Microphones are an essential part of the process of capturing audio that are the equivalent of looking through reading glasses. If the glasses are poorly made or dirty, you have a tough time reading without getting a headache. If they’re high quality, we can see things clearly and in fine detail. You get what you pay for, just like with a microphone.
That’s why it can be so confusing when you see prices can go anywhere from $50 to $10,000 and even more for a huge variety of microphone versions. Does an expensive vintage mic really sound $9,950 better than that cheap clone?
To many ears it doesn’t, especially given the fact that the quality of your average inexpensive microphone is so good these days.
In many ways we’re in the golden age of audio gear. On the whole, inexpensive audio gear (under $500) sounds better than ever and is a much better value than even a decade ago and way better than 20 years ago. The same can be said for microphones, as there is a large variety of inexpensive mics that provide much higher performance for the price than we couldn’t have imagined back even in the recent past.
One of the more interesting recent developments in microphones is the availability of some extremely inexpensive condenser and ribbon microphones in the sub-$200 category (in some cases even less than $100). While you’ll never confuse these with the sound of a vintage Neumann U 47, they do sometimes provide an astonishing level of performance given the price. That said, there are some things to be aware of before you make that purchase on that special deal from Amazon or Guitar Center.
Quality Control’s the Thing
Microphones in this sub-$200 category have the same thing in common; they’re either entirely made or all their parts are made in China, and most even come from the same factory. Some are made to the specifications of the U.S. importer (and therefore cost more) and some are just plain off-the-shelf from the factory. Regardless of how they’re made and to what spec, the biggest issue from that point is how much quality control (or QC, also sometimes known by the more modern term of “quality assurance”) is involved before the product finds its way into your studio or classroom.
Some mics only receive a quick QC at the factory just to make sure they’re working with little attention to quality. These are the least expensive mics (sub-$100) available.
Others receive another level of QC to get them within a rather wide quality tolerance level, so they cost a little more. Others are QC’d once they hit the U.S. by the distributor with only the best ones offered for sale, and these cost still more.
Finally, some mics have only their parts manufactured in China, with final assembly and QC done locally. As you might expect, these have the highest price in the category.
You Can Never Be Sure of The Sound
One of the byproducts of the rather loose tolerances due to these different levels of QC is the fact that the sound can vary greatly between mics of the same model and manufacturer. The more QC (and the higher the resulting price), the less there is a difference between them.
This doesn’t happen with the more traditional name brands that cost a lot more, but what you’re buying (besides better components in most cases) is a high assurance that your mic is going to sound as good as any other of the same model from that manufacturer. In other words, the differences between mics are generally a lot smaller as the price rises.
There are two points that contribute to a mic sounding good or bad, and that’s the capsule that turns the sound pressure of the air into an electronic signal, and in the case of a condenser-type mic, the surrounding electronics that amplify that tiny signal. The tighter the tolerances and better QC on the capsule, the better the mic will sound and the closer each mic will sound to another of the same model.
The electronics is another point entirely in that a bad design can cause distortion at high sound pressure levels (watch out for those brass crescendos), or simply change the sound enough to make the result less than desirable.
If that’s the case, you might have to limit the microphone’s use to miking a quiet jazz trio or string quartet, but that sort of defeats the purpose of buying a shiny new microphone. Unless you have a lot of mics to choose from, you probably want something that’s going to work on everything you throw at it.
Because of the QC issues described above, you have to be cautious when reading reviews. The reviewer could have lucked into a version of the mic where all the electronic stars lined up just right for some stellar performance. The same goes for bad reviews since it could have just as easily gone the other way.
As with most things, you get what you pay for when it comes to inexpensive microphones, but your chances of paying less for a lot more are lot higher today than they’ve ever been. Next month I’ll look at some microphone bargains that won’t break the bank.
Producer/engineer Bobby Owsinski is one of the best-selling authors in the music industry with 24 books that are now staples in audio recording, music, and music business programs in schools around the world. Visit Bobby’s website at bobbyowsinski.com.