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Mic Check: One… Two… Three…

Sunday, July 15th, 2012 | by


The issue at hand

We have an artist who is an excellent pop vocalist and happens to be a very petite woman. Her voice, especially when pushed, tends to contain some piercing frequencies in the 2–4 khz range, and some microphones tend to accentuate her sibilance. For this particular project, the producers are using first-call musicians, top studios, and want to spare no expense in the production of her album. Our goal is to find the best one or two microphones for the singer, then work on the vocal production in the producer’s lab, where everyone is comfortable and no studio clock is running.

The approach

Oceanway Studios Hollywood, Studio AFor the first day of vocal mic selection (yeah, the first day of vocal mic selection — must be nice, right?) we are Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood (again, must be nice, right?). Fortunately for us the studio has an extremely large collection of microphones, and a staff who is intimately familiar with the collection. In the control room, we have a highly modified Focusrite console, a Neve sidecar, an API sidecar, and some Avalon M2 preamps. We chose the Focusrite console preamps for the mic tests because they sound fantastic, we have like 72 of them, and we have access to an ISA channel back at the lab.

Also, in my experience with mic pre shootouts, the Focusrite preamps always place at or near the top, thanks to their large, slightly thick, but not noticeably colored sound. At the lab, we will have access to the ISA, along with a VOXBOX, Chandler Germanium and Little Devil modules, Telefunken V72s, Great River MP500NV, Toneluxe MP5As and a custom built Ampex tube pre from an old tape machine. I felt that with these choices later in the project, the ISA will give us a fair middle ground to hear the character of each microphone.

The players

For the microphone choices, I have narrowed our selection down to a small plethora of mics. Here are the options, and my initial thoughts behind them:

Telefunken Ela M 251Telefunken Ela M 251 – Obvious choice for vocals, but sometimes too bright on thin voices.

Neumann U 47Neumann U 47 – Another obvious choice and this mic should smooth out the harshness and add some warmth.

Neumann U47 fetNeumann U47 fet – Should be a little more closed in and maybe punchier than the ’47 Tube.

Neumann U 67Neumann U 67 – Lots of attitude with the openness I like for pop and rock, especially on younger singers.

Neumann U 87Neumann U 87 – Not my fave vocal mic, but good mojo and sometimes just the ticket.

Cathedral Pipes Notre DameCathedral Pipes Notre Dame (prototype) – Sounds close to a well maintained 47 Tube. Normally my go-to vocal mic is the Cathedral Pipes Regensburg Dom, but mine is on loan right now.

Cathedral Pipes St. Mary (prototype) – another great vocal mic, similar to the Manley Reference Gold. Sometimes too clean for pop vocals.

Sterling Audio ST6050Sterling Audio ST6050 – suggested by my assistant, a custom designed derivative of the Sterling ST77, which I sometimes find useful on voice.

Miktek CV4Miktek CV4 – Another favorite of mine. Perhaps a little more warm and colored than a U47 or the Cathedral Pipes, but in a very good way.

Miktek C7Miktek C7 – Very clean LDC FET, sometimes just the ticket for vocals and voiceover.

Audio-Technica AT4050Audio-Technica AT4050 – One of my vocal underdog heroes (along with the AT4033). Maybe not the mojo of the Neumans, but always useable and versatile.

VTL CR-3AManley/VTL CR-3A – An old (discontinued) standby and certainly worth a shot. (Not the same as the Reference Cardioid tube mic in production today.)

RØDE NT1000RØDE NT1000 – Sometimes the perfect choice for pop vocals. Almost doesn’t need EQ in a mix.

Sterling Audio ST77 FETSterling Audio ST77 FET – The basis for the Ocean Way ST6050, which we have, so it might be an interesting comparison.

beyerdynamic M 160beyerdynamic M 160 – This is an interesting ribbon mic and will give us a totally different take on the vocals.

Neumann M 269 CNeumann M 269 C – Like a U67 with a more open top end.

The process

So, we have our mics lined up and our singer warmed up. For the trials we have chosen a song with a typical range and style for this album. That is, low-register, smooth verses, mid-level bridges and belting chorus in the singer’s upper range — basically, your typical pop/rock song. Each test will consist of recording the first verse, bridge and chorus of the same song, with the same Focusrite preamp. No compressor will be used for the shootout, and, although the musical tracks have each been recorded onto Ocean Way’s Custom Ampex 124 tape machine, we opt to cut vocals straight to Pro Tools HD, using a Prism Dream converter at 96khz. For compression, we will later choose between the VoxBox, the ISA, an ACME Opticom, Inward Connections’ Brute, or a Cathedral Pipes Yellow Submarine, depending on the song and style (once again — must be nice, right?).

