How Much Difference Does a Mic Make?

Friday, July 25th, 2014

While the folks on the high end forum at Gearslutz may debate the relative merits of multi-thousand dollar a/d converters, I suspect that most of us home recordists feel that consumer level a/d and d/a does the job. We’re a lot more likely, though, to ascribe big differences to microphones, looking to different mics for different sources, different tonal flavors, different styles of music. But really, how much difference will we hear if we choose between two very different mics?

Now I’m not saying that we cannot tell the difference between mics, but I have often been surprised at how small the differences are if the comparison is same source and level matched.

Mics for Sale

This was brought home to me again recently when I started preparing to reduce my mic collection. I often create a recording and a video along with some pictures to showcase an item I’m offering for sale on Ebay. In this case I decided to show the quality of a Rode NT2a mic by comparing it to a much more expensive one, the Schoeps CMC64.

At first glance this is an absurd comparison. The Schoeps costs about 4 times the price of the Rode. The Schoeps is a small diaphragm condenser designed for recording instruments while the Rode is a switchable dual large diaphragm condenser that most people would call a vocal mic. But with the NT2a in its cardioid pattern, positioned at the same distance from an acoustic guitar, with a bit of attention to level matching, suddenly these two mics are pretty hard to tell apart.

Look and Listen

Here’s a video clip with the Rode NT2a and the Schoeps CMC64 located at the same distance from the Martin guitar, level matched by use of a 1 khz test tone and rendered from REAPER, then alternated and labeled in Edius.

And here are the two audio clips for you to download for more careful listening. These are CD spec uncompressed WAV files so they will not stream well, you should download them before trying to listen.

Rode NT2a

CMC64

Good Listening Habits

Even with level matched same source recordings like these we humans can fool ourselves into hearing what we expect. Or our minds might trick us and “hear” the opposite of our expectations. We also have much shorter memory for sound than we think, so we really need a tool that presents our audio samples without labels and with the ability to switch between samples easily.

Fortunately this isn’t terribly hard when dealing with digital audio files and there are several free ABX tools available that can help. If you’re using a PC the foobar2000 audio player offers an ABX tool that I’ve blogged about several times. For Mac users there’s ABXer. And now Lacinato Software has released a new tool implemented in Java that makes cross-platform ABXing a reality. Use one of these programs to put the audio clips above under the microscope, as it were, and I think you’ll learn something about what we hear and how much difference a mic really makes. I’ve done a blog post covering the Lacinato ABXer including a couple of videos available here: http://www.homebrewedmusic.com/2014/07/30/a-new-abx-tool/

More Mics, More Mics

I’ve done some additional comparisons with video and clips for you to download and evaluate with ABX. First up is the Rode NT2000, a dual large diaphragm condenser similar to the NT2a but featuring continuously variable pattern selection rather than the three patterns available with the NT2a. In this comparison the “other guy” is a Shure KSM44, a well regarded and rather pricey large diaphragm condenser. Here’s the video:

and here are the clips for you to download:

Shure KSM44
Rode NT2000

One more comparison pits the Schoeps CMC64 against a popular low cost switchable mic, the CAD M179. The video:

and the audio files for your ABXing pleasure:

CAD M179
Schoeps CMC64

These clips should provide plenty of ABX entertainment and hopefully a bit of insight into just how much difference a mic makes when recording your acoustic guitar at home.



This entry was posted on Friday, July 25th, 2014 at 5:20 pm and is filed under Comparisons, Recording. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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    9 Responses to ' How Much Difference Does a Mic Make? '

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    1. Jeremy Cherfas said in post # 1,

      on July 28th, 2014 at 12:10 am

      Interesting post; thanks. I’m having trouble running abxer to ground. Empty Software doesn’t seem to exist, and emptymusic.com looks to be defunct. I’d rather not download from one of those file accumulating sites.

    2. Fran Guidry said in post # 2,

      on July 28th, 2014 at 7:49 am

      If you’re not comfortable using one of the redistribution sites for ABXer, I’d recommend that you visit Lacinato and get his new ABX tool. http://lacinato.com/cm/software/othersoft/abx

      I’m almost done with a blog post about this new program and it’s working well.

      Fran

    3. Rodrigo Tavares said in post # 3,

      on September 8th, 2014 at 7:15 am

      Hello Fran,

      I have been reading your posts a lot recently. I have bought a Zoom H6 and am looking for one or two good external mics to record voice and instruments ( guitar mostly) with better quality than zoom’s mics. These videos have been useful in that regard.Thanks.
      If you were to make a recommendation what would you say? What are the best large and the best small diaphragm condenser you have tested with the Zoom H6 in the sub U$500 category. Thanks again. Best regards, Rodrigo Tavares.

