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Mixing An Orchestra With Don Hahn

Mixing An OrchestraAlthough there’s a lot of pretty good engineers around these days, not many have the ability to record a 45 to 100 piece orchestra with the ease of someone who’s done it a thousand times. Don Hahn can and that’s because he actually has done it a thousand times. With an unbelievable list of credits that range from television series (like Star Trek The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager), to such legends as Count Basie, Barbra Streisand, Chet Atkins, Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert, Woody Herman, Dionne Warwick and a host of others (actually 10 pages more), Don has recorded the best of the best. Starting in New York City in 1959 and eventually becoming a VP at Phil Ramone’s famed A&R Studios there, then later at Hollywood’s A&M Studios, Don has seen it all and then some. Don’s retired now but his orchestral technique is still the model to emulate, so here’s an excerpt from the latest edition of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook that illustrates how he did it.

“How is your approach for mixing an orchestra different from when you mix something with a rhythm section?
Don Hahn: The approach is totally different because there’s no rhythm section so you shoot for a nice roomy orchestral sound and get it as big as you can get with the amount of musicians you have. You start with violins, then violas if you have them, cellos then basses. You get all that happening and then add woodwinds, French horns, trombones, trumpets and then percussion and synthesizers.

What happens when you have a rhythm section?
Then the rhythm section starts first. Any time I do a rhythm section, it’s like constructing a building. That’s your foundation. If you don’t build a foundation, the building falls down. I like to shoot for a tight rhythm section, that’s not too roomy. I think that comes from all the big bands that I did; Woody Herman, Count Basie, Thad and Mel, Maynard Ferguson.

Are you building from the drums or the bass first?
The bass is always first. Everybody relates to the bass. I can remember doing records in New York and some of the producers would put paper over the meters. I told them I don’t care, just let me get the bass and I’ll balance the whole thing and it’ll come out okay. The only time I can get screwed personally on any date with a rhythm section is if the bass player’s late. There’s nothing to relate to because everybody relates to the bass player. If he’s not there, it doesn’t work. Now orchestrally, the bass players can be late and it doesn’t matter because I’m balancing all the other strings and then adding brass and the percussion last. But on a record date with a rhythm section, it’s the bass player and the drummer that’s the foundation and the colors come from the keyboards and the guitars.

Are you worried about leakage?
No, I try to get the least amount of leakage with as much room as I can. On Streisand, we put the bass player and the drummer in one section of the room with some gobos around, she was in her own booth, three other singers were in another booth, and the whole rest of the studio was filled with great musicians.

How has recording and mixing changed over the years?
Well, just for some perspective, when I started there was no Fender bass and one track only, with no computers or click tracks. Every date used acoustic bass. There was no synthesizer. Bob Moog used to come up to the studio sometimes with his synthesizer that he was working on. It was like 15 feet wide with big old telephone patch cords and tubes and have us comment on his sounds.

I think some of the problems you have now is the younger guys don’t go into the studio and listen. You must listen to what’s going on in the studio. Don’t just go into a control room, open faders and grab EQ’s. As an engineer you’re supposed to make it sound in the control room like it sounds in the studio, only better. You must listen in the room and hear what it sounds like, especially on acoustic or orchestral dates, and not be afraid to ask composers. Your composers, and especially the musicians, are your best friends because whatever they do reflects on what you’re doing. If they’re not happy, you’re not happy. Remember, the music comes first.”

You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

7 Self-Mastering Tips For When You Can’t Hire A Mastering Engineer

7 Tips For Self-masteringLet’s face it, recording budgets are tight these days and we can’t always send our final mixes to a true mastering engineer. With so many of the same tools that mastering engineers use now available to every mixer, it’s now possible to do a pretty good self-mastering job. If that’s your situation, it’s best to follow these following 7 steps excerpted from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook.

1. Don’t master on the same speakers you mix on. If you do, you won’t be able to make up for the deficiencies of the speaker.

