BenBax

Voice-over / Podcast Recording Studio Equipment Reviews & Tips

If you are setting up a studio and want to contact me for advice or suggestions, please do and I'll try to advise - but please read these six pages before you do! Previous interesting questions and answers are on pages 5 and 6 of this article.

I record voice-overs for all manner of things - phone lines, store announcements, radio, TV, websites, etc. and along the way I learn a lot about what equipment is useful and what is superfluous to requirements or overly expensive. The following rambling diatribe is a description of the equipment I use and techniques I have learned. I do not claim to be an expert, which is why I'm not selling you a book! I do, however, like value for money and so the equipment I buy will not break the bank.

I only record voice-overs, but the information and equipment suggestions on these pages would also be valuable to those who record podcasts, audio books, and also community radio stations, RSLs, AM news/talk stations, 'home-based' internet radio stations, and more.

Please note: These are independent reviews. I am not paid in cash or kind by any manufacturer nor given free equipment to test (NB manufacturers - contact me to make this happen and I'll remove this sentence!!!). I bought all that I review with my own pennies.

Microphones

For a long time I had just three main microphones - an AKG C414 B-ULS, an Electrovoice RE20 and an Audio Technica ATM31a. I've been a bit of a microphone collector since I was young, but these were the ones I aquired specifically for doing voice work. I had a great plan to use an AKG D202 with my Studer A807 tape recorder to get an authentic 'vintage' sound, but that's another story!

Shure SM57

Shure SM57The Shure SM57 with the huge A81WS windshield (which cost nearly half as much as the mic itself! photo below right) surprised me. It is not and has never purported to be a voice-over mic. Yes - you do see them on the US President's podium, but this is more for their ruggedness than anything else. It is officially a mic for snare and other instruments, and is essentially an SM58 (the classic vocal mic) with a different head and slightly different response. The SM57 has a very different and noticable tone to that of the more 'clinical' condenser mics above. I have to say I bought my SM57 more for fun than serious voice work. It will pop a lot without a windshield. Highly A81WSdirectional - it rejects sound from virtually everywhere except the front. There is a well known modification which involves putting the mic body in boiling water to melt the epoxy glue that secures the output transformer inside so that it can be removed which makes the mic sound more like the SM7 (promoted by Shure as a radio / announcer / voice-over mic - see below) but with 10db lower output (= more noise). I have been informed that the SM48 is actually a transformerless version of the SM57 with more distinct highs, so that modification isn't really necessary. The large windshield has a sort of scouring pad material inside it, presumably to give it better structure and a less muddy sound than if it were all foam. It's a mid-grey rather than black, fits the SM57 snugly, and eliminates all popping, however hard I try. It's also nice to know in the specs that it is suitable for use when the wind is over 15 mph (which is rare in my studio unless I've had a lot of sprouts for dinner). You sometimes to see them on 1970s/80s rock concerts as the main vocal mics. They have a different sound to the SM58 because they don't have the ball-type grill - this means extended response in both low and high end. Don't get me wrong - it's not a condenser, but in blind tests, many people prefer the sound from the SM57 to Neumann U87s (10x price)!

I often use the SM57 as my main voice-over mic for non-broadcast recordings (i.e. phone greetings, store announcements, etc.). I never thought I would - I feel I'm almost going back a step with my microphone arsenal, and I know audio pros may be shaking their heads, but I really like using it (so sod 'em!). The windshield helps - I cannot pop it, it sounds nice and warm, I don't have to bother with acoustic treatment for these recordings, and I don't feel I have to molly-coddle it like the C414 so as not to damage it. The thing is, ever since I've started using it, I've been receiving compliments for every voice job I've done - which never happened nearly as much when I was using condenser mics. It hasn't got the top-end response of condensers, but us humans can only hear so high, after all (and if you're recording an on-hold message for a telephone, who the hell will notice?!). I do use it without windshield more these days, and the recordings have a crisper high end because of this. For radio ads, I use my AT2020 (mentioned later) so that I sound as crisp as other voices in other ads who will all be using condenser mics.

If you are just starting off, I would recommend the SM57 as a first purchase. You may find you'll still have it in your studio when you become a pro!

