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Using Microphones

Which Microphone?

Which Microphone? We take eight mics from Shure's successful PE Series and subject them to some rigorous practical tests - with surprising results.


In theory, a microphone simply converts sound energy to electrical energy, so why the bewildering choice? Paul White and Paul Gilby investigate the performance aspects of the Shure PE series of microphones — with some interesting results.

It's a sad fact of life that the perfect microphone does not yet exist, but even if it did, the chances are that it would be unsuitable for the majority of applications. If this seems like a contradiction in terms, I will explain: A theoretically perfect microphone, apart from having no distortion, phase anomalies, or other nasties, would have a frequency response extending from 0Hz to well above the highest frequency that could be processed by state of the art recording equipment. But in practice, that degree of perfection works against us.

Take a vocal mic as an example; a mic built specifically for this purpose would have a deliberately rolled off bass response to reduce popping and boom transmitted via floor-mounted mic stands. Additionally, there may well be a peak in the frequency response at around 3kHz to improve intelligibility in a live situation. By comparison, our perfect microphone would pop appallingly and probably sound somewhat dull and lifeless on vocals.

It follows from this that each recording situation ideally demands a specialist microphone which is designed for a particular application. But in small studios, particularly home studios, it is uneconomical to buy a specialist microphone just because a left-handed Tibetan nose-flautist has booked in for the next session. The inevitable answer, of course, is to compromise by choosing just a small range of microphones that can be used in a variety of applications - but how do you choose the best selection?

Selection Procedure



What we have done is taken eight of the Shure PE series microphones and used each one to record a typical set of instrument sounds, regardless of the manufacturer's specified application, then tabulate the results.

We did this by mounting as many mics as practical around each sound source, making sure that they were all 'listening' to the same sound, and then record the results on a multitrack machine, one track per microphone. This meant that on playback, a direct comparison could be made between microphones and we decided to adopt a star rating for each application with five stars being awarded to the best mic in each category. Before presenting the results, we'll introduce the microphones which are all of the dynamic variety with a cardioid pick-up pattern.

PE65

This is a general purpose mic with a 'presence' peak and is recommended by Shure for use with percussive instruments such as drums and piano. It's also claimed to be useful for recording brass instruments and vocals.

PE66

Very similar to the PE65 but with a slightly different shape to the presence peak. The frequency response is the same as their SM57 and it is again recommended for percussive instruments and vocals in addition to guitar and keyboards.

PE47

This mic has an EQ switch which in one position gives a 'flat' high frequency (HF) response with increased low frequency (LF) roll-off, and in the other position introduces a presence peak and an extended bass response. Its recommended uses are vocals and acoustic instruments, including drums, though it is also suitable for amplified guitar.

PE45

This has an almost identical frequency response to the PE47 with its EQ switch set to the 'presence' position. Again, recommended for drums, bass and piano as well as vocals and brass.

PE15

This is a budget vocal mic with integral windshield and the LF response is deliberately restricted to minimise popping and booming. A presence peak aids clarity but the response is designed to prevent harshness.

PE86

A top range 'live' vocal mic which is said to have the same frequency response as their established SM58 model. Again, the mic has a built-in wind shield and a presence peak but the bass response is not restricted as on the PE15.

PE75

Vocal mic with built-in windshield having both an extended LF response and a presence peak.

PE35

Again a vocal mic but this time with a more pronounced presence peak and a slight LF boost around 150Hz.

Results



Enough of the manufacturer's recommendations, let's see how the mics stood up in practice to the various instrument sound sources.

Testing the PE65 on a Premier 22" bass drum.


Bass Drum


This was a Premier 22" drum with the front head removed and the obligatory blanket (or pillow) thrown inside for damping. We were able to position four microphones inside the drum placed symmetrically so that the same sound would reach each one.

The findings and ratings were subjective to a large degree, but were as follows:

PE65 ★★★★★ (5)
Good - smooth punchy sound with the presence peak emphasising the impact click. Reasonable bass response.

PE66 ★★★ (3)
Contrary to what the frequency graph might imply, this mic was a bit weak at the bass end and the impact click was a bit toppy.

