Right mic, write up

Oh my my my, I have been slack its been a while now since I last posted anything – so much for keep everyone up to date and interested eh! But we’ve been so busy: videoing, testing kit, getting new gear, discovering strange echo’s, recording backing tracks – I’ve been working late and everything! – so much to do so little time, but its no excuse….anyway I have a plan to rectify this….do less work.

Anyway on with the show and bit of a techy mic review.

If you attend Jesus Army meetings and you’ve watched any of the video’s we’ve produced then at some point all your incredible audio-visual journey you’ll have been made to jump out your skin by something ridiculously loud followed immediately but some completely unintelligible speech that you couldn’t decipher no matter how matter times you pressed rewind (assuming you had the controls….which you didn’t).

Ok well maybe that’s a bit of a harsh introduction but the reality of the matter is they desperately needed some sound engineer input and generally my good friend James is usually so busy and way too rushed getting the video actually done in time, which, by the way until recently has been his spare time (don’t fool yourself, he doesn’t really have spare time!) – good arrow James :)…sorry I digressed….as I was saying he’s usually so rushed that the audio is the least of his problems and we should be glad to have any at all (some thing ole Timmy Techno could learn a thing from mind you).

Given that we are starting a new era with Jesus Army creative department where video and audio teams are more integrated (so much so that James seems to have ensconced himself firmly in my office/studio….hmmm..) we thought we should make an attempt to fix this problem.

It’s my pudding not Terry’s….well it was – its gone now

Recording audio for video if you don’t want to use a tie-clip mic, which is often the case as they can look a bit crap on close up, is actually remarkably tricky without spending a fortune. Decent rifle mics can top £800 – and no that’s not a mic for military obsessed. Basically you want to able to pick up spoken work at normal speech levels from a distance of about a metre – doing this sort of thing really make you realise how incredible our ears are – nice one God (or in my case, “were”  having stood next to Andy Lanstbery drumming for a few years – I swear he starts reeling back to hit that snare about a mile away from the venue!)….bear with me whilst I reverse out of this religious cul-de-sac and return to my technical gibberings!

So we set out to test a whole bunch of primarily condenser mics although I did include the obligatory Shure SM57…..cos you have to, and at least one unlikely candidate, with the same bit of speech at same distance to the mics and compare what they sounded like, how much background noise there was and how much stuff beyond vocal did they pick up.

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Behringer-ECM8000-analyser-.mp3|titles=Behringer ECM8000 analyser]

We started with what you might say is a rather surprising candidate. The Behringer ECM8000 analyser is actually a spectrum analyser microphone it’s not for speech at all…..oh hold I’ve just been handed an enormous bowl of pudding – check out the picture!!!…thanks wifey..(insert 15 minute pudding pause)…right pudding appropriately demolished…where were we?…..ah yes a spectrum analyer mic – I started with this because in theory these are supposed to have a completely flat response and are intended to be used a fair distance from the sound source so I thought this ought to be a reasonable benchmark….oh how I wrong I was! To be fair this mic isn’t really intended to actually hear things but it was really really noisy and the audio was well kinda ugly – its hard to describe but it just doesn’t sound natural

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Behringer-C-2.mp3|titles=Behringer C-2]

Number 2 on the list is budget condenser mic it’s another one from those boys (and maybe girls..?) at Behringer. It’s the C-2 and we sometimes use a pair of them for ambient(audience) recording mics at our sunday meetings. They are tiny little thing – smaller than and AKG C451 E and that’s small but they have a surprising about of bottom end. Personally I found the top end a bit unnatural but again as with the other Behringer mic at these gain levels the background noise was just not acceptable. That said if you’re on a tight budget and you need a decent pair of condenser mic then I’d say this is good option.

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Beyer-Opus-53.mp3|titles=Beyer Opus 53]

Frankly I expect our Beyer Opus 53 to be rubbish – its been our hi-hat mic for well over five years – a formidable job for even the bravest of mics and it’s not been without injury – the plastic cap is missing. However surprisingly it wasn’t too bad. Noise was still a problem so this mic wasn’t really a viable option but for a mic that I think only cost me about £50….although they seem to be £74 now, its pretty reasonable and also one you might want to have in your mic box – also on a complete aside I have since compared this mic to some other that are in theory much better quality for hi-hat use and I’d still chose this one again.

