Recently I spent a day with some engineer friends where we conducted an extensive microphone shoot out with the intent to find the ideal microphones for a particular vocalist and acoustic guitar.
For this shootout, we used over 20 high-end professional studio microphones from companies including Royer, Tekefunken, Lauten, Shure, ADK, Blue, and AKG among others. We focused our shootout into two segments: acoustic guitars and vocals.
To record the acoustic guitar, we set up 7 mics around a McPherson MG 4.5 and recorded a simple progression in time to a click. We then replaced those mics with 7 new ones and repeated this process. We repeated this yet a third time for a total of 21 individual tracks of different microphones recording the same guitar progression. Each microphone ran through an SSL preamp, and careful attention was paid to make the input levels match as close a possible.
We compared the results by listening to each track and rating them according to our own system. It was very apparent how each microphone colored the instrument differently, with some mics accentuating the brightness of the instrument and others bringing out the mid and lower frequencies. Granted this is purely subjective, and microphone choice is ultimately dependent on the sound you're going for in the track, however, our goal was to determine the best individual mics that captured each instrument in the most sonically pleasing way when solo'd on playback.
After spending half the day recording guitars, we then set up many of these same microphones to record vocals.
Again, each mic was sent through the same SSL preamp, paying close attention to match the input levels. The vocalist then sang the same lyrics, melody and vocal inflections over the previously recorded progression. While each of the mics we used could easily be used on a professional recording, there were a few that just immediately stood out and drew you into the track.
The sonic quality and clarity of the voice was so engaging that it was as if the vocalist was standing in front of you as opposed to coming through the speakers. I've always known that the right microphone can bring a track to life, however I had never experienced being 'drawn in' to a vocal performance simply as a result of the microphone choice.
So which mics were our favorites?
On acoustic guitar, the two microphones that topped our list were the Lewitt LCT 940 (around £1499/$1599) and the ADK 3 Zigma C-LOL-12 ($8/900). For Vocals, our favorites were the Lauten Oceanus LT-381 (£1100/$1799) and once again the Lewitt LCT 940.
So granted one would exepct a good performance out of all of these mics as they are priced at the professional end of the scale, however, for my money the most 'bang for the buck' mic in this shootout was the Lewitt LCT 940. Due to its versatility with its ability to blend between the separate Tube and FET circuits that are part of its design. Add to that the fact that this mic also features nine different polar patterns, including the five 'standard' pattens of cardoid, wide-cardioid, super-cardiod, omni, and figure-8, as well as four intermediate patterns, and the flexibility is obvious.
For our experiment, we used the cardiod pattern and special care was taken to achieve the best mic placement and sound from every microphone. With the LCT 940, we did adjust the blend until we found the most pleasing tone for each instrument. The acoustic guitar sounded best with a blend in the 2 o'clock position, which is just slightly more FET than Tube. The vocal also sounded best at a slightly more FET setting.
The Oceanus and C-LOL-12 were equally pleasing to the ear and brought out the best tonal characters of both the guitar and vocalist when solo'd, however neither have the flexibility of the LCT 940, which, for a project studio owner, is what appealed to me most about this particular microphone. Considering the McPherson we used is my main guitar, and the vocalist is someone who I've been recording consistently for quite some time, the LCT 940 is a clear choice for me.
That being said, I'd encourage any reader to hold their own microphone shootout, especially if there are one or two particular vocalists and/or instruments that you record on a regular basis. It's one thing for a microphone to capture an instrument, and it's another for it to capture the instrument in a way that literally draws you in to the recording. As each singer and instrument has its own unique sound and tonal characteristics, it's important to discover which microphone best captures those sonic qualities in that sound.
Follow the procedure I outlined above and borrow or rent some microphones that are available to you. Most importantly, remember to keep the input levels the same so that there are no differences in the perceived volume of the various tracks. You might be very surprised at the results.
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