Budget Mic Roundup
Want to buy a mic for under £50? Try these for size.
Want to buy a mic without spending a fortune? H&SR checks out some budget models.
On a dark rainy night, you stride home underneath the glistening streetlamps. Suddenly, from out of the subway, a tall, dark man steps up to you and opens his jacket to reveal a number of cheap microphones strung onto the lining of his jacket. The decision is yours. Which would you choose?
Microphone choice is made difficult by the sheer number of models on the market. There are literally hundreds but they all seem to do the same job. Sound enters at one end and an electrical signal comes out of the other, so what's the difference? Well, if you read our article in H&SR Jan 87 entitled 'Choosing a Microphone', you'll probably have a good idea of what type you need, but you still have to pick the right model to suit your budget. This article sets out to examine some of the less expensive models currently available.
Despite the many recent headspinning updates in technology, the microphone has changed surprisingly little from its original form. There are four main types of mic used in the today's studio: the PZM, dynamic, condenser (including the better electrets) and ribbon mics, and of these dynamic and condenser mics are by far the most commonly used. Big names in professional microphone manufacture such as AKG, Shure, Sennheiser and Neumann have earned great reputations, (often with price tags to match), but for the budget studio too there are now a large number of cheap mics available, though a low price invariably means a compromise in one area or another.
Audio Technica have been producing high quality microphones at affordable prices for a number of years now, and the BBC has recently acquired some of their ATM41 microphones which offer broadcast quality for under £100. The mics under review are directional dynamics from the acclaimed Pro series and are the PR40L, 20 and 22. Very attractive microphones these, and very light too, with the exception of the Pro 3. They all coped with vocals more than adequately, the Pro 3 and PR40L also producing excellent results as all-rounders on various instruments including drums and percussion. Like most unidirectional dynamic mics, these models exhibit a bass boost at close proximity and have a slight lift around 3.5kHz to ensure clear diction in speech applications. The bass response is tailored to fall away gradually below the normal range of speech, to prevent popping and stage-borne vibrations from causing problems, but it rules out this type of mic for serious bass drum and bass guitar work. Similarly, the steep roll-off above 12kHz makes these mics less than ideal for recording acoustic instruments except those that produce little in the way of high frequency harmonics.
The PR40 is available in high and low impedance versions denoted by the suffix H or L and the PR20 has an output impedance of 10KΩ which it is claimed will match both high and low impedance input stages. The PR22 is switchable for dual impedance.
Pro 1, 2 and 3. Although primarily for vocal use, these mics proved good all-rounders. All feature the familiar proximity bass lift at close miking which tends to fill out a vocal and the high frequency end, though restricted, does not fall off so sharply as the PR series, so the overall sound might be brighter.
The Pro 1 comes equipped with a mic holder and stand adaptor, and an attached lead (4m cable). Attractively finished in black, its frequency response extends from 80Hz to 12kHz. The Pro 2 features the same accessories, but to my ears sounded better on vocals and gave a better tonal quality on acoustic guitar than the Pro 1. However, from a range of about 6" there was a noticeable 'pop' on the letters 'p' and 'b' which wasn't quite so evident on the Pro 1. Of course an improvised pop shield will completely cure this problem in the studio. Both mics seemed slightly sibilant but very adequate for backing vocals and instrumental applications. The more expensive, but still cheap Pro 3 is much heavier and more robust, with appreciably less handling noise and better sound reproduction all round. This mic was tested on various instruments as well as on vocals, including congas and other percussion such as bells and triangles, and became my favourite of all the microphones reviewed here for these particular applications. Although the spec sheet only claimed it reached 13kHz it reproduced the 'ping' of a triangle beautifully.
Prices: Pro 1 - £35. Pro 2 - £31. Pro 3 - £59.
PR22, PR20 and PR40L. The PR20 has a very attractive grey metallic finish which makes it almost as striking as the Pro 3. The main difference in performance I noticed was a slight increase in sibilance, but this mic also covered a multitude of applications to a high standard. The PR22, though not quite as attractive, responded slightly better, and also has the useful addition of the switch enabling high or low impedance to be selected. The PR40L proved impressive on all instruments, and was preferred to the SM58 by one female vocalist during one session, which just goes to show that certain mics suit certain voices. Any minor criticisms pale into insignificance when price and performance are considered.
