New England Conservatory’s Ian Howell discusses what classical singers should know about microphones.
Ian Howell has stepped up to a lot of mics. Of course, as a classical countertenor, most of his live performances have taken place without electronic amplification. However, he has extensive recording experience as a solo artist (1685 and the Art of Ian Howell, American Bach Soloists), as a member of the all-male chamber choir Chanticleer (one DVD and eight CDs, including the Grammy Award-winning Tavener: Lamentations and Praises), and even in a voice-over appearance singing “Climb Every Mountain” on the animated sitcom American Dad!
Howell is currently a member of the voice faculty and the Vocal Pedagogy Director at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he also earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree. With diverse research interests (including the psychoacoustics of the singing voice), he has spent countless hours over the last weeks exploring latency issues (lag time) in online video conference platforms in order to create a more synchronous, real-time experience for online collaborative singing and voice lessons.
In the following interview, Dr. Howell explains what classical singers should know about microphone technology and how singers can get the most for their money when buying microphones.
Manternach: What are the most important factors classical singers should consider when choosing a microphone for making recordings?
Howell: This is a great question, and cuts right to how it is that microphones work, what is different about the various types, and what each kind is most appropriate for. Most people don’t even know where to start, so I’d recommend asking three questions:
- Do you want a mic that captures what you actually sound like or not? This may seem like a weird thing to say, but many mics color the sound. They may add warmth, presence, sparkle, boominess, etc. It is actually harder to buy a mic that is completely flat.
- Do you want to capture your voice with the sound of the room or in an environment that is as dry as possible? If you are recording audio books, you want the sound of the voice and nothing else. If you’re singing Palestrina in a cathedral, the room is really a member of the group whose contribution has to be captured. Microphones have what are called polar patterns. If you think of looking at a compass, and the mic is in the middle of the circle pointing north, the polar pattern summarizes which direction the mic picks up. Some mics pick up just the north (shotgun). Some pick up north plus some east and west (cardioid). Some pick up just north and south (figure eight). And others pick up the entire compass (omnidirectional). This choice is actually tied to question number 1, as a mic’s polar pattern can change the sound. The only truly flat microphones (for which the spectrum going in is the spectrum recorded) have an omni pattern with a small diaphragm. This is due to a couple of factors. First, the larger the diaphragm, the less responsive it is to sudden pressure changes. This means that large-diaphragm mics often add a soft sheen in the higher frequency range. Second, directional mics (the most typical is a cardioid pattern that primarily picks up north along with some east and west) suffer from the “proximity effect.” This means the closer you are to the mic, the stronger the low end of the spectrum. Radio announcers use this to make their voices boomier than they would be in person. I would say most classical singers are going to want to record their voices in a space—not just their voices—and that they want to capture as true of a spectrum as possible. However, even if a space sounds mediocre, the lack of proximity effect means an omnidirectional mic can be placed very close to a singer.
- How many channels of audio do you want? Most consumer audio systems are limited to two stereo channels, left and right. The most common ways to deal with this are a single mic (mono), a fixed stereo mic (two mono mics permanently attached), or two separate, matched mono mics to give you flexibility in stereo placement. Which set-up is appropriate depends on what situations you want to record in and on what system or device people will be using to listen to the recordings. If you’re live-streaming just your voice in a small space, it’s hard to argue for a stereo mic, since there really is no stereo field to capture. But, if you have three musicians, it might make a lot of sense to have a fixed stereo mic. It is easy to set up and will separate the players from each other. If you are recording in a variety of spaces, or want the option of close micing more than one musician at a time, you may want two mono mics. Stereo micing with omnidirectional microphones is tricky. It can sound amazing and transparent, but you frequently need to spread the mics out much further than you think. The rule of thumb is for every foot the mic is from the performers, it must be three feet from the other microphone. This can take up a lot of space but, in my opinion, is really worth it if you want to include the sound of the room. All fixed stereo microphones are directional for this reason.
If you can answer these initial questions, you really can narrow down what type of mic you want.
Manternach: If money were no object, which microphones would you recommend?
Howell: Based on the recommendations above, as a classical singer, I use flat-response omni-directional, small diaphragm, condenser microphones, using either a mono mic in a small space or stereo mics in a nice space. I can break down those words. Flat response means that the mic does not change the color of the sound. Omni-directional means that the mic listens in all directions, which captures more of the room’s sound. Small diaphragm means the mic is incredibly detailed, especially in the higher frequency ranges important to classical singers. A condenser microphone is very sensitive and requires a small amount of power to work. Usually condenser mics are thought of as the opposite of a dynamic stage mic, which is less sensitive and detailed. Specifically, I use an Earthworks omnidirectional measurement microphone. It is neither a cheap mic nor the most expensive. The low-end M23 lists for $499.
