True Love: Favorite Microphones

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in October 1998, contributed by then Media and Mastering Editor Lionel Dumond. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

I just love microphones.

I am constantly scouring the classies, garage sales, web sites, and music stores for deals and steals — the vintage, the obscure, and the just plain weird. I have a smattering of just about everything, from the common workhorses to the all-time classics to the super-el-cheapo pieces of junk.

None of them are the perfect mic for everything (I don’t believe any one mic can be), but all of them (well, at least the ones that function!) are the perfect mic for something. As my dear mother used to say, “there’s somebody out there for everyone,” and so I believe it is with microphones as well — for every task there exists the perfect mic, and for every mic there is a task to which it is perfectly suited. I also believe that if you can acquire the knack of choosing the proper microphone for the job, and can place it properly to obtain the sound you’re striving for — before that sound hits the rust — your job as a recording engineer is about 80% accomplished.

It’s in this vein that I offer up this listing of some of my all-time favorite microphones. I own or have owned in the past most of them, and I’ve used all of them many times throughout my own studio career. By no means is this meant to be a comprehensive list — there are many highly-praised mics I haven’t had the opportunity to gain a lot of experience with, and there many other very good ones which I feel are just too weird, too rare, too overpriced, or that I’m simply just not fond enough of to include on my “all-time favorites” list. The following is a list of mics that I personally feel exhibit the most “character,” are the best sounding, the most versatile, the best bang for the buck, or are so well-suited mic to some particular studio chore that I had to include it. None of them are what I’d consider overly-expensive, and some of them can be had for a song.

I’ve included URLs with each one, in case you want learn more about them, and I’ve also given “street price” estimates to give you an idea of what one might be expect to pay for one of these beauties. Brief application notes appear throughout, indicating for which studio jobs each of these mics is most commonly used; however, don’t let this dissuade you from trying new combinations of microphone and sound source. Who knows, you might discover something cool!

And so, without further ado, here is The List.

AKG C1000

Though I’m generally not a big fan of electret-condenser mics (meaning, mics that have a permanently-charged backplate), I have to admit that this one is an exception. And, at a street price usually under $180, it’s affordable enough to grab a couple. There’s also a PPC-1000 option that converts this mic from cardioid to hypercardioid.

You can pretty much use this baby for whatever you’d normally use a small-to-medium diaphragm condenser for in the studio — acoustic guitar, drum overheads, various small percussion, and the like. This is a good, inexpensive piece for those on a budget or just starting out, and even in pro studios where it seems there are never enough mics to go around.

AKG C414B-ULS

The C414 was once the undisputed champ of large-diaphragm studio condensers. Up until only a couple of years ago, it had been the mic of choice among professional users for decades — the widely accepted “gold standard” against which other microphones were judged. While the proliferation of lower-priced (not to mention great-sounding) competition in the past few years has carved inroads to the C414’s dominance in the studio, many of us “old-timers” still value the trusty and venerable C414 for its versatility and one-of-a-kind sonic character.

The availability of all four major patterns (cardioid, hypercardioid, omni, and figure-8), two-way bass rolloff switch (75Hz and 150 Hz), and very high SPL handling make this studio workhorse adaptable to almost any situation. This mic’s unique sonic fingerprint is due in part to a gentle, airy boost at about 12 kHz or so, which tends to lend a bit of extra articulation to sources recorded through it, yet without pronounced harshness. This is one of the characteristics that helped make it so popular among recording engineers, and which has been emulated by countless other mic designers over the past 25 years.

There is also the C414B-TLII — basically an “updated” model with transformerless output and an even more pronounced high-end boost than it’s older brother, which some claim is preferable for vocals — though you’ll definitely get an argument there with some folks! You can safely bet that, over the years, the ULS has been featured on a heck of a lot more hit record vocal tracks than the TLII.

Audio Technica 4033a / 4050CM5

I was never a huge fan of the AT 4033 or 4050, at least not until recently. I’ve often thought of it as a “honky” mic — a little too colored in the midrange for my taste. It can make a nasally singer sound even more so. I had also found that it sometimes doesn’t play nice with certain mic preamps I’ve used in the past.