Prices: PR22 - £42. PR20 - £43. PR40L - £59.
Details: John Hornby Skewes, Salem House, Garforth, Leeds LS25 IPX. (0532) 865381.
Shure have managed to retain their name in the top bracket of microphone manufacture for over 20 years. This American company offers some of the best loved and most versatile mics on the market. The SM58 is a classic live vocal dynamic mic which often finds its way into the studio, and its design has influenced the look of many other vocal mics on the market. Shure products also have an enviable reputation for robustness, even managing to survive the antics of Roger Daltrey in his days with The Who. Due to the appearance of budget Japanese copies, Shure has now retaliated by licensing a Japanese company to manufacture a budget of their own popular microphones. These appear in the form of the Prologue range and they are perfectly priced to entice the home studio owner.
Prologue 8L. The 8L is at the bottom of the Prologue range. It's an unbalanced dynamic mic with a low impedance (600Ω), and it comes complete with attached cable, and ¼" phono plug adaptor. Its frequency response ranges from 80Hz to 10kHz, which results in some limitations in tonal quality, as the human ear can perceive frequencies up to around 17kHz or higher, and therefore there will be a noticeable loss of treble with a microphone with a bandwidth such as this unless it's restricted to use with middley sounding instruments. Also, the response has a fairly pronounced dip at around 4.5kHz following a deliberate presence peak around 3kHz, so don't expect it to be particularly accurate. This mic is in fact aimed primarily at home audio, speech, or live work. In practice I was surprised by its quality considering its modest pretensions; it did not have the nasal sound that betrays many cheap mics and the overall tonality seemed well balanced given the limitations of the frequency response. As long as the 8L is not expected to handle something as demanding as a lead vocal, it can still be very useful as a vocal mic but it will lack the crispness of a more sophisticated microphone. It also copes admirably with lead guitar as this instrument produces mainly mid-range frequencies, but the mic's bass roll-off characteristics make it unsuitable for miking bass guitar or drums.
Prologue 10L, 12L and 14L. Like the 8L, these mics are low impedance dynamics. (High impedance types, although giving greater output, can cause hum pick-up and treble loss problems if a cable length of over 20ft is required.) All these three come with mic clips and the 12 and 14 with handy carrying pouches. None have cables, however, and these can cost around £9 unless you make up your own. The wiring can accommodate either balanced or unbalanced use. Although the 10 and 12 only reach 10kHz, they're impressive in use, with little to choose between them, and only slightly different in tonality to the 8L. The 14, on the other hand is appreciably better than the rest of the range in subjective terms. Its frequency response reaches up to 13kHz, only 2kHz lower than the SM58, (which costs roughly four times as much) though it still has this curious high frequency dip just above the presence peak that characterises all the dynamic mics in the Prologue range. This microphone is better suited to more serious vocal use and can be used to achieve results of a very high standard in the small studio. It also has a lockable on/off switch.
In conclusion, these mics offer good value for money. Retailing for only a fraction of the price of original Shure microphones, the only indication of reduction in quality is slight tonal loss at the top end, slight handling noise and a slightly coloured tonality due to the less than flat response curves. They seem very rugged (though I naturally didn't use any of Roger Daltrey's test methods), and are easy to service. Definitely a range not to be overlooked if finances are tight. Useful for work with vocals, electric guitars and some mid-range percussion, but unsuitable for use with bass instruments where punch is required.
Prices: 10L - £24.36. 12L - 33.99. 14L - 43.52.
