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What makes a versatile microphone versatile?

MIC MYSTERIES REVEALED!
Today’s Tech Tip comes from Senior Sales Engineer Ted Hunter.

Q: “I see microphones that are advertised as ‘good for everything.’ This brings up a question that I’ve had for some time: What makes a microphone more versatile than others?”

A: In general, a microphone with accurate or flat frequency response will make a microphone more versatile. Theoretically, if we had a microphone that was perfectly flat, our recording of a source would sound exactly like the source itself making that microphone great for everything. (This doesn’t account for other factors, such as how much of the ambient soundstage one wants to capture, but you get the idea.)

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as accuracy in practice. There are some microphones that are close to perfect in terms of frequency response (certain omnidirectional condensers from Earthworks and DPA come to mind, thought there are others), but depending on the source you’re recording or amplifying, near-perfect accuracy may not be what you’re looking for. Vocals, for instance, are not typically recorded with microphones like these because the sound we generally prefer (for lead vocals at least) is a sound that’s enhanced in a number of ways. For example the proximity effect that is present in directional microphones, but not in omnidirectional microphones, provides a color often used for recording vocals. Good vocalists will often “work” a directional microphone (both live and in the studio) by altering the distance to the mic to dynamically achieve different tonal characteristics in relation to a particular part of a performance, and since the response of an omni microphone does not change as much with distance, those microphones can’t be “worked” the same way a directional microphone can. To complicate things further, although there are some cardioid microphones that are quite accurate, oftentimes with a vocal track we don’t want a flat, accurate response from our microphone. We may want one that enhances the upper midrange to help the vocals cut through a mix, or if we have a vocalist who has a lot of sibilance we may want the opposite. The same is true for other instruments; with brighter instruments we often want a microphone with a darker frequency response, and with darker instruments we may want a microphone that emphasizes high frequency content. That’s why many studios have dozens of microphones in their lockers: because certain microphones flatter certain sources (some will even have dozens of microphones specifically for different types of vocalists, or for vocals in different styles of music). However, for someone just starting out, a relatively flat microphone makes a good choice for a first microphone. Even though it wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice for a given source if there were other microphones to choose from, chances are it will be usable on just about anything, and you can always use a little equalization to enhance things if necessary. On the other hand, if you have one microphone with a very distinct “character” to it that you use on a variety of tracks in the same piece of music, chances are you’ll either have certain frequencies that have built up too much and sound harsh or muddy as your tracks are mixed together, and that’s a lot harder to deal with than bringing out the high end in one track here and cutting back a little on a boxy frequency there.

There are many other factors that can come into play. For instance, certain dynamic microphones are considered to be extremely versatile in a different way because of their durability and their ability to handle extremely high SPL‘s, and ribbon microphones are generally considered to be versatile in a different way because they “take” to EQ very well, even though in comparison to some of the condenser microphones mentioned earlier the frequency response of these microphones isn’t nearly as flat. And of course, this is all subjective to a certain degree, so a microphone that’s a versatile workhorse to one engineer may be useful only in certain applications to another and almost useless to yet another. But in general, when looking for a versatile microphone a relatively linear frequency response is generally a safe first place to look.

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