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/AKG-C451-E.mp3|titles=AKG C451 E]

Right time for a proper mic (well the picky among you might still disagree). The AKG C451 E – originally the AKG 451 was actually just a barrel you could attach various heads to (as I was reminded by the good folks from Juice Sound & Lighting recently) however AKG have produced this version with a fix head. This mic was arguably the best traditional mic in our test the only other mic which really compared was the Shure SM81. Now obviously these two mics are the most expensive the AKG comes in at around £250+ and the SM81 is around £300, but what sets them apart for those of you that can’t hear….well we’re not all sat in a studio are we, and some of you might even be using those dreadful headphones you get with iPhones that mean everyone in the train carriage can hear what your listening too yet there is still no bass in the mix…..sorry I need to put that hobby-horse back in its hobby stable again….yes the difference is that both of these mics have considerably less background hiss and the sound is much more natural, its much more like you’re standing in front of James (who by this point is rather fed up of repeating this sentence).

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Shure-PG81.mp3|titles=Shure PG81]

Having mentioned the Shure SM81 this mic is its little brother. The PG series is the cheaper end of Shure’s mic range, personally I’ve been pretty impressed with them, this mic is actually from a complete drumkit PG series…..I’ve been so impressed actually that I got rid of the AKG D112 we used to have on the kick drum in preference for the PG52 that comes with the kit. To be honest it’s not a bad mic but for the price I might be tempted by a pair of the Behringer C-2’s for the same price.

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Sony-ECM-XM1.mp3|titles=Sony ECM-XM1]

The Sony ECM-XM1 is one of only 2 official camera mics in the test and actually its pretty damn good. I think this is probably my personal favourite for a few reasons. Firstly obviously the background noise levels are pretty respectable, but you’ll notice this mic has much more bottom end (low-frequency) response than most if not all of the mics tested, in my experience removing bottom end is easy but adding it and making it sound natural is more tricky. However my favourite thing about this mic is something that you won’t hear cos it’s held still on a stand, but given the gain levels we were running at (pretty much maximum on the desk – which is insane!) the handling noise was quite low – all the other mics got grumpy if you so much as breathed near them but this was much more tolerant. I guess you’d expect that a bit given that its intended to be fixed to a camera so you need to be careful about that, sadly from what I can see you can’t get this mic without buying a £3000 HD camera!

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Sennheiser-tie-clip.mp3|titles=Sennheiser tie-clip]

In the spirit of video audio I thought it only fair to see what we could do with a tie clip mic. We happen to have Sennheiser system, and well – here’s the result. As you can hear it’s a bit muffled but a very clean and otherwise natural sound. Obviously you could EQ this and tidy it up and get a much better result but I wanted put all the clips up here untouched, that said this does give some insight into why using these mics in live situations causes me so much trouble. You might think the problem with tie-clips is people scratching or moving or touching theirs clothes and thus creating annoying background noise but the gain levels that we were running the other mics at meant the problem was just as bad and some ways worse.

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Sony-C-74-M.mp3|titles=Sony C-74 (M)]

The Sony C-74 is the other video mic we tested. James has already done some videoing with this mic and was not impressed with the result…neither was I really, but!….we discovered a magic switch on it. Much like the Sennheiser MD421 this mic has a vocal and music setting – in fact 2 music settings. On the vocal setting frankly its just horrid – its clean enough but just sooooo thin and tinny, however switch that little collar around to the M-1 setting and suddenly this becomes a perfectly usable mic, the M-2 setting is not as nice but still a fair bit better than the vocal setting. This recording is of the M-1 setting, I figured you get to this point you’d have listened to the stupid sentence recorded by James so many times you would only want the decent ones…..but for the more determined among you here is the V setting that he had been using before – you can see, well hear the problem

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Sony-C-74-V.mp3|titles=Sony C-74 (V)]

. I couldn’t find a quick price on these but I did find one at about £300 second hand so they ain’t cheap.

