Electronic Musician - May 2015 - (Page 82)
How much does your microphone really matter?
BY GINO ROBAIR
"I didn't have a mic. I was just singing right into the mic on the computer." -Erykah Badu (Red Bull Music
That's my secret weapon. After spending
a full semester introducing students to the
intricacies of microphone technology, I drop
Ms. Badu's quote on them regarding her
creative process for the album New Amerykah
By this point, they have experienced the
various qualities of each mic in our studio-
products by AKG, Audio-Technica, Audix,
Avantone, Blue, CAD, Electro-Voice, Neumann,
Shure, Studio Projects-on voice, drums, amps,
acoustic guitar, and whatever else they bring in.
They know how much a transducer influences
the sound of a recording, and they already have a
wish list filled with classic mics, many of which
their favorite artists have used or endorse.
Suddenly they find out that some of the
vocals on a hit record were recorded directly
into the built-in mic of an Apple MacBook Pro.
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And Badu was tracking to Apple GarageBand-
freeware that arrives with your computer!
By now they're probably wondering why they
bothered to take this class at all, let alone spend
so much money on a DAW and interface, if all
you have to do is sing into your computer to make
a hit. So it's time for a reality check: Badu is not
only a talented songwriter with an exceptional
voice, she's working with A-level producers and
engineers. Full stop. Let that sink in.
On top of that, she claims to have written
upwards of 200 songs during the process of
making that record, the vocals of which were
demoed directly into her laptop mic. In other
words, she didn't just keep the first take of
the first idea that came into her head. She was
planting seeds and harvesting only the cream of
The take-home message for my classroom
of teens and twenty-somethings is that the
mic doesn't make the music: The artist does.
When inspiration strikes, you capture it with
whatever you have at hand and deal with the
consequences later...or not. Badu notes that the
various imperfections in her vocal recordings
were often kept by her engineer, Mike
Chavarria, when she sent him the files.
Now I don't mean to imply that the MacBook
Pro's mic is inherently terrible or that using
GarageBand is unprofessional. In fact, they're
a fairly sophisticated set of tools when used
together. And, yes, Badu usually records in
top studios with pro engineers using high-end
gear. But in every case, the technology should
be invisible in order for the artist to focus on
capturing those precious gems of inspiration
when they appear.
So it behooves us to learn the personality
of each mic we own in order to be able to pick
the best one for a given situation as quickly as
possible. It doesn't matter if we're a songwriter
or recording engineer; the time to do a mic
shootout is not while you're courting the muse.
When you do find that magic combination of
gear that inspires you, give yourself unfettered
access to it. I know a lot of artists and engineers
who leave their go-to mics set up in the studio at
all times, ready for action at a moment's notice.
For example, producer/engineer Tucker Martine
(My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, Beth
Orton) will often leave his AEA R88 stereo ribbon
mic set up on a stand in the tracking room, ready
for whatever phase of the song a band is in-
basics or overdubs. Similarly, producer/engineer
Joel Hamilton (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, the
Black Keys) told me that his Coles 4038 stays on
the stand and gets used for guitar amps, brass,
and as a drum overhead.
In regards to the question about how much
your mic matters, the answers are "a lot" and
"not at all." A high-quality mic will capture all
the timbral and dynamic subtlety of an artist,
but a good song will transcend the recording
media and delivery system. Sure, a recorded
performance of a piece of music is defined
by the gear used when it was recorded-for
example, the guitars, drums, mics, amps and,
of course, the voices of The Beatles are integral
to the sound of the single "She Loves You." Yet
the band's performance of the same song on
The Ed Sullivan Show, using many of the same
instruments but an entirely different signal
path, still had a powerful impact on the millions
across the world listening to the broadcast
through the tiny speaker on their television.
One of my favorite anecdotes on this subject
is the story engineer Nathaniel Kunkel tells
about the days leading up to his first recording
session with James Taylor. Kunkel spent a lot of
time thinking about the signal path, worrying
that he might choose the wrong mic. Then it hit
him: James Taylor is going to sound like James
Taylor no matter which microphone he uses.
The time to do a
mic shootout is
not while you're
courting the muse.
In other words, you have the knowledge it
takes to track and mix a record, as well as the
best signal path you can currently afford. Now
stop fussing over the gear and get to work. n
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Electronic Musician - May 2015
Electronic Musician - May 2015
Microphones for Muscians
Death Cab for Cutie
Steve Aoki and Benasis
Slate Digital Virtual Mix Rack
Arturia Matrix 12
iZotope Iris 2
Yamaha DBR Series
Electronic Musician - May 2015