Prologue 16L, Unidyne B and Unisphere B. The Prologue 16L is an electret condenser microphone, unlike the other Prologues, which are dynamic. Condenser microphones have built-in head amplifiers, and so need to be powered, and the cheaper ones where the pre-amp is run by batteries and the capsule is permanently charged are known as electret condenser mics. Condensers generally have a wider frequency bandwidth and a flatter response. (The flatter the response, the less colouring or changing of the true sound.) Despite this characteristic, many engineers prefer dynamic microphones for certain applications precisely because they do colour the sound; many dynamics enhance middle frequencies and can 'warm' a vocal, particularly when used close up as the proximity effect then comes into play emphasising the bottom end.
The 16L has a frequency response of 50Hz-15kHz, and proved a very useful microphone in a home recording set-up. Like the others in the Prologue range, it offers true value for money. During its time on test it proved its worth on a range of instruments from hi-hats to guitar combos, giving high quality reproduction. It can give a crisper vocal sound than most budget dynamics, but a pop shield made from a pair of tights stretched over a coat hanger is definitely recommended. Having a reasonable top end response, it can also cope with acoustic instruments such as the acoustic guitar without degrading the instrument's tone unduly.
The only quibble I had was that, although the handling noise was low, the on/off switch was very loud. Still, you're hardly likely to want to operate that during a take. The frequency response gently rolls off toward the bass end giving a clean but slightly thin tone so it isn't the mic to choose for drums or bass guitar. Also there is no deliberate presence peak as such and this might make for a more natural studio vocal sound but be less than ideal for live use where that extra presence bite is often needed to cut through the backing. A very worthwhile mic for the small studio on a tight budget.
The Unisphere B and Unidyne B are the original Shure models and are priced slightly higher than the Prologue range, (with the exception of the 16L). Though the Unidyne B is now discontinued in its present form, second hand bargains are available. The difference between them and the Prologues seems to me to be more a matter of styling than absolute sound quality. The Unisphere B offers a slightly more natural sound quality than the Prologues, while the Unidyne B seems virtually indistinguishable from the 10L and 12L, being only slightly warmer and exhibiting a little less handling noise. There seems little to choose between the Prologue 14L and the Unidyne B.
But all these Shure microphones have much to offer even the most discerning of home recordists, at a very reasonable price. All are unidirectional, picking up sound mainly from one direction and all are reasonably robust. As low budget vocal mics and general purpose instrument mics, they are to be recommended.
Prices: 16L - £63.53. Unisphere B -£52.65. Unidyne B - Discontinued, but many second hand models available. Details: HW International, 3-5 Eden Grove, London N7 8EQ. S 01-607 2717.
M1, M2, M550 and M200NC. Three of these high impedance Beyer Dynamic microphones weren't really designed for applications in studio or live work, but as they fell into our price bracket, we decided to take a look anyway, just in case there were any pleasant surprises in store. The M1 and M2 are small microphones reminiscent of those sometimes accompanying cassette players. The M1 has a wide frequency range of 40Hz to 15kHz and is omnidirectional, picking up sounds from every direction. Though not a studio mic, we found it could be used with some success as an ambient mic. The M2 is unidirectional and reached up to 16kHz. It did produce a better sound quality than the M1, but they both seemed to give a rather thin result. The M550 is intended for the same applications as the M1 and M2 but provides a noticeably better sound quality. Its frequency range is quoted as being 70Hz to 18kHz: impressive on paper but not proving particularly impressive in practice. The M200NC on the other hand became a firm favourite. Very light in weight, it proved very useful in all applications, with remarkably true vocal reproduction, and excellent for close miking hi-hats. Its bass roll-off proved useful for miking a particularly boomy conga during one session. It was, however, quite slippery to hold, which could prove embarrassing on stage.
Prices: M1 - £34. M2 - £49. M550, £41. All with desk top tripod and attached lead. M200NC - £85 with carrying case and 7.5 m cable.
Details: Beyer Dynamic Ltd, Unit 14 Cliffe Industrial Estate, Lewes BN8 6JL. ® (0273) 479411.
Primo are responsible for a new budget range of Japanese microphones distributed solely through Studiomaster in the UK. I found nearly all these mics to be truly excellent, though they did differ greatly in quality and value, and I became very attached to them as their usefulness became increasingly apparent.