PE47 ★★★★ (4)
Similar to PE65 but with less attack. Better when 'presence' switch activated. Very usable.

PE45 ★★★★★ (5)
Marginally less bright than the PE65 but still very good.

PE15 ★★ (2)
As expected, this mic's restricted LF response robs the bass drum of all punch and EQ does little to restore this.

PE86 ★★ (2)
Sounded very boxy which is odd as it is reputedly the same as an SM58 and these are usually good all-rounders.

PE75 ★★★ (3)
Somewhat lacking in punch but still quite usable.

PE35 ★ (1)
The worst performer of the lot but then it is specified as a vocal mic. No punch at all, just a boxy sort of a click.

No real surprises here then except for the PE86 which should really have been more punchy; perhaps it was a dubious sample. The upmarket instrument mics generally performed the best with the dedicated vocal mics coming off worst, as one might expect.

Tom-tom pick-up using the PE45.


Tom-Tom


Again using four mics at a time, positioned about two inches above the drum head and about two inches in from the rim.

PE65 ★★★★★ (5)
Good even sound with plenty 5 of warmth.

PE66 ★★★★ (4)
Still good but a little too much 4 presence.

PE47 ★★★★★ (5)
Similar to PE65 - perhaps marginally less bright. Good but better with 'presence' peak switched in.

PE45 ★★★★★ (5)
Again similar to PE65 - good.

PE15 ★★★ (3)
Lacking in bass but passable for high toms.

PE86 ★★ (2)
Too much midrange emphasis producing a boxy sound.

PE75 ★★★ (3)
Weak at the bass end but again usable for high toms.

PE35 ★★★ (3)
Similar to PE75 but more toppy.

These results, like the ones for the bass drum, largely bear out the manufacturer's recommendations.

Assessing the most suitable snare drum mic.

Snare Drum


Miked in the same way as the tom-tom.

PE65 ★★★★ (4)
Punchy but doesn't sufficiently emphasise the 'crispness' of the sound.

PE66 ★★★★ (4)
Very similar to PE65.

PE47 ★★★★ (4)
Again very similar to above but less bright. Better with onboard EQ switched to 'presence' setting.

PE45 ★★★★★ (5)
Punchy and crisp. Very good.

PE15 ★ (1)
Thin and boxy. Unsuitable for this application.

PE86 ★★ (2)
Better than PE15 but still middly and nasal.

PE75 ★★★ (3)
Quite good if a little lacking in punch. Still a good sound.

PE35 ★★★ (3)
Similar to PE75 but less bottom end.

Shure seem to have got it about right so far, though we are still disappointed by the PE86 which should sound like an SM58 according to its literature.

Finding the best hi-hat microphone.

Hi-Hat


Recorded by positioning the mics 12"-18" above the top cymbal and rolling off the low bass using the mixing console EQ.

PE65 ★★★★★ (5)
Good even tone.

PE66 ★★★★★ (5)
As above.

PE47 ★★★ (3)
Unpleasant colouration in upper mid band.

PE45 ★★★★ (4)
Good but a bit 'peaky' compared to PE65.

PE15 ★★★ (3)
Presence peak colours the sound but a bit of EQ helps to even things out.

PE86 ★★★★ (4)
Noticeable colouration but not objectionable. Very usable.

PE75 ★★★ (3)
Peaky.

PE35 ★★★ (3)
Peaky.

Again, the order hasn't changed much but all of the microphones performed reasonably well in this application. A good bass response, of course, is not necessary for use with cymbals.

Acoustic Guitar


The microphones were 12"-18" away from the guitar pointing towards the body end of the fingerboard.

PE65 ★★★★★ (5)
Warm natural sound - very good.

PE66 ★★★★ (4)
Still good but artificially bright.

PE47 ★★★ (3)
Slightly dull. Switching EQ to 'presence' helps.

PE45 ★★★★★ (5)
Similar to PE65. Very smooth.

PE15 ★ (1)
Toppy and harsh. Not very nice.

PE86 ★★★ (3)
Fairly warm but needs EQ to smooth out the sound.

PE75 ★★★ (3)
Usable but a little harsh.

PE35 ★★★★ (4)
Good but slightly overbright.