However, I recently did some work on a record in which many of the electric guitar tracks where miked with a 4050, and was amazed — the tracks sounded killer. I’ve done more experimenting since, and I have to admit, these mics really do slay on amp cabinets. The same “honkiness” I was hearing on vocals actually make rock guitar track jump out of the speakers!

The 4033 is a cardioid, large diaphragm condenser with bass rolloff; the 4050 is essentially a dual-diaphragm version of the same mic, offering cardioid, omni, and bidirectional patterns. These are a little pricey perhaps when compared to mics of similar class and performance, but if you do a lot of electric guitar work, check them out.

Audix D1 / D2 / D3/ D4

I generally prefer hypercardioids when miking drums, so as to minimize bleed — the less bleed, the more flexibility you have at mixdown. These hypercardioid mics are particularly well suited to miking up a drum kit. They sport good off-axis rejection, very decent frequency response, and more than enough SPL handling for just about anyone.

The D1 and D2 are particularly well-suited for snare and toms, while the D4, with it’s larger diaphragm, is great for kick or bass cabinets. The D3, besides being a great percussion mic, also sounds particularly good on horns and brass.

Earthworks QTC-1 / TC40K

These babies get a real workout at my place — both in the studio, and on location. They are quiet, sensitive, and deadly accurate all the way from about 5Hz to 40kHz and beyond. I can hardly say enough good things about them.

A couple of caveats: if you’re looking for a mic with “colour” or “character”, forget it. This mike is clear as glass; it exhibits no colour of it’s own whatsoever. There are no patterns, no switches, no rolloffs, baffles, or any other extraneous junk. Using this mic on a sound source is like standing nude in front of a mirror — you’re staring at the naked truth, warts and all. The other thing is that if you’ve had little experience using omni mics before, beware — there’ll be a learning curve (for more information on omni mic placement, see my sidebar to Rip Rowan’s article in the August 1998 issue of ProRec). However, once you get used to omnis, the experience can be very rewarding.

Given the right room, the right instrument, and the right conditions, there are very few instruments I’d hesitate to use them on — acoustic guitar, percussion, piano, any brass, woodwinds, strings, even electric guitar amps — you name it. I’ve even successfully miked a whole drum kit using just a single pair of Earthworks mics (along with a EV RE20 on the kick, though I blended in very little of that at mixdown). As there is no proximity effect with these mics, you can get as close as you dare to the sound source. I once actually stuck a TC40K inside the F-hole of a contrabass. Whoa!

Electro Voice RE20

This mic has been around for years, and remains the Big Kahuna among cardioid large diaphragm dynamics. This is the one you’ll find in about 80% of the radio broadcast booths in the country.

The problem with a lot of directional mics is their uneven off-axis response — many of them have weird dips in the midrange when you move even a little off the front of the mic. Not so with the RE20. One of it’s strengths lies in the fact that not only does it reject off-axis sounds very well, it pretty much rejects all off-axis frequencies at the same rate — no mean feat for a dynamic mic, to be sure.

This is pretty much the first mic I reach for on kick drum. It’s also great on almost any typical large-diaphragm dynamic duty, such as guitar and bass amps, horns, and low brass. And if you’re looking for a really nice, fat, warm vocal mic, don’t automatically reach for a tube condenser — the RE20 may be just the ticket instead. I used it exclusively on one particular female vocalist I recorded last year, and it worked spectacularly.

Groove Tubes MD1a / MD6TM

I had had some experience with the original MD1 a long ways back in a studio I worked at, but was turned on to them again just a couple of years ago by fellow ProRec staffer Bruce Richardson (thanks, Bruce ol’ pal.)

The MD1a is a large diaphragm, side-address tube condenser, usually sold as a kit with the required PS2A external power supply. It’s similar to the original MD1 model, but with a slightly sturdier design and improved internal shock mounting.

