R/E/P > Klaus Heyne's Mic Lab

The Myth of the Accurate Microphone

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Can we really make a distinction between “colored” and “accurate” microphones? Who decides what mic falls into what category, and on what basis?

Proponents usually define as “accurate” a mic that does not add to, or take away from the musical event it records: what goes in comes back out, exactly and precisely.

I think the premise that such a microphone currently exists is false. "Accurate" means that no audible or measurable difference could be detected between all the brands and models that make that claim, because, by definition, any “accurate” mic chosen would sound exactly like the next, given the same polar pattern. This, then, would eliminate the need to choose between mics - they all would sound exactly alike.

The reality in the recording field looks different. Some like the sound of one mic they believe is 'accurate'. Others like the sound of a different mic, with the same claim of accuracy. But if there is a 'sound' (i.e. color), none of them, by definition, could be accurate.

It’s frustrating to read discussions of the term 'accurate' in forum posts or microphone advertisements, because quasi-scientific arguments are used to prove something that, in my opinion, is not currently provable, given the rather primitive parameters available to quantify data related to sound.

My hunch is that people often refer to microphones as accurate that are emotionally unengaging, regardless of the sound source they are trying to capture. As if the absence of emotional engagement is a batch of honor: erroneously asigning a (positive) quality to a mic that is incapable of auditory arousal deprives us of the sensual pleasure of listening to music- it all stays left-brain focused.

Or, to put it even more bluntly: no microphone approaches the sophistication of our hearing. We might as well have pleasure while admitting the medium's eminent technological shortcomings.

End (or start) of discussion.

Update: post #50 is brilliant, and I have copied it here, for those who do not have the time or patience to read all the others.

"Good sound" is not (for me) an objective that gets completed, but rather a lifelong pursuit of a feeling. I hope that each record I make is better (read: more emotionally-resonant) than the last, for the rest of my career. I doubt I will ever feel like that mission has been wholly and indisputably accomplished. In that sense, there is no "ballpark."

And much like there's no objective metric to determine the "best guitar player," I feel there's no objective metric (or set of metrics) that can meaningfully determine the "best (read: 'most accurate') microphone."

Because things which can be measured are almost always relatively unimportant in the context of work designed foremost to move someone emotionally.

For example: There are many people who can jump higher, run faster, have higher IQs, and have more symmetrical facial features than I. My wife may even know some of those people, but she loves me. Why? Emotion is profoundly illogical. Those objective metrics have a laughably-poor correlation to why my wife might've fallen in love with me. Broadly speaking, to contrive to explain an emotional response in terms of available objective metrics is folly. For one thing, it opens us up to the cognitive biases of anchoring/focalism, the availability heuristic, ambiguity effect and the base-rate fallacy, among others.

Simply put: most of what moves us emotionally cannot be measured, and that puts us at risk of over-emphasizing things which can, when making judgments.

And so it is with microphones. If I listen to a recording of a great vocalist on a great U47 and instantly feel an emotional connection to the performance--more than the same performance into a microphone that measures quieter, flatter, more extended-- then which do I choose?

Do I choose the person with the higher IQ who runs faster? Or do I choose the partner with whom I've fallen in love?

Not everything that matters can be justified through empirical means. This is especially so in matters of emotion--and my goal with creating or capturing music is always to elicit within the listener an emotional response.

Brad Allen Williams

Jim Williams:
Until a microphone can duplicate the locational sensing of the human ear none of them are even remotely accurate. A person with only one working ear can point and determine a sound's location easily in a 360 degree field.

At this point of microphone design we are at the same point as the romantic painters were in the 17th century before the advent of modern photography. Yes, those paintings are very emotionally pleasing to look at but are not in any sense accurate.

Even if you isolate one variable-- say "frequency response"-- invariably, other variables creep in.

One microphone might be "perfectly flat" in an anechoic chamber directly on-axis at a distance of 1m, but what happens when you're 90 degrees off-axis? What happens when you're 10 cm away, or 20m away?

Well like any other measuring tool, mics are accurate within certain tolerances and limits, but the key is understanding those limits to produce very accurate results.

I suspect at least some of the distrust of mics as accurate comes from ignorance rather than knowledge. In the field of  acoustic measurement, there have been extraordinarily accurate mics around, such as from B and K, for many decades. Of course there are trade offs, such as frequency response vs S/N, and directionality vs proximity effect and polar pattern linearity, but the skilled person knows these limitations and carefully works within them.


If what you say were correct, why don't more people use B&K/DPA mics? Their specs (which are always statically measured-on data point at one time, because we still have no way to look at a microphone in action) are certainly hard to beat: s/n and frequency linearity are exemplary.

Yet, they are not considered "musical" by most artists, music engineers and producers, and rarely find usage in recording studios.

What might they be missing?


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