C2, UD320 and Emu 4535. The C2 and UD320 are dynamic mics intended primarily for live vocal use, but also useable as 'all-rounders'. Similar in design to the Shure SM58, they performed on a par with the Shure Prologue range. The Emu 4535 is an electret condenser mic and was the most outstanding performer of all the mics on test. I was impressed by the low price. It gave consistent high quality in all applications from miking cymbals to rototoms to Marshall stacks to accordions, and featured clean reproduction at high levels, even with brass instruments. It should not, though, be placed too close to its instrument, and care is required when it's used for vocals, especially if the vocalist is used to practically eating his microphone! But overall an outstanding microphone at the price.
Prices: C2 - £44.56. UD320 - £59.01. Emu 4535-£61.53.
Details: RSD Studiomaster, Studiomaster House, Faircharm Trading Estate, Chaul End Lane, Luton, Beds LU4 8EZ. (0582) 570370.
Realistic PZM. Based on the patented Crown design, this rather unorthodox electret mic works on the pressure zone principle. At the point where a sound reflects from a solid boundary, in this case the plate to which the mic capsule is attached, the air velocity is at a minimum and the pressure at a maximum. By sensing the pressure changes in the boundary region between the plate and the mic capsule, a surprisingly transparent sound is achieved almost entirely unaffected by the phase problems encountered when using normal mics. The pick up pattern is hemispherical and distant sounds are reproduced just as clearly as nearby ones. To obtain the best low frequency performance, the mic plate must be fixed to a larger flat surface such as a table top, a mirror or a wall. These make ideal ambience mics though they also turn in a good vocal performance if used at close range with a pop shield and are also ideal for percussion and indeed, whole drum kits ambiently miked. A battery powered pre-amp is located in the mic lead giving a low impedance output and the frequency response is wide enough for serious recording of acoustic instruments. A pair mounted some feet apart give a good stereo image, useful for piano, and at the price, every studio should have at least two. A stick on pop shield comes with each mic and a simple but informative instruction sheet is provided.
Price: Realistic PZM - £24.95.
Details: Tandy Corporation, Tameway Tower, Bridge Street, Walsall, W. Midlands WS1 1LA. (0922) 477778.
D310D. This model is a very inexpensive dynamic mic and the review sample was bright red with a captive lead. The handle is a self coloured plastic rather than metal, which makes for a very light microphone. Superficially, the mic resembled a Unisphere but was slightly smaller and, as you might expect from the price, less refined in terms of performance. The impression I received was that the mic had a very restricted frequency response at both ends of the spectrum, but otherwise worked well if used for non-critical applications such as electric guitar or backing vocals in a demo only capacity.
Not the world's most sophisticated mic but very good value at around £12.
Details: British Music Strings Ltd, Bed-was House Industrial Estate, Bedwas, Newport, Gwent NP1 8XQ. 80222) 883904.
In choosing microphones for home recording, it's essential to consider your budget, the main use to which the mic will be put and also any secondary jobs that it is likely to be put to. While bigger studios can afford the luxury of scores of microphones designed for very specific applications, smaller studios and the home recordist need versatility and value for money. Vocal mics are far more a matter of taste, and different vocalists will prefer and suit different models, and here there's no substitute for trying out your prospective purchase first. The only proviso I'd make would be to avoid any microphones with top end responses below 13kHz if you're serious about achieving quality reproduction.
Make sure you have at least one good vocal mic and, if you need to record real drum kits, buy one mic that is capable of doing a good job on the bass drum. This might cost a bit more than these budget mics but there's no other way to get a good sound. For the rest of the kit, you can usually make do with general purpose vocal mics, at least until you start to get very serious.
Personally, I'd recommend trying out the Primo range for your best choice of budget 'all-rounder' microphones, but don't discount the others, they all have something to offer, and if you record any acoustic instruments at all, you won't regret buying a pair of Tandy PZMs. Also highly recommended is the Beyer Dynamic M200NC. But as I mentioned at the beginning of the article; it's all a matter of personal taste. Try it and see.
Feature by Phil Darke
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