This is an incredibly sweet and warm mic; crisp without being too bright or sibilant, and full and rich without being boomy. It practically oozes on vocals (especially female), but keep in mind that this mic is by no means a one-trick pony, as it excels on strings, horns, reeds and brass, among a myriad of other instruments. Try it on an electric guitar cabinet and you’re in for a treat — the MD1 (and its cousin, the MD2) are used extensively for studio cab miking by the likes of Edward Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Kirk Hammett, among others. It is definitely in “heavy rotation” at my studio, and at a hair under $800 on the street, the MD1a holds the distinction of being the most affordable tube mic on the market. Not too shabby.

The MD6TM is a multi-pattern tube condenser sporting cardioid, hypercardioid, bidirectional, and omni patterns, and also features -10dB pad and bass rolloff switches. At just a couple hundred bucks more than the MD1a, this is also a fantastic deal on a fantastic mic.

Neumann KM184

A small body, small diaphragm condenser par excellence, the KM184 is Neumann’s single most popular microphone and is available in factory-matched, consecutively-numbered pairs as well as separately. This one has traditionally been the mic of choice for acoustic instruments of all types; especially strings, percussion, and cymbals. This mic also shines on piano, winds, and guitar.

Neumann TLM-103

A brand new, large diaphragm condenser that finally brings honest-to-God Neumann performance within the reach of home and project studio owners everywhere. This mic is nothing short of a breakthrough in the price/performance microphone wars. Now you too, for less than $900 (street price) of your hard-earned cashola, can own the newest model from the Mother of All Microphone Companies — and, as all good studio rats know, there are those certain times when nothing less will do.

If any corners were cut in the design of this large-diaphragm solid state condenser, they aren’t apparent in the performance it offers. Granted, it’s pretty plain-vanilla — no rolloff switches, no pad, and it’s cardioid only. And the mic mount is a little on the cheesy side. But these are nits. Consider that at a self noise of 7 dBA, it’s not only the quietest mic that Neumann makes, it’s the quietest mic that I know of available anywhere, at any price. A sensitivity of 21mV/Pa puts it right up there with the Earthworks QTC1. And the sound is 100% genuine world-class Neumann… and lemme tell ya, it don’t get much better’n that. Even if this were the only large diaphragm condenser you could plunk for, I guarantee you’d still be a pretty happy camper.

Peavey PVM 520i

This mic was a real find for me. If an Electro Voice RE20 or a Sennheiser MD421mkII are a bit out of your fiscal reach, consider the Peavey 520i, a very good large diaphragm dynamic in its own right. Forget what you’ve heard about Peavey mics — I generally don’t like them all that much either. This one is different, trust me on this.

The 520i’s frequency response is surprisingly good — even better, in fact, than either the MD 421 or the RE20. This makes it useful not only for drums, horns, brass, and bass; but even on vocals, both in studio and live. I’ve used it on electric guitar amps, but beware here — you may find it a bit brighter than most of the amp mics you’re used to, certainly more so than, say, the venerable Shure SM 57.

Rode NT1 / NT2

The NT1 is probably the mic steal of the decade. It’s not just affordable; at a street price of about $250, this mic is downright cheap for what you get — a large-diaphragm cardioid condenser that rubs weenies with mics costing hundreds of dollars more.

Not to say it’s cheaply made; the NT1 is a pretty rugged mic as large-diaphragm condensers go. I wouldn’t recommend you pound nails with it or dip it in glass of beer or anything; I’m just saying that the mic is well constructed. I will say I’m not really fond of the little plastic doo-hickey that’s provided as a mounting device, though.

Rode may have considered naming this mic “Mr. Versatility.” Soundwise, this mic can and will handle just about anything you can throw at it, though due to the lack of a bass rolloff switch, careful placement may be necessary.

The NT2 is very similar sounding, though a bit more sensitive and crisper in the high end. It’s also equipped with dual patterns (cardioid, omni), a -10 dB pad, and a bass rolloff switch. The omni setting is gorgeous — this is the mic I always reach for first on group backup vocals, and often for acoustic guitar as well. While the NT2 will set you back about $300 more than its little brother, the omni setting alone is worth it, at least to me.

