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The Best Voiceover Microphone … Ever?

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012 | by


After 35 years of working in media professionally, I’ve heard and auditioned many microphones. From cheap to uber-expensive, American, German, Japanese, Chinese, you name it. It has been an interest of mine for many, many, years.

In 1980, I was Production Director and reluctantly, on-air announcer for KATI/KAWY radio. We were given an opportunity to upgrade our microphones, from the Electro-Voice 661 and Electro-Voice RE16Electro-Voice RE16 — which were nicknamed “the nail pounders” because in some old ads for the mics, a guy actually pounds a nail with one, and it kept on going. They were great for field use and disc jockey abuse, but really weren’t up to snuff quality-wise, especially for FM radio.

The word went out, and within a week we had audition offers from almost every known company making broadcast mics at the time. We also tried any professional mic that anyone personally had and would lend to us, including some nice old RCA ribbons. I also had, in my personal mic locker, a used Neumann U87, and a Sennheiser Electronics Corporation MD 441USennheiser MD 441U, which I bought as a combo from another announcer whose studio had fallen on hard times. I paid $125.00 for the combo.

We needed seven mics total: two for each production room, one for each control room and one for the newsroom. Pricewise, the Neumann mics were out of the question; I think they were going for $1000 each at the time. We had a maximum budget of $300.00 for each mic. That helped narrow down the choices.

We had been loaned two microphones from Shure: the Shure SM5BShure SM5B and SM7. The SM5B went into AM production, while the SM7 went into FM production. Right away, I fell in love with the sound of the SM5.

The SM7 at the time was a newer design, and had some pad and EQ switches, but its sound was a bit overly bright, especially with female voices. The SM5B had something that made everyone sound great: smooth, rich, unaffected by the over-processing you get coming out of a broadcast signal. I liked the SM5B even over my Neumann and Sennheiser. It was perfect.

The SM5B was a huge mic, a blimp mic, with two large, two-tone gray windscreens. I think it was originally designed to be a boom mic for motion picture sets and field recording. In fact, I later saw a few of these on “boom poles” on motion picture sets. You could not hit the capsule with a plosive even if you tried. When the windscreen was removed, there was another windscreen covering what was really a pretty unimpressive-looking capsule, looking like the raw capsule of an SM57/58, suspended by what almost looked like small surgical tubing (that I later learned was silicone). It also had a humbucking coil, which prevented all the mechanical equipment and speakers in the studio from causing the mic to hum. It was quiet. I think that’s why broadcasters picked up these mics. It also was a hotter mic than dynamics are normally, even with the hero-sandwich windscreen. Proximity was never a problem as well, as long as you were in front of the mic; it sounded great, even at 12 inches. Its pickup was more like a shotgun mic.

The only drawback to the mic was the windscreens. If you had a smoker, a liquid lunch indulger or spitter that used the mic before you, well it could be pretty nauseating. The windscreen was not something that an announcer could swap to have his or her own, so as not to spread mono or the flu. Spraying the foam with Lysol was a big no-no.

Surprisingly, the windscreens did not seem to mute the sound of the mic at all. The same was true of the SM7, though it had a smaller foam filter.

Windscreen problems were the reason we didn’t buy the Shure mics. The announcers had a tendency to pick at the foam, and poke it with pens and pencils, making me and Shure very unhappy. After many choices were given, and votes were cast, we went with Sennheiser Electronics Corporation MD 421-IISennheiser 421s. They looked and sounded nice, were bullet-proof, and each announcer could use his/her own windscreen. The mics also had an EQ switch in the back, which could give each announcer a more-personalized sound.

Since then, I have used a great number of voice microphones, both dynamics and condensers. But I can’t get the old SM5 sound out of my head. A boom operator on a movie set let me listen to one some years back; it still had “that” sound. So I have my eye out for one, but you never know what you are going to get off of Ebay, even at an $800.00 plus price tag.

Postscript

I just auditioned the new Shure SM7BShure SM7B, an updated version of the old SM7, at the NPR Studios in Culver City, CA. I had a “Beringer Wine” voiceover script on my smartphone [Ed. note: David used this in his Yeti Pro review.] With the SM7b’s “presence” switch engaged, the mic had that meaty, mid “oomph” of the SM5b! Eureka!

