Vocal Mic Shootout
By Keith Hatschek
Permission given by Keith Hatschek.
February 2008 This month, PSE took three large-diaphragm condenser mics into the studio and ran them through their paces. On the block were Audio-Technica’s 3035, MXL’s V-88, and Shure’s KSM 27. We tested them with a both male and female vocalist, in addition to finding a few other applications to explore how flexible these cost-effective mics are in a real studio setting.
The scene of the shootout
The scene of the shootout was Nacnud Sound, located in Lodi, CA and owned by long-time Disc Makers Studio Partner Rick Duncan. Prior to the vocal session, we recorded a backing track, using Reason software so we could quickly make any key changes necessary to accommodate each singer’s range. Rick had set up an array of Tube-Trap cylindrical diffusers in a slightly opened “Attack Wall” to create a neutral, environment for vocal tracking.
Each mic was plugged in to a Mar-Tech MSS-10 preamp, a unit known for its pristine, uncolored sound. The input levels into Rick’s Pro Tools system were kept constant for each mic. The panel of listeners included Rick, local engineers Mike Tompkins and Spencer Johnson (who arranged the track), and local horn player, Jay Maddox.
As we tracked each performer’s vocals, we kept the live performance hot and dry in the control room’s Genelec 1030A monitors to hear each mic’s tonal characteristics and response. After tracking both male and female vocals, we went back to listen to the vocals at a lower volume, placing them at a level appropriate for a final mix.
For our male vocalist, Cory, we started with the AT 3035, which delivered a balanced, smooth sound throughout the verse and chorus. We then tracked the song again, using the Shure KSM 27, which exhibited a bit more warmth on our male singer’s voice, while still allowing plenty of detail. Next, within just a few lines of the third performance, the MXL V88 elicited comments from the entire panel as being “very open, detailed” and delivering “plenty of high end sparkle” on Cory’s voice.
Next, we shifted gears to a different key and invited our female singer, Jessica, to run the mics through their paces. The AT 3035 provided a crisp, smooth response on her voice, with no coloration, even as she belted out the chorus strongly. The Shure KSM 27 didn’t provide quite as much detail as the AT, but still delivered a pleasing sound. As it did with Cory, the MXL V88 stood out with its bright, detailed top end response, but on quite a few passages, Jessica’s voice sounded a little too sibilant through the V88.
In the Mix
When we had six complete performances, we thanked our performers and got down to putting these vocal tracks in the proper relation to the backing tracks, balanced within the overall mix. We started with Jessica’s tracks and boosted up the backing track to get an overall mix balance.
Jessica’s speaking voice is crisp and sibilant, and she sang with plenty of articulation on her syllables. In short, she was a perfect sound source for the test. Her performances were steady throughout, with a few strong, noticeable peaks in the song’s choruses. Before we began, we decided not to use any compression or EQ at any time during the tests, so every track was recorded with no signal processing at all.
After switching back numerous times between each of the three mics, the consensus among the panel was that for Jessica, the AT 3035 edged out the Shure KSM 27 by a small margin. Both mics delivered intimacy and detail on her voice, but the AT seemed to deliver a shade more openness that was very pleasing with the track. By comparison, the MXL V88 simply delivered too much brightness, emphasizing her sibilance to the point where a de-esser would need to be employed if the track was to be used.
Cory’s vocal was a softer, head-tone performance (think Thom Yorke of Radiohead), with plenty of subtlety and nuance on the track. As we balanced his voice in the overall mix, the panel discovered that the Shure KSM 27 delivered tangible mid-range warmth, and overall, the most balanced response of the three mics. After a lot of listening, the panel’s comments picked out the Shure’s “meatier” sound, that was “up front and easy to place” in the mix. We noticed that we had to turn the MXL track up a bit more than the other two to get an appropriate balance with the backing tracks, but when we did boost the track, its signature presence delivered plenty of detail. The AT 3035 worked nicely on Cory’s track, but in comparison to the KSM 27, the panel felt that the final mix would have required a little boost in the mids to fatten up Cory’s voice. For this vocalist, the KSM 27 delivered a smooth, warm round tone that required no EQ at all.
We decided to reconvene a week later at Mike’s apartment to try the mics out in a few different applications, since few recording musicians have the luxury of purchasing mics to only use in one setting. That evening we tried the three test mics on alto sax, acoustic guitar, and narration to see what differences we might notice using the mics differently.
The set up was simple, with each of the three mics plugged directly into Mike’s M-Box and tracked into his Pro Tools LE system. As before, no EQ or compression was used. We started with a narrator, whose voice was in the baritone range. After testing all three mics, the panel declared the MXL the clear winner, due to its natural richness on the narrator’s voice. It also delivered loads of crispness, which added clarity. The Shure and AT sounded good, but the panel agreed that the top end “sparkle” delivered by the MXL would help this narrator’s voice remain intelligible and clear when mixed with other sound sources as is normally the case in radio and TV work.
