[Written by Tim Nielsen]
My name is Tim Nielsen, and I’m a micaholic. It has been four months since my last microphone purchase, an adorable little Neumann XY set in a Mono Rycote. I bought them from a friend, because when I saw them I just had to have them. Trust me. They’re really cute. You’d want them too.
I probably won’t be writing a lot of technical articles here on Designing Sound. There seem to be plenty of those already. I don’t have much interest in sharing endless plugin settings, or even mastering chains. I don’t much care about fade file type preferences, or your scheme for color coding tracks. I have those too, but explaining mine in depth won’t really do you much good.
But maybe with regards to recording sound effects, I might have some advice that some might find useful. So today I want to write about microphones.
I bought my first microphones from one of my professors while still at USC film school. It was a Schoeps MS Rig, two CMC4 T-Powered bodies, with an MK41 mid capsule, and an MK6 side capsule. By the time I bought them, they were already 15 years old or more. Over the years I swapped out the T-Powered bodies for phantom powered ones. About three months ago I finally parted with them, selling them to a friend at Skywalker for her first rig. That’s the first thing about recording equipment, and in particular microphones. Buy good ones, as they will last you a long time. Plugins, software, computers, will all become obsolete very fast. But a good recording rig should last you a long time. I have no doubt those Schoeps mics have another 20 years in them.
So this in article, I thought I would give a run-down of the mics in my personal arsenal. It’s a bit of a running joke around the ranch, my mic collection. I’m sure Charles Maynes has beat by a long shot! :) But the truth is, every one of these mics has a purpose, even if they’re not used all that much. So here it is, a list of the mics that are currently in my possession:
- Schoeps MS Rig: CMC6XT Bodies with MK41 Mid and MK8 Side
- Sennheiser MS Rig: MKH50 Mid with MKH30 Side.
- Sennheiser MKH416 Shotgun
- Schoeps CMIT-5U Shotgun
- Sennheiser MKH816 Super-Shotgun (x2)
- Neuman XY Rig: KM00 Bodies with AK40 Capsules
- Schoeps CMC6XT with MK2 Omni (x2)
- Sennheiser MKH8020 Omni (x2)
- Telinga Stereo DAT Parabolic
- DPA 8011 Hydrophone
- Sennheiser MKH800
- Rode NT1A (x2)
- C-Ducer Ribbon Contact Mic (x2)
- AKG C411pp Contact Mic (x2)
- Sennheiser MK421 Mark II (x2)
- Countryman E3 Lavalier (x2)
- Crown SASS Mk. II
My preferred and go-to rig is always an MS rig. If I had to choose only one set of microphones from the list above, it would still be the ones I started with, a Schoeps MS Rig. Most of my friends have one. I have two MS Rigs, one based on the Schoeps and one on Sennheiser mics. Either of these would make a great single rig for a person starting out (although both are quite expensive for someone just starting out). I realized as I started to write a bit about MS that it really needs it’s own article, the part two to this one, so please check back for something more in depth about MS and some tips and tricks I’ve found.
Shotguns and Super-Shotguns:
Back when I was starting out at USC, the main rig we had at our disposal was a Nagra 4.2 and a Sennheiser 416. It was really the first high quality microphone I had a chance to play with. It’s an amazingly versatile mic, and in many way would also be a very good first microphone purchase. It’s durable, has a great sound, a narrow pickup pattern, and the design hasn’t changed in decades. It’s a very versatile go-to microphone for almost any FX work, from animal recording, doors, machines, impacts, cars, even guns. The other shotgun that I own, the Schoeps CMIT-5U is very similar in pickup pattern, but is lighter and more clinical sounding. The 816s I admit don’t get used much. They’re cumbersome, and I actually don’t much like the sound of such a long shotgun. The off axis pickup sounds bad, and these days, if I want a super narrow field, I’m more likely to grab my parabolic. The 816s do look cool though, I’ll give them points for that. And one I bought very cheap years ago, and the other I traded for a Mackie Mixer. So I didn’t spend much on them, nor wood I. I know Tim Prebble in New Zealand records with them and has gotten some amazing stuff. For me I just don’t like the sound of them so much.
But a single good medium length shotgun like the 416, the Rode NT1G, Neumann KMR81, any of these would be a nice addition to any microphone collection. But the MK41 capsule in my Schoeps MS rig, or the MKH50 in the Sennheiser rig, is already a ‘short’ shotgun, being a hyper-cardiod, and for most uses, it’s reach is enough. That’s another reason I find the MS rigs so versatile, you’re already carrying a mono FX mic as part of the MS rig.
