These days beginners have it easy.
I remember starting out in this hobby/profession/obsession of recording back in the 1960s. I was a college student, and broke, working in a buddy’s basement. There were no consumer multitrack recorders, no decent low priced boards, no effects boxes—and genuinely good microphones cost an arm and a leg.
We made do; I bought a pair of Sony ECM-21s, the first electret mics to hit the market. They weren’t fabulous—a bit noisy and thin on the bottom, and they couldn’t take much in the way of high volumes—but they did the job. And slowly, painfully, we learned the subtle art of 2-microphone stereo recording (because we had to), adding a layer of overdubbing occasionally using a second tape recorder.
Nowadays it’s possible to do a lot better at a reasonable price. As a challenge, I suggested to editor Nick that I work up a rock bottom microphone starter kit—the least expensive setup that could produce genuinely professional sounding results.
Assumptions and requirements
First I lined up my assumptions. I postulated that like most beginning recordists you’ll be tracking one instrument at a time. That’s how most of us work, especially when we’re doubling as engineer and musician.
Next I assumed that you’re working in a room that isn’t extensively treated for acoustic excellence. Some of the rooms we use are serviceable, some dreadful; only the lucky few get to start out in a room that’s already excellent. So the chosen microphones should not unduly emphasize the characteristics of a less than perfect room.
I also assumed that you’ll be recording one variant or another of pop-related music, whether hip-hop or C&W or grunge or singer/songwriter or trad folk or whatever (although the basic kit will handle a symphony orchestra, should one show up in your sitting room).
A basic mic kit needs to be versatile. It should handle the standard combo instruments (electric guitar/bass/drums, acoustic guitar, maybe piano) and vocals; depending on the genre in which you work, the mics should also sound good on such things as horns (both singly and in sections), acoustic strings (mandolins, fiddles, dulcimers, etc.) and small noisy things like claves, cabasas, and the like.
The basic kit should be fairly neutral in tonal quality, without much character of its own. This is in the interest of versatility; characterful microphones are useful, but they stamp so much of their own signature sound across a recording that they’re not the best starting point. Think of them as strong spices; I like cinnamon, but if it’s in every dish of a seven-course meal, things will get a little samey after a while.
The requirement of versatility implies a certain leveling; a good starting microphone is one that’s reasonably good at nearly everything, rather than one that’s fantastic on some sources, ghastly on others. Those mics come later.
Finally, my frugal nature suggests that your starter microphones should be ones that you won’t leave behind when your budget gets bigger. Instead, they should be solid staples of the sort you’ll always use, even when you’ve built the kit up to your ears’ content.
The basic kit is composed of just three microphones: a pair of Shure SM81s and a Beyer M 88.
The SM81 is an electret condenser mic with two switchable bass rolloff settings and a 10 dB pad that (unlike some) doesn’t mess up the sound when switched in. It sounds good on an astonishingly broad assortment of instruments, including virtually all acoustic guitars, other strings (from violins and mandolins to bass fiddles and hammered dulcimers), woodwinds, horns, accordions, pianos, etc. etc.
Arranged in XY or ORTF formation, a well-placed pair of SM81s can capture an excellently balanced drum kit sound (needing only a kick drum mic for completeness), record a horn section in natural stereo, or make a more than passable recording of a choir or an orchestra.
The SM81 is built from a hunk of steel pipe that’s well nigh indestructible (I use them for live gigs and haven’t broken one in 20 years of trying), it will work on phantom power voltages from 9–52V, and the quality control is excellent.
Most important, however, are the mic’s frequency responses. On-axis, the SM81 is remarkably flat throughout the standard audible range without presence peaks or other colorations, and its bass end proximity effect is controlled adequately by the bass rolloff filters. Unlike some much pricier microphones, the SM81 never “woofs out” on large-bodied acoustic guitars.
Crucially, the off-axis response is not peaky, squawky, or otherwise highly colored. Instead the off-axis sound has a rolled off top that minimizes the contribution of an overly bright recording space—and the lack of peakiness means a less than perfect room sound won’t have additional weirdness tacked on by the microphone.
The second mic in the kit is a dynamic unit, the Beyer M 88. This is a hypercardioid mic with a gently elevated shelf in the treble region. It’s a great rock’n’roll vocal mic; the brightened top enables it to cut through dense instrumentation, while the smoothness of the rise avoids the hashiness and sibilant splatter typical of too many cheap microphones. (The smoothness of the rise also means you can use a simple shelving eq, either while recording or during mixdown, to flatten the response when you need to.)
The M 88 is superb on kick drum, making it a perfect partner for the SM81s; with proper placement the bass is taut and powerful, while the top end rise captures the crucial skin sound nicely. The M 88 sounds good on hand drums such as bodhrans or congas, and (with a little flattening) claves, maracas, and the like. It’s also excellent for recording guitar amps, capturing the bite without sounding harsh or raspy.
Like the SM81, the M 88 is built like a tank; I’d have no hesitation using one of these in a bar gig. (Yes, even the infamous anesthesiologists’ party—but that’s a tale for another day.)
You’ll note that the cost of the unadorned basic kit is only about $900–$1000 street price. That’s remarkably small, and it opens up the possibility of putting the money you save into higher quality associated gear. I outlined this possibility in detail in ‘Just Like Downtown’, so I won’t flog it to death here—but it’s worth noting that ~$3K will buy you a very good mic preamp and A/D converter along with the basic mic kit, which is a helluva front-end bang for the buck.