I knew the SM7 was popular in broadcast applications, but didn’t know it was so popular in recording studios as well (e.g., Bruce Swedien used an SM7 for most of Michael Jackson’s vocals on “Thriller”). It’s just a great-sounding mic, another Shure classic. Listening to both the SM5 and SM7b gives me the feeling of listening to a microphone with the smoothness of a ribbon, the clarity of a condenser and the punch of a very good dynamic. I’m very happy to have once again found that sound. I hope to be adding an SM7b to my mic locker soon.

Posted in Broadcast, Microphones, voiceover | 24 Comments »




24 Responses to “The Best Voiceover Microphone … Ever?”

  1. Pierre-Alexandre

    February 8th, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Interesting. “The smoothness of a ribbon, the clarity of a condenser” is stuff I thought and said about the MD441. So how would you compare the SM7b and MD441?

  2. David Beneke

    February 9th, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Sorry Pierre, I wasn’t aware you made that same comparison, I don’t see it on the MD441 page. Anyway The MD441, in my opinion, compares to a U87, almost exactly in tone, very transparent, and is a great mic as well. Since I don’t have either mic right now to compare, I sold my MD441 in 1985, I couldn’t tell you individual nuances, but the bump you get in the presence mode of the SM7b has more punch in the speaking voice range, which the SM5b also had. The MD441 did have the switch in the back, which gave it different coloring, but I think it was for musical instruments not voice. I used an MD441 at KQLT radio for two years and also the older SM7 at KTRS, they did not sound like the SM5b, which I was comparing.

  3. Randy Coppinger

    February 9th, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    The 441 got used on vocals. A lot. For example- http://youtu.be/_ul7X5js1vE

  4. Pierre-Alexandre

    February 10th, 2012 at 2:55 am

    You have no reason to apologize, David. I didn’t make a similar comparison here; I either made it on Gearslutz or in emails (or both). Moreover, you can read on the official MD441 page that “its acoustic properties come as close as possible to those of a condenser microphone,” and I believe I read someone commenting that, to his ears, it sounded more like a ribbon mic than a condenser. So my opinion isn’t that original.

    The MD441 has a presence switch, that boosts the highs. It makes your voice clearer, but artificially so (and it’s audible).

    It also has a bass roll-off in five increments, from M (Music) to S (Speech). I think M at a distance of six inches works great on speech.

    But no, it isn’t a punchy mic. Quite the contrary, it has this velvety ribbon sound, and would work better for narrative work than for commercials.

    Oh, I found the email I was referring to. I wrote: “For narrative work, the MD 441 is the best sounding dynamic I’ve ever heard, with some of the clarity of a condenser and some of the smoothness of a ribbon.”

    I’ve also bought its little brothers, the MD431 and MD431-II, and will make dual recordings for comparison.

  5. Pierre-Alexandre

    February 10th, 2012 at 3:00 am

    Randy: Good link. The MD 441 is one old mic. :oP

  6. David Beneke

    February 10th, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Hi again, just shows we all have similar impressions of mic sounds, which is a good thing. A dynamic is good over a condenser in the fact, especially in the older radio studios, you are not going to pick up noise from cart machine motors, reel to reels, chair squeaks and so on. Also an advantage in the home studio, where you are not going to pick up dog barking from 3 blocks away, as with a condenser. A great mic should be multi purpose, which all the above are.

  7. Pierre-Alexandre

    February 10th, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    Indeed, dynamics win over condensers in imperfect recording environments. At close range, the MD441 picks even less ambient noise than the shotgun MKH416 (I did compare them side by side).

  8. Steve Faul

    February 17th, 2012 at 1:54 am

    I remember the SM5. Smooth. They turned up at a number of public radio stations in my area. One is still on the air at WNKU. My only complaint was it was like having a blimp floating in my line of sight.

    My experience with the 421 is that people either love it, or prefer to use it for target practice. The 421 without a pop filter turned up at a number of stations where I didn’t get along with it. At a high-energy hit station the program director thought I always sounded off mike. I was. The damn thing popped like a cannon if I got anywhere near it. More than one jock found himself holding the 421 in his hand on air because the “shark fin” clip let go when he tried to move it. And nobody knew what to make of the roll-off control, which got moved every time you touched it. At another station, when Clear Channel bought us, they regarded 421’s as crap and threw them away. We got new SM7b’s in every studio.

