Tag Archives: Microphones

That Fibber, Myself

I was never going to buy wireless gear again. Until…

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

There is a taxonomy of falsehood. For instance, a particularly awful and hurtful falsity might be “a lie from hell.” Slightly less severe versions might be “a fib from heck,” or “a half-truth from West Jordan.” “Tall-tales from Hyrum” never really hurt anyone, as is the case for a “whopper from Utah County.”

In any case, I thought I was telling the truth when I said – to many people, repeatedly and emphatically – that I would never again put my own money into wireless audio. I was adamant. Determined. Resolute now to defend fair honor upon the glorious field of contest, I say to thee, Knights of the West, STAND!

Yeah, well, you can see how that turned out. Maybe what I said was “a fiction from Erda.” I’m not really sure.

Here’s what happened. I subcontract for a local production provider. A New Years Eve show had been on the books for quite a while, only for it to suddenly vanish in a cloud of miscommunication. The provider scrambled (thank you!) to find a show for me to do, so that I’d have a job that night (thank you!). Normally, we’d have time to handle some coordination for the show advance, but this was a situation where haste was demanded. The provider thought that I had a couple of wireless handhelds available. The show was specced, booked, and advanced. About a day and a half before downbeat, I got the input list.

A strict requirement was at least one wireless handheld. Eeeeep!

It was too late to cross-rent from one of our shared connections. My favorite place to buy or rent “right now” items was closed for inventory. I grabbed my credit card and drove to The Geometric Centroid of Strummed Instruments. (Think about it.) I was in and out in a jiffy, carrying with me a Beta58 Shure GLXD system. As much as the 2.4 Ghz band is becoming a minefield, I went with a digital system; If I was going to spend the money, I did NOT want a unit operating in a part of the spectrum that the FCC would end up auctioning or re-apportioning.

I could have gotten something significantly cheaper, but I wouldn’t have been as confident in it. My imperative was to bring good gear to the show. If I brought something from the bargain-bin, and it ended up messing the bed, that would be hard to excuse. If a better unit misbehaved, I could at least say that I did my due diligence.

In any case, the show had to go on. I’m still not a fan of wireless. I still don’t intend to add to my inventory of audio-over-airwaves devices. Even, so, you sometimes have to bend yourself around what a client needs in a short timeframe. It’s just a part of the life. Of course, after the show, my brand-new transmitter had lipstick embedded in the grille, but that’s a whole other topic…


The Pro-Audio Guide For People Who Know Nothing About Pro-Audio, Part 1

A series I’m starting on Schwilly Family Musicians.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

From the article:

“The fundamental key to all audio production is that we MUST have sound information in the form of electricity. Certain instruments, like synthesizers and sample players don’t produce any actual sound at all; They go straight to producing electricity.

For actual sound, though, we have to perform a conversion, or “transduction.” Transduction, especially input transduction, is THE most important part of audio production. If the conversion from sound to electricity is poor, nothing happening down the line will be able to fully compensate.”


Read the whole thing here, for free!


The Great, Quantitative, Live-Mic Shootout

A tool to help figure out what (inexpensive) mic to buy.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

See that link up there in the header?

It takes you to The Great, Quantitative, Live-Mic Shootout, just like this link does. (Courtesy of the Department of Redundancy Department.)

And that’s a big deal, because I’ve been thinking and dreaming about doing that very research project for the past four years. Yup! The Small Venue Survivalist is four years old now. Thanks to my Patreon supporters, past and present, for helping to make this idea a reality.

I invite you to go over and take a look.


The Grand Experiment

A plan for an objective comparison of the SM58 to various other “live sound” microphones.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Purpose And Explanation

Ever since The Small Venue Survivalist became a reality, I have wanted to do a big experiment. I’ve been itching to round up a bunch of microphones that can be purchased for either below, or slightly above the price point of the SM58, and then to objectively compare them to an SM58. (The Shure SM58 continues to be an industry standard microphone that is recognized and accepted everywhere as a sound-reinforcement tool.)

The key word above is “objectively.” Finding subjective microphone comparisons isn’t too hard. Sweetwater just put together (in 2017) a massive studio-mic shootout, and it was subjective. That is, the measurement data is audio files that you must listen to. This isn’t a bad thing, and it makes sense for studio mics – what matters most is how the mic sounds to you. Listening tests are everywhere, and they have their place.

