Benchmark:Taking Studio Mikes for a Test Drive

Audio is arguably one of the most crucial and often overlooked aspects of video production. Crisp, clear, balanced sound requires a high-quality microphone. So where do you begin? You could spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on a single microphone. Should you? We set out to test three different professional microphones, at three different price points (Shure SM58-S – $196, AKG C 414 B-ULS – $1048 and Neumann M 147 tube mike – $1995) under the same recording conditions to see what is available for the money. We realize that for many videographers, $2000 or even $1000 for a microphone might seem like a ridiculous amount to pay, but if you’ve ever wondered how the pros capture their incredible audio, these mikes offer a clue.

All three mikes were tested in the same studio environment designed for voiceover recording, using the same mixer levels for each. Each one differed slightly in its operating requirements. The Shure SM58 doesn’t require power to operate and the Neumann M 147 comes with its own power supply, but the AKG C 414 B-ULS requires phantom power, so we ran it through a mixer. Then to insure that we recorded all three under the same conditions, we ran them all through a Peavey Unity Series 2002 16-channel stereo mixer and into a Canon XL1, which we used to record the audio. We chose to record on Mini DV to ensure the highest fidelity. Keep in mind that this is not meant to be a head-to-head comparative review. Comparing these mikes would be like trying to compare a Honda, a BMW and a Ferrari. While all three make fine automobiles, they all target completely different segments of the market. The same goes for Shure, AKG, and Neumann. They are designed for completely different uses. This is an attempt to provide examples of what you can expect to get at these diverse price points.


Shure Beats Spending Two Grand

Shure SM58-S Dynamic Microphone

($196)

Shure Brothers

222 Hartrey Avenue

Evanston, IL 60202

(847)866-2200

www.shure.com

Shure Brothers’ SM58-S handheld microphone is a workhorse. This versatile mike can be used for a number of different applications. Its cardioid pickup pattern makes it ideal for voiceover work and location interviews. It comes with a small, plastic stand mount and a zippered pouch for storage. It has an XLR connector but doesn’t come with a cable.

The SM58-S requires no external power so it can be easily used in the studio or out in the field plugged directly into a camcorder as long as you have a 1/8-inch adapter to connect it to your camcorder. The SM58-S is a good choice for most video applications. This model of the SM58 comes with a handy on/off switch. Ruggedly built with a steel mesh grille, the SM58-S is often the choice of audio professionals who need a mike that can survive a lot of abuse.

For our test, we spoke at point-blank range, with lips almost touching the grille. Again, this microphone has a cardioid pickup pattern, so we held it below our mouths and spoke directly into the top of it for optimum pickup. It sounded great. From this close the sound was full and clear. Though it doesn’t create the warmest sound and it doesn’t have the widest range, it’s sensitive and we were pleased with the pickup. When we moved the mike approximately six inches away, the pickup dropped dramatically. It sounded like we were across the room from the mike (we left the gain alone). It has a built-in shock mount that worked well, and there was no noise from bumping or low-level vibrations. We came to the conclusion that though it’s not the most sensitive mike available, the SM58-S is versatile, durable and for the sub-$200 price, it is an excellent choice for most video productions.

Don Collins

Tech Specs

Physical Type: handheld

Transducer: dynamic

Pickup Pattern: cardioid

Frequency Response: 50Hz-15,000Hz

Sensitivity: n/a

Filter: n/a

Output Impedance: 150 [OMEGA Symbol for Ohms]

Max SPL: n/a

Connector: XLR

Signal-to-noise Ratio: n/a

Power Supply: n/a (dynamic)

Dimensions: 6 3/8 inches x 2 inches x 29/32 inches

Weight: 10.5oz

Strengths


  • steel rugged durable design
  • on/off switch
  • versatile mike for many different applications

Weaknesses


  • drop in pickup from 6 inches and beyond
  • no cable
  • soft case

Summary

A versatile microphone that’s suited just as well for the studio as it is the field. Though it doesn’t have the range that some of the more expensive mikes have, this is a perfect mike for just about all video production.


Superb Sound All The Way Round

AKG C 414 B-ULS Condenser Microphone

($1048)

AKG Acoustics Inc.

1449 Donelson Pike

Nashville, TN 37217

www.akg-acoustics.com

The AKG C 414 is a condenser microphone encased in an all-metal housing designed for professional studio recording of music and voice. It requires phantom power or a battery adapter to work; both are available as accessories, but neither are provided at this price. It does come with a windscreen and a plastic shock mount that prevents noise if someone accidentally bumps the mike stand or boom it’s mounted on. There’s a compact plastic case that it all comes in. It has an XLR jack, but no cables are provided.