American readers can get an SM57 for $99.00 on Musician's Friend


SM57 with smaller, more 'standard' windshield

Shure SM7B

Shure SM7BA visitor to this website sent me an interesting email regarding the Shure SM7B (pictured left) - a voice microphone seen in radio studios. I knew they were dynamic and expensive here in the UK, but the visitor informed me they were a lot less in the US. I thought that if it was as good as the SM57 and specifically designed for studio voice work (rather than for instruments like the SM57), I'd give it a try because it would be more appropriate for the work I do - in theory it would perform better. It has bass roll-off and presense peak switches, and its frequency range goes all the way up to 20,000Hz, but it's not a smooth frequency response graph and looks a lot like the SM57's. The pick-up zone seems larger than the SM57. It comes with two windshields - the slender one which is the same girth as the mic body itself, and a larger one which is fatter but makes it un-poppable (photo below). Shure SM5BI suppose in many ways the SM7B is a modern version of the SM5B (pictured right) which was discontinued in 1986 yet still in active use in certain American radio station studios. I assume they clean the spit off the foam windscreen every decade or so...!

My verdict after testing: ...I think the SM7B and SM57 are very similar. There is not enough audible difference between the two mics which would make me think that one costs more than 6 times the price of the other. The SM7B seems to have slightly more bass and more high ends, but only if you really concentrate can you hear the difference (it's not like the difference between an SM58 and a Neumann u87 - it is hard to hear the difference between these two Shure mics).
This from Shure themselves: "The SM7, the SM57, and the SM58 are all based on the Unidyne III capsule design. The SM7 capsule is not identical to the SM57 or SM58, but it is similar."

I actually found the SM57 gave a superior, crisper sound to the SM7B with the equipment I use.

Shure SM7B Windsheilds supplied
Above, the SM7B with the smaller thinner windsheild fitted, and the supplied larger windsheild that you can swap it with for lip-miking

I sold my SM7B to a music producer in London. As an aside, a Shure SM7 was used for Michael Jackson's vocals on his Thriller album, and on Red Hot Chili Peppers albums.

American readers can get a Shure SM7B for $349.00 from Musician's Friend

Electrovoice CO4

I notice Electrovoice's CO4 has a similar look and purpose to the SM57, but with an extended response that goes up to 18kHz. At less than half the price of the SM57, it may be worth trying (although no frequency response graphs are available). I saw an ebay listing for one recently and the seller said, "used this next to a Shure Beta and SM57 and it beats them hands down for gain and clarity."

CO4

Shure SM81

I also bought a Shure SM81. With another A81WS windshield, I used this as my main mic for a long time. I find it crisp and clear, with less proximity effect compared to large condensers. It is also more directional. It is very long! I also used it with the A81G, which is a plastic grille. In this 'format' it was how Brian Cobby's voice was recorded for the UK's speaking clock in 1985.


SM81 with the A81G (which IS plastic, no matter what all the websites say it's made from!)

SM81
'Naked' SM81. Ooooh!

You can see 2 x SM81s with A81WS windshield as guest mics in the photo at the right. The presenter has an SM7. I queried this with Shure, as they've not really been promoted as speech mics.

Shure said, "You are right, SM81 is not highlighted for voice-overs in our catalog. As a general statement: small condenser microphones produce an accurate recording, i.e. the recording will not sound 'warm' and 'full' like recording with large condenser microphones or with a special radio microphone like the SM7, specially designed to give a very 'warm' sound.
If you use the PG81 for voice-over recording you might have to use the EQ in your mixing desk to 'warm' up the sound, i.e. using a microphone which is recommended for a specific application makes life much easier."

However, when I re-read the HW International catalogue (Shure's UK distributors) from 1994, in a mic selection guide table recommends the SM7 as the "premium mic for VO / announce (dynamic) but the premium mic for VO / announce (condenser) is the SM81". I suppose this was before they started the KSM large diaphragm series, but still...!

American readers can get a Shure SM81 for $349.00 from Musician's Friend

Musician's Friend have some bargains on microphones, mixers and other recording equipment. By following the link you are supporting this site, so thank you if you do!

Next page > Part II: More Microphones > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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