In live audio, though, the mic’s sound is only one factor amongst many important variables. Further, these variables can be quantified. Resistance to mechanically-induced noise can be expressed as a decibel number. So can resistance to wind noise. So can feedback rejection. Knowing how different transducers stack up to one another is critical for making good purchasing decisions, and yet this kind of quantitative information just doesn’t seem to be available.

So, it seems that some attempt at compiling such measurements might be helpful.

Planned Experimental Procedure

Measure Proximity Effect

1) Generate a 100Hz tone through a loudspeaker at a repeatable SPL.

2) Place the microphone such that it is pointed directly at the center of the driver producing the tone. The front of the grill should be 6 inches from the loudspeaker baffle.

3) Establish an input level from the microphone, and note the value.

4) Without changing the orientation of the microphone relative to the driver, move the microphone to a point where the front of the grill is 1 inch from the loudspeaker baffle.

5) Note the difference in the input level, relative to the level obtained in step 3.

Assumptions: Microphones with greater resistance to proximity effect will exhibit a smaller level differential. Greater proximity effect resistance is considered desirable.

Establish “Equivalent Gain” For Further Testing

1) Place a monitor loudspeaker on the floor, and position the microphone on a tripod stand. The stand leg nearest the monitor should be at a repeatable distance, at least 1 foot from the monitor enclosure.

2) Set the height of the microphone stand to a repeatable position that would be appropriate for an average-height performer.

3) Changing the height of the microphone as little as possible, point the microphone directly at the center of the monitor.

4) Generate pink-noise through the monitor at a repeatable SPL.

5) Using a meter capable of RMS averaging, establish a -40 dBFS RMS input level.

Measure Mechanical Noise Susceptibility

1) Set the microphone such that it is parallel to the floor.

2) Directly above the point where the microphone grill meets the body, hold a solid, semi-rigid object (like an eraser, or small rubber ball) at a repeatable distance at least 1 inch over the mic.

3) Allow the object to fall and strike the microphone.

4) Note the peak input level created by the strike.

Assumptions: Microphones with greater resistance to mechanically induced noise will exhibit a lower input level. Greater resistance to mechanically induced noise is considered desirable.

Measure Wind Noise Susceptibility

1) Position the microphone on the stand such that it is parallel to the floor.

2) Place a small fan (or other source of airflow which has repeatable windspeed and air displacement volume) 6 inches from the mic’s grill.

3) Activate the fan for 10 seconds. Note the peak input level created.

Assumptions: Microphones with greater resistance to wind noise will exhibit a lower input level. Greater resistance to wind noise is considered desirable.

Measure Feedback Resistance

1) Set the microphone in a working position. For cardioid mics, the rear of the microphone should be pointed directly at the monitor. For supercardioid and hypercardioid mics, the the microphone should be parallel with the floor.

2a) SM58 ONLY: Set a send level to the monitor that is just below noticeable ringing/ feedback.

2b) Use the send level determined in 2a to create loop-gain for the microphone.

3) Set a delay of 1000ms to the monitor.

4) Begin a recording of the mic’s output.

5) Generate a 500ms burst of pink-noise through the monitor. Allow the delayed feedback loop to sound several times.

6) Stop the recording, and make note of the peak level of the first repeat of the loop.

Assumptions: Microphones with greater feedback resistance will exhibit a lower input level on the first repeat. Greater feedback resistance is considered desirable.

Measure Cupping Resistance

1) Mute the send from the microphone to the monitor.

2) Obtain a frequency magnitude measurement of the microphone in the working position, using the monitor as the test audio source.

3) Place a hand around as much of the mic’s windscreen as is possible.

4) Re-run the frequency magnitude measurement.

5) On the “cupped” measurement, note the difference between the highest response peak, and that frequency’s level on the normal measurement.

Assumptions: Microphones with greater cupping resistance will exhibit a smaller level differential between the highest peak of the cupped response and that frequency’s magnitude on the normal trace. Greater cupping resistance is considered desirable.


Measuring A Cupped Mic

What you might think would happen isn’t what happens.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

The most popular article on this site to date is the one where I talk about why cupping a vocal mic is generally a “bad things category” sort of experience. In that piece, I explain some general issues with wrapping one’s hand around a microphone grill, but there’s something I didn’t do:

I didn’t measure anything.

