Microphone Suggestion

Oh Wise One:

I am in the market for a good all around microphone.  I’m willing to spend between $1,000 to $1,200.  Ideally I’d like a mic which I could use for everything from vocals, to drum overhead to miking a guitar cab.  I was thinking about the Neumann TLM-103.  They have received really good reviews and seem to be quite versatile.  But, as always, I’d like to hear your opinion.  And, as always, your expertise and time are greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a single good “all around” microphone.  If there was, then there wouldn’t be so many choices and everyone would be using that one microphone.

You really do need to have at least a few microphones in your cabinet to cover most situations adequately.  The more you have, the better chance you have of finding a good match for any given situation.

Also, what may work for me in my particular studio, may not sound good for you in your particular studio.  Just as what might sound good on one guitar amp with a certain guitar player, may sound bad on another amp or with another player.

Voices, in particular, are a challenge, and there is no perfect vocal microphone that is going to sound good on every singer.  Female and male voices can be quite different to start with, but even within the same gender, there are simply too many types of voices to have simply one vocal microphone that will sound great on everyone.

I started a couple of posts a month or so ago in my equipment reviews section discussing microphones, and, as soon as I get some more free time, I will add on to those and continue those threads, discussing several more microphones.

If you want to cover a wide range of situations with only a $1000 to $1200 budget, you may be better off starting with a small collection of several less expensive microphones, instead of spending all that money on just one microphone that isn’t going to cover all your needs.

To start with, the Shure SM57 is one microphone that everyone should have in their collection.  At less than $100 retail, it’s a no brainer.  Even in the most expensive studios, the Shure SM57 is usually the first choice for recording electric guitar amps, as well as on a snare drum.  It also sometimes is a good choice for vocals, percussion, toms, brass, and many other uses.  It might not sound great on everything, but with a great pre-amp, it can be good on just about anything.  For the money, you certainly can’t beat it, and it comes as close to being a good “all around” microphone as anything else out there.  Get one or two of those for sure, no matter what else you choose (if you don’t have some already).

The Shure SM57 will cover you for a good general purpose dynamic microphone.  You could even use 5 of these to cover close mic’ing a typical drum kit (kick, snare, 3 toms), but if you have more money down the line, you may want to add a few Sennheiser MD421 microphones to your dynamic microphone arsenal.  They make great second microphones for guitar cabinets, and are usually the first choice for close mic’ing toms in a drum kit, and also are killer as brass microphones, and work great for some vocals as well, plus many other uses (percussion, such as congas, bongos, djembe, etc.).  But, that will start to eat up your budget faster as those are close to $350 retail each, so you may want to save those for later on.

The Neumann TLM 103 microphone you mentioned gets mixed reviews.  When it first came out, lots of people loved it, but in the last year or so, it has been a favorite microphone to bash on higher end forums such as Gearslutz.com .  I own one and used it as one of my main vocal microphones for a while, and it works great on some voices, but not so great on others… and, it also seems to be MUCH more sensitive to the type of microphone pre-amp you run it through.  Some people like them for percussion, but I have not tried them on that.

If you are going to spend more than $500 on a single microphone, I strongly suggest you rent or borrow one first, or find a dealer with a generous trial/exchange period so you can make sure it’s going to work right for your situation and in your room with your pre-amps.

You should definitely be looking at one decent large diaphragm condenser microphone to start with, and also one small diaphragm condenser microphone, both of those being in addition to at least one dynamic microphone (the first of which should be the SM57).

I would personally look into some of the Audio Technica microphones for both to start with.  They make solid products that are all very consistent in quality, for a relatively low price.  You may want to consider an AT4033 as your first relatively inexpensive large diaphragm condenser “vocal” microphone, and something like an AT4041 as your first small diaphragm condenser microphone.  You could grab both of those, and an SM57 or two, for your budget and be covered for a wide variety of situations.  If you can swing a little bit more, step up to the AT4050 for your large diaphragm condenser microphone, which has several polar patterns to choose from and would be much more of a good “all around” large diaphragm condenser.

