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Avoiding The Trap: Politics, Religion And… Microphones?

Everyone has an opinion, and sometimes, no rational explanation or contrary information will sway them.

One of the more curious things I’ve noticed over many years of participating in online newsgroups, forums, and social media is that the question that often gets the most answers (and sometimes sparks the biggest debates) is “What is the best microphone for ______?”

Everyone has an opinion (and you know what they say about opinions), including me. For example, I used to love putting an Electro-Voice RE20 on the kick drum for the jazz big band I mixed, with that particular drummer using those particular drums. But does that mean that the RE20 is the right mic for every kick drum? Of course not.

But apparently to many, the mic that should be used for a particular instrument or voice is almost like politics or religion. In other words, not only do they believe what they believe, no rational explanation or contrary information will sway them.

I think there are many reasons for this, and I want to explore them.

But first, a question: “Is it possible that we might be compromising the product or failing to realize our clients’ potential because of our biases?” Unfortunately, I think sometimes the answer is yes.

Older, Wiser

Where does bias come from? For starters, our early experiences with products (and companies) shape our preferences. If we started out using “Mic X” on vocals and “Console Y” for many/most gigs, then the way these products sound makes an indelible impression on us. Nothing else is quite like your first kiss (or so “they” say).

What might be easy to lose sight of, however, is that in those early days we don’t have a broad enough perspective with which to judge our choices. In other words, it’s important to evolve as we gain experience and learn more.

Next up might be what our idols have been using. If we like the sound of a particular act live or on a recording, it makes sense that we might want to emulate that sound and thus choose the same or similar products for our own work.

This is how endorsements work, as an example. The part that sometimes goes overlooked is that no two artists sound the same, and thus what works for one artist may or may not be the best choice for another.

Perhaps one more way we become “set in our ways” is experiencing a high level of success using a particular product (or system). Who can forget the “love at first sound” experience a few years into our careers when we first heard a pair of Neumann KM84s on drum overheads? Or a Sennheiser MD409 on guitar cabinet? Or maybe it was a Shure KSM9 on that female vocalist. Perhaps we hauled out a boutique compressor for the “money channel” and realized what we’d been missing all this time.

Those experiences are valid and important so that we raise our own sonic consciousness. Nevertheless, it’s all too easy to get locked into thinking that any particular mic, processor, loudspeaker or console is unassailable in all situations. Just consider how line arrays became the only game in town for several years, when often, other types of loudspeaker systems may well have been a better choice in many applications.

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Who You Know

We can’t ignore relationships as the next phase of our journey into bias. By this I mean that if we’re professionals or even dedicated amateurs, such as in the case of volunteers serving larger church congregations, we’ve probably developed connections with certain sales representatives and manufacturers.

These folks can be an invaluable resource, and we rely on them for quality information, technical assistance, and even the occasional favor. However, there are times when their influence can blind us to the greater universe of products and services that might also be at our disposal.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating ignoring your trusted contacts or tried-and-true products or systems and jumping on the bandwagon of any new shiny toy that comes along. However, it’s in the best interest of ourselves, our clients, and our audiences that we be well versed in as many of the high-quality options as possible.

Of course, it’s nearly an impossible task to be familiar with all of them. We probably can’t know how to mix fluently on every digital console on the market. But we can, at least, know what the main differences are between them.

And really, it isn’t that difficult to know the half-dozen or so really good kick drum mics, the handful of great overhead mics, and the eight or 10 really good vocal mics. If not, how else can we really know that we’re truly serving our clients?

So What Now?

First, don’t forget to listen, and listen with an open mind. It’s an easy trap to have a preconceived notion of what to expect and then listen to confirm. I’ve covered this tendency extensively in previous articles, such as Purple Sounds Better (March 2012 LSI and on ProSoundWeb). It’s even got a name: “confirmation bias,” and there’s been a lot of in-depth research about it.

So how do we avoid this trap? The most commonly used method is to do blind testing, or as close to it as possible. Many such tests in the audiophile world are done with the ABX method, which may be beyond our scope here.

But the concept can be retained easily enough. If you’re attempting to choose between a handful of vocal mics, do your best to avoid knowing what you’re actually listening to until after making notes about what you like and don’t like about each. This requires making a list of key characteristics, such as Frequency Balance, Match To Vocalist, Resistance To Feedback, Handling Noise, Evenness Of Rejection, and so on.
We can also take a cue from how musicians are auditioned for professional orchestras: behind a screen, so that bias doesn’t enter into the picture.

There is still much to be said for knowing the products, knowing how the company responds to problems, and our general “like” for the brand and the people. This only comes with experience. At the same time, though, no one company makes a perfect product line.

As we move through our careers, it’s important to keep in mind the end result: the needs of clients and how audiences responds. This, after all, is what pays the bills.

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