With so many microphones on the market, it’s sometimes difficult to choose the best one for any given application. Many of us only have access to a small mic locker (mics are expensive) but for those of us who have a plethora of mics to choose from, a microphone shootout is an excellent method of subjectively picking the best mic for a job, time and preamps permitting.
What is a microphone shootout? A microphone shootout requires several mics positioned as evenly as possible to record a single sound source. The audio captured by each mic is then listened to in order to choose a [subjective] favourite mic for the full recording. Shootouts can take place simultaneously or in a linear fashion.
In this article, we’ll discuss why shootouts are a good exercise and the various methods on how to set up a microphone shootout.
Why Perform A Microphone Shootout?
Many microphones are cherished for the way they capture the sound of certain instruments. Here are some examples (with links to check out the mic prices on Amazon):
- The Shure Beta 52A on kick drums.
- The Shure SM57 on snare drums.
- The Royer R-121 on guitar cabinets.
- The Neumann U 87 on voice over.
- The Coles 4038 on horns.
The list could go on. For more information on popular microphones for certain instruments and applications, check out My New Microphone’s Top Recommended Microphones And Accessories.
Other microphones are go-to’s for certain engineers when it comes to certain instruments, sounds, or miking techniques.
But this isn’t always the case.
Sometimes we aren’t sure which microphone would sound best in a certain situation. The instrument, instrument amplification (if any), voice type (if vocals), room acoustics, environmental noise, microphone preamplifiers, and may more factors need to be taken into account.
Other times we want to venture out and get creative with our microphone choices. This is particularly true if there is a budget to choose between different microphones and the time to experiment.
In these cases, a microphone shootout is an efficient way of finding the right microphone or combination of microphones for a particular sound source. Rather than testing each mic individually, we can record a source with multiple mics simultaneously and then listen back to choose our subjective favourite(s).
Another instance where a microphone shootout would be effective is in comparing and contrasting microphones on various sound sources. We can use the shootout method and analyze each of the mic signals to find differences in microphones’ transient and frequency responses.
I plan on doing microphone shootouts in the future to better serve the readers of My New Microphone!
How To Perform A Microphone Shootout
In order to perform a microphone shootout, you’ll need the following:
- Sound source.
- Two or more microphones (with stands and cables).
- Enough preamps (ideally the same) to boost each microphone signal.
- Recording device (digital audio workstation, mixing console, etc.).
- Playback systems (monitors, headphones, etc.).
Choosing The Sound Source
The first step is choosing the sound source and the microphones you’ll want to be testing on that sound source. As an example, let’s say we want to find the best microphone to capture the sound of a snare drum.
Selecting The Microphones For The Shootout
Next, choose the microphones in your locker that you’d like to test in the shootout and ensure you have enough mic clips, stands, cables, and preamps to properly setup each microphone.
For our example, let’s say we have 5 microphones in mind for the shootout and the necessary hardware. The microphones (again with link to Amazon) could be:
Positioning The Microphones Fairly
Try to position the microphones in a way that best suits the recording. This could means close or distant-miking. We could even shootout stereo pairs of microphones if we wanted to.
In our example, position each of these microphones around the snare drum as you would normally but try not to touch any mics together to avoid mechanical noise. It’s important to try to position the mics as they would be positioned if chosen. This often means the mics are equidistant to the sound source but not always.
To learn more about microphone positioning, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 23 Tips For Better Microphone Placement.
Top 8 Best Stereo Miking Techniques (With Recommended Mics).
Matching Microphone Levels
Once positioned, connect the mics to their preamps. It’s not necessary to use the same kind of preamp for each mic but it will help level the playing field of each microphone. Many studios these days have audio interfaces with identical preamps across all mic inputs, which makes this easy.
The next step is to adjust the gain of each preamp so that the signals from each mic are at the same level. We as humans tend to have a psychoacoustic bias toward louder sounds, preferring them over quieter sounds. Ensuring the same level across all mics helps us to make better decisions on our favourite mic.
In our snare drum example, we would get someone to hit the snare drum in a rhythm while we adjusted the levels to match.
To learn more about microphone gain, check out my article What Is Microphone Gain And How Does It Affect Mic Signals?
Recording The Shootout
With the levels matched, it’s time to record the shootout! It’s often best to only engage the sound source being tested, but it’s not absolutely necessary for the test.
For example, it’s best practice to only play the snare drum during the test, but we could play the entire kit and judge the snare drum mics in context.
This has the added benefit of testing for isolation and the real sound of the eventual recording but comes with the negative of poor signal-to-noise ratio and the difficulty of hearing the true sound of the snare.
Listening Critically And Choosing The Preferred Microphone(s)
Once the recording is done, the engineer, producer, musician, etc. can listen critically to the takes, going through each mic one by one until a favourite is chosen. Alternatively, mic signals can be combined in order to find an even better sound.
Once a preferred mic (or mics) is agreed upon, recording can move forward with the best microphone for the job!
Alternatively, this exercise could be done in down time to better understand your mic locker. Microphone shootouts can prove invaluable to better understanding of your microphones and preamps and the applications in which they perform at their best.
Microphone shootouts will develop your microphone selection and positioning skills, allowing you to better serve your clients and your own projects. Experimentation, like mic shootouts, is key to furthering your knowledge. However, the knowledge gained helps tremendously in improving efficiency in the studio and the quality of your work.
My New Microphone has plenty of articles to help you choose the best microphone for specific applications, consider checking them out!
What Is The Best Microphone? (Full Guide To Choosing The Best Mic).
Recommended Microphones And Accessories.
What are good mics for recording vocals? Large-diaphragm condenser microphones are typically the best choice for recording most vocal types. They generally have great accuracy and presence and help to accentuate vocals. For harder vocals, large diaphragm moving-coil dynamics may provide more edge.
What are dynamic microphones used for? Dynamic microphones are used regularly in studio, broadcast, and live environments. They sound great on all sorts of sound sources. Dynamic mics tend to excel (compared to ribbon and condenser mics) in loud, humid, hot, cold, and physical demanding environments.
For more information on dynamic microphones, check out my article Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.