That reality finally dawned on me, so I decided to do a quck-n-dirty experiment on how a microphone’s transfer function changes when cupping comes into play. Different mics will do different things, so any measurement is only valid for one mic in one situation. However, even if the results can’t truly be generalized, they are illuminating.

In the following picture, the red trace is a mic pointing away from a speaker, as you would want to happen in monitor-world. The black trace is the mic in the same position, except with my hand covering a large portion of the windscreen mesh.

You would think that covering a large part of the mic’s business-end would kill off a lot of midrange and high-frequency information, but the measurement says otherwise. The high-mid and HF information is actually rather hotter, with large peaks at 1800 Hz, 3900 Hz, and 9000 Hz. The low frequency response below 200 Hz is also given a small kick in the pants. Overall, the microphone transfer function is “wild,” with more pronounced differences between peaks and dips.

The upshot? The transducer’s feedback characteristics get harder to manage, and the sonic characteristics of the unit begin to favor the most annoying parts of the audible spectrum.

Like I said, this experiment is only valid for one mic (a Sennheiser e822s that I had handy). At the same time, my experience is that other mics have “cupping behavior” which is not entirely dissimilar.


How To Buy A Microphone For Live Performance

A guest-post for Schwilly Family Musicians

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

vintage_microphone-wallpaper-1280x800

From the article: “At the same time, though, a LOT of mics that are great for recording are a giant ball of trouble for live audio. Sure, they sound perfect when you’re in a vocal booth with headphones on, but that’s at least one whole universe removed from the brutal world of concert sound. They’re too fragile, too finicky, too heavy, their pickup patterns are too wide, and you can’t get close enough to them to leverage your vocal power.”


The whole thing is available for free, so go ahead and take a gander.


I Am SO Over Wireless

Another “Schwilly” article.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

wirelessWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

“If you are an audio person or a musician, someone you know will eventually want to do things involving audio (or data representing audio) and radio waves. They will think that such an idea is brilliant. They will think it will be so very nifty to be un-tethered and free, wild like the stallions and mares which once loped across the mighty plains of America’s central expanse, majestic in their equine kingship ov-

Yeah. About that. Don’t believe it. Wireless is a pain in the donkey.”


Read the whole thing for free at Schwilly Family Musicians.


The Loudest Thing At The Capsule Always Wins

Mics are not “smart,” and they can’t “reach.” Whatever pressure event is happening at the capsule is what they turn into electricity.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

loudestthingwinsWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

“A big, sort of “omnibus” myth is that microphones have some sort of magical ability to discriminate between what you want them to pick up and everything else. This myth manifests in such (understandable but spurious) notions like mics with higher sensitivity being necessary for quiet singers. The idea is that higher sensitivity allows the mic to “reach” farther from itself, and grab the sound of the vocalist. Also, the thought includes a guess that feedback might be reduced, because less post-mic gain is applied.

Like I said, this is understandable, but inaccurate.”


The entire article is available, for free, at Schwilly Family Musicians.


The Sublime Beauty Of Cheap, Old, Dinged-Up Gear

Some things can be used, and used hard, without worry.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

I really do think that classy gear is a good idea in the general case. I think it sends a very important signal when a band walks into a room, and their overwhelming impression is that of equipment which is well-maintained and worth a couple of dollars. When a room is filled with boxes and bits that all look like they’re about to fail, the gigs in that room stand a good chance of being trouble-filled. In that case, musician anxiety is completely justified.

In the past, I have made updates to gear almost purely for the sake of “politics.” I don’t regret it.

At the same time, though, “new n’ shiny” equipment isn’t a guarantee of success. I’ve had new gear that developed problems very quickly, but more than that, new and spendy gear tends to make you ginger (in the timid sense). You can end up being so worried about something getting scratched up or de-spec’d that you forget the purpose of the device: It’s there to be used.

And that’s where the sublime beauty of inexpensive, well-worn equipment comes in. You’ve found a hidden gem, used it successfully in the past, will probably keep using it successfully in the future, and you can even abuse it a bit in the name of experimentation.

Case Study: Regular Kick Mics Are Boring

I’ve used spendy kick mics, and I’ve used cheap kick mics. They’ve all sounded pretty okay. The spendy ones are pre-tuned to sound more impressive, and that’s cool enough.

