Buyers Guide: Favorite Microphones - EMusician

Buyers Guide: Favorite Microphones

Top engineers list their modern must-have mics (and share some unusual recording tips)
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IF YOU had only three mics at your disposal—one dynamic, one condenser, and one ribbon—what would they be? Although most of us would love to choose classics such as an AKG D19, a Neumann U47, or an RCA 44, price and availability of sought-after vintage models can be barriers for many of us.

So, let’s narrow it down to three mics that are currently in production. What three would you pick, based on your needs and musical tastes?

I recently put this somewhat unfair question to seven world-class engineers—Malcolm Addey, Vince Caro, Joel Hamilton, Leslie Ann Jones, Tucker Martine, Michael Piersante, and Andrija Tokic. I say “unfair” because, clearly, no single mic would be used by a professional for everything he or she records. (In fact, it was difficult for a couple of them to choose something other than the mics they’ve been using for years—or even decades.)

Nonetheless, each engineer named at least one favorite mic that is not only still available (perhaps somewhat updated) but also relatively affordable, though some are by no means budget-priced.

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Neumann U87Malcolm Addey Addey’s career spans six decades and covers a breadth of styles: pop, rock, jazz, classical, and film soundtracks. After making a name for himself at EMI (aka Abbey Road Studios) in the late ’50s and early ’60s cutting tracks for Cliff Richard among others, he was offered a job in New York (“stolen from Abbey Road; it was a very willing theft”) that gave him the opportunity to work with some of the greatest names in American jazz and pop. Having worked at Bell Sound and RCA, he now frequents Avatar studios and provides “sensible budget remote recording” services that require a wide variety of mics, as well as duplicates.

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“You’ve got to have at least one backup. I have multiples of everything except the C24 and my U47, and I think you can see why,” he explained during our phone interview. “I don’t go into a studio that only has one mic of everything. Let’s say you are making an album, and you get halfway through and one stops working: How are you going to continue to get the sound?”

As befits a man working to capture uncompromised audio, Addey’s go-to mics are among the finest. About modern condensers, he admits that he thinks a lot of them are “too damn cheap to be any good,” relying instead on tried-and-true standards such as the Neumann U87, of which he has no fewer than 10.

“I consider the U87 to be the workhorse of the condenser mics. There’s no question—it gets used on pretty much everything, unless there is some specific sound I want. Let’s say I wanted a warmer sound from a tenor sax: I would put a 4038 on it. They go hand in hand, although each one has quite a different kind of response.” Addey’s collection includes several original STC 4038 ribbon mics, which he prefers over the modern version sold by Coles.

Another condenser he uses is the DPA 4006. “Those are omnis, and I have four of them. For pop as well as jazz, an omni is a great mic on piano. I use it to make a Yamaha sound like a Steinway. I place it very close to the strings—being omnidirectional, you can get very close to things. I use one on the top end and one on the bottom end, pointing away from each other, and I pan them left and right.”

When asked about dynamic mics, he named the Sennheiser 421, which he uses to close-mike drums and amps. “For the guitar, a good-quality dynamic like a 421 is what I typically use, because what you’re really doing is miking a loudspeaker, which has an extremely restricted bandwidth. There’s hardly any point in putting a $5,000 mic on it, really.”

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Vince Caro Vince Caro “One thing I learned early on is that, with certain artists, it doesn’t matter what microphone you use: It still sounds like them.” Caro would know, having worked with some of the biggest names in the music biz and the film industry.

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“I learned that lesson recording Eric Clapton: I put an SM57 in front of his Fender amp, next to a more expensive mic. It didn’t matter which microphone you listened to: You said ‘That is Eric Clapton.’ And we ended up using the 57.” [Laughs.]

In addition to naming the SM57 and Sennheiser 421 as go-to dynamics, he also leans toward the Electro-Voice RE20. “It doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It can handle the level put out by brass, and it’s even nice on an acoustic bass. I love an RE20 on a bass amp, too, such as an Ampeg B15.”

When asked about ribbon mics, he narrowed it down to three. “If it’s a guitar amp, I will use a Royer R-121. Once in a while, I’ll use a Coles 4038, but those tend to be a little more fragile. I’ve also used Cloud JRS-34 microphones. They sort of look like RCA 44s, but a slimmed down version. And they make a passive and an active one. Those are really nice for horns because they’re not expensive and you can get them more readily. I’ve put those on guitar amps and they sound great.”