2. Listen to other songs that you like before you even touch an EQ parameter. The more songs you listen to, the better. You need a reference point to compare your work with, and listening to other songs will prevent you from over-EQ’ing. EQ’ing is usually the stage when engineers who are mastering their own mixes get in trouble. There’s a tendency to overcompensate with the EQ, adding huge amounts (usually of bottom end) that wreck the frequency balance of the song completely.

3. A little goes a long way. If you feel that you need to add more than 2 or 3 dB, you’re better off remixing! That’s what the pros do. It’s not uncommon at all for a pro mastering engineer to call up a mixer, tell him where he’s off, and ask him to do it again.

4. Be careful not to over-compress or over-limit your song. This can lead to hypercompression. Instead of making a song louder, hypercompression sucks all the dynamics out of it, making it lifeless and fatiguing to listen to.

5. Constantly compare your mastering job to other songs that you like the sound of. Doing this is one of the best ways to help you hear whether and how you’re getting off track.

6. Concentrate on making all the songs sound the same in relative level and tone. This is one of the key operations in mastering a collection of songs like an album. The idea is to get them to all sound as though they’re at the same volume. It’s pretty common for mixes to sound different from song to song even if they’re done by the same engineer with the same gear. It’s your job to make the listener think that the songs were all done on the same day in the same way. They’ve got to sound as close to each other in volume as you can get them, or at least close enough so as not to stand out.

7. Finish the songs. Edit out count-offs and glitches, fix fades, and create spreads for CDs and vinyl records.

If you see a self-mastering job on the horizon, you’ll find that your results will be far closer to that of a mastering engineer if you follow these tips.

You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

5 Ways To Get Paid For Your Production Work

Production WorkIf you’re a producer, engineer or musician, chances are that you’ve been asked to work on someone’s recording. That’s all well and good, but how do you get compensated for your efforts? This excerpt from the just released 2nd edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook gives you 5 ways that you can get paid for your production work.

“What if the members of a local band ask you to produce them? What do you charge if they’re not attached to a label? There are a number of approaches you can take, although none will have you retiring to the Bahamas anytime soon. You can do the following:

1. Charge a flat project fee. How much should that be? So much depends on the type of project, how many overdubs you’ll need, the artist’s or band’s competency, the artist’s or band’s income level, and the number of songs they want to record. A jazz or blues band that has 20 songs will usually take a lot less time to produce than a pop band of eight will, because of the layering that’s normally required with pop music. And if the band has a marginal player or two, that can almost double the time spent just in trying to get their parts to match the skill level of other players (unless you can persuade the rest of the band to use a session player, instead).

A flat fee is the least desirable way to get paid, because projects have a tendency to go a lot longer than anticipated and will drag on and on when the artist realizes that you get paid the same, regardless of the time spent. If the flat fee is the easiest or only way to get the gig, then that’s what you’ll have to do. Otherwise, avoid it if you can, unless you’re very well compensated.

2. Charge a per-song fee. This approach is better than the flat project fee, but not by much. The per-song rate has all the same problem areas as the flat-fee approach, with the exception that it can sometimes cause the artist to scale back from recording 15 songs to 10 (even though it’s a hit in your pocketbook). You won’t have to worry about the artist wanting to record an extra song at the last minute or suddenly wanting to complete a track originally deemed too weak after basic tracking. With a per-song rate, if any additional songs are recorded, then you have to get paid.

3. Get paid on spec. This approach is the one that most fledgling producers use when starting their careers. The deal is that if the artist or band “makes it” (meaning they get signed by a major label and get an advance), then you’ll get paid your project fee, points on the project (a percentage of the royalties), or both. The chances of that happening are always long no matter how much you believe in the act, so be prepared to spend your time working for free. The one good thing here is that you’ll be gaining experience.

4. Charge an hourly rate. As long as you know you’ll get paid, this arrangement is the safest way to go. When, for example, you inevitably spend that extra week on overdubs or mixing, you’ll get paid for the time you put in. The hourly rate keeps people focused and stops them from adding those extra five overdubs “just to see what they sound like,” or from trying ten more takes when you all agreed that the third take was great.