However, if my goals were different and I wanted a mic that provided some coloration, the sky is the limit. The AKG 414 (large diaphragm/multi-polar pattern) is a mainstay in recording studios and has a beautiful balance of warmth and a smooth sparkle. That is a $900 mic. It will never provide a flat response, but it sounds great. And there are literally a dozen other mass-produced microphones that are similarly incredible. Each sounds a little different, but they all sound good.
Manternach: Since money IS an object, which economically-priced microphone do you feel will deliver the best quality for the cost?
Howell: This is the question, right? I would say first that audio equipment is one of the few industries where you truly get what you pay for. Once you are in the thin air of paying multiple thousands of dollars for a microphone, it is impossible to suggest that one is better than another. Ferrari and McLaren cars are both incredible machines—they’re just different. What makes them incredible is three things: design, materials, and quality control. I am not sure that the fundamental design of microphones has changed much for decades. This leaves materials (which have a cost) and quality control (which costs both time and expertise). You are not going to be able to make a $100 mic sound as good as a $1,000 mic. The compromises were baked into the manufacturing process itself.
So I would encourage reframing the question. I believe that many people have slightly more money to spend on audio equipment than they think they do. What motivates scarcity thinking is the fear of making the wrong choice—of having to respend the money. So, if you have $150 to buy a USB mic, you probably could get together $300 for something nicer. If you have $400, you probably could spend $600 with a little planning and additional saving. Just keep in mind that every $100 increases the quality.
Manternach: How should classical singers choose a recording microphone that is both of high quality and economical?
Howell: If we are considering budget solutions, we should talk about what a digital audio signal chain is so we can embrace the compromises we choose and aim for value where it matters the most. Microphones change pressure waves in the air into variations in an electric current. These variations are typically extremely small, so they need to be amplified. That amplified signal then needs to be converted from analog (continuous variation) to digital (the 1s and 0s that a computer can deal with). So, at minimum, we need a microphone, an amplifier (generally called a preamp), and a converter. If you take a popular USB mic like a Blue Yeti, which costs around $150, all three parts are in one unit. That means you are not buying a $150 mic. You’re buying a $50 mic, a $50 preamp, and a $50 convertor. Remembering that audio gear quality is tied to cost, that’s not a great set-up.
Author and professor Mark Katz has a great comment applicable to understanding USB vs. standard microphones in the context of this moment:
“To best understand these differences we must realize that any broadly used technology is intimately tied to other existing technologies … The automobile…can be understood in relation to other means of transportation, such as the bicycle or the horse. Conversely, an utterly novel technology—one that does not relate to any current way of doing things—would be useless. A device to prevent time-travel sickness would (at least at the moment) have little impact on human life. Essentially then, the impact in any new technology…arises from the differences between it and what it supersedes, improves on, or extends, and—crucially—the way users respond to those differences.”
—Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p.4
There is a lot to think about wrapped up in that statement. The $900 AKG 414 microphone might as well be the time-travel sickness pill for all the good it will be in the hands of someone without the additional technology and knowledge required to get great results. And, compared to having no microphone at all, a USB mic like the Blue Yeti, the Audio Technica 2020USB+, or the Rode NT-USB will be an improvement that extends the sort of technology a singer is likely to already have. Even a Zoom recorder like the H6 will be an improvement over a USB mic. Although, keep in mind that its $350 price tag includes two microphones, four external microphone amplifiers, several analog-to-digital converters, an operating system, and recording software. A single $350 microphone would blow the sound of an H6 out of the water, but it requires additional technology.
A good rule of thumb is to assume that the fewer things a device does, the better it is at what it does. A mic that is manufactured separately from an amplifier and converter will be better than one that is bundled. An amplifier that is just an amplifier will sound better than one bundled with a midi interface and other bells and whistles, or one that comes with four inputs for the same price as another with only two. Everything costs something to manufacture.
So if someone thinks they have $60 to spend, I am going to challenge them to purchase a USB mic that costs $100 to $150, and I am not going to expect it to sound very detailed or good for all settings (e.g., an operatic soprano is probably going to distort the mic at some point, and there’s nothing to be done about it).
