BenBax

Voice-over / Podcast Recording Studio Tips

Microphones Part 3

Shure Beta 57A

Type: Dynamic.
Polar Pattern:
Super-cardioid.
Frequency Repsonse:
50 - 16,000Hz.

As I mentioned, I find the SM57 is a good microphone for non-critical voice work (i.e. non-broadcast). With some EQing, the sound is warm and flattering, and highly directional (= no room noise). The Shure Beta 57A is the 'new and improved' version of the SM57. It has more of a sturdy grille and a smoother frequency response with an extended high. I bought one but unfortunately didn't find it particularly inspiring, especially compared to the SM57, and so after some tests I sold it on. Popular now with some big rock groups as their main vocal mic.

Beta 57A

Shure Beta 87A

Type: Condenser.
Polar Pattern:
Super-cardioid.
Frequency Repsonse:
50 - 20,000Hz.

The Shure Beta 87A (below) is a condenser mic with a supercardioid pattern and a wide frequency range. I had one and yes, it does have a nice sound, but I didn't use it as much as other mics I had so decided to sell it and let someone else enjoy it. The 87C (cardioid) is the one Michael Bublé used to use on every performance. He clearly loved it as he was almost never seen without it, wherever he performed.

Beta 87A

Beyerdynamic M201

Type: Dynamic.
Polar Pattern:
Hyper-cardioid.
Frequency Repsonse:
40 - 18,000Hz.

The Beyerdynamic M201 is a dynamic mic, and before the country-wide digital conversion re-fit seemed to be much used by BBC radio stations - mainly BBC Radio 4 (speech based) as a main studio microphone and for panel games / round table discussions and also in all BBC local radio studios. It is still used as guest mics, often mounted on goosenecks in local BBC radio studios (with brightly coloured windshields for easy channel identification). Hypercardioid, small physical size, metal body, and rarely seen for speech without a windshield (supplied), it gives a condenser type sound with rich tones. Because it's a dynamic, you don't need phantom power so it's a good option for podcasters. It gives a very nice tone and includes high-ends that most dynamics miss. I'm actually very pleased with it and I'm surprised it isn't used more in speech recordings. I use the big windshield I got for my SM57 on it, which totally eliminates pops.

    
The M201 without and with windshield. This is the windshield you get with it, not the A81WS I mention.


(not sure why he needs 5 though - seems a bit greedy)

 

Sennheiser MD421 II

Type: Dynamic.
Polar Pattern: Cardioid.
Frequency Repsonse: 30 - 17,000Hz.

I bought a Sennheiser MD421 II. A famous dynamic mic, around for over 40 years, it is almost as popular as the SM57 in terms of popularity in recording studio arsenals. My first impression, cosmetically, was, "Oh, it is made of plastic". [in 1996 Sennheiser stopped producing the MD421 and introduced the MD421 II which was made of different materials to the original]. My next impression was, "Oh, the frequency response print out looks a lot different to the official one published on the internet". For a £250 dynamic mic, I suppose I was expecting a bit more. I didn't think it sounded better or different enough to keep amidst my other mics, so I sold it to someone in a band to use on their kick drum.

   
MD421 without and with windshield. It looks like it's got an 'afro'!

  
MD421 wiith windshield


All with windshields: MD421 (biggest), M201 (top) and SM57 (right)

 

Sennheiser MD431 II

Type: Dynamic.
Polar Pattern: Super-cardioid.
Frequency Repsonse: 40 - 18,000Hz.

I also have a Sennheiser MD431 II, Sennheiser's premium dynamic mic with super cardoid pick-up. Sennheiser used the same mic casing for a great number of different models including the Blackfire BF5032P (condenser), BF431 (dynamic), BF531, a range which had specific types of singing in mind (pop, rock, and loud rock which had a moisture resistant capsule!) and a number of radio microphone versions which were the standard seen on BBC and Western European TV in the early 1990s. A silver radio mic was even used on Rio's performance at the end of the London 2012 Olympics, much to the amusement of sound engineers around the world on twitter (as they haden't been manufactured for many years). The casing design appears to have been used before 1982 - so quite a classic shape. Sennheiser really did stick with these popular mic chassis for decades and decades.

This model has an oddly popular niche as a computer voice-recognition microphone on some websites due to its directionality, but also perhaps because of its history (it was supplied as standard with the IBM Personal Dictation System in 1993). But it isn't available everywhere and it's by no means a cheap dynamic mic - in the UK it was £360 in 2007. I got a stonker of a deal from a US dealer in 2007 and paid about £225 for a new one with MZW4032 windshield. If you're using it for voice recognition only, you'd need a USB interface or small USB mixer to get the best sound gain for it to be usable. I use the Black Fire 531 version for my voice recognition and it is very good and directional. But I do sometimes switch to my MD441 (see next mic, below).