  9. David Beneke

    February 17th, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Looked up WNKU, and it’s amazing that they are still using an SM5! Yep, they were big blimps, but the sound. I actually listened to a stream from WNKU, with processing, it’s kind of hard to get the full idea of what the SM5 sounds like, but the announcer had the warm friendly smoothness in his voice that I remember.

    We used custom made shock mounts for our 421s and each jock had his or her own windscreen, the black foam ones made by Sennheiser. Sennhieser also made a more expensive, white ball windscreen for the 421, it had a plastic mesh thing happening, trying to remember that far back, which was not at all transparent sounding, but it did cut the pops.

  10. Terry Berglund

    February 20th, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Let me preface my remarks by saying that I am not a sound professional, but rather a well seasoned amateur recording engineer. I was a volunteer on my church’s sound crew for many years. Our worship presentation is very production value oriented and our sound equipment could probably be valued at well over 1/4 million dollars. Upon occasion I engineered the sound support but, at my own choice, preferred to engineer the audio in the recording control room for the audio tapes and the audio portion of the video tapes. Our system has separate mixing consoles for the live sound and the recorded sound. Also, I have my own mixing and recording equipment with a microphone locker that would be the envy of many small recording studios.

    In our voice over booth at the church we use a Shure SM-7. I found it to have a great beefy sound for speech. On stage we use primarily Shure Beta 87s and AKG 535s. Both are superb. However, for my money there is nothing like the warm, rich sound of one of my RCA 77DX ribbon mikes for speech or vocals. It is also my microphone of choice for a percussion desk. It has a great presence even from a working distance of 5 feet and just one 77DX on a boom stand suspended over the percussion desk does a remarkable job of capturing every nuance of the various “toys” from the deep tones of the timpani to the sparkle of wind chimes or a triangle.

  11. Wally Wawro

    February 29th, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    I’m in total agreement about the Sennheiser 421, to me it was just a plain weird sounding on-air microphone.

    I have much love for the RE-16…..on my own voice. And it’s been in the EV product line since the late 1960s. No love for the RE-20 though.

    Oddly enough I really like the EV 630s. While they 630 has called many a bingo game at the KofC Hall or Moose Lodge, they are really nice on guitar amps. I have a pair and I use them when I have to mix a band live on local TV. They also made a “broadcast” version, the original EV 635 which has similar stud mount and XLR connector.

    And the AKG 535 is one of my favorite vocal mics on female singers.

    Nice article.

  12. Matt the mad man

    March 2nd, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    I absoultly love the sm5 despite the fact that it is a blimp. I didn’t know for many years that there was any other choice for a studio mic. I was just a kid but they still use them and “my” radio station. My dad and I recently invested in a sm7b for the home studio and love it. It is the closest thing I have found to the sm5 and it is not a blimp.

  13. Lesley Jones

    March 10th, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Hi. I loved reading this article, specially after I just got us an SM7B for our station. We bought a Rode Broadcaster at first, although I knew the SM7B very well, and loved it, but after a few shows, I realised the Rode was a mistake, or better; Second best. 🙂 So we changed it for the Shure.

    Greets from Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
    Amsterdam Funk Channel

  14. David Beneke

    March 10th, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Wow, some great comments! I just have to say, I just purchased an SM7b, so my money is where my mouth is, so to speak!

  15. Stan Davis

    March 29th, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    I worked in radio for almost 30 years,and used a whole bunch of mics: too many to mention, including the SM5 and MD441U. The sound I remember most fondly was at WMAJ in State College, PA in the mid 70s. There wasn’t a dynamic in the place: all RCA ribbons in control, production and news. BK5Bs, 77DXs and 44s. They sounded great! If I could only afford one now…

  16. David Beneke

    April 5th, 2012 at 10:40 am

    I have to say, I love my new SM7b! Put it on a Cloudlifter, and you have pure magic! Seeing more folks using them as well. Here is proof of what you can get with 3 mics, one an SM7b, a guitar and 5 people http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9NF2edxy-M

  17. ReaM

    July 6th, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Hi,

    can someone tell me which mic to get for cartoon voices? I am stuck between Yeti Pro (or normal yeti would work too?) and MXL USB 009.