The Results

I’ll give you the winner first, and then the overall impressions for each mic. Remember, this exercise was to choose the best mic for a particular singer, who may not be the “typical” singer. Going through this process was interesting for everyone involved and while it may have been overkill for every project, this time around we had the time and resources to go the extra mile.

For me, the character of the winning mic must meet three criteria: Are the problems frequencies of the singer enhanced or diminished by the mic? Do the presence and emotion of the performance translate well? And finally, will processing done during the mixing enhance the vocal without bringing more problem frequencies to light? Only experience with the way you, or your mixer, treats vocals will allow you to predict where the sound will go during processing, but I always assume that in my mixes there is a tradeoff between sibilance and clarity and presence (through both EQ and limiting) and harshness. You can always add one more processor to the vocal to fix a problem, but we are very sensitive to the human voice’s timbre and every processor adds a veil to that character. That said, here are the results…

The first day ended with the 47 FET the clear winner, and the Ocean Way ST6050 a close second. It was not surprising that the 251, U67 and U87 sounded a bit thin and bright, since these mics tend to emphasize clarity and lean towards the bright side. I was surprised that U47 Tube and Cathedral Pipes mics did not impart a warmer tone to this voice. Maybe the proximity effect never got a chance to fill in the bottom because of the distance from the mic that was required during loud passages. The 47 FET gave the most musical representation of her voice and the Ocean Way mic held up well, but didn’t quite have the depth of the 47FET.

On our second day of tests, things got more interesting. This time, the Miktek CV4 beat the pants off the 47 FET. The CV4 sounded big, open and its slight warmth added nice lower harmonics the voice. I know I will be able to EQ and limit this sound without bringing out any harshness or harming the clarity.

The other two contenders that emerged were the Audio Technica 4050, which sounded very even, but perhaps a little flat dynamically and the Miktek C7, which also sounded very well balanced and a bit more musical than the 4050. This came as a surprise, since the C7 tends to be a bright sounding mic in most applications, but for some reason, this voice hit this mic in the right way. So after two days of singing, the producers chose to use the CV4 as the primary mic, with the C7 kept handy in case that tone was more appropriate.

Here are the subjective impressions of each mic:

Telefunken Ela M 251Telefunken Ela M 251 – Too thin, although very dynamic.

Neumann U 47Neumann U 47 – Too much sibilance, but bigger than the 251.

Neumann U47 fetNeumann U47 fet – Good overall balance. Tamed harshness, no sibilance, a little flat on the dynamics in comparison with others.

Neumann U 67Neumann U 67 – Too thin for this singer.

Neumann U 87Neumann U 87 – Slightly sibilant and not flattering for this singer.

Cathedral Pipes Notre DameCathedral Pipes Notre Dame (prototype) – Could probably be eq’d to sound nice, but not an immediate match.

Cathedral Pipes St. Mary (prototype) – Similar to 251, too thin for this singer.

Sterling Audio ST6050Sterling Audio ST6050 – nice overall tone, just not exciting in any way.

Miktek CV4Miktek CV4 – Very well balanced, dynamic and doesn’t enhance the problems.

Miktek C7Miktek C7 – Slightly bright, but very useable. Nice overall balance and dynamics.

Audio-Technica AT4050Audio-Technica AT4050 – Well-balanced and clear. Maybe too clinical for this voice.

VTL CR-3AManley/VTL CR-3A – Very thin and harsh.

RØDE NT1000RØDE NT1000 – Thin and strange sounding on this voice; almost phasey.

Sterling Audio ST77 FETSterling Audio ST77 FET – A little gritty sounding and not very dynamic.

beyerdynamic M 160beyerdynamic M 160 – Very dark, and closed in.

Neumann M 269 CNeumann M 269 C – Too thin, but nice dynamics and space.

Summary

Every case is unique and only through experience do we gain an appreciation for the subtleties of each mic and application. This was a unique individual with issues that we approached through extensive mic testing. If I had only one or two mics on hand, I would have made it work somehow. Different orientation of mic to mouth distance, foam windscreens, varying room acoustics and eventually signal processing would have gotten us to a useable outcome — they always do. The most appropriate mic for this session might not work tomorrow, but today we are all happy with our choice.

Adam Kagan is a recording engineer, mixer and producer with numerous Grammy-nominated and -winning productions to his credit. He is formerly the chief engineer at Hollywood’s Nightbird Studios. Visit Adam online at about.me/adamkagan.

The Miktek CV4 streets for about $1399; see pricing and availability here. The C7 Fet is on sale for $799; see prices here.

Posted in Microphones, Music Business, Studios | 18 Comments »




18 Responses to “Mic Check: One… Two… Three…”

  1. Big Dave

    July 15th, 2012 at 6:14 am

    Thanks for sharing! Audio clips would really have added to the discussion though. You may or may not have been able to do that but they would have been really cool.

