Resources for the Recording Musician
September 3, 2008

How to know if something sounds good

Hi Steve,

I am constantly reading reviews on the internet about different pieces of musical equipment.  Given my limited budget, I am always looking for the best values.

I recently bought two MCA SP-1 microphones for $39 each after reading good reviews for them.  I have done a little bit of vocal recording with them and while I think they sound good, I only have stage mics to compare them to which isn't a fair comparison.

Have you ever used these mics?  What was your opinion of them?  I would really appreciate any feedback you could give me on them.  They are supposedly comparable to vocal mics costing thousands more but I would like a trusted expert's review.

One thing to keep in mind is that you can't always trust reviews you read online.  I believe that many companies hire people to hype up certain pieces of equipment to make it sell better... but, at the same time, competitors will often write negative reviews.  There are obviously times when the rave reviews and hype are justified, and sometimes they are not.Microphones are a particularly tough item to judge based on reviews alone because what works for one particular source in a particular room may not work at all for somebody else in another room.  Microphones are very much influenced by the source in front of them and the room they are in.

Regarding that particular microphone, I had never even heard or it, so I did a quick search on it.  To me, it looks like yet another entry into the very cheap microphones produced in China.  Some of these can be good buys for the money, while some are total crap.  The problem is that there is not a lot of Quality Control in these cheap plants, so the response and characteristics of the microphones can vary quite widely, even from one microphone to the next of the exact same model.

There are some US companies that have partnered up with China plants and have implemented some decent quality control back in the USA, or have the basics made in China, and then add better quality parts here in the USA.

The common way to hype these cheap microphones is to say that they sound as good as microphones costing thousands more... but, that very rarely is ever the case.  It's usually the high end detail that suffers in the cheaper microphones, which tend to be overly bright and harsh, with sometimes very noticeable distortion or fuzz in certain frequencies.

The more expensive microphones cost more because the quality of components throughout are much better, and will not only have a much smoother and more pleasing tone, but will last a lot longer as well.

Not everyone can afford the super high-end expensive microphones, and they aren't always needed anyway.  The Shure SM-57 can be bought for around $90, and is still one of the true studio standards (at least for snare drums and guitar cabinets) that has probably been used on more albums than any other microphone.

The trick is to have as many choices as you can afford, since each microphone has its own sound and its own strengths and weaknesses.  There is simply no such thing as one general purpose microphone that does it all well.  You need some microphones that are bright, some that are dark, some that are "aggressive", some that are smooth, etc.  And, you need to know how each microphone sounds for different sources, so that you know what to reach for in any particular situation.

Vocals, in particular, are especially difficult since everyone sounds different.  There is no such thing as the perfect vocal microphone since vocals cover such a wide range of sounds and character, and what works great for one singer may sound horrible on someone else.  However, you owe it to yourself at some point to have at least one decent vocal microphone in the $1000 range.  If you are mostly recording yourself, or your wife (in your case), then you can find a dealer that will let you try out several microphones and return the ones that don't work.  Take the time to try out several microphones on the vocalist you work with the most, in your own recording room (and with your own preamps and converters) and figure out which one works best for you.


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