The biggest mistake voice over artists make – and that includes some professionals – is using the wrong microphone. It can wreck your work. If you market yourself on Voice123.com or Voices.com, the wrong microphone will insure you do not get hired, or if you do, that you will not get hired by that same person again.
Here we'll look at the three types of microphones most often used, their strengths and weaknesses, cost, and how to determine which one (s) to go for.
We'll talk about the types, then look at specific brands, models, and prices.
Before we start, the most important thing I can say to you is that your microphone is the most important part of your entire audio chain, no exceptions. You can have the most fabulous gear in the world downstream from the mic, but if the mic does not cut it, it does not really matter about the rest of that gear. On the other hand, a terrific microphone followed by average-priced gear will give you a superior audio product.
What are you looking to do? Are you looking for a mic that's smooth and sweet, or hard-edged and in-your-face? Are you male or female? If you want to do movie trailers and screaming car dealer ads, you need a different mic than if you're doing "guy or girl next door" – realistic – voice work, or standard announce voice work. Here are the types of mics to consider:
Dynamic microphones are what you see in radio stations and are what live vocalists (singers) most often use. They're rugged, reasonably good-sounding, and okay for most voices, meaning one might not sound absolutely fabulous on your particular voice, but it will not sound awful, which is not true of other types, including some very expensive microphones. A dynamic also is not nuanced. The part that pics up your voice, the diaphragm, is connected to a coil of wire; air movement from sound makes the coil move between the poles of a magnet. The sound has to overcome the mass of the coil, and very small sounds do not get through.
This does not make them bad. Rush Limbaugh's Golden EIB microphone is a dynamic, and, again, most radio stations use them. They are good general-purpose mics, and many voice over pros use them. They are equally good for male and female voices, and you can do most any type of style with them.
If you're on a budget, a dynamic is the only choice, because the other two cost a lot more for ones that are worth it. There are cheap versions of the other two, and you do not want one!
So if dynamics are so useful, why spend more for a condenser or ribbon?
A condenser microphone, of which there are two types, transistor and tube ("valve" in Europe), does not have the moving coil of wire attached to its diaphragm. It modifies an electrical current generated by an external power supply (found in most computer interfaces or with an external power supply, see your dealer for info, or internal batteries). Without the mechanical resistance of a dynamic mic's coil to overcome, a condenser is far more sensitive to nuance, and therefore sounds much more intimate.
Condensers come in two flavors: transistor and tube. A tube condenser, which is an expensive instrument (there are cheap ones and they make good paperweights but not microphones), is almost always the very best way to go. They sound very intimate and full, and have a great up-front sound without being aggressive. They are quite subject to problems from non-vocal speech components – 'f', 's', 'p' – and require a pop screen (see your dealer). Tube mics also produce what's called harmonic distortion, which we do not consciously hear but is responsible for what's called "tube warmth" (nothing to do with temperature!) And sounds quite intimate.
Condensers come in two other flavors: large diaphragm and small diaphragm. Large diaphragms are for when you want a big, intimate sound. Small diaphragms are said to be more accurate. However, the right one for you is the one that sounds best after making several-minute recordings with each and seeing if one is more fatiguing or if one just plain sounds better to you than the other. There are no rules. Both kinds are used for voiceover.
Many voice over artists prefert tube condensers over transistorized ones, but in all cases, what sounds best on your particular voice is what you should get. How to choose a mic? We'll get to that in a minute.
Here's the third type, in a class by itself: the ribbon microphone. While dynamics and condensers 'hear' with diaphragms, a ribbon microphone "hears" with a short, narrow, and very thin piece of corrugated aluminum suspended between two poles of a strong magnet.
You've seen the big, pickle-shaped microphones on Letterman's and Larry King's desks. They are RCA Model 77 ribbon microphones (used as props in this case), invented, I believe, in the 1930's. They were found everywhere for half a century. RCA quit making ribbons in the 1970's, and an enterprising genius named Wes Dooley bought all of RCA's stock ribbons (the ribbons themselves) and probably single-handedly re-introduced the ribbon microphone to the US market. His company is called AEA, and even the AEA logo is so designed as to closely resembled RCA's logo.
Ribbon mics are warm and smooth, jazz guys like to record with them, they're very nice for ladies' voices, and for certain male voices they add a nice satisfing depth. They also have a low output, which means that you have to crank up the input on your system to get a decent level from them. But raising the input results what's called the noise floor, and you can end up with a recording where you can hear hiss in the background. Wes and other ribbon mic manufacturers deal with this problem well, however, and some companies are making preamplifiers (talk with your dealer about this) specifically designed for ribbon mics.
