Microphone Shootout
A highly personal approach to finding what mics work best for your music

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AKG 1000s
My good buddy Don Boomer, a pro sound guy from way back, helped me stage three very interesting mic shootouts in my new studio recently: one for vocals/acoustic guitar/kalimba, one for acoustic piano, and one for drum mics. The results shocked the heck out of me.

Oktava MC012 pair
The three sets of ears for most of the testing belonged to me, Don, and singer/songwriter Andy Robinson, who’s also my brother.

I thought the way that Don set things up for the first test was really interesting: seven mics, clustered in the middle of the room, as close to each other as humanly possible. (Unfortunately, for the acoustic piano portion of the test we could only fit two mics at a time in my 5’10” Kawai grand close enough to get accurate results.) [an error occurred while processing this directive] Don ran all the mics into a Horizon snake and then directly into my Roland VS-2480 digital mixer’s preamps. Although we started the test using external preamps such as the Sytek MPX4a and a Studio Projects VTB-1, the results were similar enough to the 2480 pres that we decided to keep things simple. Of course, we threw out those earlier results, took a break and started over.

The Contenders
Microphone
List
Neumann M147 $1,995
Neumann KM184 $729
Studio Projects C1 $299
Audio Technica AT4050 $995
Audio Technica AT4047 $695
AKG 414 B-ULS $1,100
AKG 451B $549
Shure SM57 $146
Oktava MC012 $193
AKG C1000S $322
Once the snake was connected to the VS-2480, Don randomly switched all the cables at the other end so that neither he, my brother nor I had a clue which mic was which. This way, we’d only be using our ears and not relying on legend and “common knowledge” about mic brands and models. Before we recorded anything, Don tweaked the VS-2480 preamps so that the relative levels of all mics were the same. We thought that was the fairest thing to do under the circumstances, though one could argue that the mics which required more power from the preamps also got more of their particular flavor. Now, if this seems too unscientific for you, hold on tight because it might get a little funkier here and there!

For source material, we used four voices: my high tenor, Andy’s lower tenor, my wife’s alto and Don’s baritone (first from about 2.5 feet back, then from 6-8 inches away). Next up was a Gibson acoustic guitar, a shaker, and my brother’s kalimba. We also captured a front-overhead sound while I played my rather loud jazz drum kit, though we did a more focused drum mic test on the second day.

Let me remind you that once we pressed “Record,” none of us knew which mic was which. We’d record for a few minutes and take a break. Then we’d all listen back, switching from track to track (mic to mic). The three of us would then describe the sounds and vote for the top three mics in each instance. For our purposes, “top” meant a combination of what sounded most pleasing, most accurate (not always the same mics, of course) and what would be most likely to fit in a mix of my music, a combination of acoustic and fusion jazz, with heavy dashes of folk rock from time to time.

Only after we’d commented and voted did Don retrace the wires and reveal which mic was which. The results? Thought you’d never ask.

First of all, the results were not only pretty consistent, but also consistently surprising. Of course, at first we all tried to guess which mic was which based on the playback, but we were wrong almost every time! And, although most of the mics sounded good, in all of our tests there was only one instance where the three of us didn’t all pick the same mics for either the #1 or #2 spot.



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