The Microphone Tour

So my BF the audio engineer works at a studio.  Last night we were hanging out there, and he offered to give me a sonic tour of some of the microphones they have.

Until a couple of years ago, I had no idea that microphones could be so different from each other, or cost so much.  I didn’t know that mics pick up sounds in different patterns.  I also didn’t know how many microphones the studio has.  We just set up a few of them so I could listen to what the live room sounded like through each of the different mics. Remember, I don’t know that much about gear, including mics.  So my first impressions of these mics only skims the surface of what they can really do.

There are three main patterns that mic’s pick up sound in.  Omni directional is just one big circle.  Cardioid means that they pick up sounds in almost a heart shape (though really it looks more like a butt on a photocopy machine).  That’s why on cardioid mics you have to sing in the front of them.  And then there’s figure-eight, which means it picks up everything in the back and everything in the front, but nothing on the sides.

First, he gave me this really nice walnut box to open.  Inside the velvet lining, in a little velvet bag, was a royer 121.   Why do some mics come in these discreet boxes, like they’re an exotic sex toy?  Mics are so phallic.  Just look at the things.

Anyway, there were two of those in separate walnut boxes.  Classy!

Then I opened a little pelican case and found two josephson engineering c-42s.  They come together, because they’re stereo mics.  They look like slightly oversized black lipstick cases.

By the way, it seems like mics come in two different kinds of cases– sex toy discreet or secret agent indestructible.

The earthworks qtc1 comes in a slightly less fancy wooden box than the royer.  It looks like something they’d use in a dentist office.

The other two we looked at were a sennheiser studio dynamic md421 and a telefunken m-16 mark 2, which is probably my favorite, looks wise.  The telefunken has to warm up, because it’s a tube mic, like the way radios used to have to warm up.  Although it doesn’t take very long.

We set up all the mics in the live room, then plugged them in.  I made a patch list so I could turn them on on the board.  (I have just learned how a patch bay works, btw, but that’s a different entry.)

Then I put on headphones and went into the room.  Here’s my impressions.

Earthworks qtc1

Holy cow that thing is SENSITIVE.  The audio engineer says it’s because of the type of condenser it is.  It isn’t a large diaphragm condenser, like my own little Shure or like the Telefunken.  It’s an electret mic, which is the same type of mic in a cell phone or a computer, but made to a much higher quality.  Because of this, that sucker picks up everything, and makes it LOUD.   This mic is good for picking up the sound of a whole room, and for measuring the acoustics of a room.  Since this is the one that looks like a dental instrument, it’s a good way to remember it as a little wicked. I was clapping my hands when it was turned on and it hurt a little, I won’t lie. But clapping your hands in front of an earthworks is a little like sticking a fork into an electrical outlet, at least if you’re wearing headphones.

The Josephson c-42s

Every time the audio engineer would refer to the Josephsons, I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “They’re so nice.  We need to have them over for dinner.” Anyway.  We set them up at a 110 degree angle, spaced apart like your ears.

These were fun to listen to, because of the stereo effect.  When you walked around them, you could get all sorts of auditory clues about where you were in the room.  These mics seemed to flesh out the sounds.

As for the individual qualities of the mics, I didn’t really notice anything about them.  It’s the fact that they’re little stereo twins that makes them immediately special to the untrained ear.  And the stereo effect is just so grand– I love it.  It makes you feel a third dimension.

The royer 121s

We set those up as a blumlein pair, which means head-to-head, but with the heads at a 45 degree angle, for the stereo sound.  Since they’re ribbon mics, they pick up sounds in a figure 8 pattern.  When you set them in a blumlein pair, one mic is picking up one figure 8 and the other is picking up a figure 8 from the right angle.  These guys explain it well, and here’s a good picture of the mic placement and pickup pattern.

The royers are glorious, and they give a much bigger stereo effect that the josephsons.  But I was also listening to them in a live room built to precise acoustic specs.  I don’t think I would ever buy these mic’s for home recording.  Which is good, because given how much they cost it’s not really up to me anyway LOL

The Sennheiser md421

I’m most familiar with dynamic mics, because that’s what I started recording on.  But the Sennheiser MD421 is like my old Shure the way a 1970s Toyota is like a Toyota from today.  You recognize some of the same qualities, and there’s the same sense of durability.  That’s about it.  It has the same love for percussion, though.  It’s just so … sharp and crisp.  Apparently it’s used a lot for guests on radio shows, who aren’t necessarily used to talking into a mic.  People breathe a lot more than you think they do.  I’ve recorded some spoken word, so I know.

The telefunken m16

This is the tube mic, that has to warm up.  The neat thing about this one is that you can change the pickup pattern all the way from omni to cardioid to figure 8 (and other ones in between).  But it doesn’t do figure 8 so great– it’s okay but the royer 121s are better, because as ribbons they’re made to do it.  Like I said, I think of the Telefunken as the super-expensive version of my own condenser.  The shape is similar.  It has a really high proximity effect too.  That means your voice has more bass when you get close.  I’m not good enough yet to hear the difference between a tube mic and a mic that uses regular transistors.  But that’s okay because apparently it’s a complex psychoacoustical problem.  I’m gonna start using that phrase every time I don’t know something.

So that was my tour.  I should note, here, that I’m not allowed to take any of those mics home to play with.  Meow. 😦

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