We switched to alto sax with the mics each placed about 12 inches away from the horn. The Shure KSM 27 and AT 3035 both delivered a smooth, even response as our sax player ran through a short etude. However, when we listened back to the same track recorded with the MXL V88, the panelists noted a slightly more natural, airy sound captured by that mic, one that “sounded just like the instrument being played.”
Finally, Spencer pulled out his newly strung Martin DCX-1KE acoustic guitar and provided the evening’s final sound source. For consistency, we placed each mic fourteen inches in front of the sound hole, shaded just a bit toward the treble strings. (It should be noted that in an actual session, one would move each mic around to try to find the sweet spot for that particular mic/guitar combination, but to keep the test repeatable, the identical spot was used.)
Interestingly, the sort of meaty mid range tone that had been an asset when recording Cory’s vocal, turned into a liability when using the Shure KSM 27 on this acoustic guitar. The overall sound was a bit muted with the panel wanting to cut some of the midrange on the recorded track to get the guitar a bit more jangly-sounding. The panel found that the AT 3035 delivered a better tonal balance on the Martin, described as, “More open and noticeably brighter than the Shure, seems as if it would fit nicely into a mix with a band.” After a close comparison of all three guitar tracks, the MXL edged out the AT, delivering a rich and airy sound that really showed off this particular Martin guitar to advantage. The panel commented that “the MXL nicely delivered the full range of the Martin’s tone,” and that “this mic would be ideal, especially for a solo acoustic recording on this instrument.”
It should be noted that as little as five years ago, the choices among large diaphragm, high performance condenser mics was very limited in the sub-$350 price range. That’s changed dramatically as shown by these three mics, as well as a host of other mics from a variety of manufacturers large and small.
It’s an old studio axiom that the more studio mics you have to try out on a new vocalist the better. To that end, many engineers will start a vocal tracking session by setting up a wide range of mics and ask the singer to step on down the line as they warm up. Although we only had three mics to try out on our two singers, with the exception of the sibilance problem exhibited on Jessica’s track with the V88, each of these mics exhibited very good tonal range and sensitivity for vocals. The AT 3035 was the panel’s first choice for her track, edging out the KSM 27 as noted. On Cory’s vocals, the MXL V88’s richness and crisp top end established it as the panel’s favorite, although it seemed to have a bit less output than the others.
For the utility applications, the V88 scored a hat trick, by delivering the best performance on narration, solo guitar and alto sax, three pretty disparate sound sources. One nice feature of the KSM 27 and the AT 3035 were the low cut filters they offered, which handily reduced any rumble that either picked up from Mike’s apartment floor. In the case of the Martin, the KSM’s low frequency roll off at 115 Hz, nicely reduced the proximity effects, evening out the boominess that Martin Dreadnaughts are known for. The AT and Shure also offer a switchable pad, handy if your guitarist sets his amp to “stun.” By contrast, the MXL is utterly simple offering no pads of filters of any kind.
Street prices make each of these mics an outstanding value. The MXL V88, which debuted at the fall 2007 AES, sells for $349 with a hard case and a simple but effective shock mount. Shure’s KSM 27 sells for $299 and comes with a velvet mic bag and shock mount. It also offered the most complete documentation of the three. The AT 3035 had the lowest price available for a very reasonable $199, making it the most affordable of the trio. It comes with a mic bag, shock mount and spec sheet.
Is There a Winner?
Based strictly on price-performance ratio, the panel felt that the AT 3035 offered the best overall value among the mics tested. The Shure, while similar to the AT performance-wise, really made itself indispensable on Cory’s voice, delivering a track that was perfect for our mix without the need for any EQ. Although the MXL was the most expensive mic, it consistently delivered a rich and crisp image in every single application with the exception of Jessica’s voice. The V88 sounds a lot like mics costing three times more from better-known brands. As such, it would be a nice addition to any studio’s mic collection that was lacking a first-class, large diaphragm condenser with a crisp top end response.
If you’re ready to go shopping for a new condenser mic to add to your studio’s collection, why not visit your local pro audio dealer and with their advice, pick two or three new mics in your price range to take home and try out at your own studio. You might even invite a few other musicians and engineers (and the shop’s audio tech) to help you listen. You’re more likely to end up with a purchase that you value rather than a mic you find yourself seldom using by following this practice.
Hey Dave and Head Aboev Music,
It’s nice to “meet” you today.
Thanks for the kind words about the articles.
You have my OK to reference and link to the stories as suggested below.
I think it’s great that you are on the same path at the Discmakers blog about recording tech.
I have two books out, one on music careers “How To Get a Job in the Music Industry” and a second on recording techniques which includes interviews with a number of top engineers. If you want to run a brief excerpt from one of the books with a link to the Amazon book page, that would be a possibility.
Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros (Kindle Edition)
I’m on a sabbatical now, so you can follow up at my other email if you are interested in the book excerpts.
All the best,
Audio Technica AT 3035
Shure KSM 27:
More on the Attack Wall from the PSE Archives: