When it comes to microphones, there are a thousand flavors. While some manufacturers seek to advance the state of the art, others work to recreate the classic designs of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s.
It goes to show that new isn’t always synonymous with better. Look no further than the popularity of various plugins that model the tonality (i.e., distortion and other imperfections) of tape machines. The plugins – and even the use of actual tape machines themselves – are intended to “enhance” digital recordings. There was a certain sound during those formative years, when music seemed to change the world, that is still sought after today, even though technology was nowhere near as advanced.
So we reach backward in time to validate our present experience, maybe never even knowing precisely why we do it. But we know how to do it, and one key method is to utilize the mics of yesteryear that made so many concerts, and so many recording projects, become the legends that still set a benchmark today.
While vintage mics are coveted, and some command a king’s fortune, old usually means maintenance. Parts may not always be available, and/or are no longer built to the exacting standards they once were.
A little known fact: mic diaphragms, especially the super-thin low-mass condenser types, will develop microscopic holes over time, eventually leading to a change in tonal color. As the years progress, the holes can even be seen with a magnifying glass. So know that they may still work and sound great, but don’t expect them to retain their original sound some 40 or 50 years later.
Also realize that the sound of a mic is not the result of its frequency response alone, but rather, is characterized by multiple factors. Phase versus frequency response, distortion characteristics, transient response (how fast the mic responds to acoustic energy and how quickly it stops outputting electrical energy after the acoustic event has ended), polar response, and linearity all play a role in how a given mic will sound, as well as how it can effectively be deployed.
And, of course, there’s the issue of the physical obstruction that the mic itself presents to the acoustic source. Obviously, mic’ing a 90-piece orchestra from 30 feet away is not going to alter much of anything, but placing a large-format condenser within inches of a violin not only adds an acoustic obstruction that’s picked up by the mic, but can also affect what the musician hears from the instrument.
Hence the huge range of designs that are available for hundreds of different applications.
The Shure SM7 (above) and Sennheiser MD 441. (click to enlarge)
Inspired (Or Not)
Putting the left-brain analysis aside for a moment, there are certain mics that just make us feel good when we record or reinforce vocals and music. Whether our opinions are derived by carefully examining the technical characteristics of a mic or by simply determining what we like through trial and error (or both), the result is the same: some mics inspire, others do not.
One particular gem is the Shure SM7. Originally designed for broadcast applications about 40 years ago, it was quite popular and then gradually started fading away. But at a recent trade show, I spoke with a member of the Shure team who told that the mic is not only still alive and well, but increased orders for it are rolling in.
This was welcome news because I’ve long loved the SM7. It’s a good choice for obtaining a compelling snare tone – accurate for sure, but with a fat-and-rich quality that can’t be easily be duplicated, even with a lot of EQ. True, it’s large and so sometimes gets in the way of a crowded kit, but if it’s too big for your drummer’s liking, put it on kick. It’ll give you tight and punchy, or large and boomy, depending on placement, drum tuning, and EQ.
In addition, an SM7 on each side of a Leslie, about center height between the rotors and a foot or two away from the cabinet, captures a phenomenal stereo sound that brings out the best of this strange but wonderful breed of loudspeaker. If you can isolate the Leslie in a small backstage room, or even in a van outside the venue, so much the better.