For your consideration, I present to you cheap microphones. I’m not talking about sale models being blown out “insanely low prices.” No, I’m talking about those cheapo-mutant mics you can find at yard sales and swap meets. As a connoisseur of the crummy, I have found that cheap mics can often combat deficiencies in source sources or create interesting effects—although the mere presence of them in the studio might make George Massenberg recoil in horror.
Many of these oddities are noname clones, so the object isn’t so much to seek out specific models, but to find interesting mics with certain characteristics and exploit their perceived weaknesses as strengths. And, of course, there’s a certain kinky satisfaction in using misfit mics and having someone ask, “Hey, how did you get that cool sound?” Here are a few of my favorite cheapos, and how they helped me craft some bitchin’ sounds.
Corpulent ’80s Japanese All-Ball
This particular specimen looks like a Shure SM58, but at 150-percent scale. With low-end reproduction approximating a large-diaphragm dynamic in the Electro-Voice RE20 or Sennheiser MD421 arena, this $15 wonder works great on kick drums, toms, bass amps, and hormonallychallenged male vocalists. Its highend performance is pretty flaccid, which works great for taming brittlesounding digital pianos. Besides, any mic named after Koko the gorilla’s kitten just has to rock.
Toxic Ribbon Avenger
It looked like an RCA broadcast ribbon mic from the ’40s, but it sure didn’t perform like one. I had to smash my mouth up against the mystery- metal grill, causing some sort of Impetigo to form on my lips. Before alerting the EPA, I tried it on a guitar amp cranked to ribbon-shredding volumes, and it just came alive with clarity and nuance. You can jam this sucker right up to the speaker grill and it just asks for more without a hint of overload. Placed mere inches from the inside of the beater head on a kick drum provides a great 60Hz–80Hz thump, but combined with weird internal resonance from the mic itself that imparts a ring modulated sound on the decay. Total Devo.
Chinese Midrange Torture
Another SM58 infringement, this freak has a built-in switch that isn’t on/off, but two different frequency response curves—neither being useable in any traditional recording scenario. Setting one has a frequency bump at around 400Hz so savage that placing it in front of a Fender amp gives a midrange bark that is positively British. Setting two reverses the curve, causing about 5dB of suck in the low-midrange, which makes a Marshall sound more like a Fender. This abomination can also make a ring-y snare or conga tow the line without having to tape stuff to the heads to dampen the resonance.
Breaker, Breaker . . .
If you live in an area with a high rate of cousin-to-cousin marriage, yard sales and swap meets are chock full of CB radio mics. With fidelity comparable to Tiger Woods, and an output level that will drive any preamp into distortion, these chunks of hand-held ’70s Americana make fantastic harp mics. The Motorola brands have a natural boost around 800kHz that really brings out the honk, while steeply rolling off between 3kHz–4kHz to eliminate most of the undesirable wheezyness. Some desktop CB mics have a form of diode clipping built in for even more square-wave filth. This is excellent for the “distorto-vocal” vibe favored by the industrial crowd. The sound is unique, because it isn’t created by a distortion pedal, and the paddle button used for keying up the mic lets the singer cut the vocal out rhythmically for even more audio enuui.
Lo-Fi Telephonic Terror
Looking for that “voice through a telephone” sound so in vogue with hipster bands and ELO reprobates? Sure, you could utterly crush the signal with heavy compression, and then filter out all frequencies below 240Hz and above 3.2kHz with a parametric EQ. But where is the fun in that when there are so many telephone headsets out there to cannibalize? It will take a bit of electrical know-how to wire the telephone’s mouthpiece mic so that you can plug it into your mic preamp or DAW, but it ain’t rocket science (and most everyone knows someone who loves rewiring stuff). I opted to mount a 1/4" jack to the actual phone handset, so I could use it as if I were talking to someone. Whatever you do, you’ll get an authentic telephone tone that’s great for weird voiceovers and lead-vocal effects.