  2. Bradford Swanson

    July 15th, 2012 at 11:33 am

    What an awesome collection!

  3. Steve Hickman

    July 16th, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Interesting to see a mic I can afford win against the legends that I’ll never own. I’d love to know more about Cathedral Pipes…….Matt. :-).

  4. Adam Kagan

    July 17th, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I find that the Cathedral Pipes consistently hold up against any LDC Tube mic. The Regensburg Dom have become my most common go-to mic for vocals – like the U67 sound with an overall smoother response. Their new Notre Dame comes closer to the original U47 sound, with a new basket, and an upgraded output cap. The Regensburg is a more in-your-face sound and the Notre Dame is more open and huge. Again, like a U67 and a U47. I also find the Miktek CV4 consistently performs as one of my top vocal mics – a bit warmer than the Cathedral Pipes, but still an outstanding mic. Both the CV4 and Regensburg Dom are in the 1500 dollar area and the Notre Dam is around 2k. I don’t think there are any better values at those prices.

  5. chris porro

    July 18th, 2012 at 11:52 am

    you have a lot more stuff to choose from then me. why no sm7 or re-20 in there? i too have a voice that needs some taming with sibilance and i love the sm7 for that. i’m really stating to take a second look at dynamic mics especially when they are mixed. http://chrisporro.com/?p=1138

    good article on mic and performer pairing. can you suggest a cheese to go with the U 87? 😀

  6. Adam Kagan

    July 18th, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Hey Chris – I agree with your thoughts on dynamics sometimes being just right for a given situation. In my test, I did try the Beyer m160, which, being a Ribbon, is by definition also a dynamic mic. More to your point, I will try an SM7 or RE20 on singers who belt, or who have particularly bright voices. Strangely enough, I like Sennheiser 421s on rap vocals, even though the 421 tends to be a somewhat bright mic. For rap vocals, it just sits in the track the way the rapper and I want it to. Trey Songz, for instance, often uses a Sure Beta 57 for his vocals (with a popper stopper). I think what the article on your website points to, moreso than the A-D filter issues, is that the diaphragms in dynamic mics have different ballistics than the diaphragms in condenser mics. Think about it – the condenser diaphragms are charged (really just a capacitor) and don’t need much deflection to create the voltage changes. Dynamic mics, on the other hand are more massive and need to move a coil through a magnetic field – which requires greater forces to create a voltage. Also, the force required to move the coil may not be exactly linear in terms of x force creating y voltage and 10x force created 10y voltage. I think some of a dynamic mics personality comes from its non-linear excursion relative frequency and volume.

    In any case – I definitely include dynamic mics in my arsenal of vocal mics. Have you tried the Telefunken M80? Great on snare, guitar cabinet and vocals…

  7. Steve Cruz

    September 18th, 2012 at 8:00 am

    A mic I’ve found useful for belting singers, females in particular, is a mic that is somewhat “poo-poohed” by some – The Stellar Audio CM5. The 10K peak adds a nice air, while not accentuating sibilance or stridency. The low end is rich and the mids are beautifully detailed without sounding muddy.

    Of course, not every voice sounds great on every mic, which is why we thirst for a palette of tools. But the Stellar CM5 covers an area that few of my previous mics were able to cover. Prior to trying it the only mic I liked on my wife’s belting broadway voice was the CAD E300, which has a similar response curve to the CM5. But the CM5’s rich tube-enhanced detail and “life” made the E300 sound dry in comparison.

    Just sayin’.

  8. matthew mcglynn

    September 18th, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Regarding the CM5 mentioned by Steve Cruz above, we have a review here:
    http://recordinghacks.com/2012/04/09/stellar-cm5-review/

  9. 207

    February 8th, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    Thank you for your shootout! Have you heard the Lauten Atlantis or Lewitt LCT840/LCT940’s? The Miktek CV-4 sounds very interesting. I am looking for a LDC that will be good for opera singers and jazz vocalists at various locations. I am new to recording as I mainly play piano and compose. If the environments I am recording in are not acoustically-ideal (i.e. recital hall, living room….) should I be on the lookout for something in the specs for these mics? I notice that there’s “self-noise” ratings. Should I find the lowest of these?

    Your help is very much appreciated!

  10. adam

    February 9th, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Hey Chris – regarding the SM7 and RE20 – I do have those mics at my disposal. I just don’t find either of them suitable for this particular performance. Both of those mics have their uses and certain vocals and productions work very well with them. For this singer, a female pop/r&b vocalist, neither of those would really have suited us. If you only have a handful of mics, both of those would be good choices for that arsenal. We had lots of choices and, in the end, lots of them would have done a fine job.

