an improved windscreen. All three microphones perform identically acoustically, meaning that there is no real different between the SM7 and SM7b, they are in essence the same microphone so buying a brand new SM7b isn’t a bad thing at all and every professional recording studio should have one in their inventory as they don’t just excel at vocals and dialogue, but also on guitars, bass, kick drum, high hats, snare, brass and numerous other applications. They are very popular for heavy screaming style vocals as well as dialogue for voice overs, especially in the podcasting community as they are quite affordable and provide excellent results in untreated environments
The Neumann KM184