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Shure-SM81.mp3|titles=Shure SM81]

The Shure SM81 was also one of the best mics we tested, actually I thought we wouldn’t be able to test this mic as it had gone missing but by sheer fluke I happened to discover where it was so I have now added it back to the studio collection. Sadly in doing this testing I did find out it’s partner mic has a dodgy capsule (which are a chuffin fortune to replace). I was trying to test all these mics as “au naturale” as possible but in the end I decided to use the roll-off switch on this mic because although the background noise levels was reasonable (in comparison to the others we tested) there was quite a lot of rumble and using the switch got rid of a chuck of that without affecting the vocal. As with the AKG 451 this mic has a pretty natural sound (well as much as you can have in my stupid echoy studio…..more on that another time!) I actually prefer the sound of this mic to the AKG I found it fractionally smoother….but only just – slightly less bass I thought, but then I suppose I’d rolled that off.

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Behringer-C-1.mp3|titles=Behringer C-1]

The Behringer C-1 is stupidly cheap, its a large diaphragm condenser mic which looks the part, but well you get what you pay for. It’s hard to put my finger on it but I just don’t like the sound of this mic much and apart from the extra bottom end which you get from the larger diaphragm I’d probably recommend the C-2 for a start the C-1 is just massive. The background noise on this mic was way too high, well you get what you pay for eh – looks good tho!

[audio:http://jesusarmy.com/colourfulchurch/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Shure-SM57.mp3|titles=Shure SM57]

Last but not least the good ole Shure SM57 – this mic truly is the workhorse of microphones and you should never be without one…..having said this – funny story – as a youth I hated them I thought they were really boxy until I found out by accident that the reason mine sounded so bad was that someone (ok it was me) had put tape round it to stop the cage rattling which blocked the air flow – took that off and it was great again…..let that be a lesson to you do not tape up your SM57 no matter how much it rattles, seriously tho they do need to fix that problem. Anyway the SM57 was the only dynamic mic we tested and I only really did it as a bit of fun I certainly didn’t expect it to be good, well surprise surprise it was actually ok. I wouldn’t use it for the job we were testing for because it picked up too much room noise but it was quiet and pretty natural.

Now I need to make a few excuses….sorry I meant give a few caveats…what I really wanted to do was setup all the mics and record just one take with all the mics at the same time, unfortunately the studio Yamaha O2R’s were away for repair so I couldn’t do this. Instead I set up all the mics together in a cluster (see the pictures) and marked a point on the floor to show where to stand (with a left over mic clip). I then ran each mic into a Spirit 8 channel desk using that to set the input gains and turned on a channel at a time recording the same piece of spoken word. We did find that some of the mics had a fair amount background noise so to ensure that this was the mic and NOT a noisy channel on the spirit desk (yes I assure you that is likely!)….anyway in this case the desk was blameless.

Left side shot of mic cluster

Front shot of mic cluster

Right shot of mic cluster

The other thing we tested was pickup pattern, typically with video its kinda handy if you only pick the person speaking and not the noise the of the whole room….I dunno say the sound of someone laying the table (eh James & Danny??), so we thought we’d see how direction all the mics were……now I did record this for each mic, but even I was sick of this sentence being read by James by now so I’ve not put them all up here, however the other reason I’ve not put them up is that actually NONE of them were particularly directional. Basically we recorded James doing the same sentence walking across the front of the mic from about 4ft off axis one side to the other and all of them didn’t really show much difference, I think the issue was just the ridiculous gain levels we had to run at.

THE SUMMARY: If I had to nail my colours to the mast I would actually choose the Sony mic its just a good clean but full sound, then probably the AKG and finally its quite close between the SM81 and the Sony-ECM-XM1, the Sony-ECM-XM1 was definitely cleaner with less hiss but the SM81 has a nicer and more natural sound. The tricky bit is that actually you can only buy (from what I can see) the AKG C451 E and the Shure SM81….so if you don’t happen to have the two camera mics then I guess you have your answer…..unless that is you have very deep pockets and can afford a proper rifle mic. We ended up recording all the video stuff with the SM81 and the AKG451-E.

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