…but, you know, I find the whole “kick mic” thing to be kinda boring. It’s all just a bunch of iteration or imitation on making a large-diaphragm dynamic. Different mics do, of course, exhibit different flavors, but there’s a point where it all seems pretty generic. It doesn’t help that folks are so “conditioned” by that generic-ness – that is, if it doesn’t LOOK like a kick mic, it can’t be any good. (And, if it doesn’t COST like a kick mic, it can’t be any good.)

I once had a player inquire after a transducer I used on his bass drum. He seemed pretty interested in it based on how it worked during the show, and wanted to know how expensive it was. I told him, and he was totally turned OFF…by the mic NOT costing $200. He stated, “I’m only interested in expensive mics,” and in my head, I’m going, “Why? This one did a good enough job that you started asking questions about it. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

Anyway, the homogeneity of contemporary kick mic-ery is just getting dull for me. It’s like how modern car manufacturers are terrified to “color outside the lines” with any consumer model.

To get un-bored, I’ve started doing things that expose the greatness of “cheap, old, and dinged up.” In the past, I tried (and generally enjoyed) using a Behringer ECM8000 for bass drum duty. Mine was from back when they were only $40, had been used quite a bit, and had been dropped a few times. This was not a pristine, hardwood-cased, ultra-precision measurement mic that would be a real bear to replace. It was a knock-around unit that I had gotten my money out of, so if my experiment killed it I would not be enduring a tragedy.

And it really worked. Its small diameter made it easy to maneuver inside kick ports, and its long body made it easy to get a good ways inside those same kick ports. The omni pattern had its downsides, certainly. Getting the drum to the point of being “stupid loud” in FOH or the drumfill wasn’t going to happen, but that’s pretty rare for me. At an academic level, I’m sure the tiny diaphragm had no trouble reacting quickly to transients, although it’s not like I noticed anything dramatic. Mostly, the mic “sounded like a drum to me” without having to be exactly like every other bass-drum mic you’re likely to find. The point was to see if it could work, and it definitely did.

My current “thing” bears a certain similarity, only on the other end of the condenser spectrum. I have an old, very beat-up MXL 990 LDC, which I got when they were $20 cheaper. I thought to myself, “I wonder what happens if I get a bar-towel and toss this in a kick drum?” What I found out is that it works very nicely. The mic does seem to lightly distort, but the distortion is sorta nifty. I’m also freed from being required to use a stand. The 990 might die from this someday, but it’s held up well so far. Plus, again, it was cheap, already well used, and definitely not in pristine condition. I don’t have to worry about it.

Inoculation Against Worry Makes You Nicer

Obviously, an unworried relationship with your gear is good for you, but it’s also good in a political sense. Consternation over having a precious and unblemished item potentially damaged can make you jumpy and unpleasant to be around. There are folks who are so touchy about their rigs that you wonder how they can get any work done.

Of course, an overall attitude of “this stuff is meant to be used” is needed. Live-audio is a rough and tumble affair, and some things that you’ve invested in just aren’t going to make it out alive. Knowing this about everything, from the really expensive bits to the $20 mic that’s surprisingly brilliant, helps you to maintain perspective and calmness.

The thing with affordable equipment (that you’ve managed to hold on to and really use) is that it feeds this attitude. You don’t have to panic about it being scuffed up, dropped, misplaced, or finally going out with a bang. As such, you can be calm with people. You don’t have to jump down someone’s throat if they’re careless, or if there’s a genuine accident. It’s easy to see that the stuff is just stuff, and while recklessness isn’t a great idea, everything that has a beginning also has an end. If you got your money out of a piece of equipment, you can just shrug and say that it had a good life.

Have some nice gear around, especially for the purpose of public-relations, but don’t forget to keep some toys that you can “leave out in the rain.” Those can be the most fun.


The Best Upgrades

If you’re going to upgrade something, try to upgrade at the ends of your signal chain.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

chainendsWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

This business is so “magical gear” oriented that it hurts people. I don’t know how many bankruptcies, strained relationships, failed businesses, and heartburn prescriptions have resulted from gear acquisition, but my bet is that the number is somewhere between “a lot” and “a gazillion.” Audio humans spend a ton of money, and what’s worse, there’s a tendency to spend it on the wrong things. The search for better sound is a journey that’s often undertaken through a path that leads into the deep underbrush of mythology, and that’s a recipe for getting lost.