Coles 4038 With Caro’s experience recording Hollywood A-level talent for Disney and Pixar (his main gig is as the voice-recording engineer at Pixar in Emeryville, Calif.), I couldn’t help but ask what he uses for film work. “For dialog, it’s all about consistency, so that a take from the first day of production can sit next to a take on the last day of production, which might be four years later. I work a lot with Doc Kane, the mixer/dialog recordist at Disney, and we agreed upon a U87 as our main microphone; not only between his studio and mine, but because we have to record all over the world, and every professional recording studio has at least one U87.

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“For my setup, I use two mics: the U87 and what we call the ‘scream mic.’ That’s something I developed with Doc when I was working with Eddie Murphy for Mulan and Robin Williams for Aladdin, because those guys would go from a whisper to a scream. You’d try to anticipate and watch them, but sometimes they’d fool you.

“So I suggested we set up another microphone and put it 4 inches back. I picked a Neumann TLM170, which has more headroom than a U87, and put it back a little bit to give us a safety. A few years ago, I switched to a Brauner VMA as the scream mic; it has even more headroom than a TLM170. It is a tube mic, but it’s a new tube mic, and it’s very consistent.

“What’s really nice is that, although it’s back 4 to 6 inches, it has reach: It sounds like it’s in the same position as the U87. And it sounds so good that you can make edits between tracks from the two mics, even within a syllable, and you can’t tell the difference. I usually run the backup mic at a lower level, so we usually don’t even need limiting—maybe 3 dB lower—not too much.”

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Joel Hamilton With recording credits that include Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, and the Black Keys, it's not that surprising that Joel Hamilton’s mic choices are so personal and somewhat unconventional:

“I’m not sure that there’s one dynamic mic I aim at everything. On a kick drum, I use a dynamic coupled with a condenser. I use the Sennheiser e 602 on bass drum almost all the time, regardless of genre. That’ll be the one that goes inside the drum. I aim it right at the beater, about 2 to 6 inches away from the head, very close to where the beater makes contact—even for a jazz record, not just to get a metal, super-beater sound. It seems to provide the best transient response. Then I will use another microphone to catch the resonance outside.

Sage BovaBall “Snare drum is usually a beyerdynamic M201. I’ve used that on almost every single record I’ve done in the last 10 years. The snare mic placement is drummer-dependent. I try to catch the center of the drum as much as I can, rather than the edge of the drum, so I aim at the spot where the stick makes contact with the head.”

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When it comes to ribbon mics, Hamilton definitely has a fave. “I use the Coles 4038 for everything. Those are mics that stay on the stand. They’re usually my drum overheads these days, and I’ll put them on a stereo bar in that case. Or, I’ll use them in front of a guitar amp, for trumpet, or a horn section. I’ve used them Blumlein-style in order to get an omni-like pattern of two figure- 8s on the stereo bar, but flipped up sideways to capture a bunch of people playing horns around them. There are a lot of different uses for great figure-8 ribbon mics.”

In the condenser mic department, Hamilton has a special preference. “That’s the Sage Bova Ball, a spherical, omni condenser that has wound up—for drums in particular—on so many of my projects as the room mics. I’ve used a pair of those on everything from Elvis Costello to Pretty Lights. They have incredible transient response and they sound wide-open; they’re sort of the life of the drum kit. The Coles can be a little bit dark as overheads, so I wind up with something a little more zingy and lively by using the Bova Balls as spaced omnis in the room. I like to use them as an ambient mic, in particular: Because it’s a spherical omni, it works well pulled back in the diffuse field.

“They’re beautifully made (built in Canada) and they’re some of the mics I’ll always bring with me, because you don’t find them at the session. I don’t need to bring my 87 with me, because the studio usually has one. So I bring the unique stuff with me, such and those two. Placid Audio Copperphones also make it in my travel kit right away.”

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Leslie Ann Jones Leslie Ann Jones “What you’re really asking for is a desert island collection.” Leslie Ann Jones, Director of Music Recording and Scoring at Skywalker Sound, always cuts to the chase. “For me, it would be an SM57, an AEA R92, and a Neumann TLM103. I’m picking mics that are the most cost-effective. Of course, there are more expensive mics that might be better tools for different things.”