    4. Fran Guidry said in post # 4,

      on September 8th, 2014 at 8:26 am

      Rodrigo, thanks for visiting. There are literally hundreds of mics out there these days and I’ve tried only a very few. What I’ve learned, and tried to convey in this post, is that the difference between mics is much smaller than one would think from reading most internet forums. So I don’t think one can point to a “best” mic with any confidence.

      I would recommend that you choose from a few respected vendors. Shure, Audio Technica, and Rode make a variety of mics that meet your requirements. Beyer and AKG do so as well. Look for mics with low self-noise. Check the polar pattern diagrams and look for good pattern control at all frequencies. If the mic doesn’t have these specs available, skip it and look for another.

      One of the few on-line sources I respect for reviews is Sound on Sound magazine http://www.soundonsound.com/ check their reviews of the mics that you are considering.

      Good luck with your recording.

      Fran

    5. Rodrigo Tavares said in post # 5,

      on September 8th, 2014 at 11:30 am

      Fran, thanks for your response.

      Best regards,

      Rodrigo.

    6. Gunter said in post # 6,

      on December 29th, 2014 at 7:54 am

      Hello Fran, a big thank you for blog site and your great commitment to homebrewed music! Turns out I had the fitting technical questions to all the answers you are giving here. And further turns out you have the psycho acoustic skills of a real musician. That’s a rare combination these days… I am in the market for the Zoom H-6 and the ubiquituous Rode NT2a’s, btw. 😉

    7. Jiff 41 said in post # 7,

      on January 31st, 2015 at 7:02 am

      Great work here Fran, I’m always looking to get a GOOD acoustic sound & I can only afford cheaper mics.
      This has given me hope & inspiration to keep looking & trying!.
      When I saw your vid about vids in Reaper I felt quite @ home cos my diy absortion panels look identical to your’s!.
      I’ll be checking your site more now!

    8. Randy Alberts said in post # 8,

      on December 15th, 2015 at 1:15 pm

      wow, great idea & vids and quite unique–had to google a long time to finally find your comparison method and answer to exactly what I’ve suspected all along: That there’s practically no differences between high-end and budget studio mics, at least to my ear canals. Revelation! Weeks and months of countless opinion forums, comparison vids, coffee house bull sessions with fellow musicians/engineers to the point of insanity just trying to decide if I “need” to spend way over budget to make that much of a difference to my fingerpicked alternate tuning improv adventures. Thanks Fran, in just 3 minutes you’ve helped bring my self-tortuous process finally to a swift end!! Being a longtime amateur home recordist I’ve also become a big fan of your site, well done and witty stuff sir, thanks.

    9. Fran Guidry said in post # 9,

      on December 15th, 2015 at 2:30 pm

      I was definitely a victim of Gearslutz, Tape Op, and Tapers Section where it seemed like Schoeps, DPA or vintage Neumann were the only acceptable mics. I even did unmatched comparison “tests” that confirmed everything I read. I was certainly surprised when I started doing controlled level matched same source tests and those dramatic differences seemed to disappear.

      Good luck with your recordings.

      Fran

    Leave a reply






    About the Blog

      Howdy, my name is Fran Guidry and this is my Homebrewed Music blog.

      I play Hawaiian slack key guitar and recorded my solo acoustic CD at home. Most of the recording information I find on the internet seems focused on bands, drums, multitracking, and so on but my main focus is recording solo acoustic guitar. Lately I’ve been enjoying video recording along with audio, so that shows up in the blog as well.

      I’m also a guitar nut. I love big ones and little ones, handmades and factory guitars, cheap ones and expensive ones. So I’ll be sharing the fun of exploring guitars as well, along with the challenges of amplifying acoustic guitars for live performance.

      Welcome!

    Philosophy

      My recording philosophy is pragmatic, skeptical, not super critical. After all, the performance is by far the most important component of a track, and every aspect of any recording is a matter of taste.

      But I do like to know “about stuff.” Back in hifi days I learned about double blind testing. I learned that we humans can easily hear differences that don’t really exist. The more I’ve learned about our human auditory system, the more I’m skeptical of what people say they hear, especially if they claim that a particular microphone or preamp or cable has some magical property.

      I’ve only been recording since 2001, and when I started I found the usual places on the internet. I sought advice and accepted it, thought I would improve my recordings by using more expensive equipment. It didn’t work.

      Two things that did seem to lead to better recordings were experience and room treatment. Getting an appealing sound is the combination of many small details, and learning those details only comes from experience. Amd the sound of the recording space is obviously a big factor.

      I’ve only recorded seriously using digital technology, but I remember trying to record rehearsals and gigs back in analog days. I don’t have any nostalgia for analog recording and playback systems at all. I think even low end digital systems can capture marvelous recordings. So when I look at gear, I look for good specs: low noise, broad flat frequency response, wide dynamic range, low distortion. I’m not interested in colorful components, mics and preamps with a sound, I want the sound to be the sound of my guitar.

      But the last word is that I’m just learning and I hope you find something useful in my posts.