One perennial (and expensive) mistake is pursuing upgrades to the wrong parts of the signal path. Folks get incredibly wound up about the sound quality of things like consoles, poweramps, preamps, and even cables. They thrash around, trying to figure out why things don’t sound “just so,” and run huge bills as they do. In the process, they miss opportunities to upgrade the bits that would really matter.

If we’re talking about the part of the signal chain that involves electricity, the bits that matter are at the ends.

Transduction Is Hard

Let’s start with what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that the middle of the signal chain is trivial. It isn’t. A lot of work has been done to get us to where we are now in terms of distortion and SNR. Very smart people have worked for decades to design and miniaturize the components and subassemblies that make pro-audio go. What I am saying, though, is that signal routing, combining, and gain adjustment ARE trivial when compared to signal transduction.

For instance, let’s take the INA217, an instrumentation amplifier that can be used to build microphone preamps. At around 68 dB of gain, (the base 10 logarithm of 2500, multiplied by 20), the unit maintains a bandwidth beyond the audible range. Nifty, eh?

You can buy one for less than $7. Buy in quantity, and the per-unit cost is less than half that.

Or, take a mix bus from a console. The heart of a mix bus is either electrical or mathematical summing. Addition, I mean. The basic process is incredibly simple, and though the circuits do have some important particulars, they are not difficult for an electrical engineer to design. (And, that’s assuming that they actually get designed anymore. I strongly suspect that most folks are grabbing an existing design from a library and extending it to meet a certain specification.) Insofar as I can determine, there is no secret sauce to a summing bus. There are better components that you can specify, and due diligence is required to prevent external noise from corrupting the signals you actually want to use, but there’s no “magical addition process” that some folks have and some don’t.

“Doing stuff” to electricity that’s already electricity is pretty darn simple.

Life gets far more complicated when you’re trying to change sound into electricity or back again. The vagaries of directional microphone tuning, for instance, are strange enough that they don’t even make it into patent applications. They’re kept locked away as trade secrets. Microphone diaphragms aren’t really something you can build with ingredients found in your kitchen (good luck with working on materials that are only microns thick). Just about any decision you make will probably affect the whole-device transfer function in a way that’s easy to hear. On the output side, the tradeoffs associated with making a loudspeaker driver are both numerous and enormous. Everything matters, from the diaphragm material on up. The problem compounds when you start putting those drivers in boxes and attaching them to horns. Big drivers move lots of air, but don’t start or stop as fast as small units. The box might be resonating in a strange way. Just how bad do things get when the loudspeaker is run below the box tuning? Again, a small design change is likely to have audible results.

Manufacturers continue to iterate on transducer designs in ways that appear “fundamental” to the layman, whereas iteration on other products is more about incremental improvements and feature additions.

What this all amounts to is that a transduction improvement is far more likely to be of obvious and significant benefit than an upgrade in the “pure electricity” path.

Beyond The Chain

Upgrading the ends of the signal chain is a concept that works even beyond the electro-acoustical sense.

Let’s say I have the greatest microphone ever made. The entire thing is built from pure “unobtainium.” It is perfectly linear from 1 Hz to 30 kHz, and has infinitely fast transient response. It’s not even physically possible for this microphone to exist, it’s so good. I put that microphone in front of a singer with an annoying overtone in their voice. Does that singer sound good?

No. The microphone perfectly captures that ugly harmonic. If I had a choice, I would prefer an upgrade to the ultimate end of the signal chain: The signal source. I’ll take an amazing singer into an okay mic at any time, but a great mic in front of a bad singer doesn’t help very much.

Let’s also say that I have the greatest loudspeaker ever constructed. Its transfer function is perfectly flat, with flawless phase response. This mythical device is then placed in an aircraft hangar built of metal. The acoustical environment’s insane reflections and smeared transients result in a sound that’s almost completely unintelligible, and even a bit painful.

A “basically okay” loudspeaker in a great room would be much better.

If you’re going to undertake some sort of sonic improvement, you want to do all you can to upgrade things that are as close to the endpoints as possible. If you’re not getting the sound you want, look at source quality, room acoustics, mic capability, and loudspeaker fidelity first.