    Help ;/

  18. David Beneke

    July 7th, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    The Yeti Pro and SM7b are two different animals, I have never heard the MXL 009, so I cant say. If you want to get a great idea how an SM7b sounds, check out the latest Recording Hacks article “Best Budget Audio Interfaces for SM7B” by Jason Miller.

  19. ReaM

    July 8th, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Thanks,

    I did listen to them. They all seem great I also checked out the Yeti / Pro article, they also sound great. They sound very similar to me, I can’t hear the difference.

    More than a year ago I bought the C-1U and it is a bad microphone, because I need to be very close to the mic and speak louder than I should, because the gain’s so low that mic. My lips are basically on the pop filter.

  20. M Lewis Sauerwein

    October 31st, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    I have one in working order David. Contact me if interested. I am willing to do a sound test with a short script you provide so you can check out it´s condition and overall sound. I am on LinkedIn- Facebook etc- so you should be able to find me.

  21. David Beneke

    June 4th, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    I recently added a KEL Audio HM 2D to my mic locker. Comparing it in a side by side shoot out with the SM7b in flat, really not much of an audible difference except, the KEL has a slighter bit of forward punch and air, reminding me exactly of what the SM5b sounded like. The SM7b with mid boost engaged is noticeably chestier, (is that a word?) through monitors. The advantage I have with the KEL is, it does not require a power hungry amp to keep it sounding clean.

  22. MG Brown

    November 19th, 2015 at 11:34 am

    I’ve been a working, professional voice talent since 1980 and have used both the SM5b and SM7 extensively during my career. I’ve also hung a variety of other mics on the boom; U87, 414, U47Fet, Blue Kiwi, TLM49, M49, U47, RE27, 416, Gefell M930, and AT4050 throughout the years and the SM7 competes equally with all of them when used on the right VO project and voice. I keep the old SM7 (an original one) boomed with a Cloud Lifter and still use it every day for more energetic radio and tv spot VOs because it sounds great and handles higher SPLs very well. When I change mics for narration projects, which I do weekly for a couple of cable tv programs, I use the U47FET, which offers a bit more clarity in the mids and highs, and sounds better with my voice than the U87. But the SM7 is a workhorse VO mic.
    Regarding the SM5b; that was my first mic purchase in 1980 and got used exclusively for everything for the next 15 years. I sent out VO tracks for everything from local to national commercials with that old 5b and they all sounded great on the air.
    Thanks for your reviews and comparisons. You are very accurate with your evaluations of those two mics.

  23. Larry Sentelle

    June 27th, 2018 at 7:31 am

    Having read through this entire page, I would first like to say thank you to everyone for sharing their knowledge. The SM7b is a microphone which I am very familiar with both on voice, as well as instrumental sources. For rock vocals, the 7B can easily deliver but, for the more aggressive one’s who scream-talk-sing it is tough to beat. With more aggressive styles of rock like metal, and especially for rap the 7B ends up on a lot of our recordings.

    One tip, remove the thin foam windscreen, exposing the capsule, and instead use a good pop filter. You should notice a bit more sensitivity, and when you want “smooth” put the foam back

  24. Larry Sentelle

    June 27th, 2018 at 8:01 am

    Best microphone though is a tough question to ask, at least of me because, I view microphones as if they are camera lens, and preamps, as texture tools.

    The voice which I am recording decides for me which mics to put up. For VO work, I like my EV PL 10 way better than I like the RE 20 but, again, the talent’s voice leads me to which mic I am going to use. U87’s are great VO mics. if, there is detail in the voice, this choice is a no-brainer. Want the FM DJ sound, easy, throw up a 7B. 421’s I like on toms/GTR amps, not so much on voice. The 441 is a great dynamic, reminds me of a ribbon somewhat. Preamp choices. If transparency is the goal-NPNG. When I want color, a BAE 1073. A great, and not-so-expensive preamp for dynamics and ribbon mics is the AEA TRP or their RPQ model, tons of gain/83-85 db, and it sounds wonderful, also great with tube mics. No phantom power available on the AEA preamps so, they won’t work on every mic but, for ribbons/dynamics Tube LDC’s it’s a fantastic preamp. On a budget, get the TRP model, it’s under $1,000, and the design is very solid.

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