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But when it comes to real-world sessions, Jones needs more than one dynamic. “I really have two dynamic mic choices. The other would be the Sennheiser 441. The SM57 is more versatile, but for different things: There are situations in which I would use the 441, where I would never use the 57. I use the 441 a lot on saxophone, placed a little closer than I would place a tube mic or a condenser mic— probably an inch or two away, usually right over the bell, depending on the range of the sax. If it’s a tenor or baritone, it’s more over the bell, and if it’s an alto, it’s more on the side of the bell. Dynamic mics, for my purposes, are not really made to be far-away mics. They’re made to get a certain amount of impact and to be used closer because the frequency response is better.

“Having said that, I wouldn’t put a 441 on a snare, necessarily. I wouldn’t use it on toms. I think there are other Sennheiser mics that are better for those things. But if I had to pick one dynamic, it would be an SM57.” And her choice for a modern ribbon mic? “One I use a lot is an AEA R92, which is a standard ribbon mic. If I had to pick one ribbon mic, I would probably use that based on price and quality. I’ve had good success with it on electric guitar, and it would be a good horn mic.

“If I had a vocalist that had a lot of midrange to his or her voice, and they needed a little of that removed in a smooth way, a ribbon mic is a wonderful way to do that. Generally it’s an AEA 44 or something like that with a larger diaphragm, although I imagine the R92 would be worth trying out as well.”

Sennheiser 441 For an affordable, yet pro-quality condenser, Jones puts the Neumann TLM103 on her desert island list because of its large diaphragm. “If I had to go with a smaller diaphragm, it would be a [Neumann] KM184. But I would rather have a TLM103, because I can get the same kind of use out of it and still have the advantage of a large-diaphragm mic. The TLM170 has the advantage of five polar patterns and it’s a much more flexible mic, but you still get a lot of that same sound at a better price from the TLM103.”

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And if price were no object? “I use a Neumann M149 a lot. It’s my first choice for vocal mics. I also use it in omni as a room mic because I think it has more low end in omni than the M150.

“There are other, less expensive condenser mics, such as the [AKG C] 414—that’s a really great tool. A Shure SM81 is really great for specific things, though I would use a KM184 a lot more. The SM81 is such a fantastic mic for leakage rejection, but the 184 has a much smoother sound.”

I also asked Jones about how she chooses a preamp for a given microphone. “It depends on the microphone and the kind of sound that I want. I tend to use something that is opposite of the mic that I’m using. If I’m using a tube mic, for instance, I tend to use a preamp that is a little bit cleaner. I do that a lot when I’m working with orchestras. If I’m using tube mics for the room, and condensers as spot mics, then I’ll use warmer preamps for the spot mics and cleaner preamps for the room mics. I try not to double up on the same sound.”

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An AEA R88 on the piano in Tucker Martine's Flora Recording. Tucker Martine When it comes to his favorite ribbon mic, engineer/producer Martine (My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, Beth Orton) is adamant. “The AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic. One of the things I love about it is that I can do so many things with it. It’s great as a room mic for drums. I will usually just leave it on a stand in the room somewhere so I don’t have to set one up every time I’m recording. And then, when we switch into overdub mode, I’ll just use that mic where it is for a lot of my overdubs—percussion, backup vocals (if I don’t need them to be super close).

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“I love the way that the R88 captures the sound of whatever is happening in the room. I often record piano with it 8 or 10 feet back. There are times when I want a close-miked piano sound, but at least half the time I want the sound of the piano in the room the way that mic picks it up. It’s so rich, even at a distance. The low end doesn’t suffer and the high end is open, but rounded off—not brittle like many condensers can be as room mics. It's also my new favorite way to record the Leslie for an organ—sounds phenomenal 10 feet back."

“Sometimes I’ll put it over the drum kit. Occasionally the stereo image is too wide if I have it close to something. If you do want a wide stereo image, it’s a good way to go because you don’t have to fuss around with getting the phase just right. It’s already been done.”

I asked Martine how he approaches roommic placement for the drums. “It depends on how the player’s playing and what the room is. Sometimes I want a tight sound with the option of a fader or two that I can pull up to make it sound like the drums are in an open space. Other times, I want something that’s bombastic and full of energy. It always varies. If I want to add extreme compression to the room mics, I find that ribbon mics respond better because extreme compression can sometimes bring out harshness. The ribbons are quite a bit more mellow.”

AEA R88 If Martine had to pick one condenser mic, it would the U87. “I love it on acoustic guitar, and sometimes use it on vocals. It has often won out against U47s and other mics around here when it matches the voice: k.d. lang was in here recently, and that’s her mic of choice. It sounded stunning. If you closed your eyes and didn’t know what it was, you would’ve assumed it was a $10,000 microphone.

