Voiceovers by Gregory Houser
A man, a martini, and a lot of microphones.: Why I don't like microphone shootouts.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Why I don't like microphone shootouts.

Okay, let me clarify that statement. I don't like most microphone shootouts, especially for voiceover. Here's a few reasons why:
  1. Most people doing them don't know how - I'm sorry for having to be the one to say it, but I am. You need to maintain a certain standard of quality and impartiality when you do any kind of comparison, and normally I just don't see it in the shootouts people use on most boards and websites.
  2. Different sources are used for different microphones, which makes it impossible to judge any of the microphones used - I want you to think about this. How can you know how one microphone sounds when compared to another when two different sources are being recorded. A microphone sounds different from person to person, so once you've injected two people on two different mics, you've just invalidated your experiement and any conclusions that you draw from it. Sure, mic A might be darker than mic B, but if one of the sources is a low baritone and the other is a tenor 2, then how much difference can I really tell is between the two mics tested? The answer is "not much".
  3. Different mics are used on different recording chains - If reason #2 didn't point out the problem, then the fact that so many "shootouts" and "comparisons" use different preamps, cables, DAWs, EQs, etc. (i.e., your recording chain) should raise a big flag to you. In the recording chain, your microphone and preamp are two of the biggest factors in the quality and characterization of sound that are going to affect the recording of your source (the source itself and the environment of the recording space are the most important things to any recording, but for the recording chain, your mic and preamp are the biggest factors to take into consideration IME). If I'm recording a U87 using a John Hardy preamp and trying to compare that mic to an AK-47 recorded through a D.W. Fearn, then I'm going to have a really difficult time being able to determine where the line is drawn between microphone and preamp. It's going to be impossible to properly compare the two microphones. You need to have consistency within the recording chain so that when you change one element within that chain (the microphone) to compare it to another, the listener can habituate everything else in the chain and concentrate on the two items being compared. Makes sense, right? And yet few people compare microphones that way.
  4. Observational bias and sound quality - If you don't like one brand of microphone, then you're going to be hard pressed to be subjective about it when your compare it to other brands. That's observational bias and it's a common trait. If you're human, you've got it... accept it and move on. There's not a whole lot you can do about it unless you're the listener, in which case you need to learn to recognize when you're doing it. The quality of recording though... different story. Most microphone shootouts I hear use MP3 formatted clips. It's a lossy format, so I know from the start that I'm not getting the full sound that I ought to be getting. That's kind of bad. What makes it worse, is that some folks reduce the bit rate of the recording to the lowest level they can in order to save space. Listen, I know that you don't want folks to have to download a 100MB file just to hear a pair of microphones, but the more you take away from the quality of the recording, the harder it is for the rest of us to be able to judge the difference in the two sounds. In the attempts to make life easy for the listener, you've just taken away our ability to properly critique what you're doing. It's not worth it.
  5. It's not you that they're recording - This is the most important factor to consider when dealing with a microphone shootout. Everybody sounds different, so every microphone is going to sound a little different. The same holds true for your recording environment. Put it together, and you quickly realize that the best way for a person to understand which microphone is going to work best for them is for them to take the microphone into their own place and record it with their own voice. It's going to be the most accurate way to learn how two different microphones affect a source. Microphone shootouts (when done properly) can give you a good starting indication, but until you get some face time with the tools themselves, you're working from a generalized point of view instead of your own working knowledge of the device,
Transom Tools has one of the best microphone shootouts I've ever heard. That the shootout is over three years old and is still considered to be one of the best comparison of voice over mics out there is a testament to the care and quality they put into their testing. If you're looking for a mic shootout, I can't think of anything online that is as well done as what these guys put together.

If only they could have offered the files as WAV... still, they're light years beyond anything else I've found online.


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