5. A combination of the above. Many times payment can consist of a little bit of money or a little bit of spec, some items at a flat rate and some at hourly, or some combination. Try not to get too complicated. A simple deal works best for everyone, especially when it comes to getting paid. Just realize that there are a lot of options available.

There are a lot of good books on the subject of how to structure a deal for yourself that are more comprehensive then what was just laid out above. Even if you decide not to read them, get an attorney if you will be earning any money more than what the attorney will cost. At the very least, always get it in writing.”

We’re all pretty good at lending a hand when asked, but most of us aren’t that good at getting paid for it. At least one of the above ways will make sure that you’re compensated for your production work in some fashion.

You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

EQing By Frequency Juggling

Frequency JugglingOne of the best ways to make all the elements fit in a mix is by frequency juggling. That’s where you make sure that no two instruments are boosted at the same frequency so they never fight for attention in the mix. Here are 3 steps from the 3rd edition of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook to make frequency juggling work for you, as well as a couple of excellent quotes from Jon Gass and Ed Seay, some of the very best mixers ever.

Most veteran engineers know that soloing an instrument and equalizing it without hearing the other instruments will probably start making you chase your tail as you make each instrument bigger and brighter sounding. When that happens is that you’ll find in no time the instrument you’re EQing will begin to conflict with other instruments or vocals frequency-wise. That’s why it’s important to listen to other instruments while you’re EQing. By juggling frequencies, they’ll fit together better so that each instrument has its own predominate frequency range. Here’s how it’s done.

1. Start with the rhythm section (bass and drums). The bass should be clear and distinct when played against the drums, especially the kick and snare.

You should be able to hear each instrument distinctly. If not, do the following:

  • Make sure that no two equalizers are boosting at the same frequency. If they are, move one to a slightly higher or lower frequency.
  • If an instrument is cut at a certain frequency, boost the frequency of the other instrument at that same frequency. For example, if the kick is cut at 500Hz, boost the bass at 500Hz (see the figure on the left).

2. Add the next most predominant element, usually the vocal, and proceed as above.

3. Add the rest of the elements into the mix one by one. As you add each instrument, check it against the previous elements as above.

The idea is to hear each instrument clearly, and the best way for that to happen is for each instrument to live in its own frequency band.

TIP: You most likely will have to EQ in a circle where you start with one instrument, tweak another that’s clashing with it, return to the original one to tweak it, and then go back again over and over until you achieve the desired separation.

Jon Gass: I really start searching out the frequencies that are clashing or rubbing against each other, but I really try to keep the whole picture in there most of the time as opposed to really isolating things too much. If there are two or three instruments that are clashing, that’s probably where I get more into the solo if I need to kind of hear the whole natural sound of the instrument.    

Ed Seay: Frequency juggling is important. You don’t EQ everything in the same place. You don’t EQ 3k on the vocal and the guitar and the bass and the synth and the piano, because then you have such a buildup there that you have a frequency war going on. Sometimes you can say, “Well, the piano doesn’t need 3k, so let’s go lower, or let’s go higher,” or “This vocal will pop through if we shine the light not in his nose, but maybe towards his forehead.” In so doing, you can make things audible and everybody can get some camera time.”

You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

The Producer’s Basic Tracks Checklist

Music Producer's Handbook 2nd edition coverThere’s always so much going on during a tracking session (especially one with a lot of players involved) that it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed with the details and demands and overlook some of the things that can really help the session along. Here’s a Basic Tracks Checklist from my latest  Music Producer’s Handbook 2nd edition book that will help things go a little smoother.

“Before the basic tracks even begin, ask yourself the following questions to make sure your players will be happy and the sounds will be great.

 Do the drums sound great acoustically in the room? If they don’t, change the heads, rent a new kit or hire a drum tuner.

 Are the drums tuned properly? Before recording begins, the drums should have new heads put on and have all buzzes and sympathetic vibrations removed.

