The "Best" Vocal Mic

Recently, I received an e-mail inquiring about microphones; specifically what constitutes a good microphone. The reader had seen my post on rechargeable batteries and noticed that I was using SM58 capsules on the mics under test. That made him wonder about the report he had just received from a consultant who had reviewed their church’s A/V systems. To wit:

Good quality microphones give the biggest performance increase for the money invested. If the right sound is not captured by the microphone, then no amount of technical gadgets is going to be able to get a good sound. Avoid vocal microphones with high proximity effect (increase in bass response) (e.g. Shure PG58, Shure SM58).

I’ll start by stating that I disagree with most of that paragraph. Yes, good quality microphones are important. However, when you rank them on the “benefit for dollars spent” scale, you only get big gain for dollars if you’re upgrading from those 3 for $19 deals you see in the Kingdom Electronics ads. Once you get into mics that cost $100 or more, the differences are often subtle and in some cases, academic. Case in point; Bono quite often sings into an SM58. Should he be avoiding that microphone? I wonder if he’s ever tried the PG58?

So why do I think microphones do not provide the greatest improvement for dollars invested? Simple: What we do is sound reinforcement in a live setting and as such, I think speakers better fit that description. I’ll unpack this more in a later post; let’s get back to microphones.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of good mics. In fact, I’ve spent a fair amount of money recently improving the depth and breadth of our mic locker. A good mic can make a big difference. And right now, I’m buying new mics because I don’t have enough money to buy a new PA. So even though my other sound engineers and I notice that the PR-22 sounds a lot better on the snare than the SM57 it replaced, I’ve yet to have anyone come up to me and tell me that the snare sounds better. That’s because it’s a subtle difference and we’re listening for it (and we note how much less EQ is required to make it sound good).

Conversely, if we hung a new PA that had vastly better coverage, evenness, phase response, lower comb filtering and overall better fidelity, I think people would notice. To be sure, it’s going to cost some coin to make that happen, and for the same amount of money, I could have bought a truckload of mics. But I’m quite sure I could replace the e609 on our guitar amp with a U87 (roughly 30 times the price of a 609) and no one would notice.

So my recommendation to the reader was not to replace the drawer full of SM58s just yet, rather, investigate a new speaker system. Once the system can faithfully reproduce what you send it, then start looking at better mics.

Now let’s get on to another part of the report that I mostly agree with.

Microphones should be selected from a trial use after the rest of the sound system is brought up to standard. The more expensive microphones have a flatter frequency response (more natural sound, higher volume before feedback occurs), better off axis rejection (more volume before feedback, less pick-up of adjacent instruments or voices), lower proximity effect (tone changes at varying distance from mic), lower handling noise, better “pop” filters

Generally all of this is true. What I take issue with is the notion of “more expensive” microphones are inherently better choices. Case in point: When we bought our new wireless system, I specified one KSM9 capsule that I planned on using that for our worship leader. Turns out, it doesn’t work for him. And as we’ve tried it on many of our vocalists, it doesn’t work for most of them either. In fact, some of them really don’t like it.

So here we have a capsule that’s over $500, and for the most part, we and most of our singers prefer capsules that sell for less than half that. Quite honestly, I’d be really ticked if I had ordered ten KSM9s instead of ten SM58s based on the notion that more expensive=better. In fact, I’m going back and ordering a few more Beta 87s because in our PA, with our singers, they are a superior choice.

Does this make the KSM9 a bad mic? No! On paper, it is be head and shoulders above the Beta 87 or SM58. However, the less-flat frequency response, proximity effect and wider pattern make the latter two better choices for our vocalists.

And that brings me to the one part of the consultant’s report that I thoroughly agree with:

Microphones should be selected from a trial use after the rest of the sound system is brought up to standard.

Before you go out and commit big dollars on new mics, try them out. If you can get demos, do it. If not, buy from a dealer who will let you return them if you don’t like them. Try a large cross-section of mics if you can. The best choice might surprise you. In our case, we much prefer a Heil RC-35 on our worship leader over the KSM9, even though the Heil is 1/2 the price. And our student worship leader sounds fantastic on a RC-22. I’ve always been a big fan of the Neuman KMS105; we had a KMS104 on our worship leader and I thought it made him sound muddy with no clarity at all.

Most importantly, don’t let anyone sell you a microphone because it’s more expensive and therefore “better.” It may have better specs, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. Try it out and hear for yourself.