Whether a ribbon – or any mic, for that matter – will sound good on your voice can not be known without actually trying one out. Ribbons are quite sensitive to moving air; if you blow into one to test to see if it's on, there's an excellent chance you'll destroy the ribbon. When ribbons were in common studio use, they were 'bagged' – a fitted bag was put over them – just to move them from place to place in the studio, to avoid ribbon damage from the air passing across them as they were moved .
There are a million brands, which of course goes for condensers, but not that many ribbon brands.
Not to worry, because there are several industry standards with which it's hard to go wrong. Here are the three most popular dynamics, and they probably outsell all the rest put together:
Sennheiser 421U (see dealer about the specific one for your purpose)
Shure SM57 / SM58 – less expensive and can be used if you do not have the money for the others
These mics, except for the last two, are in the $ 350- $ 700 range. Although each has a characteristic 'sound,' they are pretty close together in that respect. Each is well-made and dependable over the long haul, as in decades.
The Sennheiser, and, I believe, the SM7, have what are called proximate effects: if you get right on top of them they accentuate the lows. Many announcers in radio stations like to eat them; they want that deep "Voice of God" sound. They're better used at a distance of 6-10. "The RE20 is known for its lack of the procurement effect. Moreover, the RE20 was also made under a different model name, PL20. The finish color is a bit different, but it's the same mic. instruments and is no longer in production. I found a PL20 for $ 150 and am still jumping up and down, for the average used price of a PL20 or RE20 is double that.
For price-to-quality, none of these mics can be beat.
Two flavors, here: transistorized and tube. As mentioned above, a tube condenser, like any well-designed tube device, generates overtones, which our ears perceive as "warmth." I say well-designed, because ever since tubes were "rediscovered" about 25 years ago, a lot of low-priced gear with a tube or two in them has hit the market, but they are not necessarily designed by people who understand exactly what they do nor how to design a tube circuit for best effect. This section deals with condensers in general.
Probably the most-recognized condenser mic name in the world is Neumann (pronounced NOI-man), and its most popular model is called a U-87. They sell new for around $ 3500, around $ 2000 or less used. A Neumann either sounds incredible on your voice or it sounds honky. It is the microphone National Public Radio uses exclusively.
It is found in just about every recording studio of any size. It will love your voice or hate it.
There are more expensive Neumanns, and a series of low-priced models prefixed with the letters TLM. A good number of voiceover artists use TLMs (<$ 1000); in my opinion they are not nearly as natural-sounding as the U-87 or a good dynamic. I had one but sold it after a few months. It could sound really good to your particular ear, however. I make this point because tastes different, and it is surely true that one voice can sound bad on a certain mic and superb on the next voice. So how does one choose? We'll get to that in a sec.
First, you must use a pop screen on a condenser. This device stops those blasts of air from non-vocal speech components, most notably "P" sounds, to which condensers are especially sensitive. Put your hand in front of your mouth and say "P." Feel the air? If that blast hits a condenser, let's just say you do not want to be wearing headphones at the time. Now, it's a good idea to talk across (at 45 degrees) not straight into, any microphone, because all of them will react badly to P pops; it is just that condensers REALLY react to them. Many RE20 users put pop screens in front of their mics even though most people do not use pop screens with dynamics.
Cheap condensers: a big no-no.
Cheap condensers are all over the market. You can buy a microphone with a nice spider shock mount and in a beautiful aluminum flight case all for $ 75. Um, I do not thin 'so, Looooxy. They are unnaturally bright at the top end and boomy at the bottom.
The really nefarious part of this is that, if you're just starting out, your ear is easily fooled into thinking that this sounds good. It does sound sort of exciting, but it is extremely fatiguing to listen to a recording made on one. As Phil Spector famously put it, "It's all in the middle." Americans like to crank up the treble and bass. If you have a mic delivering lots of highs and lows, and someone boosts the highs and lows on their music system, your work will sound worse than awful. Expensive microphones have rolled-off low ends and smooth high ends. Upon first using one you may even think, "Wow, what's the big deal about this thing? It's boring." No, it's natural. Unboosted highs and lows. In other words, it sounds like you, not you-through-a-microphone. That's as it should be.
Remember, you are competing with people who own high-end condensers, and that's how they sound. I'll take a $ 400 dynamic over a $ 400 condenser just about every time.
I have experience with exactly one ribbon: an AEA R84. It sounds really good. It's an updated version of an …