Hold on to your hats, this is going to be a LONG one. In the first part of this topic in Getting Started in Voice Over Part IV: Choosing Equipment, we talked about your computer and recording/mastering software (DAW). In this second part of the post, we’ll talk about the microphone. Since there is a lot to know about microphones, I’ll dedicate this post to just that single topic.
Recapping the Getting Started in Voice Over series:
- Sitting and talking to yourself in a small enclosed space all day – Check.
- Choosing yourself a coach and starting to work with them – Check
- Fashioned, built or bought a suitable booth for recording – Check.
- Have, or have gotten, a computer powerful enough to run your DAW – Check
- Downloaded, installed and learned to use your recording and mastering software – Check
Great and congratulations!
Your microphone MAY be the most critical piece of equipment in your whole setup. While many factors affect the way you sound when recorded (including your voice, duh!) the item that MOST affects your sound is probably the microphone you choose.
So, if you were drooling over microphones at Sweetwater or some other website while you were perusing for booths, DAWS and maybe even computers, you’ll notice there are many, MANY different mics to choose from. Ask any singer, radio personality or VO artist which mic is best, and you’ll get as many different answers as the number of people you ask. The REAL, FINAL answer to “Which microphone is best for me?” is: ONLY YOU CAN DECIDE THAT. Not helpful, right?
While most of us would LOVE to get the coveted Neumann U87 large condenser mic (with a hefty price tag of over $3000), not many of us could afford one when just getting started, and even then, it MIGHT not be the right mic for you.
The idea of selecting a mic is all about FAITHFULLY capturing and reproducing the sound of your voice. The only real way to know this is: Test several microphones in your price range to see how they reproduce your unique voice. A tall order, I know…but doable and we can talk about that later. First, there are a couple things to keep in mind when considering any microphone.
So, what REALLY is a microphone?
A microphone is a transducer. A transducer that converts air pressure (sound waves) into an electrical signal that represents the amplitude (level, or sometimes volume) and frequency (pitch) of a sound. In older analog recordings, those signals were recorded directly to tape, but these days, the signal is digitized (through an analog to digital (A to D) converter) and captured in your computer. It captures any sound (and to our detriment EVERY sound), but in this case, we are concerned with the sound of your voice. Well, we are also concerned with the sound of your wife calling for you, your neighbor mowing his lawn and the hum from your refrigerator being transmitted through the structure of your house (yeah, the mic “hears” that too…but I digress). Anyway, that’s too deep for this post, so let’s assume we are only worried about your voice for now.
Basic microphone types
There are three basic “types” of microphones, and while there are some specialty mics out there, we’ll concentrate on the three basic types.
This is the type most frequently used for recording vocals, both in music and voice over narration. A condenser mic uses two charged plates, one stationary and one that vibrates based on the frequency and amplitude of the sound waves entering the mic. This type of microphone requires a power source (usually 48-volt phantom power supplied either by its own power supply or your interface) to operate, as the plates need an electrical charge. Condenser mics, while typically producing very clear sound, are fragile and can be affected by temperature and humidity.
Dynamic mics use a “moving coil” to generate the electrical signals, basically the same way a motor works by moving a magnet between an electrical field. Because magnets are denser than a plate or ribbon (that one’s next) its response is slower, and therefore does not produce sound as clearly as a condenser or ribbon mic. They are, however, generally more rugged than either of the other two, so are good choices for a portable mic if you are going to be recording on the go and as a bonus, they are generally less expensive than a ribbon or condenser mic.
Ribbon mics use a thin “ribbon” of metal (hence the name) to vibrate in an electrical field and produce sound signals. Because the ribbon is very sensitive to air pressure, they are great for recording sharp smooth and full sounds such as horns. These mics are in the medium price range, and are extremely fragile. They can be damaged by temperature and humidity, handling and believe it or not by overdriving them with high amplitude input. They have their application, but are not typically used for voice over recording.
Another aspect to consider when selecting your microphone is its “Polar Pattern”. Polar pattern (or simply pattern) refers to pick-up pattern, or which direction the microphone takes in the greatest amount of sound. Some mics have switchable patterns, which could be handy in some situations, but for your immediate needs that wouldn’t be necessary. Again, there are three basic pick-up patters.
A directional mic picks up sound only, or primarily, from the front of the microphone, which is especially helpful if there are unwanted noises behind and to the sides of the mic that you don’t want to capture. There are actually three types of directional patterns: Cardioid, super-cardioid and hyper-cardioid. Cardioid is the most popular, and these mics provide just slightly more control in what is captured, and how much, than other patterns. If your environment has some sources of unwanted noise, you should consider a directional mic.
Image Credit: Fluxforge.com
A Sub-Genre of directional mics is the Shotgun mic. Shotgun mics use an “interference tube” attached in front of the pick-up, and the thought is that the on-axis sound travels down the tube into the diaphragm, with off axis sound entering the side slots at different times, thus reducing or cancelling the unwanted sound. In this way, off axis sound is attenuated and the on-axis sound in relationship is stronger. They have limitations, and if you are considering a shotgun mic you should study them further. Polar pattern for a shotgun is shown below.
