- Recommending a Mic
A friend recently asked me for a unique mic recommendation – unique here in the U.S. anyway – he wants a really nice mic for recording mbira. There’s not much online discussion about mbira recording, and music tech marketing is all about “vintage” and “killer vocal mics,” but less-familiar instruments are still worth considering!
With my rock ‘n roll frame of reference, the mbira’s sound is reminiscent of electro-mechanical pianos, like the Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer 140, but its plucked reeds and rattles add a more human character. It’s probably most appropriate to call the mbira a “folk” or “traditional” instrument, but it also finds its way into popular music – here’s an example that broke the mold 10 years ago (mbira at 1:20).
Recording has lots of conventional wisdom, but how do you approach an instrument without a standardized recording technique? One answer is: it’s art, it’s subjective, approach recording however you want! Which is fair, find your own sound and all that. But, if you’re being critical and not simply experimenting, you should recognize that you’ll work faster and/or achieve a better result if you actually understand what you’re doing.
My friend Ben, who asked for the recommendation, is an experienced percussionist who performs and records professionally. Prior to Covid he was touring with the pit orchestra for a musical; lately he’s been spending more time with softer instruments, like mbira.
As we talked, Ben raved about the tone from a recording we did 8 years ago, and wanted to know which mic I had used. Unfortunately for him, it was an expensive one.
The mbira in that song was tracked in an isolation booth, with a Wunder Audio CM7 FET. That was the first NICE mic that I bought, shortly before that session in fact, and I still use it all the time. If I were going to record a solo mbira performance right now, I would reach for that mic or something similar.
Conventional mic technology comes in 3 flavors: Condenser, Dynamic, and Ribbon.
With tonally-rich, low-volume instruments, like mbira, a condenser mic is the natural choice. The CM7 FET mentioned above is one of many condenser designs.
Dynamic mics tend to be durable and can sound great, but don’t capture detail as well as ribbons or condensers. Ribbons will pickup fine detail, but require a big signal boost with quiet instruments (also boosting static and hum).
For a percussionist, the versatile option is to own a small-diaphragm condenser mic (or a stereo pair). These “pencil” mics record high frequencies well, and tend to have a neutral sound. They’re arguably the best choice to record many percussive instruments, but mbira?
If I were going to record an ensemble, as is common in traditional mbira arrangements, I’d probably want a stereo pair of small diaphragm condensers. However, Ben made clear in our conversation that he wants to record the mbira as a solo or feature instrument, which means the mic needs to enhance the sound of the instrument – the same consideration made when recording a lead vocal. Large-diaphragm condenser mics are good at this.
So you found a mic review that describes “silky” mids, “euphonic” highs, or something vague like that. How does that correlate with what’s actually going on inside a mic?
The circular gold thing in the photo above is the capsule – it’s the part of the mic that turns sound into electricity, and it shapes the tonality of a mic. The capsule is an electrical and mechanical component, requiring precise manufacturing, so you get what you pay for.
The CM7 FET has a K47/49-style capsule, which is a design that has been in continuous production since the 1950’s. It has great low-mid response (sounds full), a boost in the mid-range (helps voices and solo instruments stand out), and a slight cut at the highest frequencies (mellows out harsh sounds). I find these capsules to be similar in tone to many dynamic mics, just more detailed.
In all condenser mics, there is an amplifier following the capsule. The amplifier in the CM7 FET is a design from the mid 1970’s – the early days of solid state (post-tube) electronics. Some complain that this circuit sounds “harsh,” which I think is true when compared to older tube mics or newer designs with cleaner amps. Loud vocals, drums, and guitar amps can distort sensitive mics, highlighting that audible harshness, but mbiras never get that loud.
Great vintage mics sound good, but they’re still in use because they were built to last. It’s a huge mistake to consider only the sound of a mic, because a mic’s lifespan is shortened by pinching pennies on the metalwork, shock mount, case, switches & knobs, cable & power supply, etc. Many budget and “boutique” companies do this. Watch out for rattling metal, peeling paint, loose parts, etc.
