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Old 12-11-2008, 08:48 PM   #69
Human being with feelings
Join Date: Aug 2006
Posts: 2,012

The very best (and most expensive) mics deliver predictable, intuitive, and usable dynamics, proximity effect, sensitivity and pickup patterns in a wide variety of applications, as well as very consistent manufacturing quality that assures consistent frequency response and output levels from one mic to the next. Cheaper mics are often much better at one thing than another, or are hard to match up pairs (one mic outputs 3dB higher than another, or has slightly different frequency response or proximity effect, etc).

Inexpensive mics are not necessarily bad-sounding, especially these days. There is a tidal wave of inexpensive Chinese condenser capsules that are modeled on (i.e. ripped off of) the hard work that went into making the legendary mics of the studio world. There is a lot of trial-and-error that goes into designing world-class mics, and a lot of R&D cost that is reflected in the price. For this reason and others, top-tier mics tend to be made with uncompromising manufacturing, workmanship, and materials standards, all of which cost money.

Moral issues of supporting dedicated craftsmanship aside, whether it is worthwhile to pay for that extra percent of quality when you can buy a dozen similar Chinese mics for the money becomes almost philosophical past a certain point. If you're building a home addition, professional-grade power tools will make the job a lot easier and go a lot faster, but flimsy discount-store hand tools can still get the job done if you're willing to deal with more time and frustration. If you've ever tried a building project or worked a trade, you'll understand immediately what I'm talking about.

But since most musos are work-averse layabouts when it comes to practical arts, these can be hard distinctions to draw. If you've ever read reviews of the modern wave of cheap condenser mics, they almost all read the same: "surprisingly good for the money! Not quite as good as (fill in vintage mic here), but a useful studio backup."

By that measure, the average starving-artist-type could have a closet full of backup mics backing up nothing. The reality is that these second-tier mics CAN be used to make first-class recordings, but they often require a little more work, a little more time spent on placement, a few more compromises, a little more willingness to work with the sounds you can get as opposed to getting the sound you want, and so on.

A commercial studio has to be able to set up and go. If the first mic on the stand in the iso booth isn't quite the right sound, they swap it out for the next one. Three mics later and they're ready to roll tape.

In the home studio world of fewer and more compromised mics, it might take trying the mics in different places, in different rooms, at different angles. Some cheap mics might sound great but have terrible sibilance unless they're angled just so. That might mean an extra four takes, or it might mean recording different sections of the vocal with the mic placed slightly differently, which might in turn mean more processing work to the get the vocal to sound seamless.

These are the tradeoffs when you're a self-produced musician. The gear in professional studios is not magic (well, maybe one or two pieces are, but most of it is ordinary iron and copper). The engineer is not superhuman. The wood and the acoustics are not made by gods. But the tools, experience, versatility, and professional expertise are all, at the very least, great time-savers, and time is worth money.

If you have more time than money, or if you prefer the satisfaction or flexibility of doing it yourself, you can absolutely do so. You just have to trust your ears, and keep at it until it sounds right.
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