Microphone Showdown

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On Saturday, we went to Long & McQuade to pick up some rental gear for our studio. Why not buy outright, you ask? (Especially when L&M is having their annual Monster Days Sale and you can score some deals on cables, interfaces, and mics). 

Because it's much smarter to try before you buy.

The biggest mistake I see newbie podcasters making is shelling out hundreds of dollars on gear they read about online (Blue Yeti anyone?)—only to find out later that it doesn't quite fit their needs.

A beginner podcaster might buy a USB microphone suitable for a home studio, but end up conducting most interviews in the field, where they'd be better served using a shotgun mic and a portable recorder. 

  "Haha Susan! Can you believe I got this microphone for $20 on Amazon?"    "OMG amazing! Maybe we should plug it into something."

"Haha Susan! Can you believe I got this microphone for $20 on Amazon?"

"OMG amazing! Maybe we should plug it into something."

Yes, podcasting is inexpensive when compared to video production. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't shop smart. If you rent before you buy, you have the opportunity to learn whether the equipment is:

a) compatible with your voice

b) easy to learn, set up, and dismantle

c) flexible enough to grow with you as a podcaster

So what microphones did we test out for Vocal Fry Studios?

This weekend, we tested three microphones against each other: the Shure SM7B against the Audio Technica AT4040 and the Sennheiser MK4.

Why?

Because these are some of the best-performing studio mics in this price range ($300-$600 CAD). We're not comparing Neumanns to Behringers here. Vocal Fry Studios is on a budget, girl.

We're comparing performance using the Motu 8Pre USB interface, and I'll be reading an excerpt of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

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With its higher Max Input Sound Level, the Shure SM7B can handle louder noises - it's not as sensitive as the AT4040 or Sennheiser MK4. But this also leaves it vulnerable to a higher noise floor without heavy pre-ampage.

All three mics have a cardioid polar pattern, which means they pick up noise right in front and a bit on the side.

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Let's put them to the test.

Shure SM7B

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The Shure SM7B ($525 CAD + tax) is a much-loved podcasting mic, and I'm familiar with its performance–I used it every day for two years at Canadaland. It's notoriously quiet (it doesn't take phantom power) and thus, is often paired with a Cloudlifter ($190 CAD + tax), which, when you think about it, brings the actual cost to $715.

So it better be golden.

Wrong.

Even though it's beloved by many, I have personally found it to be limiting. It's really only compatible with loud, bassy male voices (and for that reason, it handles plosives quite well). For everyone else, you will need to crank up the gain, which produces a lot of hiss. Real talk: I once worked with a woman both puzzled and dismayed that her voice didn't resonate on this microphone no matter how much we troubleshooted. We ended up using a totally different microphone for her voiceover work. 

Knowing all this, I still rented a pair to test out because I wanted to hear how they performed with my Motu 8Pre ($759 CAD + HST). I had previously used them with a Zoom H6N ($500 CAD + HST), so I thought that might have accounted for its poor performance in the past.

It didn't!

We tested this microphone out on the most recent episode of Safe Space. Vicky and Heather are using Shure SM7Bs, and Hayden is using the AT4040.

You can really hear the hiss, especially in post production when you add any kind of EQ and compression. 

Even though I tried to repair it with Izotope RX Elements ($167 CAD + HST), the hiss was still evident. It was so weak that even my Sennheiser e385 ($140 CAD + HST) outperformed it.

RATING: 1/10

CONCLUSION: I won't be getting these for the studio.

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Sennheiser MK4

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At last September's L&M Attic Sale, I picked up this little microphone for a steal. Normally it retails for $370 CAD + HST but I got it for around $250 + HST. Even though Vocal Fry Studios was just an idea (we didn't even have a name yet!) I knew it would be smart to start shopping around.

I used it to record a client's spoken word project and it sounded great. I actually really like how it sounds with my voice. But it didn't out-perform the AT4040, which was a lot clearer, crisper, and more defined.

RATING: 6/10

CONCLUSION: I'll be keeping this one as a backup and for use by those who prefer a mellower tone, but won't be using these as the studio's primary mics.

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Audio Technica AT4040

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The AT4040 has been on my wishlist for a long time. I love my ATH-M50x headphones ($200 CAD + HST) so much that I have two pairs. I'm a bit of a brand loyalist (you should see my skincare collection; it's a shrine to Laura Mercier and The Ordinary), so once I find a brand I love, I'm there for good.

When I was first doing research on gear, I had written down the AT4050 based on glowing reviews, but it's a fair bit more expensive than the AT4040. When Vicky and I spotted these at the rental counter, I picked up two on a whim. They are so sensitive that you can hear the rustling of clothing when Hayden talks during Safe Space.

The AT4040 sounds fantastic with both male and female voices. It also doesn't need a lot of power, so there's lots of room to crank it up to capture whispers. They're amazing value (and you can rent-to-own at L&M, with 60% of your rental fee going towards the cost of the secondhand equipment) so we'll be able to stick within our budget.

RATING: 7/10

CONCLUSION: Affordability and quality makes the AT4040 the winner. We've already returned the Shure SM7Bs and picked up two more for the remainder of the month. We've already used them to record the next episode of Secret Life of Canada.

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At the end of the month, if we don't like the AT4040s, we'll try the Electro-Voice RE20 and Rode NT1.

What are your favourite studio mics under $1000? Let me know on Twitter @vocalfrystudios, email me katie@vocalfrystudios.com, or leave a comment below.