Typically, you would use the small diaphragm condenser microphone as your first choice for things like acoustic guitars, hi-hats, cymbals, and other sources where you are looking more a more detailed and “sparkly” high frequency sound.  The large diaphragm condensers are used mostly for vocals and other things where you want more full range presence, and are also good as second microphones on acoustic guitars, piano, etc…

Again, though… don’t take my word for any of this… try to rent or borrow some first!

Master of Sound:

In my quest for a good all-around-mic I have stumbled across this little gem:  Crowley & Tripp Naked Eye Ribbon Microphone.  I’d like to know if you may have an opinion of it.  It’s received some spectacular reviews.

Thanks so much.

A ribbon microphone, of any brand/model, would NOT be my first choice for a general purpose all-around microphone.  Ribbon microphones are used these days, typically, on bright or harsh sources that you want to tame down a little bit, or “smooth” out a bit.  They simply don’t have the high frequency response that a decent condenser microphone would have.  Typical uses for a ribbon microphone are things like solo trumpet or sax, where you want to smooth out some of the harsh high frequencies.  Recently, certain ribbon microphones, such as the Royer R-121, have become a popular choice for guitar cabinets, where there isn’t much high-end anyway (no tweeters on guitar cabs, they are pretty much all midrange).  They can also sometimes work well as overheads for drum kits if you want a bit of a darker, more “retro” sound.

Keep in mind, also, that ribbon microphones are a fixed “figure 8” pattern, which means that they pick up sound equally from the front and the back.  If you are recording in a typical home studio, with not very good acoustics, you are going to get a LOT of unwanted room sound in your recordings with a ribbon microphone.  Or, if you are trying to use one for drum overheads, but you have the typical home studio low ceiling height, you are going to get some nasty reflections off of the ceiling into the back side of the ribbon.  A cardioid pattern condenser or dynamic microphone is usually a better choice in home studios with poor acoustics.

Ribbons are also much more prone to the proximity effect than cardioid dynamic or condenser microphones, so as you move them close to a source to try to minimize the effects of the room, for example, they become even more “boomy” and “muddy” sounding.

I only have one ribbon microphone in my studio arsenal at this time, the AEA R84.  I only bought it after I had several condenser and dynamic microphones.  It has come in handy for smoothing out a couple of overly sibilant vocalists, and for the occasional sax or trumpet I record, and I really liked it once on a guitar cabinet for a very mellow, bluesy lullaby sound.  For heavy guitars, I never liked the ribbon… always preferred dynamic microphones right up on the grill.  If you anticipate needing a brighter sound more of the time, you might want to look at the slightly cheaper AEA R92, which is closer to the price range of the microphone you linked to, and won some TEC awards and has received great reviews as well.

Another thing to keep in mind is that ribbon microphones are much more fragile than other microphones.  You can easily damage the ribbon with a large blast of air, or a big pressure change (such as a door slamming in an airtight studio), and then you have an expensive repair to make.  Sometimes the ribbons don’t break all the way, but get stretched out of shape, and then they will still function, but not sound very good.

The good thing about most good quality ribbon microphones, though, is that they take EQ very well.  Meaning, you can boost the high end on them  quite judiciously with EQ and they will not give you any weirdness that you sometimes get from dynamics or condensers when boosting a lot.  So, even though they are kind of dull compared to most condenser microphones, you can usually remedy that with some EQ.

Regarding the specific microphone you mentioned, I have not personally tried it, nor have I read any reviews on it or talked to anyone who has used it, so I can not give you a personal opinion on it.  However, if you don’t have any good condenser microphones, I would suggest picking up a least one Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC) and one Small Diaphragm Condenser (SDC) microphone before investing in a ribbon microphone.

Anyway, this is just my opinion.  If the ribbon microphone is more suited to your needs, then by all means go for it.  BUT, I highly suggest you try to rent or borrow one first to try out in your own studio to see if it really sounds good in there or not, since the room has a lot to do with how a ribbon microphone sounds.

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