Magic Mic

A Grammy-winning producer shares his insights to finding the perfect studio mic 

Getting clean, pristine sound begins at the source: the microphone. Designed to capture both nuance and ferocity of a performance, these devices are specialized for the studio. Some work well for specific duties, such as vocals, and others are able to handle multiple applications. But making sense of the seemingly endless varieties available is a dizzying proposition.

To sort it all out, we turned to six-time Grammy-winning producer, engineer and mixer Frank Filipetti. His wide-ranging credits include projects with everyone from James Taylor, Barbra Streisand and Foreigner to Carly Simon, Kiss, Elton John and many more. Filipetti has also recorded Broadway shows—and the distinction in approach is not lost on him. “We were in the studio with Korn and spent a week getting drum sounds,” he says. “At a Broadway show, on the other hand, I’ve got to get the rhythm section, orchestra and singers ready to record in 15 minutes. That’s the gamut of the type of recording we have to do.”

What separates studio and stage mics?
The studio microphone is optimized for sonic character and for capturing a wide sound range. It’s not necessarily as rugged as a stage mic, and often much more delicate. Stage mics are built to take a degree of punishment. But this may not always be optimum in terms of the sound—making a rugged mic also means having one that doesn’t reach into the subtleties.

What are pickup patterns?
In the best of all possible worlds, you’d have a studio microphone that could go from complete omnidirectional [picks up sound from all directions] to cardioid [picks up sound from the front] to an even tighter hypercardioid to figure eight—which picks up sound from the front and back, but rejects sound from the sides. Many will just pick up a cardioid mic and place it in front of something without understanding what the pickup pattern is.

What types of studio mics are there?
Main types include the condenser, ribbon and dynamic. The condenser microphone has the unique ability to switch pickup patterns. It needs to be powered—from a battery or an external power supply. Many older condenser mics had vacuum tube power supplies—and tube mics are still used today. The common way to power a condenser mic is using phantom power from the console or preamp.

How about ribbon mics?
Though there are condenser versions, the figure-eight pattern microphone is usually a ribbon mic. You don’t often see ribbon mics in a live venue because they’re so delicate. They use a very, very thin metal ribbon that’s suspended between magnets. You get a very natural sound from a ribbon mic. It’s typically not externally powered, though there are some active ones out there. But a typical ribbon mic produces a very weak signal, so it needs to be heavily pre-amplified before the signal goes to the console or into the interface.

And dynamic mics?
The dynamic mic is used both in the studio and onstage. You’ll see a dynamic mic like the Shure SM57 or the Electro Voice 664 in studios. The Shure SM7 is another dynamic mic that’s popular in the studio. It has a very warm characteristic, and a lot of vocalists like that—especially in the digital era. In fact, a lot of mics that didn’t have great reputations in the tape era have enjoyed renewed recognition now. They’re valued for their ability to warm up the signal.

What are some of your go-to mics?
My go-to vocal mic is probably the Audio-Technica 5040. It’s a newer condenser mic, and it’s pretty remarkable. I also use the Sanken CU-44X and the Audio-Technica 4047 a lot for vocals. If I have the time and I’m doing an overdub, I’m also going to bring in some of my tube mics, like the original Neumann U47 or the Neumann U67. I also have a Neumann M269 that marries with my singers like nothing else. I’ll set up four or five mics in front of a singer and see which sounds best.

Some affordable mics for home recording?
The Audio-Technica 4047 can’t be beat. There are two versions: one with multiple polar patterns and the standard cardioid-only. I have a dozen of them and put them on everything. My standard guitar-miking system, whether it’s for Korn or Dave Grusin’s band, is a 4047 in front of the amp. I put it on horns and use it on vocals all the time. It’s versatile. If a budget dictates, the Shure SM57 makes a great option because you can use it on anything, and it’s very inexpensive. There are now some great-sounding, affordable ribbon mics as well. Then there are the tiny mics. I use Sanken, Audio-Technica and DPA mics that are the size of clip-on lavalier mics. I use them on toms, guitars and other sources.

What does a low frequency roll-off switch do?
When you pop a letter “P” into a sensitive mic, it picks that up, and the capsule vibrates because it wants to give you that low end, but on the other hand, that’s a frequency you don’t want for vocals. Some mics have a music/voice switch, and others have a switch that rolls off low frequencies. On studio mics designed to capture a lot of detail, the plosives become a problem we need to eliminate, and that’s why we use pop filters.

What makes a pop filter effective?
The pop filter helps keep the vocal plosives from getting to the mic capsule. If you look back to the early days of the Beatles, they have these metal filters that went in front of the Neumann microphones. By the time I started, Carly Simon came in and I’d have her give me a pair of her stockings. Then I’d make a circle out of a coat hanger and put her stocking on it. And it worked well. We couldn’t buy what you can buy now.

Recall any other times you had to improvise?
I remember working with James Taylor on his Hourglass album. He moved around a lot when he’d sing and play. So I clipped one of those tiny mics, an Audio-Technica ATM35, onto a popsicle stick and taped the stick to his guitar. And that was James’ guitar sound for that record. Those mics can come in very handy.

Advice for choosing a mic?
Go to a music store, put on a pair of headphones, and listen to three or four different types of microphones. For my money, nothing exposes a microphone as well as the human voice—which is great, because it’s so easy. You’re better off listening to someone else’s voice than your own, and the reason for that is bone conduction. You’re not just hearing the mic in your earphones, you’re hearing the mic and what’s inside your head. If you’re starting out with one mic, I’d recommend one with multiple patterns. There are more choices than ever before, and sometimes that can make the decision more difficult for someone getting started. But at the end of the day, use your ears.

–Mark Hutchins

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