Producer and engineer Stephen Bartlett steps into the vintage versus modern debate and looks at how the choice of microphone can affect a recording session.
As an industry we stand on the cusp of some incredible technology changes. For the past 20 years it feels that more recreation or emulation products have been released than truly new and unique products. It is rare that a new classic is born, however mics like the Royer R-121, Mohave MA-200, and Josephson e22S are increasingly common in studios around the world and are becoming invaluable.
Recently manufacturers are turning to new technology, including digital conversion within the mic, or microphone modelling such as the Slate Virtual Microphone System, that could provide engineers with a freedom that we haven’t seen before (when will these geniuses start to work on decent mic stands?). At this stage it’s just beginning, and I still rely on the tried and tested microphone forms of the last 70 years, but I have no doubt that soon we will see changes that will revolutionise how we record and what microphones we use.
Vintage – The good and the bad
There is a real exaltation of vintage equipment in the audio industry. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career to use several of the highly prized microphone treasures we all chase after. Some of them have provided me with moments of magic and, at times, pure frustration. Last month I was producing three tracks for a band, and on the first day, I placed a pair of original M49 Neumanns to be the room mics. It sounded great and they brought an amazing warmth to the room, with super smooth high frequency response as well. However, after lunch on day two, we started hearing an increase in noise on the left room mic. Within an hour, that microphone was unusable due to the noise (which turned out to be a power supply problem). Even though it had been kept in great condition, using anything that is over 50 years old brings an inherent risk. It was magic, and it was frustrating.
There are certainly microphones that have changed over time, where the modern counterparts do not reflect the microphone’s original design. Neumann’s U67 and U47 (Tube and FET) are obvious examples. There is a certain magic in both of these mics that I haven’t found in any recreation. Neumann’s U87 has continued to be built for many decades, however place an early 1980s version next to a current Ai, and there will be two completely different sounds. Other mics, like AKG’s C414, have changed as well (originally it came with the C12 capsule) and has seen several variations. They are different, and while I do love the EB versions, I would happily use any of them, in slightly different situations and methods. EV’s RE20 and Sennheiser’s Md421/Md441 have all been manufactured continually for over 40 years, and without hesitation I will use any of their variations.
Choosing a microphone
Choosing a microphone is one of the most important parts of setting up a recording session, and planning starts well before the session does. As an engineer, I’m often trying to create a mix from the first step of recording, which influences my microphone choices.
Size within a mix can often be determined by the stereo width of the miking technique used. A piano or acoustic guitar that features in a song with the majority of harmonic content could benefit from X/Y or M/S or Blumlein miking to give it size and space in the mix. If a song is likely to be mixed to surround, then I will employ five-point miking on certain instruments, because using space is always easier and nicer than creating it. Conversely a tambourine that is just in the chorus will only have a single microphone.
I find that depth within a mix can be hugely aided by mic selection as well. As Michael Stavrou suggests in his book, Mixing with Your Mind, microphones have an inherent ‘hardness’ factor. A ribbon mic would usually be quite ‘soft,’ dynamic mics are often in the middle, and condenser mics are usually ‘hard’. A hard mic would bring an instrument to the front of a mix, while a softer mic tends to place an instrument further into a mix and blend it with other elements. Just as microphones have a ‘hardness’, so too do instrument/vocal sources, and by blending between these elements you can find a way to control where an instrument sits. Using a ‘soft’ ribbon on a ‘hard’ tambourine will help blend it into a mix more. Simply changing microphones could help place an acoustic rhythm guitar into a mix, while the riff with the same guitar could be brought forward with a different set of mics (and perhaps a wider stereo field).
The pickup pattern of a microphone can also determine the ‘wetness’ or ‘dryness’ of a source. A direct mic like the Sennheiser Md441 can help keep a snare dry by being very direct in how it captures the source, while an AKG C414 placed further back on a wide cardioid captures more of the atmosphere around the snare, and thus makes it feel more ‘wet’.
When it comes to purchasing a microphone there are several important factors. Often people feel that they need a condenser microphone first, especially for vocals. But good condensers cost thousands, while cheap condensers often have inaccurate or hyped high frequency response and often-poor dynamic range and unmusical coloring of the source. Good dynamic microphones are far more likely to give a high-quality recording at a dollar-for-dollar price comparison.
Another consideration is that when microphone selection is small for an entire recording, often one mic is used on several instruments. By using just one condenser the high frequency range can become cluttered and a mix may contain far too much sonic information in one register.
Parts and company support is another factor when buying a microphone. A company that has been around for 40 years is more likely to supply you with a new shock mount in four years than a company that has just started by emulating a famous mic.
One problem with recording is that to be creative and flexible requires a lot of equipment, most of which doesn’t get used all of the time or even in every session, making the experience incredibly expensive. But to sacrifice this directly relates to a sacrifice in quality or creative options. I mix a lot of records recorded by people around the world, and last year this exact problem was becoming a frustration in my mixing. It was due to this that I conceived The Audio Hunt, which is expected to launch within a few months, and will create a platform for peer-to-peer rental of microphones, instruments and recording gear.
Currently based at Wisseloord Studios in the Netherlands, producer/engineer Stephen Bartlett is the former owner of The Docking Station in Australia, where he won various industry awards. Since moving to Europe, Bartlett has gained four top 10 records, a top 10 single and a platinum certification.