My Top 5 Microphones
There are more microphone choices available to recording engineers than ever. Never have we had so much choice – and indeed the quality keeps getting better and better.
There was a time when studios had to fork out thousands for mics from a handful of manufacturers such as Neumann. In the 1960s microphones such as the Neumann U47 were the pinnacle of the technology available but in reality, cost the same as a family car!
The modern recordist
Now though there are mics available to suit every budget and more types than you can shake a stick at besides. Ribbon mics are at an all-time popularity high point – due on the whole to the perceived coldness of digital systems.
Many of us search for warmer tones that tape, transformers and tubes impart. For the same reason, this phenomenon is similar for ribbon mics that have a smoother subjective tone.
In light of all the choices nowadays, it would be easy to use a different microphone every session. That would be rather impractical though and in any event, would require deep pockets!
There are a handful of different mics that I have learnt to rely on for a variety of sources and I will discuss them here. I have picked 5 of my favourite mics that I wouldn’t want to ever be without.
1. Coles 4038
This has to be my favourite microphone ever and I wish someone had told me about them earlier in my career. I could have saved thousands on mics that I eventually ended up selling. Not to mention the fact that I could have been making better recordings! These mics aren’t cheap but in reality, you get what you pay for. They are always my first choice on drum overheads and also percussion.
I have recorded strings with them – both solo overdubs as well as small groups. I have also made some killer guitar amp recordings. There’s not much that they’re not good at, however using them does come with certain caveats.
First, they are ribbon mics so are hence quite delicate in nature. Phantom power is a definite no-no and in view of that, it’s worth double-checking your preamps before plugging them in. Second, it’s also wise to keep them away from dust and dirt due to their large magnets. They can attract any small particles but do come with soft velvet pouches for storage.
2. Sennheiser MD-421
I managed to bag a vintage pair of these mics on eBay a few years ago and subsequently haven’t recorded toms with anything else since. The versions I have are the original white ones with the script logo so they date from the 1960s. They don’t only get used on toms, however – I’ve made some great sax and trombone recordings with them too. These have a lovely full character coupled with great transient response.
Another area these mics excel in is close mic’d guitar amps. I pulled some great tones using one of these coupled with a Shure SM57. Taping the mics together and bringing them up on two faders yields a great, full guitar tone. You get all the mid-range punch from the 57 whereas the 421 fills in the edges giving a larger sound than the 57 on its own.
3. Neumann TLM 193
For me, this is a real sleeper mic. It’s not cheap by all means but can be had on eBay for around £500 which is what I paid for mine. According to Neumann, this is a cardioid version of the famous TLM 170 – a very flat reference mic. When I first heard the mic I thought it sounded quite dull but soon realised I had gotten used to hearing bright mics.
A lot of modern Chinese-made mics tend to be very bright and this mic is a lovely antidote to that sound. Many mics copy a Neumann U67 style capsule which is generally quite bright in nature. What they don’t copy, however, is the rest of the circuit that counteracts the brightness. Meanwhile, the 193 has no such problem and is wonderful for overdubs as you don’t get a harsh build-up of brightness.
I use this mic a lot on more orchestral sounds that have complex harmonics. In view of this, things like violin, acoustic guitar, piano and cello usually get treated to this mic. I know that it will capture the true tone of the instrument seeing that it’s a reliable workhorse.
4. AKG c451 EB
Presently this is the first mic I reach for when recording acoustic guitars. Above all others, there is something about this mic that captures the tone so well that I stopped trying other mics out! A little compression is often all I need to round off an otherwise record-ready tone. The mic is a small diaphragm condenser and also has an excellent off-axis response. To put it differently, this means that the spill from other instruments tends to be more useful. It also means it’s good for larger instruments with complex harmonics. This explains why before I had a pair of Coles 4038s, this mic was my overhead mic of choice.
The only downside is that these mics don’t have the lowest levels of self-noise. Indeed, many modern mics will emphatically beat it in that regard. It shines, however for acoustic guitar parts in rock songs. According to some, the newer version of this mic is nowhere near as good as the older variants. The version I have dates from the 1970s and I, therefore, recommend searching them out on second-hand sites.
5. Beyerdynamic M201
For years I, like many other people, only ever recorded snare drum with a Shure SM57. Then all of a sudden the Beyer M201 showed up on my radar. Steve Albini states on his website that “If the SM57 were a microphone, it would sound like this“. The guy is not wrong! The first time I heard this on a snare drum it was a revelation.
Prior to owning the M201, I was so conditioned to hear the steady “doink” of the snare close mic that hearing its full tone for once was a real shock. I’ve since experimented with this mic and in fact, there’s not much it can’t do. I have had some great results on guitars – acoustic and electric and its equally at home as an overhead.
So there we have my top 5 choices – the mics that I would grab as a first-choice for most recording duties. In fact, I’d even go so far to say that I could make a great record with only those 5 mics. However, there are some other mics that I thought were worth a special mention – the “also-rans” as it were:
My AKG c414 B-ULS is often the first mic picked up whenever recording on location. For one thing, it has 4 polar patterns which mean it’s very versatile and also sounds great. It seems that mic makers seem reluctant to stay with a winning formula. Both the 414 and 451 discussed above have seen revisions but many consider the tone inferior…
My Apex 460 mic that I modified is undoubtedly the most used mic for vocals here at Threecircles. I have also used it to great effect as a mono overhead. The only reason it didn’t make my top 5 is that it is a DIY option and so is not available without soldering skills!
The Audix D6 is the sound of modern kick drums. Yes it has a pre-EQ’d sound that won’t suit all tastes but for modern rock and metal styles, it is a must.
My Electrovoice RE20 gets a lot of love around these parts. Equally at home on a kick drum, bass cabinet and rock vocals it is a real versatile beast of a microphone.
So there we have it – my desert island microphone choices. What are yours?