Making a Recommendation
For Ben, I recommended two expensive mics from two of the oldest mic companies still operating, Neumann and Microtech Gefell. In fact, they were the same company prior to the cold war division of Germany; Gefell is the East German offshoot that stayed independent after reunification.
The Neumann TLM 49 and the Gefell MT 71 S are two current production mics that look extremely different, but sound very similar. The TLM49 uses the K47/49 capsule, the one that’s been in production since the 1950’s. The MT 71 S capsule is based on an even older design, the predecessor to the K47/49 capsule, created when the two companies were one. Both mics have extremely clean amplifiers and aren’t likely bug anyone with “harshness.”
Both mics retail for over $1,000, and that’s what it costs for a mic of the highest quality. Ben is an experienced professional musician who will be performing and recording for years to come, so owning an expensive mic makes sense.
The upshot is that the good stuff holds its value, but the best is not always accessible…
Other large-diaphragm condenser mics with similar tone are available for hundreds less. Look to companies like Mojave and Peluso for good sound with cheaper (but not crap) construction. For recording mbira, I’d reach for any mic with a K47/49-styled capsule.
If ruggedness or price point is your concern, dynamic mics are where it’s at. A condenser will capture more detail, but top-quality dynamic mics sound great, will come close on detail, and can be much more affordable. The Sennheiser MD421 and Electro-Voice RE20 are both studio mainstays that can be thrown across a room without breaking, and are under $500 new. Even THE NICEST dynamic mic available, the Sennheiser 441, is reasonably priced by fancy-mic standards.
A small-diaphragm condenser would be my choice if an artist requested a “clean” sound for almost anything, including mbira. Small-diaphragm condensers are also about half the price of large-diaphragm designs, for comparable quality. The Josephson C42 would be a great choice for mbira at around $500.
As always, weigh your options and do you best to avoid buying junk. If I had $200, I’d buy a used Sennheiser MD421 over a budget condenser.
If any audio engineers from Zimbabwe (home of he mbira), find this and want to set me straight, I’m all ears! I’d love to hear about your approach.
- Alternatives to Bad “Pro” Audio Websites
This is a list of great pro audio resources, just the good stuff. The websites below have all been super helpful to me – some were eye opening to me when I was getting started, but many are professional resources that I continue to rely on.
Pro Audio Resources
AES – The Audio Engineering Society is a tech-centric organization, publishing paid and free audio tech research & resources, from studio engineering, to electrical engineering, to acoustic physics.
DIY Recording Equipment – This shop grew out of a wiki for DIY audio projects – the wiki is still up, and the basic kits they sell are great.
Group DIY – A forum for techies who want to learn about audio electronics, schematics and how to build things. Not for beginners.
Pro Sound News – A free magazine (online and in print), that’s more focused on new gear than the process. It’s good for keeping tabs on industry trends.
Pro Sound Web, R / E / P Community – If you’re looking for a direct alternative to GS, this is it. It’s not flashy, but is frequented by professionals with years of experience.
Recording Hacks – Their microphone database is exhaustive and contains useful info (not marketing copy).
Working Class Audio – What is it like to work as a professional audio engineer? This podcast will tell you all about it.
This list was inspired by a petition I signed last week, Gearslutz, Please Change Your Name. If you’re reading this and don’t know about GS, it’s a popular audio forum with a terrible name that’s both sexist and unprofessional.
The site is nearly 20 years old and the name is far from a new controversy – but shockingly the owner responded today, announcing that the site will change its name! I guess thousands of signatures changed his mind. Better late than never.
That said, the GS is still a bad source for basic recording info (maybe a byproduct of the unprofessional name?). I’ve found the site to be awash in users who lack experience, but are more than happy to express strong opinions. Anything or anyone emphasizing gear acquisition as the solution to audio problems is not to be trusted.
- Analog in 2021
Does it make sense to seek out analog or “vintage” recording gear in 2021? Does it sound better? It is worth owning? What’s the point these days? Here are some thoughts on analog in an increasingly digital world.
To start, there are many drawbacks to the oldest and most prestigious “Vintage” recording equipment – the expense, reliability, maintenance, etc. – but the real-deal stuff that’s been used in studios since the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s really does sound great. There’s a reason it’s been in continuous use.
And while this magical gear does exist, there’s also plenty of old gear that sounds, boring. Equipment was routinely modified in busy studios, for functionality or tone, and two identical-looking devices may have very different circuits.
The good stuff was generally well designed though. Even by today’s standards, a 1970’s preamp can sound not just good, but high fidelity. On the other hand, modern reproductions of the classics (like the million Neve clones), don’t always manage to recreate that magic. Once little changes to the circuit are made and pennies are pinched on parts, subjective audio quality aside, a bad reproduction can have more noise and hiss than a 50 year old original.
Going digital, we now have access to multiple copies of the best analog gear. Software companies stepped in to bring these audio tools to the masses, trying to capture the sound of prized vintage equipment in a different way. And plugins sound great now!
I use the Soundtoys “Devil-Loc” plugin on virtually every mix, but even with all my tech experience, I’ve never laid hands on an original Shure Level-Loc (the hardware that inspired the software).
With so many high quality plugins on the market, a lot of pro audio chatter has shifted from, “does this plugin sound good?” To, “which one of these plugins is best?” There are options.
So, why go analog? In a technical sense, you don’t have a choice. Processing on the way in and out of your computer will always be analog. Even “digital” mics with a USB connection are analog, they just have a built-in digital convertor. If you want to record, you can’t escape analog electronics.
That said, nearly all of the good old analog stuff has been identified and snatched up. There are still deals to be had, but the hidden treasures are long gone. Buying equipment labeled “Vintage” should be thought of as an investment.
Analog consoles and tape machines tend to stay popular though, cause they’re fun! Tape imposes creative limitations, the mechanical interaction is exciting, and they do have a “sound.” However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that anything with spinning reels will deliver some holy-grail tape sound.
A lot of mass-marketed analog gear from the 80s and 90s is still floating around, but most of it is nothing special. Tape machines made by Fostex, Tascam, Teac, etc. can sound decent when properly used, or be distorted for cool tones, but these days they should really be considered “lo-fi.” The same goes for mixers, there’s a lot of garbage out there. Do some research and expect to pay for the good stuff.
My advice is to invest in whatever will make your creative process easier. A control surface can help you program a beat, an analog console makes sense if you record lots of inputs at once, etc. – seek out a workflow that works for you. I still like to work with faders and knobs, even with lots of plugins.
- New Year, New Blog
It’s been a bit. I haven’t blogged about studio work in few years, but this feels like the right time to shake off the dust. At least WordPress still looks familiar.
For one thing, I’ve settled back into a work-rhythm that’s stable enough to make this worthwhile. If you know me, you know I spent a ton of time studio building and moving gear around Seattle pre-Covid. My situation was stabilizing and work was picking up last March, but like everyone else, it was all turned upside down. To state the obvious, Covid is still raging, and until live music returns, the entire music world will feel it. I’ve “pivoted” to more tech work for 7 Hills and Studio X, designing and learning more about acoustics, and taking on non-audio writing work. I’m making it work, grateful to keep doing what I love and happy to see my creative work on an uptick the last couple months.
Why blog? As an engineer/producer with 15 years of experience, I know what sounds good – and my tech experience gives me another level of understanding. I’m here to share cool gear photos and thoughts from the repair bench, albums I’m working on & music that I like, things I find interesting, etc.
Hopefully you find something here that inspires you to make a great recording – or you can hire me 😉