☐ Do you have a variety of instruments available? The greater variety of instruments you have, the better the parts will fit together and the more interesting the recording will sound.

☐ Are all the instruments in tip-top condition? Is the intonation set correctly? Is the instrument clean of any buzzes, hums, and intermittents?

☐ Are all the players happy with their headphone mix? Can you give each musician his or her own mix? Is a personal headphone mixer available for each player?

☐ Does the click have the right sound? Does it cut through the mix? Is it musical enough that the drummer can play along? Is it so “musical” that the drummer can’t groove to it?

☐ Does the click groove? Does it work better as quarter notes or as eighth notes? Is there a different sound for the downbeat?

Is the click bleeding into the microphones? Can the drummer use isolating headphones? Can you roll the high end off so that it doesn’t leak as much?

☐ Do you have the studio talkback mic on? Can you hear the musicians in the studio at all times between takes?

☐ Is the control room talkback mic always on? Can the musicians hear you at all times in between takes?”

There are other issues when cutting basics as well, but following this Basic Tracks Checklist will go a long way to keeping everyone happy and providing a very efficient session.

You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

The “When All Else Fails” Recording Checklist

When All Else Fails Recording ChecklistIt happens to all of us. We’re trying to recording a sound source and for some reason it’s just not happening. What to do? It’s easy to just try a bunch of random things but sometimes that makes you more confused than ever. That’s when to try this following recording checklist when all else fails.

The “When all else fails” Recording Checklist comes from the 3rd edition my Recording Engineer’s Handbook, and it’s a sure way to set you on the right path the next time something just doesn’t sound right. Here we go:

Change the source, if possible (the instrument you’re miking)

Change the mic placement

Change the placement of the instrument or vocal in the room

Change the mic (don’t be afraid to try something that you think won’t work)

Change the mic preamplifier (again, the most expensive isn’t always the best choice)

Change the mount of compression and/or limiting (from none to a lot)

Change the room (the actual room you are recording in)

Change the player

Come back and try it another day

The last point is really important and often overlooked. Unless you’re on a tight deadline and just have to get something recorded (in which case you won’t be picky about the sound anyway), sometimes it’s just better to pack it in and come back and try it another day. You’d be surprised how much different things can sound on fresh ears and a fresh mind.

This also applies to playing as well. Many times a player just can’t seem to get a great take with the right feel even though he’s playing the right notes. Once again, coming back the next day with a fresh mind does wonders, and often times you’ll get it in the first or second take.

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

How To Time Your Reverb Decay To The Track

Reverb front to backWhen signal processing is timed to the pulse of the track, everything in the mix sounds a lot smoother. This applies to compressors, delays, modulators, and especially reverb.

One of the questions I get a lot is, “How do you time your reverb to the track?”

There’s a step by step tutorial in my Audio Mixing Bootcamp book that I’ve excepted below. By the way, there’s also a video version of the book available on Lynda.com.

“Like with other aspects to mixing, the use of reverb is frequently either overlooked or misunderstood. Reverb is added to a track to create width and depth, but also to dress up an otherwise boring sound. The real secret is how much to use and how to adjust its various parameters.

Before we get into adding and adjusting the reverb in your mix, let’s look at some of the reasons to add reverb first

When you get right down to it, there are four reasons to add reverb.

1. To make the recorded track sound like it’s in a specific acoustic environment. Many times a track is recorded in an acoustic space that doesn’t fit the song or the final vision of the mix. You may record in a small dead room but want it to sound like it was in a large studio, a small reflective drum room, or a live and reflective church. Reverb will take you to each of those environments and many more.

2. To add some personality and excitement to a recorded sound. Picture reverb as makeup on a model. She may look rather plain or even only mildly attractive until the makeup makes her gorgeous by covering her blemishes, highlighting her eyes, and accentuating her lips and cheekbones. Reverb does the same thing with you tracks in many cases. It can make the blemishes less noticeable, change the texture of the sound itself, and highlight it in a new way.