The C 414 B-ULS has two really convenient features that make it an adaptable and flexible mike suited for a variety of studio applications. There’s a switch on one side of the mike to choose the pickup pattern (cardioid, hypercardioid, omnidirectional or figure-8). On the other side, there’s a low-cut filter to help eliminate low sounds and wind as well as a pad that helps cut the higher frequencies. We set the filter to 0DB and the pad to 0Hz for our test.

This mike is designed for studio use and requires a stand for proper setup. If you plan to use it in the field, you’ll need to get AKG’s battery supply unit for the C 414.

We recorded up close and from about six-inches away. At point-blank range, the sound was crisp and clear. It recorded whispers clearly and it picked up all sorts of aural nuances like breathing and licking of lips. At six- inches away, the quality remained good and we could still pick up whispers clearly. The pickup is sensitive and the quality is superb. This mike is versatile and strong, especially at close range. It delivers in the studio, but is limited for field use by its need for phantom power.

Don Collins

Tech Specs

Physical Type: side-entry

Transducer: condenser

Pickup Pattern: Switchable: (Cardioid, Hypercardiod, Omnidirectional, Figure-8)

Frequency Response: 20Hz-20,000Hz

Sensitivity: 12.5 mV/Pa (-38dBV)

Filter: 12 dB/octave

Output Impedance: 180 [OMEGA Symbol for Ohms]

Max SPL: 140dB (0.5% THD)

Connector: XLR

Power Supply: 9-52 V: phantom power

Dimensions: 5.6 inches x 1.8 inches

Weight: 11.3oz

Strengths


  • adjustable pickup patterns
  • adjustable low frequency filter and high frequency pad
  • shock mount

Weaknesses


  • mostly limited to studio
  • needs phantom power
  • no cable or mount
  • cheap plastic case

Summary

An excellent professional microphone at a mid price point.


Like Butter


Neumann M 147 Tube
Condenser Microphone

($1995)

Neumann US, Inc.

1 Enterprise Drive

Old Lyme, CT 06371

(860)434-5220

www.neumannusa.com

The Neumann M 147 Tube mike is a vacuum tube condenser microphone with output circuitry designed to keep noise to a minimum. Many people prefer the technology of the vacuum tube mike for its renowned warmth of sound that’s hard to recreate.

At this price, the Neumann M 147 tube mike is reserved for professional musicians, engineers or sound technicians whose projects demand excellence or for those with large amounts of disposable cash that like expensive toys. Though the M 147 would work perfectly for studio videographers, most video producers can only afford to dream of a mike as nice as this one.

Elegant and beautifully crafted, this sleek nickel-plated microphone comes in an impressive, sturdy aluminum carrying case. It also comes with a 30-foot cable and its own power supply with an XLR jack. We were drooling over it the minute we saw the case – happily, we weren’t disappointed by its results. This mike is awesome. Available accessories include a shock mount and a stand. Our only complaint was that for $2000, Neumann doesn’t include either.

The M 147 was a snap to setup. We connected it to its included power supply then to the Peavey, back to the camcorder and turned it on. It is a side-address microphone and we found it recorded best from the side at about nose level. It delivered rich, smooth tones with no noticeable noise. The sound was full and balanced. With the M 147 tube mike, we could hear the proverbial pin drop. At point blank, it clearly picked up whispers, gulps, swallows and light breathing. At about six inches away, it picked up normal speaking levels just fine. The sound was still rich, clear and full, though it did lose some of the subtler sounds. The M 147 gives a definite range of tones and sounds that would make it ideal for close-up audio work like voiceovers or even studio sound effects.

The M 147 tube mike definitely lived up to our expectations. Though overkill for most video applications, if you require top quality audio, this mike will not disappoint.

Don Collins

Tech Specs

Physical Type: side-access

Transducer: condenser

Pickup Pattern: cardioid

Frequency Response: 20Hz-20,000Hz

Sensitivity: 20 mV/Pa

Filter: n/a

Output Impedance: 50 [OMEGA Symbol for Ohms]

Max SPL: 114 (0.5% THD)

Connector: XLR

Signal-to-noise Ratio: 82 dB

Power Supply: N 149V power supply

Dimensions: 57 mm x 142mm

Weight: 460 g

Strengths


  • tube mike — warm, rich sound
  • cable and power supply included
  • great case
  • versatile studio mike

Weaknesses


  • needs power to operate
  • looks too good to use in field

Summary

An excellent professional microphone that not only delivers a beautiful sound but is lovely to behold. This microphone truly is a feast for the aural senses.

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