  11. adam

    February 9th, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Hey 207 – I have used the Lauten, but no the Lewitt, though I do know many people who are very happy with the Lewitt. For me, if I were traveling to many different locations to record unknown singers in unknown acoustic settings, I would probably bring at least two, probably three, mics. I would bring a good FET condenser – maybe the Mojave or an Audio Technica 4050 and then something that is more hyper- or super- cardiod – maybe even a SDC, like a Miktek C5 or something like that. I have also had great results with the CAD E300, mentioned by Steve above. Tube mics have their inherent quirks and I don’t know that I would want to rely on a tube mic to travel with and capture important performances. You should at least have a spare tube or two and probably a spare 7-pin cable, as well as ground lift adapters, etc… Tube mics are great in the studio where you can test them for noise and suss out any issues. For location, I would keep things simple. The benefit of a tube mic over a condenser may not outweigh the practicality and reliability of a good FET condenser. Even a Beta 58, Telefunken M80 or Sennheiser E835 might be great for your purpose. Loud singers, live environments and probably a USB interface as your pre, right?

    BTW, Miktek has a new tube model, the CV3, which I saw at NAMM and it looked very good and is probably a bit more rugged than other tube mics, simply because the tube is hard wired and not socketed.

  12. 207

    February 11th, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    That does make sense to go the simpler FET route, as I do not know exactly where I’m going to be recording, and how noisy and busy the environment may be. I may go with something like the Lauten Atlantis or the Lewitt LCT940 or CV4 for the FET mic and something like the C5’s or Beyer 930’s or Lewitt LCT640’s for recording piano / guitar / choirs / strings.

    Would you recommend something like that? I just have an Apogee Duet, but I may upgrade to a Quartet or something to enable more channels. I apologize for asking such simple questions but I perform and teach piano full time, and I have not had the opportunity to delve deeply into recording arts…..yet :-)

    Your help is very much appreciated!!

  13. adam

    February 12th, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Hey 207 – I believe the Luten is the only FET Condenser in your lineup – the Miktek and Lewitt are tube mics. I don’t typically use tube mics outside of a studio, where I have spare tubes, supply cables and know temperature and humidity conditions. Also, I might not use a tube on a jazz or classical singer, depending on how pure I want their voice to be. For a lot of that stuff, I will use FETs and superclean preamps. Tube mics always have a color and saturation – which is sometimes desireable, and sometimes not – especially when your singer has not done a lot of recording and hasn’t honed their mic skills yet.

    I have had great results in classical voice recording with my AudioTechnica 4050, which also works well on acoustic guitar and drum overheads.

    I like the idea of small diaphragm condesners fo your other mics, and I especially like the Miktek C5 – it has become a staple for me on acoustic guitar, percussion and Foley work. The SDC category is pretty crowded with other nice mics, too.

    As for your preamps – just make sure you don’t push the preamps too hard and that you have enough phantom power for whatever combination of mics your are using. Many interfaces don’t really provide enough current to run more than one or two condensers. I’m not sure about the Apogee, but I have had problems with others. I have used the Duet with two Neumann KM184s and it worked very well for an interview show as area mics.

  14. Dusty Wakeman

    April 24th, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    Wish you would’ve thrown a Mojave MA-300 and MA-301fet into the mix.
    They hold their own very nicely with the Neumanns, Telefunkens and the Mikteks. We love mic shootouts!

  15. adam

    April 24th, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    I would have gladly given them a shot, but we didn’t have any around at the time. I am actually throwing up a borrowed MA200 in a shootout today – along with a Miktek CV4 and Cathedral Pipes Notre Dame and Regensburg Doms. This is for a male R&B vocal…..

  16. Sam Lee

    October 17th, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    Hey fellas, thanks a lot for a great review, this is JUST what I’ve been looking for, since several of these mics are on the buyer’s block for me right now! I’ve just been given a C7, and I’m encouraged to hear that it made such a good impression. Since it’s FET, do you have any recommendations for a suitable pre (presumably tube?) for a loud, dynamic tenor voice on the C7?

  17. Decade Sound Studios

    April 7th, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    Thanks a bunch for the shoot out and the results. Really surprised that the CV4 faired that well against the Neumans, esp the U47 FET. Would have been awesome to have some sound clips for sure but I understand when working with a pop singer…who is a petite woman…and excellent….LOL.

    Anyhow, if you all get a chance, would love to hear some sound clips of these mics even if its from a different session!

    Shad

  18. adam

    May 9th, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Hey Shad –

    Sound clips won’t necessarily tell you the whole story, since these choices were for a particular singer/song/studio/preamp/humidity/producer/style… etc… The Miktek mics have been regular favorites for many sessions and many situations. All their mics compete with the best-in-class for in their respective categories. As for comparing the CV4 to the FET47, that comparison is a tube mic vs a solid state FET mic. They have a different flavor, which could be better or worse on any given purpose, but they will always sound distinct from each other.

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