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

Why Most 'Mic Shootouts' Are Fundamentally Flawed

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I hate them. Never listen to sound samples, and never in my life would I evaluate microphones that way. Not even for clients who beg me.

1. Sound samples recorded with MP3 or other lossy formats obliterate the subtle characteristics we cherish in a good microphone- characteristics we reward by paying disproportionate financial premiums for that last bit of quality.

2. The intended audience is never present when these 'shootouts' are made. For all we know, totally different mics, preamps, cables, distances were used that may favor one mic over the other, regardless of a mic's true merit as recording tool in a real-world working environment.

3. Speaking of distances: here is the most overlooked and biggest flaw of shootouts - a flaw so big, it will render any comparison between two or more mics pointless and inconclusive: to position several mics at the same exact distance from the sound source.

We see pictures of totally different microphones with totally different sensitivities and timbres being meticulously lined up so that their capsules were aligned within millimeters - all in service to the illusion of scientific objectivity. As if we didn't know that every mic has its own sweet spot- a factor recording professionals pay close attention to. Who would place an SM58 and a U47 at the same distance from the singer?

There is science and then there is stupidity.

The SoundPure videos are the worst. They start out by saying how crazy a person must be to even want the vintage piece of equipment in their test. Little hints throughout like “thankfully, the original LA2A didn’t malfunction during our test.”

David Satz:
Klaus, I agree strongly with your critical opinion of "shootouts" (a terrible name, too), but my reasons are different from yours.

First, though, they can be good for a few things. If you have two samples of the same microphone from the same manufacturer, and one is known to be in good condition, you can check out the other one for problems. You can also get a "data point" regarding consistency of manufacture if both mikes are new. If the mikes aren't the same exact type but are variations on the same design, it may be possible to get at least a tentative idea of their objective similarity or dissimilarity.

When two microphones with distinctly different characteristics are compared, though, anyone's choice of which one sounds better in a given situation and setup--source(s), room, placement--really says very little about what that same person would prefer in any different situation or setup. And that's true whether both microphones are placed at a common location or some engineer chooses the location that supposedly sounds best for each one. In my opinion your complaint about using a common location for mike placement is fair, but the alternative would be worse, with many more variables not "controlled".

There are also basic technical problems that spoil any comparison when not dealt with--and in most listening comparisons, these problems really have no solution--which in my opinion dooms the whole genre. Here are two big ones.

- Small differences in sound amplitude (say, less than 1 dB) are usually experienced by listeners as differences in sound quality rather than amplitude. When the program material is similar in timbre between two examples, the louder sound is almost invariably preferred no matter which order the two selections are played in. If two sounds don't have similar timbre, though, all bets are off. There's simply no effective way to match levels and avoid this problem of bias. This alone makes most "shootouts" nonsensical and misleading--false evidence that appears real.

- Differences in placement of just a few inches affect the sound that a microphone picks up, and so does the presence of any other nearby solid object. The designers of stereo microphones have to be very careful so that two matched capsules in the same microphone can sound the same as each other; the number of microphones that can get an equal "bite" of a sound field is always very small. "Shoot-outs" with large numbers of microphones are celebrations of ignorance.

Basically, when you listen to any recording but you weren't there when it was made, if you're not very familiar with the performer and the room, then you know what result was obtained but you don't know how it got that way. You don't know in what way the characteristics of the mike are balancing with or against some aspect of the source, the room, or the mike placement--a balancing act that's basic to being a recording engineer. Any two engineers typically get different results even when they use the same equipment in the same general way, since so much depends on details that the engineer decides on by ear at that time and place.

In short, we never learn anything from these comparisons about the results we would get under any other recording conditions. And among real-world recording assignments, hardly any two sets of conditions are ever quite the same.

--best regards

Studio work is mic shootout all the time.

You set a mic, don't get the sound you're after, try another one.
Only in real world's practical use can a mic show its qualities, over time.

There are too many variables involved to arrange a test scenario with universal validity:

Today the saxophone sounds best with a Schoeps, next day the next sax player needs a Sennheiser MD421 - those mics are worlds apart in a "shootout", so are the saxes ;D

A well sorted mic locker helps.

It's easy to "impress" a client vocalist who knows nothing about microphones and production, that testing ten different microphones on his or her voice  - all this wonderful personal attention - which extra time the performer may well be paying for - is justified in the cause of producing a  superior product.

That the "expert" is searching for the mic that allegedly best "matches" this one voice seems superficially impressive especially if the vocalist doesnt know any better.

What is the evidence that it works or is the best method? And best method for achieving what exactly?



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