Update: Also make sure to check out our Handheld Microphone Shootout.
As part of an ongoing training initiative, AIR: The Association of Independents in Radio helped organize a mic shootout, seeking to compare a wide variety of announce mics in a neutral setting. In the large, quiet room of Studio A at indre Studios in Philadelphia, a few independent producers set up 17 mics side-by-side. The mics ranged in price from less than a hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. We concentrated more on the less-expensive mics, and the mid-range popular standards, rather than pricey esoterica or cult-classic mics, hoping to find some bargains that might be practical for the independent producer, or to confirm that some of the pricier industry standards might be worth the expense.
The best way to assess these mics is to listen without the prejudices of preconception, reputation, appearance and price. That’s what we did; listening up in the control room without seeing what mic was being spoken into. We identified the mics by letter code, only revealing their identities later. You might want to make notes as you listen to the samples below. We’ll reveal the mics’ identities at the end.
This was by necessity an imperfect test. The only efficient way to do this was to set all the mics up in a large room. While indre’s Studio A is a nice-sounding room, it’s not representative of the recording spaces most of us work in, and the mics will sound a bit different in a small booth. Some of these mics have adjustment switches that might make some voices sound significantly better, but if we’d tested all the mics with all possible combinations of patterns, pads and rolloffs, we’d never have finished, so we left all mics flat, and in cardioid pattern, if they had multiple settings. Adjusting the mic, or applying EQ or other processing can change the sound of a mic significantly. Similarly, finding the “sweet-spot” on a mic takes a little practice, so some of these examples might have changed significantly if the voice talent had worked the mic a little closer or further away or at a different angle. And of course, the condition of the specific mic can have a huge effect. (In retrospect I realize that the AKG 414 that we used in this test didn’t behave like others I have used and could have been suffering from age or wear.)
Still, this test should give an approximation of the different characters of the mics, and how they sound with three different voices. The fascinating thing we discovered in our test, with our listeners, was that there was no “correct” answer; there was no mic that everyone agreed on as the “best” on any of the voices, let alone all of them. Each of us had different preferences about what we liked to hear, some preferring the round warmth of one mic, others favoring the biting clarity of another.
Thanks to our test voices: John Diliberto, Elinoar Astrinsky, and Bob Leedom. They were reading excerpts from Transom’s “What Mic do I Get” column, but they’ve been highly edited, if you’d like to see the complete document, it’s here. Special thanks to indre studios for their generous donation of their facilities, and to AIR for logistical support.
When you’re done listening, and have made notes about your likes and dislikes, you can see names, pictures and details of the mics on this page: Mic Shootout Key
The Transom Online Workshop, with support from the Knight Prototype Fund, helped update this article.