Neumann XY Rig:
Until I bought the little Neumann KM140/AK40 combo from my friend, I had never owned an XY rig. This is simply because with two MS rigs, I found no need. MS decoded is basically XY, the sound of them is very similar. David Farmer and I did a test in New Zealand between his Schoeps XY rig, and my Schoeps MS rig, and for the most part, it was hard to tell the difference.
But XY is a versatile recording method as well, very useful for backgrounds and general stereo work. The normal downside is that because the microphones are angled (where in MS the microphones line up on top of each other) it can be cumbersome. But XY has a fairly smooth stereo image, and in the case of my XY rig, is using cardiod capsules for a fairly even stereo field. In the case of the Schoeps XY mic, or the Neumanns I have, where the bodies are separated from the capsules, it’s still possible to get both microphones into a single Rycote zeppelin. I’ll buy the AK20 figure eight capsule for this rig soon, which will allow me to quickly convert the XY rig into an MS rig by swapping out one cardiod capsule for a figure 8. This should be the ultimate travel microphone set, allowing me to record MS or XY in a tiny package.
Spaced omni recording is a technique that can provide a very nice stereo image, particularly for things like backgrounds. It consists exactly of what it says, two or more omni-directional microphones, spaced some distance apart, anywhere from 30 inches or so, to up to 20 feet or more. There are few rules, so really just adjust the distance between them to taste. Omnidirectional microphones have a couple of very desirable qualities. First, they tend to have very low self noise. So this technique can be used to record very quiet sounds, even the simplest of room tones, where something like an MS rig might have too much self-noise. Second, omnidirectional microphones tend to have very flat frequency responses, especially in the low end, and they often go noticeably lower than other microphones. The downside is that you need two mic stands, at some distance apart, so it’s not ideal to a run-and-gun style of recording. Because the microphones are not coincident (their capsules are not aligned vertically) there are potential phase problems if the two sides are summed to mono. It’s advisable to use a phase meter when mastering spaced omni recordings to check for phase issues.
I have two sets of omnidirectional microphones, some Schoeps CMC6XT bodies with MK2 capsules, and a pair of Sennheiser MKH8020s, which are tiny and awesome, and are exceptionally wide in their frequency response, going from 10Hz to almost 60kHz. They all sound gorgeous, very flat in their responses, very low self-noise, very natural.
A variant of the spaced omni method is to use a boundary layer in between them, for example a Jecklin Disc or a Schneider Disc (http://core-sound.com/jecklin/1.php). I have one of these, and it’s a way to get a wider stereo image without having to move the microphones so far. It’s quasi binaural recording, as the disc simulates the spaces of the human ears, and the effects on the sound that a human head has. I find I don’t use it much, as if I’m recording with spaced omnis, I prefer an even wider image than I tend to get with the disc.
Teling Stereo DAT Parabolic:
Of the fairly specialized microphones in my collection, I love this microphone the most. I’ve owned it now quite a few years, and it still amazes me how useful it is. Most people think of a parabolic for bird recording, and it is quite useful for that. But it’s also amazingly useful for other things. I remember standing in a field in Minnesota, late one summer night, recording insects with it. The incredibly narrow field of it allowed me to get very different sounding insect beds by simply moving the microphone a few inches at a time. I could single out individual crickets even. The parabolic I have is made by Telinga, and it’s actually a stereo parabolic, and so is also incredibly useful for quiet backgrounds. Because of the acoustic gain of the dish itself, the microphone is very quiet, with very low self noise. So for simple airs, winds, I find it very useful.
It’s not a cheap microphone, but honestly it’s been one of my favorite purchases, and of all the mics that my friends ask to borrow, this one is probably the the most asked for.
DAP 8011 Hydrophone:
OK, I have to admit, that this microphone, the DPA 8011 Hydrophone, doesn’t see a lot of use. And it was expensive. And yes, you can easily wrap a microphone in a condom, or buy or build some cheap hydrophones. But I wanted this one for a few other reasons. First it’s pretty much impervious to chemicals and cold. It can be frozen in a block of ice (which I did). The problem with hydrophones seems to be, no matter what you think you’re going to get, you end up with something different. Because it is a contact mic, it has to be touching something other than air to pickup any sound. In the case of freezing it in a block of ice, as soon as the ice started to melt, air formed around the microphone and it didn’t pick up any sound. I still got some interesting material by adding water back in. Some of the best recordings I’ve gotten with it were in a Jacuzzi, moving the microphone around the jets of water. I’m not sure I could advise anyone to spend the money for the DPA, the amount of really useful stuff I’ve gotten with it probably wasn’t worth it.