The only really bad performer here is the PE15 mic - hardly surprising considering its poor LF response which is tailored specifically for vocals.

Male Vocals


Mics were placed 12"-18" from the performer.

PE65 ★★★★★ (5)
Excellent - warm and natural with good detail. No EQ needed.

PE66 ★★★★★ (5)
As above but slightly more presence.

PE47 ★★★★ (4)
Good but a bit toppy.

PE45 ★★★★ (4)
No warmth and rather harsh.

PE15 ★★★★ (4)
At last a good score. This really is a good vocal mic at a budget price, though it doesn't excel at anything else.

PE86 ★★★★ (4)
A little warmer than the PE15. Good.

PE75 ★★★ (4)
Slightly peaky due to presence boost but this is probably an advantage for live work.

PE35 ★★★ (3)
Indistinguishable from PE75.

The PE15 finally comes into its own proving once again that Shure have got their sums right.

Miking a Session amp (electric guitar) using a PE35.

Distorted Electric Guitar


A distorted rock guitar sound made via a Session 75W combo miked 12" away from a single speaker cone.

PE65 ★★★★★ (5)
Good. If a distorted guitar can be made to sound natural, this mic can do it.

PE66 ★★★★★ (5)
Good - same as above.

PE47 ★★★★ (4)
Good but dull unless 'presence' switched on.

PE45 ★★★ (3)
Middly with harsh edge.

PE15 ★★★★ (4)
Plenty of bite but slightly lacking in depth.

PE86 ★★ (2)
Boxy and fizzy - not recommended.

PE75 ★★★★ (4)
Good even tone.

PE35 ★★★★ (4)
Good but less bright.

Once again the humble PE15 shames some of its more expensive contemporaries in this application.

Electric Guitar


A clean guitar sound with chorus effects added. Combo speaker miked up from a distance of 12 inches.

PE65 ★★★★★ (5)
Warm, smooth and detailed. Very nice.

PE66 ★★★★★ (5)
Very similar to PE65 but with slightly more brightness.

PE47 ★★★★★ (5)
Again similar to the first two but slightly warmer tone.

PE45 ★★★★ (4)
Bright and up-front but lacking punch.

PE15 ★★★ (3)
Usable but no real warmth.

PE86 ★★★★ (4)
Crisp and clean. Not overwarm.

PE75 ★★★★ (4)
Bright. Not as smooth as PE65.

PE35 ★★★★ (4)
Same as PE75.

All the mics are usable in this application though the PE15 is not to be recommended.

Bass Guitar


Microphones positioned 18" from bass cabinet.

PE65 ★★★★★ (5)
Warm even tone. Sounds good with little or no EQ.

PE66 ★★★★★ (5)
Similar to above but a little brighter.

PE47 ★★★★★ (5)
Very good. Less bright than PE65 or 66 but this helps to even out the bass loss caused by close miking.

PE45 ★★★ (3)
Usable but lacks LF warmth essential for a good bass sound.

PE15 ★ (1)
Too thin sounding to be seriously used in this application.

PE86 ★★ (2)
Very middly, almost boxy sound, just about usable with EQ.

PE75 ★★ (2)
Middly with no real punch.

PE35 ★★ (2)
As PE75 with slightly more presence.

The above results just prove that you have to choose the right type of microphone when recording bass guitar, trusting to luck is generally unsuccessful.

Conclusions



This method of direct comparison can yield surprising results and it is worth doing a similar test with your own microphone collection to see which ones best suit particular applications.

We have checked other mics using this method and have found that the low cost Shure 517 (which is generally unsuitable for drums) gives reasonably good results on snare drum. Likewise AKG's D190, which is recommended for vocal use, is in fact a first rate tom-tom mic.

At the end of the day, the tests bear out Shure's own recommended applications with the exception of the PE86, which turned in a rather mediocre performance and makes us suspect our review sample.

Full details of the Shure PE Series can be obtained from the UK distributors HW International, (Contact Details).


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

TDK Jingle Writing Competition

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Richard Hewson - Man of Mystery


Home & Studio Recording - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

Home & Studio Recording - Apr 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

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