Along with the basic kit, you’ll need shockmounts (Electro-Voice 313A for the Shures, Audio-Technica 8415A for the Beyer) and solid, non-rattling stands and booms (I like AKGs myself).
Okay, that’s the basic kit. But what if your budget doesn’t reach that far? Is there an even lower priced kit that can still get genuinely professional sounding results?
There is: instead of the pair of SM81s, substitute a single Oktava MC012 kit, with three capsules (cardioid, hypercardioid and omnidirectional). This kit is available for about $250. (The Electro-Voice 313A shockmount also fits the Oktava, although it may be less vital—the supplied clamp is much better than competing hard-mounts.)
What do you gain? And what do you lose? The Oktava is an excellent microphone, although the quality control at the Russian factory is pretty bad—make sure you listen to the microphone in the store before taking it home! On some instruments, including small stringed instruments such as mandolins, fiddles, and banjos, I actually prefer it to the SM81; these instruments seem to prefer smaller capsules as a general rule.
The real prize on the Oktava, though, and the reason I chose it for the stripped-down kit, is the omni capsule. By using the omni capsule and 10 dB pad, and placing the microphone in exactly the right place, you can get a fantastic drum sound with perfect phase coherence (again with the help of the M 88 on kick), or record a beautifully integrated group of horns.
Be warned, however, that the on-axis response of the omni capsule has a large peak in the high frequencies, so it’s a good idea to point it toward the floor or ceiling, letting most of the sound enter the mic from the sides. (This is the case with many omni mics, including the well respected Neumann KM83.)
Drawbacks? Only a few. The most notable problem is with acoustic guitars; the MC012 has problems with some Martins, particularly the large-bodied dreadnoughts, and with lower priced instruments such as Alvarez and Yamaha that are based on Martin designs. The radiation pattern on these guitars doesn’t mesh with the Oktava; the bass frequencies “woof out,” and no eq will fix them. (On the other hand, the Oktavas are great on Gibsons and most Taylors. And the woof-out will be much less if you use the omni capsule.)
The other problem is with clangy instruments like the hammered dulcimer; the Oktava’s upper resonances tend to emphasize the hammer’s impact at the expense of the notes, and the instrument’s lovely sound turns raucous and unmelodic.
Then again, a lot more people record drums than hammered dulcimers, so unless a Martin dreadnought is central to your band, you’ll likely do fine with an Oktava.
Upgrades and alternatives
A possible upgrade from the stripped down kit might be a second Oktava, perhaps with only the cardioid capsule. With a pair you can mic drums in ORTF stereo from above, which sounds gorgeous—maybe even better than with SM81s.
Or you might buy a single SM81 to supplement the Oktava, particularly if you record a lot of acoustic guitars. Another possible choice is the Electro-Voice RE15, about which I’ve said many good things over the years. It’s now discontinued, alas, but used ones occasionally show up on the Internet.
An RE15 is an excellent low-coloration mic that will work in many of the same places as the M 88, but without the brightness. It could supplement or even substitute for the M 88 if you prefer a flatter, more natural sound.
An eventual purchase for most recordists would be a large-diaphragm condenser mic, and the prices of these have reached remarkably affordable levels. I’ve reviewed quite a few in the last couple of years, from companies such as Alesis/Groove Tubes (whose AM11 looks quite interesting and which I’ll be reviewing here soon), Langevin, and BLUE, so I won’t rehash all that information here—check our website to order back issues of the magazine.
Many recordists seem to think that large-diaphragm condensers are the only mics worth bothering with, and would make one of these their one and only starter kit mic. I demur. A large capsule, simply because of its size, will have a less than flat response off-axis. Even the old classics—the Neumann M49s and AKG C12s of honored memory and high price tags—have side and rear responses that get squirrelly. These responses, full of sharp peaks and valleys, often with a midrange trough that turns the room sound into boom and tizz, add additional colorations to the room’s own response.
If your room isn’t superb (and most of our rooms are not) or extremely dead, a large-diaphragm condenser can do very strange things to the sound. So I suggest that people begin with the equivalent of a gentle bay horse rather than a bucking bronco; graduate to the temperamental thoroughbreds only when you’ve learned your chops on flatter mics. Add them to the collection for spice, but only when you’ve mastered the meat and potatoes.
The windup (and the pitch)
I’ve barely scratched the surface in this article; microphones deserve (and get) much more discussion than I have room for here. (Some good starting places include the 2-part series ‘A Child’s Garden of Microphones’ (6-7/96), and ‘Six Strings and a Box’ (12/96-1/97), and Alex Case’s excellent discussions of microphones in his ‘Nuts & Bolts’ series (10-12/99).
The basic kit I’ve outlined should leave you prepared for almost any challenge that the world of home recording can offer, while the stripped-down kit, although slightly less versatile, provide excellent, fully professional results in almost as many situations. And in either case, working with a limited but versatile microphone collection forces you to focus on finding the “sweet spot” with each instrument or vocalist—something just as important as the microphone itself.
Paul J. Stamler has mastered a technique for replacing a sick pennywhistle player, an overbooked flautist, a vacationing mandolinist, and an unavailable fiddler with solo acoustic guitar and really loud whistling. But he doesn’t recommend it as a habit.