Moulton Laboratories
the art and science of sound
Eight Vocal Microphones Tested and Compared
Dave Moulton, with Peter Alhadeff and Alex Case
June 1994

In the market for a microphone? You will likely find this comparative analysis of vocal microphones illuminating.

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The View from 2005: Most of these microphones are still around, and we’re still doing this kind of work, so I think you may find this test to be of considerable interest. Note how much was involved in conducting the test. I couldn’t get H&SR or any magazine to fund more tests like this, as they are simply way too expensive and time-consuming to conduct on an ongoing basis. This suggests a fundamental flaw in magazine equipment reviews. Be that as it may, we did this test and I think it was quite illuminating. Enjoy!

Why Vocal Mics?

Vocal tracks are the most audible and important elements of a song. The ability of a microphone to translate the essence, the “-ness” of the singer, is a key element in the making of a great recording. So, it stands to reason that microphones that do this well are to be prized. Trade magazine articles often describe various engineers’ and producers’ favorite mics for vocals, from Neumann U47 tube mics to industry standard items like the ElectroVoice RE20, and we all have our ears out for mics that will really hear the soul of the voice that we are trying to coax into the bit-stream of audio.

Meanwhile, the qualities that make a microphone great for vocal work are not all that well understood, and there is, er, a diversity of opinion about the subject. O’Blake (not his real name) says things like, “What you need is a mike with an old-style precious-metal diaphragm to handle low-level signals and let the dynamics of the recording really work.” Meanwhile, O’Laca says, “The proximity effect is so important. The full chestiness that comes from a really pro singer who knows how to work the proximity effect of the mike makes the singer.” O’Wayne says, “Really accurate mikes are boring, especially for singers. You need a mike to have character. A good producer must pick the mike to fit the singer and the song.” O’Ben says, “What really matters is the singer’s attitude and focus. The mike doesn’t really matter a whole lot.” Hmmm.

Therefore, Home and Studio Recording called up eight different manufacturers and invited them to send vocal microphones for a comparison study. The kind of study we did, so far as I know, has never been performed quite this way before. We had the unique combination of loaner microphones, multitrack studio, DAW, TEF 20 analyzer, singers, engineers and producers all in one room, all listening to the same controlled tests referenced against the same standard: the singers themselves!

The Microphones Themselves

The microphones we tested are a fairly diverse lot. Due to the nature of the tests themselves, we felt it was necessary to limit ourselves to eight microphones. Obviously, there are many other worthy choices on the market, and our particular selection, while broadly representative, is neither comprehensive nor “best ‘o bunch.” Unless noted, the mics have cardioid polar response.

AKG C3000

Billed as a low-cost alternative studio condenser microphone, the C3000 features a “combination large diaphragm and micro diaphragm condenser system.” It has switch-selectable cardioid and hypercardioid patterns (we didn’t test the latter), plus low-frequency rolloff and -10 dB attenuation switches. The advertising hints that the microphone is equivalent to the AKG 414 studio condenser mic: “The large diaphragm is designed to capture the same clarity and character as the most popular AKG studio microphone in the world.” The C3000 is quite sensitive (94 dB SPL yields -34 dBV) and quiet (equivalent to 18.5 dBA). It costs $699.

Audio-Technica 4033

The Audio-Technica 4033 is described by the manufacturer as “the culmination of extensive field evaluations in studio environments with resultant significant advances in microphone performance factors. . . . The microphone is totally free of the distortion associated with conventional transformer-coupled outputs.” The mic is quite sensitive (94 dB SPL yields -32 dBV) and quiet (equivalent to 17 dBA SPL). The 4033 costs $725.

Audix OM-3xb

The Audix OM-3xb is billed as the world’s first transformerless dynamic microphone. It features “unprecedented transient response throughout an extended frequency range, without distortion or sound coloration.” Its sensitivity is moderate (94 dB SPL yields -52 dBV) and no equivalent noise is specified. The OM-3xb costs $279.

Beyerdynamic MC 834

The Beyerdynamic MC 834 condenser microphone is described as a “large-diaphragm condenser microphone.” It has -10 dB and -20 dB attenuation switching, plus 80 Hz. and 160 Hz. low-frequency rolloff switches. Like the AKG, it is quite sensitive (94 dB SPL yields -34 dBV) and quiet. The MC 834 costs $1419.

Bruel & Kjaer 4011

The Bruel & Kjaer 4011 is the cardioid version of B&K’s 4006/4007 omnidirectional condenser microphone. B&K is known for their instrumentation microphones, and is highly regarded for the engineering precision and quality of their products. For the record, I used a 4007 for as a reference for the objective measurements in this comparison test. The 4011 is moderately sensitive (94 dB SPL yields -42 dBV). Noise was not specified. The 4011 costs $1800.

Neumann TLM 193

Neumann is the legendary maker of music-recording microphones. The TLM 193 is a comparatively low-cost no-frills large diaphragm studio condenser microphone – sort of a U87 without any pads or polar pattern selection. It is comparatively insensitive (94 dB SPL yields -57 dBV) with very low equivalent noise (10 dBA). The TLM 193 costs $1295.

Sennheiser MKE 4032

The Sennheiser MKE 4032 is an electret condenser. The manufacturer stresses its ruggedness and general suitability for both recording and live performance work. The mic includes switches for attenuation (-10 and -20 dB) and low frequency rolloff. It is moderately sensitive (94 dB SPL yields -46 dBV). Equivalent noise is not specified. The MKE 4032 costs $649.

Shure SM58

The Shure SM58 is the basic rock’n roll vocal mic for the rest of us. I grew up on ‘em and love ‘em. According to the advertising, “the SM58 is a genuine world standard and a true audio legend. The SM58 makes all vocalists - rock, pop, R&B or country - sound their best.” Sensitivity is typical for dynamic mics (94 dB SPL yields -56 dBV) and noise isn’t specified. The SM58 costs $188.75.
NEXT> Our objective tests    
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Norway     Jul 23, 2006 08:30 PM
All your articles have been refreshingly unbiased compared to the ones you read in pro audio magazines - which can sometimes seem as exaggerated as hi-fi magazines (give me a break!) Thank U
Geirmund Simonsen 
Vancouver Island     Aug 12, 2013 03:19 PM
A couple of thoughts: 1) The mics were "listening" at one distance, while the people were listening at another. This is a confound, and probably accounts for the mics recordings sounding so much different than the live performers. 2) As you point out, there is a preference for the louder of a comparison. How do you compensate for a difference of level (i.e. a peak) in the high frequencies vs. a mic without it?

M. T. MacPhee 

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