3. To make a track sound bigger or wider than it really is. Anything that’s recorded in stereo automatically sounds bigger and wider than something recorded in mono, because the natural ambience of the recording environment is captured. In order to keep the track count and data storage requirements down, most instrument or vocal recordings are done in mono. As a result, the space has to be added artificially by reverb. Usually, reverb that has a short decay time (less than one second) will make a track sound bigger.

4. To move a track further back in the mix. While panning takes you from left to right in the stereo spectrum, reverb will take you from front to rear (see the figure on the left). An easy way to understand how this works is to picture a band on stage. If you want the singer to sound like he’s in front of the drum kit, you would add some reverb to the kit. If you wanted the horn section to sound like it was placed behind the kit, you’d had more reverb. If you wanted the singer to sound like he’s in between the drums and the horns, you’d leave the drums dry and add a touch of reverb to the vocal, but less than the horns.

If we were going to get more sophisticated with this kind of layering, we’d use different reverbs for each of the instruments and tailor the parameters to best fit the sound we’re going after.

Timing A Reverb To The Track

One of the secrets of hit-making engineers is that they time the reverb to the track. That means timing both the pre-delay and the decay so it breathes with the pulse of the track. Here’s how it’s done.

 The decay of a reverb is timed to the track by triggering it off of a snare hit and adjusting the decay parameter so that the decay just dies by the next snare hit. The idea is to make the decay “breathe” with the track.

Exercise Pod – Timing Reverb Decay

Before you begin any of the exercises in this chapter, be sure to have two reverbs with the sends and returns already set up. Set one reverb to “Room” (we’ll call it Reverb #1) and the other to “Hall” (Reverb #2). Refer to your DAW or console manual on how to do this.

E8.1: Solo the snare drum and the reverb returns (or put them into Solo Safe – refer to you DAW or console manual on how to do this). Be sure that the Dry/Wet control is set to 100% wet, and the return levels are set at about -10.

A) Raise the level of the send to the Room reverb until the reverb can be clearly heard. Does the snare sound distant? Does it sound bigger than before?

B) Adjust the Decay parameter until the reverb dies out before the next snare hit of the song. Does the snare sound clearer?

C) Mute the send to the Room reverb and raise the level to the Hall reverb. Does the snare sound distant? Does it sound bigger than before? Does it sound bigger than the Room reverb?

 D) Adjust the Decay parameter until the reverb dies out before the next snare hit of the song. Does the snare sound clearer? Does it sound bigger?
 E) Adjust the Decay parameter until the reverb dies out before the 2nd next snare hit after the initial hit. Does the snare sound clearer? Does it sound bigger?”

Overcoming The Self-Production Blues

Self-Production Blues imageOne of the things about having your own studio is that you can do a project at your own pace. The problem there is that some artists never know when to declare a production finished and they end up with “the project that never ends,” literally spending years on it. Here’s an excerpt from the upcoming 2nd edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook that looks at self-production and addresses the issue.

“Self-Production is simultaneously one of the most difficult things to do in music and at the same time perhaps one of the easiest. Every artist hears what their music should sound like in their head (that’s the easy part), but it’s sometimes difficult to get it to actually sound that way when it comes to real-life recording.

For many singer songwriters, that can lead the artist to overwork a song until it’s limp like a dishrag, or overproduce it until it has so many layers that it sounds like there’s a 30 piece band backing you up. Indeed, it’s difficult to get it to sound somewhere in between where your project is both exciting and vital, and still meets your vision.

For many artists, working in a vacuum can sometimes lead to new discoveries since you’re not beholden to any previously learned “rules,” or it can lead to frustration from not being able to get the sound that you want and not having anyone to turn to for help.

Let’s look at some ways to stay out of the self-production rut.

Overcoming The Self-Production Blues

One of the biggest problems for an artist is creating in circles. This means that the artist has so many good ideas that the production is never finished. As soon as a version is complete, the artist thinks, “Maybe the middle 8 should have a ska feel.” Then after that’s recorded he thinks, “Maybe the entire song should have a ska feel.” Before you know it there are versions in 6/8, speed metal and reggae (and maybe more), with each one sounding different, but not necessarily better.