Initial tests I have done have proven its high directionality leading to excellent feedback rejection and rich tone with little proximity effect. I have the MZW 4032 windshield for it with the coloured bands (which is an incredibly tight fit and takes some time and care to get fitted on). It's the first mic I've had in many years which actually has an 'on/off' switch on it! As an aside, it was used as the main on-air microphone on Europe's Radio Luxembourg in the 1980s.

Update:

Neumann recently introduced the BCM705 which is a dynamic microphone (quite strange for Neumann who are usually nothing but condenser microphone manufacturers) aimed at radio station studios.  The design of the microphone casing is geared towards this.  But I found an interesting article online that effectively suggested that this microphone was little more than a new casing around a Sennheiser MD431 microphone capsule, with a virtually identical frequency response.  These are currently retailing at around £450.  Inside the case, the mic capsule is neatly suspended in elastic, which I would imagine would give less handling noise compared with the MD431.  Is this Sennheiser/Neumann’s version of the Shure SM57/SM7B affair?! Maybe Radio Luxembourg were ahead of their time in using an MD431 in the 80s!

 

Sennheiser MD431 II
MD431 II laid bare on my mixer (see next page in this article for info on the mixer)

    
MD431 with windsheild. Other coloured foam rings are included.


A different version, the Sennheiser Black Fire 531.
Very similar to the MD531, but with a proud (and detachable) reed switch.

Sennheiser MD441

Type: Dynamic.
Polar Pattern:
Super-cardioid.
Frequency Repsonse:
30 - 20,000Hz.

The MD441 completes all the Sennheiser MD dynamic mics I've owned. Like the MD421 and MD431 models above, the design of this microphone is instantly recognisable worldwide because it's been around and virtually unchanged for literally 50 + years. Manufactured with only minor cosmetic changes to the design since the 1960s, distinctly rectangular and looking a bit like the front end of an American car from the 50s, the MD441 has been sold with numerous letter suffixes after the name over the years. Few know what they all mean. As far as I can tell, it's mostly to do with whether they have the ring near the XLR plug that rotates to give different bass roll-off settings. There was even a 'Black Fire' model which was all-black and had no bass roll off ring piece which was mass produced as opposed to being 'hand made' like the standard variant. My Sennheiser catalogue from 1994 shows the price as being £404, but currently (in 2014) the RRP is £665. So about inline with inflation.

In a flourish of extravagance, and in part acceptance that I've realised I'm now a microphone collector, I bought one in August 2014. I plugged it in and was immediately disappointed. Very thin, tinny sound. What rubbish! Then I realised the bass roll-off ring was set all the way round to 'speech'. I turned it round a few notches to the other extreme - 'music' - and wow - what a lovely microphone sound! Especially for a dynamic. It's early days yet - I need to test more to present an informed review on here that you've come to expect (stop laughing), but I'm very pleased with it. You don't see them on TV these days, and when you do it's usually in multiples on some wacky dictator's podium. You know me and windshields, and so I purchased the MZW441 which was horrendously expensive (as all windshields seem to be for older microphones - why?!) and so it's now un-poppable. It was used as the main on-air mic at Europe's Radio Luxembourg in the mid 1970s to early 1980s (with windshield) and I have seen it as the main on-air mic in Japanese radio station studios too. I've always been one of these people who saves things 'for best'. But in 2017 I changed my mind and now often use this mic for my voice recognition software on my PC.

   
A non-Sennheiser windshield on an MD441 in the studios of radio station 82.5 North Wave, Japan, and my MD441 with MZW441, right.

EV ND767a

Type: Dynamic.
Polar Pattern: Super-cardioid.
Frequency Repsonse:
35 - 22,000Hz (?!).

Late one night, I was reading lots of online reviews of microphones and quite a number of people were extolling the virtues of the EV ND767a microphone (what a catchy name...!), saying that they preferred it over the SM57! "My goodness!", I thought to myself as an SM57 fan, "can this really be true?". So I bought one. It's certainly a nice mic, but perhaps a little too 'bright' for my liking, with a lot more top-end that I'll need to test further to see if I can tone it down a bit to make it sound more to my liking. It does have a nice rubberised shaft, madam, and looks very sturdy. Frequency response is quoted as going up to 22khz, which seems insanely high / incorrect for a dynamic mic (but again, is that just EV's different methodology for frequency testing?). It was around the same price as an SM57.

EV RE50

Type: Dynamic.
Polar Pattern:
Omnidirectional.
Frequency Repsonse:
80 - 13,000Hz.

Whilst not a voice-over microphone, the RE50 has a very clear and transparent sound. An omnidirectional pattern means it will pick up sound from all around, it is very popular with reporters on TV and radio. I bought one of these too and will be testing it soon and posting the review on here. More for your interest really, it's not a voice-over microphone by any means, but may be good for location work or interviews if you want some ambiance to be picked-up in the recording. If I don't like it, they seem to keep their value on eBay if it's in new condition. The RE50 used to be all the rage on 1980s local TV news in its 'champagne' paint finish.