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“I also love the U87 as a drum room mic if I want something a little bit brighter than a ribbon. That’s the first thing I grab.”

ShureSM7B When it comes to an all-around dynamic mic, Martine shoots for another classic. “The SM7B is my go-to dynamic. It’s used a lot for vocals, especially if I’m concerned about things bleeding into the vocal mic. It’s got a really nice low end, and it can take as much volume as you’d want to throw at it. Usually if I have to have the singer in the room with the drums, I’ll get less drum bleed with the SM7B than I would with most mics. And it’s usually a pleasant sounding drum bleed.

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“Also, you can just throw that mic on a bass drum, or a snare drum, or a guitar or bass amp and it won’t sound bad—it very well might sound fantastic. I love having mics like that out, so when I make a decision to try a new instrument or switch into overdub mode, I already have mics on stands that I used for basic tracking, so I don’t have to start doing mic shootouts.”

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Michael Piersante “I’m a big ribbon proponent,” says Michael Piersante; it’s not surprising, considering his impressive resume (T Bone Burnett, Alison Krauss, Diana, Krall, Gillian Welch), but I pressed him for a favorite.

Electro-Voice RE20Cloud JRS-34 “Overall, it’s the Coles 4038. It has a ton of versatility. Often I use it on a drum kit in a different way than other people do. I usually place the mic about 5 feet in front of the kit, usually on the snare side. I’ll put it a foot off the ground aiming straight down at the floor, so it picks up the big boom and rumble from the drum kit. You don’t get a lot of the direct bright signal in there, but if you have bright enough drummer, you get plenty of brightness in it. If the guy is playing a lot of crazy hi-hat stuff, you can move the mic to the floor tom side to mitigate that.

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“Then I’ll take that track and cram it through a Chandler TG compressor or an 1176 with all the buttons pushed in, with a quicker attack time and slow release to get that real hard, gluey thing. I will often roll out some woofy stuff and EQ it to taste, and blend that in the with the drum kit. It gives you tremendous punch and power, and offsets the close mics so it doesn’t sound so artificial. It tends to glue to the kit together.”

He summed up his affinity for the 4038 in a story about working with Burnett on the soundtrack for the film O, Brother, Where Art Thou? “We were trying to figure out this song that was supposed to the ‘big hit’ within the context of the movie, back in the ’30s. It had to sound like a hit song. Alison Krauss’s guitar player, Dan Tyminski, was going to sing ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and play acoustic guitar. So we went out to rehearse it, and I had my trusty Coles mic.

“We set up in a big circle with string-band instruments and room mics, but we didn’t have something close. So I put the Coles about three feet in front of Dan, aiming between his guitar and his vocal. The background guys were going to rehearse with him, so they stood over his shoulders. I hit record on the tape machine, he banged the first chord of this thing, and I look at the LA2 [compressor] that the Coles is going through and it flattens out: It compresses the shit out of it. And he starts singing and it’s just staying there compressed all to hell, which was an accident. But it was a happy one because that rehearsal tape, with the guys singing over his shoulders, ended up in the movie and on the album. It was just a fantastic blend between the guitar and his voice, and I got lucky where I put the 4038. Ever since then, it’s hard not to have that as my go-to mic.”

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AEA R92 Andrija Tokic Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Majestico) prefers to track live, work fast, and get the sound right while recording, rather than leave things until the mix. Within his tape-based personal studio, the Bomb Shelter, he has a penchant for vintage condensers (Neumann U67, Sony C-37, AKG C-414 with the original C12 capsule) and ribbons (RCA Type 74-B Jr. and a “weird old Shure thing”). However, his dynamic mic of choice is the trusty Sennheiser 441.

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“I use it a lot on vocals. But when I use it, I never blend it with anything. Placement is based more on the amount of ambience I want within a song. If I want somebody screaming way up front, then I put the pop filter a couple inches away and get them way up on the mic. But if it’s something where I want more ambience, then I might put the pop filter a foot back.

“I also like the 441 on electric bass. I shove it right in the speaker, aiming it at the center of the cone.”

Microphone Manufacturers

AEA RIBBON MICS ribbonmics.com
AKG akg.com
Brauner brauner-microphones.de
Cloud Microphones cloudmicrophones.com
Coles Electroacoustics coleselectroacoustics.com
Electro-Voice electrovoice.com
Neumann neumann.com
Placid Audio placidaudio.com
Royer Labs royerlabs.com
Sage Electronics sageelectronics.com
Shure shure.com
Sennheiser sennheiser.com