If someone thinks they have $150 to spend, I am going to encourage them to spend $300 and buy a USB-powered audio interface (amplifier and converter in one) and a separate microphone. A single channel interface like the Mackie Onyx Artist, or dual-channel interface like the Audient Evo or Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 paired with a sE electronics sE7 cardioid condenser mic would sound fine. Add another sE7 for a stereo pair or spend the balance on a pair of open back headphones and you would have a set-up that is portable and a marked improvement over both built-in mics and USB mics. Or, consider something like the Apogee One, which is the one exception to the bundled rule. It is an audio interface with a built-in mic and the ability to plug in a second mic. Apogee makes dependable, nice-sounding equipment for the price point.
If someone thinks they have $300, I would encourage them to spend $550 and get an Audient iD14 audio interface and either a nicer cardioid condenser mic like the sE8 or an omnidirectional mic like the Audix TM1 (see Part 1 of this interview to figure out what kind of mic is better for your needs).
At the $700-900 price point, there are many options that sound great. I personally like the Audient iD products and an iD22 paired with any number of $400 mono mics or stereo pairs will sound nice. A Universal Audio Arrow is another nice audio interface at this price point.
Above $2,000, options really open up. You could purchase an Apogee Duet, DPA MMA-A, or Universal Audio ApolloTwin Duo interface plus an AKG 414, Neuman tlm 102, or Earthworks QTC30 (again, different mics for different applications). Or buy a Shure VP88 stereo mic or a matched pair of sE Electronics sE4400s. At this price point, mics are just different, not necessarily better or worse. But at the lowest price point, it is likely to sound like there is a piece of cardboard somewhere in the signal chain.
Manternach: Are there different considerations to account for if the microphone will be used primarily for online voice lessons instead of recordings? Can the same mic be used for both?
Howell: This is a great question. I tend to think that you want a completely transparent sound for lessons. You want to hear the voice as it actually is, warts and all. That’s really only achievable with a small-diaphragm, omnidirectional measurement mic. At the very low end you might consider a Beyerdynamic MM-1 ($199). A mid-price option would be an Audix TM1 ($299). You don’t need to spend more than the $499 the Earthworks M23 costs. (You could even spend $70 on a Behringer ECM8000, but I suspect it wouldn’t last the year.) All of these mics require an audio interface with an amplifier and converter. You would place each of these mics very close to the singer and a little off to the side. How far away you place the mic informs how much of the room sound is captured.
I think additional considerations to keep in mind for anyone looking to teach lessons in the fall are the requirements of real-time online lessons. It is possible to do this now with free existing technology. However, the speed of your audio interface matters. If you aim to take advantage of this kind of solution, avoid USB mics entirely if possible. And purchase an audio interface that is specifically marketed as “low latency.” Note that “low latency monitoring” is a measure of how quickly the sound gets from your mic back to the headphones plugged into the mic, not how fast it gets in and out of the computer. Fortunately, low latency interfaces they are not more expensive than higher latency options.
That may seem like a lot of money just to take lessons, and not everyone is going to consider this a priority. When I was taking drum lessons as a sixth grader, I am not sure I would have noticed the difference between the Blue Yeti and the Neuman with an audio interface, even if I understood that one was equivalent to a car payment and the other to a mortgage payment. But advanced students make sounds that can be meaningfully captured by nice microphones. If I could send a pointed message to administrators everywhere wrestling with the question of how much to spend to allow students to take online lessons (God forbid, if everything reverts to online again), it would be: spend more. Many people have a number in their heads that is unmoored to reality and based on nothing. Spend more. Spend more. Spend more. Your students deserve it.
Manternach: Do certain microphones work better with specific platforms (Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc.)?
Howell: Not in particular. Of the common, easy to use video conferencing platforms, Zoom is best equipped to make use of the information a nice mic and interface transmit. But I would suggest that teachers stuck with laggy conferencing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc., consider using a different app to transmit audio. It is frustrating to hear teachers constantly talk about managing compromised sound when crystal clear solutions are available for little to no money. There are many out there, but the two I currently suggest are Source Connect Now and Cleanfeed. They both use the OPUS audio codec, which allows for multidirectional, high-quality, laggy audio. The former is free and does not work on iPhones and iPads yet. The latter has a free and a paid version (only the teacher pays, not the student) and does work in beta on iOS devices. They both use the Chrome browser, so they even work on Android phones or Chromebooks. Both work best with open back headphones on both student and teacher. Cleanfeed has an optional echo cancellation setting which degrades the sound, similar to Zoom.
Learn more about Dr. Ian Howell, his scholarly work, and his performances at https://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com/.