 

Studiospares S1000

Type: Condenser.
Polar Pattern: Cardioid.
Frequency Repsonse: 20 - 20,000Hz ? (no data available)

For less than £35 (in 2009), you can now own a good condenser mic with a near ruler-flat frequency response! Spend another £20 on an elastic suspension, and you have a really nice condenser mic set-up. It has a larger pick-up area than the AT2020, so you may need more acoustic treatment in your room. But for that price, it's pretty faultless. I find it has a very rich, warm sound to it without capturing too much of the old 'moist mouth' noises that condensers can sometimes over-do. DO NOT buy Studiospares' windshield for this mic. It is a mere 7mm thick and costs £14.38 - YOU WILL BE THOROUGHLY DISAPPOINTED, trust me. I was, and I sent it back. Instead, I bought a Rode WS2 windshield which also fits my AT2020 which is a proper rough foam windshield and only cost about £19.

You can buy this as a kit in a flightcase, and also another version, the S1100 (with a flat grille top) which has two switches - a bass roll-off and an omni switch (effectively converting the mic into an omnidirectional one).

I'm not sure whether this is available in the USA - the way Studiospares describe it sounds like they specified each component themselves eg. material for the grille, etc. and had it made in Asia, but you know what factories in Asia are like and could have similar versions re-branded for other companies. Who knows.

 

Rode Podcaster

(2009) PodcasterAimed specifically for podcasting, Australian company Rode have invented an innovative microphone that negates the need for a mixer altogether. It's called the Rode Podcaster, costs around £149, and is a dynamic microphone that plugs straight into your PC's USB socket. It has a built-in headphone amp and volume control, so you just plug your headphones into the side of the mic itself. Certainly borrowing some aesthetic design from the EV RE20 but in Apple-style white, it has a generous 5 metre USB cable. It certainly seems to be the most convenient way to record podcasts direct to your PC if you don't want to buy a mixing desk, but does lack flexibility of control (e.g. tone, compression, limiting) for more critical applications, and the frequency response is quite limited at the high-end.

Legendary voice-over artist Corey Burton once posted on his message board, "I do not recommend "plug'n'play" USB output microphones, except for the most rudimentary news or podcasting applications, where fair reproduction of plain speaking voices and location sound "actualities" is all that's necessary. For character voices and VO work, even an old Shure SM-57 with a high fidelity preamp will do a better job at capturing a range of tone and texture, than the dry, lackluster, or sometimes "murky" qualities I've heard from even the better USB microphones currently on the market." (from coreyburton.com)

Corey does a lot of work for Disney animations and theme parks, and whilst he understandably uses the best equipment available, his mention of an SM57 as a starting off point is worth noting. Please see page 1 for my review of the SM57.

My prediction back in 2005 was that audio equipment manufacturers would begin to offer 'bundles' of equipment and software in a convenient box to appeal to podcasters - an ever-increasing market. Behringer had already announced a bundle that includes a microphone, mixer and headphones. The mixer plugs straight into the USB port. It's a new market for them, and in a similar way that blogs seemed to go, many creators will sign up to do podcasts to begin with, then after realising only 2 people downloaded it, they won't be bothered to continue after the initial excitement (unless you're a geek on a particular topic or an experienced talk radio presenter, I really don't know what people talk about on them!). As I write this particular paragraph at the end of 2009, podcasting wasn't such an in-term anymore, with most amateur podcasters fading away, and edited radio programmes or discussions from newspaper groups being the mainstay of podcast content.

The Rode M3 is a new low cost condenser mic from Rode. Looking a lot like the AKG C1000S, it uses a PP3 9v battery and at £75 sounds like pretty good value for anyone wanting a low cost mic for their podcast recordings, although it's not USB direct.

Rode also introduced the Procaster (picture left) in 2009, a black version of the podcaster body above, but seemingly going straight after the RE20 market. It has an attractive price, but again not USB direct.

Even EV introduced the RE320, a lower cost mic based on their RE20. It's not USB, but for folks who want an RE20 but don't want to spend quite that much, it's the next best thing.

Audio Technica have introduced the BP40 (pictured right), a dynamic broadcast microphone that delivers rich, natural, "condenser-like" sound. Perhaps aimed as an alternative to the Shure SM7B? It's hypercardioid with a frequency response of 50-16,000 Hz.

Beyerdynamic's M99 is another large diaphragm dynamic aimed at broadcast, with the same polar pattern and 30 - 18,000 Hz frequency response. (below right)

And Neumann are getting in on the 'dynamic' act with their BCM 705. Using the same housing as one of their condenser mics aimed at the radio studio market and taken up with enthusiasm by BBC local radio it seems (well, it's not their money, is it!?). 20 - 20,000 Hz response. Neumann describe the mic's pop screen "efficiently prevents unwanted particles, from respiratory moisture, nicotine, to food remnants, from settling on the diaphragm." Yuk!
See my previous review of the Sennheiser MD431 to find out where the mic capsule comes from!

Retro Style Microphones


L-R: Shure 55SH II, DAP VM-60, DM-065 'Nostalgic' vocal mic
Whilst they do look very nice and shiny, and I am certainly partial to them aesthetically, I'm not really sure if they're great for voice-work. As they have so much solid metal caging around the microphone capsule, they tend to be, in my opinion, quite 'metal' sounding and not very 'warm'. They're most often used as props or period mics on occassional vocal stage performances on stage or TV. They're pretty cheap to buy if you do want one. I've certainly found them to be a great talking point in your studio - everyone homes in on mine as they first thing they notice in the room. They can also look like awards!

MXL CR77

Type: Dynamic.
Polar Pattern:
Super Cardioid.
Frequency Repsonse:
50 Hz - 14,000 Hz

My most recent purchase is an MXL CR77 (pictured right) which looks great. It's actually aimed for stage use, as it's in fact a dynamic capsule inside, although the design would suggest it is a vintage ribbon mic. The pick-up pattern is quite wide even though it's a super-cardioid and you do have to be pretty close to the grille.

The black chrome finish is not for those who have OCD about fingerprints!
(although MXL do provide a polishing cloth with the mic!)

Its look (and possibly even model name) are surely inspired by the RCA 77DX which Larry King used on his desk (albeit as a prop in his case).

Microphones, continued...

Frequency Response Graphs

You can see why the C414 is a popular mic.


RE20
45 - 18kHz

AKG C414 in hypercardioid pattern
20 - 20kHz


ATM31a
30 - 20kHz


AT2020
20 - 20kHz


SM7B

50 - 20kHz


SM57
40 - 15kHz


Shure Beta 87A
50 - 20kHz

MK319
20 - 18kHz

Shure SM81
20 - 20kHz

Sennheiser MD431 II
40 - 16kHz

Sennheiser MD421 II
30 - 17kHz

Beyer M201
40 - 18kHz


It's truly amazing to see prices for some microphones drop by literally 80% over the course of 10 years.

Neumann U87Microphones - in conclusion...

From those I know, most full-time voice-overs in the UK use Neumann U87 / 89s, Rode NT2, AKG C414 TLII, or AT condensers for true pick-up of their voice which can then be EQed and processed later using software or outboard processing boxes. Then at BBC Radio 4 and BBC local radio they mostly used Beyerdynamic M201s (hypercardioid) which is a unique choice. There's a huge selection of condensers manufactured in the Far East whose prices are around that of popular dynamic stage mics. This has brought accurate sound recording within reach of many more people than 15 years ago when the cheapest good condenser would have cost four-figures (£). I've used Neumann U87s (pictured left), M149s (which cost more than my car) in voice-over booths, and really didn't find them hugely different in clarity to my AT2020 to warrant spending such a large amount more on them to initially purchase - but perhaps my ears are not as trained as recording and sound engineers - there must be a reason why people have 'favourite' mics they prefer over others.

My current favourite microphones are the AT2020 and the MD441, but if you're starting out or just doing podcasts, an SM57 is an excellent buy.

 

Comments, questions, suggestions, compliments(!)? Contact me.

Contact me to have your question answered!

Fun stuff:
Voice-overs in a limo - see a video of five big names from the VO world

* prices of equipment correct at time of publication.
For price in US dollars ($) simply multiply price you see in £ by about 1.6.

Model Name Price paid Summary
AKG C414 £480 Quality all-rounder. Multiple polar patterns probably not useful for voice work. Acoustic room treatment recommended.
EV RE20 £450 Works better on certain voices. Expensive for what it is.
Shure SM57 £70 Excellent value - with suitable windshield, ideal for non-broadcast voice work.
Shure SM7B £425 Expensive - gives very similar tone to SM57 which costs much less.
AT ATM31a
(now AT8031)
£110 Very nice condenser, ideal for location recording.
AT AT2020 £70 Superb value side-address condenser.
Shure
SM81
£350 Not cheap, but more rugged than large diaphragm condensers.
Oxtavia MK319 £92 Well built, but picks up too much, discontinued.
Beyer M201 £140 Superb dynamic with the quality of a condenser.
Shure SM87A   More for studio vocals or stage work than voice work really.
Sennheiser MD431 £225 Good but expensive dynamic.
Sennheiser MD441 £279 (2nd hand) Superb quality dynamic, but not cheap.

How To Build Your Home Recording Studio - Video

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