Expensive Microphones: Who Needs Them?

Can you hear the difference between the $3,200 and the $400 microphones above? I sure can, but I don’t think either one sounds patently superior than the other. For this individual’s voiceover, I preferred the much cheaper Shure microphone over the golden standard Neumann microphone.

There are hundreds of reasons why a bargain microphone might sound better than an expensive one: perhaps the person speaking was speaking through a pop-filter, or maybe his head was turned at a different angle and wasn’t correctly facing the diaphragm, or the recording engineers could have sloppily put the microphone closer to his mouth causing his voice to sound “deeper and more full” due to the proximity effect. For all we know, the audio engineers who exported their microphone test files accidentally normalized one but not the other.

For the home studio musician or audio engineer, can you justify spending a large chunk of change on a microphone if small things—like the faint difference in angle—can make it sound worse than one that is exponentially cheaper? When it comes down to it, when you add additional instruments to your mix and you compress your recordings in the mastering phase, no listener will hear the difference amidst the two identical yet very differently priced microphones. If someone states they can hear the difference, I suggest completing a double-blinded test and see if his results are the same; after several tests, you’ll be able to tell if he is deceiving him or herself. The human brain is amazingly adept at hearing or seeing) differences when none exist [1], confirming ones own biases and not wanting to admit that it was wrong. Many people listen with their wallets and eyes and not with their ears. I often see people overwhelmingly nominating cheap gear over expensive gear in A/B testing forum thread. Once the answers are revealed, the percentage that was once 70% in favor or lower quality gear shifts to something around 40-50%.

So why do people purchase expensive microphones?

There are several valid reasons, and some not so valid:

  1. Brings in customers - Musicians purchasing studio-time want to know they are in good hands. Musicians incorrectly assume that high quality gear translates to amazing mixes. I constantly read on forums how studio owners lose customers to a competitor because they aren’t utilizing Pro Tools, Waves plugins, or they don’t have a giant mixing consoles.
  2. Some actually are better - Sometimes expensive microphones are expensive for valid reasons. Surround sound microphones cost a fair amount because they have five or more microphones in them. Tiny microphones require expensive components to maintain their size. Ribbon microphones have a distinct sound that many are willing to pay big bucks for. Many popular microphones are built to last decades. I would be willing pay a little extra for a microphone that looked awesome; I own a Blue Dragonfly and Blue Woodpecker, and they initially sparked my interested because they were designed well.
  3. Good marketing - Like most types of products, there are companies that excel in marketing their products and victoriously make you feel lonely and horrible without their products in-hand. If the microphone company in question spends a lot of money on marketing, you are paying for their brand recognition.
  4. Shows experience - If you pull out that $1,500 Neumann microphone and boast how it sounds great when recording vintage drum kits, it will make you seem knowledgable and skilled — even if you are making the whole thing up.
  5. Prestige - If you have an impressive microphone collection, people will envy you. Maybe they won’t bow down to you (yet), but you’ll be known as the “microphone guy,” even if you never use them. I would love to have a microphone collection myself.

In the video above, you can watch some experts in the audio engineering industry discuss their interpretations between two very similar microphones. They are literally the same microphone, but one is older and was manufactured differently. I believe this video sums up my point well; these individuals who have been working in the industry for an exceedingly long time can’t even agree on the nuances of these microphones. They even contradict each other at times. I don’t know whether or not they are hearing a difference in these microphones are not. I surmise that there are subtle differences, but the experts can’t even agree on what subtle differences are actually better. They all have their own unique interpretations of how the microphones sound. If the differences of these microphones are so subtle, do you think the average music listener will hear or care about the differences? I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on these guys. They love their profession and are seriously trying to understand their recording equipment better.  In fact, they made this video so others can learn from it. My point is more directed towards the home studio owner who is thinking about buying expensive microphones. If these seasoned veterans don’t have “golden ears” —ears that can magically hear differences caused by minute electrical differences, cable shielding, or even wooden volume knobs— something tells me that the average home studio owner doesn’t either.

For most audio engineers and musicians, your money can be better spent on other audio products. Bass Traps, better studio monitors, a new computer, or a set of nice plugins are allbetter bangs-for-your-buck. If your room is not sufficiently acoustically treated, most condenser microphones will sound like a toy. Better speakers will enable you to hear more detail and the quieter facets of your mix which will help you achieve better musical decisions. Many love old expensive microphones because they sound “analog” and “vintage”. Nowadays, you can buy plugins that add that vintage saturation to any microphone you use to record. It’s much more economical to use a cheaper microphone and morph its sound on the computer. Even some believe external preamplifiers are more important that the microphones themselves.

There are thoroughly good reasons to buy the microphones, but I seldom see these sound reasons being debated on over the interweb. I mostly see people discussing a microphone’s very subtle nuances and how they will affect the music they’re recording. I tend not to dwell on these fine variations because I will probably end up crushing the life out of them with the compressor anyway. Many people openly admit they have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), but they continually visit forums that encourage that behavior. Maybe audio engineers should stop focusing on the almost nonexistent differences between some microphones and instead focus on ideas or other products that make clearly audible differences, like alternative mixing techniques and crazy experiments with their software and hardware collections.

[1]: I will probably write an entire blog post dedicated to music and gear psychology. There is a lot to say, and it really can’t be summarized in one or two sentences.