Image Credit: Voice Acting Mastery
Also known as a “Figure 8” pattern, picks up sound from both the front and rear of the microphone, while reducing sounds from the side. This pattern is handy if you are recording two people with a single mic, with one situated in front of, and the other behind, the mic. This is not an ideal polar pattern if you are doing voice over, as reflections from surfaces behind the mic will arrive out of phase and distort your sound.
Image Credit: CCI Solutions
As the name implies, this microphone’s polar pattern accepts sound equally from all directions. As this is how we hear, it produces the most realistic sound, however it will record every stray noise, and all the reflections in the room equally. You would need to be in a completely sound proof room, or need to record a group of people around a single microphone. Again, not ideal for voice over work.
Image Credit: Learning About Electronics
Are you confused yet?
It’s a lot to take in and understand, but don’t worry, over time this will be easier. It’s very likely that depending on your recording environment, you will be gravitating toward a condenser microphone with a cardioid pattern for your home booth, and if you intend to record away from your booth (on vacation for example) you’ll want a mic that travels well so you’ll probably select a dynamic mic with (likely) a cardioid pattern as well. In some travel circumstances, it may be best to select a short dynamic shotgun mic. You’ll also want some sort of travel “booth”, a topic for another discussion.
At the end of the day…
The best way to select a mic, is to try out several and see how they sound. There are a couple ways to do that. The easiest and cheapest way, is to find a local professional music store, or any store that sells high end professional mics, and see if the salesman will let you come in and sample several. They may even be able to make suggestions for you. If you don’t have one of those nearby, see if there are any professional recording studios in your area. You can usually book an hour of studio time with a professional sound engineer, and they will have every type of microphone available to try. Short of that, you’ll have to do your research and buy one to see how you sound. This is by FAR the most expensive way to do it, and you’ll wind up with a lot of expensive stuff you won’t use…but hey, you can always sell them (at a loss of course) to someone else trying to find the perfect mic.
Whichever mic and mic pattern you select, you’ll want one with a “flat” frequency response. What that means is, in essence, a microphone that is able to capture, faithfully, sound from the top to the bottom of the audible frequency spectrum. No microphone does this perfectly, but some are better than others. What you’ll find is that most drop off in performance near the top and bottom of the range, which frankly is the “sweet spot” in audio since even though very high and very low frequencies are audible, most of us don’t detect a discernable difference below 100Hz and above about 15KHz anyway. And as we age, that range narrows somewhat as well.
Another thing you’ll find (of course), is the better a microphone IS at reproducing a flat response, the more expensive it is. Which is not to say just because a microphone is expensive means it’s a good mic. But the better mics ARE the more expensive ones. Just be prepared to spend $500 or more to get a good, quality, professional microphone.
In my booth, I am presently using a Sennheiser MK4 large diaphragm condenser mic with a cardioid pattern with a Mojave MA200 (which is also a large diaphragm condenser mic with a cardioid pattern) as back up.
A note about cable quality…
When shopping for cables, remember that no matter how good your microphone is, if the cable you select to carry its signal to your DAW is sub-quality, then the sound into your recording suite will be affected. Your cables should be high quality, shielded cables to faithfully carry your audio signals to the A to D converter and into your DAW, and reject stray signals from other electrical/electronic devices.
Cables again – AND – Power sources
As you are setting up your home studio, you’ll find you have several required cables including digital data cables, analog data cables (XLR from your mic) and power cables to make it all turn on. Depending on your setup, you may also want monitor speakers, headphones, a remote monitor and eventually a webcam. All of these cables need to run from one piece of gear to another, and into/out of your booth (again, depending on your setup). Two things to keep in mind: You should never run your microphone or digital audio cables alongside your power cables. The 60Hz (if you are in the US) input power can easily bleed over into your mic cable (even a good, shielded one) creating a low frequency hum throughout your audio. The other thing to note is that all of your equipment should be plugged into the SAME OUTLET in your home, to prevent a “stray ground” (which can also cause an audible low frequency hum in your audio) from occurring. Invest in a high-quality power strip with enough outlets so you can plug everything into that, and then the strip into the wall outlet.
Well, THAT was a mouthful! Thanks for sticking around through the entire article, and good luck finding the right mic for you. If you have any questions about microphones, or setting up your booth, leave me a message below and I’ll get back to you right away. If you’d like to connect with a telephone or video chat, I’m happy to spend 30 minutes with you for free to answer any questions or talk more about your fledgling Voice Over career. Just reach out below and we can schedule a session.
So now you have yourself a SWEET mic, and are ready to dive in and start making BANK! Well, maybe – You still need to get that warm, vibrant sound from the mic to the DAW. Next time, I’ll talk a bit about digital audio interfaces. See ya next week!