This is a mono studio microphone that I use mainly for recording on the Foley stage. It’s a very quiet microphone with variable pickup patterns. But the really nice feature of this microphone is that it has an extended frequency range. It is relatively flat up to about 50kHz. For recording at 96k, and with the right source material, it preserves and captures some really high end harmonics, that when pitching sound down, can keep the sound from sounding muted. Mind you, most of what you record will not have any sounds that high. But for recording metal, even human vocals, and a variety of sounds, having that extended reach can be useful. It’s not ideal for use in the field, it’s a side-address microphone, and I’ve never bothered mounting it into a zeppelin. But for War Horse, the recordists borrowed it, put it quite a ways downstream and recorded some amazing artillery bys with it. It’s the most expensive single microphone I own. Someday if I win the lottery I’ll buy another one to do some stereo recording with it.
Rode NT1A Pair:
I bought these microphones years ago for two reasons. First, they’re very inexpensive, I think $199 each. Second, they have the lowest self-noise of any microphones I own, coming in around 5dBA I think. I bought them for recording the quietest types of sounds. They don’t sound brilliant, but they’re still useful sometimes for super quiet sounds, or when I want to put a microphone in harms way without worrying too much about the cost should it get destroyed. It’s a large diaphragm studio mic though, so they’re cumbersome to use out in the field.
C-Ducer Ribbon Contact Mic Pair:
These were the first contact microphones I bought, but I wouldn’t recommend them. They sound fine, but since they were designed to install in a lid of the piano, they just don’t work well in the field. The problem is that they’re a tape / ribbon type, which I thought would be great for wrapping around things, etc. And it’s true, it works. Sort of. The problem is that the adhesive slowly lets them microphones pull away from the thing it’s touching, and you get a recording full of tiny ticks and pops any time you try and use them, unless you hold them very very tight. The AKG contact mics below were a much better purchase.
AKG C411pp Contact Mic Pair:
These are much smaller point source style contact microphones, and I find them very useful. For those who don’t know, a contact microphone (of which a Hydrophone is also an example) only pick up sound through vibration, through contact. In the air, they’re pretty much silent. But touch them to something, and they pickup the sound. And it needed be anything visibly vibrating, they’ll gladly record doors, cars, just about anything, as long as you’re touching it. This can yield some pretty interesting things. Contact mics are mostly fun because you just never know what you’re going to get. The main problem is that recordings from them are very dry sounding, unnaturally so. But for gathering sound design source material they are very useful. Glass, metal, equipment, trains, anything moving, rolling, vibrating can give you some quite interesting sounds.
Sennheiser MK421 Mark II Pair:
These are cardiod dynamic microphones that are useful mainly for very loud sounds, as they’ll handle a very high SPL. They were probably originally designed to record kick-drums. We’ve used them on guns mostly, although they’re nice sounding microphones, and would work well on anything loud, crashes, impacts, etc. They’re also not so expensive, so are another set of microphones I don’t mind letting get into harms way. Great for crashes or anything that might overload a condenser microphone.
Countryman E3 Lavalier Pair:
Having a pair of lavalier microphones in your bag can be very useful. For miking up cars, even guns. They’re also tiny and can fit into very small places, giving you interesting perspectives. They handle very high SPL, making them useful for guns, explosions, anything loud. They also tend to break easily, the wires getting ripped out. DPA makes some of the best omni lavaliers, but they’re very expensive, and I’m not sure the extra price is worth it. I know people who have built super tiny recording packages with just a pair of DPA Omnis though, and they string them up anywhere they can, using them in a spaced-omni setup. I find the E3 to be a good blend of decent quality and low price. And when someone closes the car door on them, severing the cable, I won’t be too upset. If you intend to record cars, a very common technique is to place one tapes to the underside of the hood (close it gently) and the other rigged up near the tail pipe (sometimes inside a wheel well for a back tire). Then by mixing them together you can get a nice blend of engine and exhaust.
Crown SASS Mk. II:
This is a microphone I bought on a whim. It was for sale on eBay cheap, and needed some work. $200 and a trip back to Crown saw the mic restored, and it’s been a fun mic to have around. It’s in a way similar to set of omnis in a Jecklin disc, it’s a variant of a spaced omni boundary microphone. But the mic elements are piezzo elements, and they’re placed right up against the flat surface of the microphone. While not the quietest, in fact the self noise is fairly prominent, on loud or even medium-loud sounds, it can be useful. It has a very smooth stereo image, and we’ve found it great on a variety of material, especially crowds and louder ambiences.
Next up a bit more about MS, about MS rigs, MS recording, and MS mastering, for anyone interested in learning more about it. But at the moment these are the microphones I have. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments field below.