I’m looking forward to this post. It’s less technical and more about a philosophy. I won’t talk about motherboards or logarithmic ratios. Instead I’ll record some mics and listen to the differences. I’ll give you my take. Then I’ll post some of the recordings so you can form your own opinion.
Back story. I know this very generous guy named Pete. He shall remain last-nameless so this post will not bring upon him a storm of lending requests.
Pete lent me out a set of Shure KSM32s, a set of Shure KSM44s, a Shure Beta 52, and a Rode N2. Knowing his senses may return to him any moment and thus his mics I did some test recordings. How does a $800 mic might stack up against a $200 one? Would it have less noise? Sound more open? More natural? Use less gain? Handle dynamics differently?
There is a lot to know about mics. I could spend a whole post on one mic’s features. But more and more these days I realize it comes down to how they sound. There was a time when I read ravenously on pickup patterns, dynamics, condensers and proximity effect. Now I just place and listen. Imo this tells a fuller story. Not to mention specs can be deceptive.
This is an odd bunch of mics so let me give you the once over.
The AKG D112 and Shure Beta 52 are both kick drum mics (unless you find them useful for something else). I’ll record my kick with both and compare. Here you can see what I consider the sweet spot for kick drum placement. No secret. Lots of people like this placement. Gives a solid thud and with the diaphragm pointed at the batter a good amount of click. How meaningless are those term?
Take a listen.
The Shure KSM32s, KSM44s, and Rode K2 are large diaphragm condenser mics. Generally this group is sensitive and captures detail well. So I will test them as drum overheads and later with vocals with acoustic guitar.
The rest of the condensers are some of my mics. The Behringer ECM8000 is a $50 test mic I purchased for room acoustic measurements. It has a small diaphragm and a pure omni pickup pattern. Shure sm81 – small diaphragm condenser, cardiod. Rodes NT1-A – large diaphragm condenser, cardiod. AKG C2000B – medium diaphragm, cardiod.
Test Methods: If you’ve read a bit about acoustics and mics you know that many things effect sound. Every spot in a room sounds different. Some sound extremely different (corners). Pointing a mic directly toward the source or off axis makes a difference. Proximatey to the source makes a difference.
How can you eliminate many of these variables for a better test?
There are 3 methods I considered. All of them good enough for government work.
- Constant placement. You can mark exactly where the mic is. Record. Then swap in the next mic in almost exactly the same position.
I tried to place all the diaphragms at the same position and axis. I marked the position with this hanging tape which was easy to knot up out of the way.
The shortcoming of this method is your performance needs to be very consistent otherwise you could perceive mic differences from performance differences.
- Constant performance. Here we flip flop it. Same performance but mics have to be in slightly difference positions. I tried to have all the mics pointing directly at the source. Here you can see they form an arc. I would resist the urge to put them too close to each other as this will color the sound especially with the omnis.
This method makes it less jarring to A/B mics since you can solo back and forth between mics and the performance is smooth. But the mics are not all in the same acoustic space. On top of that some sources are directional. For example you can point all the mics at a vocalist but the vocalist’s mouth will only point at one mic. The mic being sung to will sound brighter.
- Constant performance and placement. Here you place the mics as in method 1. You then play a constant source such as a CD. Both are fixed. Perfect right? Not really. Your speakers are not going to reproduce a live performance. Chances are they will not produce the highs, lows, or dynamics or a real drum kit. I was interested in how the mics handled a live performanc and never tried this method.
There are also a few other things to try and hold constant. Cables, preamps, and converters can all effect the sound. Ideally they should be the same. My tests were less than idea in that respect.
I tried out both method 1 and 2. After much listening I determined method 1 was more helpful. It’s a strange thing to describe but even with different performances you can pick out the character of a mic.
Findings: For kick drum I strongly prefer the Shure Beta 52 over the AKG D112. It has more attack and thud. It just sounds more alive. I had to eq (boost near 5k, cut near 200hz) the AKG D112 to approach the same sound.
Here are the cardiod drum overheads.
The Rodes K2 and the Shure KSM44 both have variable pickup patterns. Here they are as omnis in the same placement as above. The Behringer ECM8000 is a full time omni.
Here are the recordings of vocals with acoustic guitar. These are all cardiod.
And the omnis…
Omni vs cardiod. One thing to remember is my room is on the dry side. I expect this minimizes the differences of an omni since there are less room reflections. I hear the omni pattern on these mics as more open, less forward, more balanced, less claustrophobic, with a hint of the room. Listen in particular to the way the omnis sound when the vocals get loud. I think they do a more graceful job. It’s like built in compression or lack of proximately effect.
Conclusion: There are only a few things I can say with certainty. I prefer the Shure Beta 52 over the AKG D112 on kick. I marginally prefer the sound of omnis in this room. The Behringer ECM800 has way more noise then the other mics.
After that it’s tricky. I hate to repeat what I’ve read again and again. That mics are subjective. That matching the source to the mic is more important then simply having a great mic. That placement can be more important then mic choice. But the more I listen and record the more I realize this is true.
Makes me wish I spent less time over the years reading about gear and more time listening to it! If you like that last statement check out recordingreview.com. Brandon has some pretty interesting things to say about the diminishing returns of expensive gear.
For example he has a shootout for guitar cab mics. Included is the sm57 and the highly regarded Royer R121. The differences aren’t huge. I’d be surprised if a person new to recording could pick them out at all. Plenty of people did not prefer the Royer. To my ears the Royer did sound the best. But did it sound 13 ($1,300) times better then the sm57 ($100)? Not to me.
More confused then ever? Let me throw one more at you for consideration. Think about mics in terms of mixing. What mic and placement will make the source fit best in the mix? People bag on the SM57. It can’t capture highs like a condenser. It’s not very sensitive. It doesn’t have anything close to a flat frequency response. So? As many have discovered it makes thing like snare and guitar cabs sound great in the mix.