Shure SM7

Here’s another great large diaphragm dynamic mic; and, like the EV RE20, a darling of the broadcast industry. A unique mid-body, U-shaped mounting design, along with its unique sound, makes it a natural for broadcast, dialogue, and voiceover work.

The strength of the SM7 is it’s extremely smoooooooth and eminently tweakable proximity effect. There are both bass rolloff and midrange emphasis switches that provide four unique response curves, as well as extensive pop filtering built in. This mic can be growly, thumpy, or really silky in the lows and mids, depending on how it’s used. If you’ve ever listened to one of those late-night, rich-as-molasses DJs with the oh-so-soothing baritone back-announcing a Nat King Cole record, chances are you were hearing an SM7 used up close.

Like most large diaphragm dynamics, it’s good on just about anything where you want to really bring out some butt — bass, kick and toms, low reeds, or a vintage Harley Davidson V-Twin.

Shure SM57

The quintessential mic for pop and rock recordings of almost any kind. The venerable SM57 is perhaps the most common mic you’ll find in any studio you happen to visit. Most studios I know have a box full of them! In a home recording setup, even if someone has only one or two mics, chances are damn good that one of them will be an SM57.

To me, this is not a snare drum mic — it is the snare drum mic. No matter what I’m using on the rest of the kit, I’ll almost always use an SM57 on the snare — sometimes, two of them.

It’s also by far the first choice of most engineers for electric guitar cabinets, too. For this reason alone, you may want to avoid using it for this purpose. I mean, let’s face it — the old “SM57-stuck-in-front-of-the-speaker-angled-off-axis trick” has been done to death. I’d certainly hope you’d have a little more imagination than that. Life’s too short for more of the same. Dare to be different!

Shure SM81

I’ve actually been accused of being too big a fan of the SM81. Hey… it’s a great mic. So sue me.

Like the SM57 is to electric guitar, so the SM81 is to acoustic guitar. It’s extended frequency response (20Hz – 20kHz) makes it a natural for this, but even more important is that the response of this mic is absolutely ruler flat. Also, a two-stage rolloff switch (-6 dB/octave at 100Hz, -18dB/octave at 80Hz) is provided to help tame the proximity effect. (There’s a -10dB pad as well.) These are important considerations, especially for acoustic guitar, where weird formants and other idiosyncrasies of the instrument can sometimes make a particular guitar’s response really uneven.

SM81s are my favorite choice as drum kit overheads as well. In fact, this mic can be used with confidence on horns, winds, percussion, and even strings.

Sennheiser MD421mkII

Another fabled member of the large diaphragm dynamic class (Can you tell that I like big dynamic mics yet?), this mic truly deserves its status as a honest-to-God true classic. This one has a nice, smooth high-shelf above 4kHz, a five position bass rolloff switch, and is almost as rugged as a Shure SM58.

Though it exhibits the nice, round character you’d expect to hear in a fine large dynamic, it’s always seemed a little brighter and more delicate to me than you’ll hear from, say, the EV RE20. It doesn’t suffer from the “tubbiness” you often hear in mics of this class, which is generally a good thing in most applications. For this reason, I’ve often used this mic with excellent results in situations in which you might not normally reach for a dynamic — recording cello, contrabass, bassoons and other low winds, and low reeds (it sounded great on a sax solo I recorded for a children’s record). This one is definitely a worthy add to any studio arsenal.

Final Words

That about rounds out my list of favorite microphones. If there’s one thing I’d like all my readers to remember, it’s this: no matter what mics you happen to own, be sure to take the opportunity to really acquaint yourself with how they sound, their strengths and weaknesses, what sources they sound good (and not-so-good) on, and work hard at perfecting your mic placement technique. Being a good mic “handicapper” is a all-too-rare skill that a truly great recording engineer needs to master. It’s probably one of the most important things that separates the men from the boys in the recording biz… so get out there… and listen!

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