If this is what’s happening to you, there are two words to keep in mind to help you out of your rut.

Instinct – Usually, the very first inspiration is the right one, especially if you’ve gone through more than a couple of different versions. You’ve got to repress the urge to keep changing things and learn to follow your initial instinct. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tweak or perfect what you’re doing; it means that you shouldn’t make a completely opposite turn in a direction that goes against your initial inspiration.

The exception to this is if you think it might be cool to have multiple different versions of the song available so you can give the alternate versions to your core fans as an exclusive gift, use them as a promotional vehicle, or because it’s been specifically requested by a music supervisor for a television show or movie. In any of those cases, a wholesale change in direction can actually be particularly useful and even profitable.

Deadline – One of the biggest problems with producing yourself is the fact that your project is usually open-ended time-wise. As a result, you end up with the “project that wouldn’t end” that keeps going for years (no exaggeration here).

The surest way to keep that from happening and to actually accomplish something is to set a deadline for the project’s completion. Many people do their best work on deadlines because they don’t have a chance to second guess themselves.

The final product may not be 100% of what you want, but remember that it seldom ever is, even with all the time in the world available to finish the project. Save yourself some heartache and impose a deadline on yourself so you can finish that project and get it out the door where it can do you some good.”

6 Trouble Frequencies To Be Aware Of When You Mix

Trouble FrequenciesWhenever an engineer has trouble dialing in the EQ on a track, chances are its because of one or more of the 6 often-overlooked trouble frequencies.

These are areas where too much or too little can cause your track to either stick out like a sore thumb, or disappear into the mix completely. Let’s take a look.

  • 200Hz (Mud) – Too much can cause the track or the mix to sound muddy or boomy, while not enough of it can make it sound thin. It’s a fine line, but many times mixers err on the side of too much and end up with a track that’s too thick that clutters up the mix.
  • 300 to 500Hz (Boxy) – Too much of this frequency area results in the dreaded “boxiness” sound, or if you’re listening to a floor tom or kick, the “beach ball” effect. It’s also a spot that some less expensive microphones (especially dynamics) tend to emphasize, which is why many mixers almost automatically cut a a few dB of this area out of the kick drum during the mix.
  • 800Hz (Walmart) – Too much in this area results in what’s sometimes known as the “Walmart” sound, meaning that it sounds like a cheap stereo purchased in a department store. Try it for yourself – get a cheap pair of computer speakers and you’ll find that 800Hz is what you’ll mostly hear. Obviously, too much of this frequency range is not a good thing.
  • 1k to 1.5kHz (Nasal) – This is the nasal range of the frequency spectrum and, as the name suggests, too much results in a vocalist that sounds like she’s singing through her nose. Once again this is primarily a microphone problem in that it’s poorly matched to the vocalist, but notching a bit out during the mix can fix it.
  • 4kHz to 6kHz (Presence) – This frequency range is frequently underutilized during the mix, resulting in a track that lacks definition. Without it, things tend to sound dull, but too much can make the track sound thin or, in the case of a vocal, sibilant.
  • 10kHz+ (Air) – Another widely overlooked frequency band, this provides clarity and adds a certain “realness” to the track. Many vintage mics have a lot of the air frequencies, which is why we prize them for their sound. The Maag Audio EQ4P has a special “Air Band” designed to provide those frequencies with a minimum of phase shift, but you can dial it in other equalizers as well.

Sometimes just tweaking a few of these 6 frequency ranges can take a mix from dull to exciting, or muddy to clear, so keep these “trouble frequencies” in mind during your next mix.

So You Want To Buy A Cheap Microphone

Real vs fake U87

Can you spot the fake?

I’ve received a lot of questions lately about my opinion on some very inexpensive vintage microphone clones. I love finding a great cheap mic as much as the next guy, but there are some things to watch out for before buying. I thought it might be helpful to repost the following from 3 or 4 years ago.

In many ways we’re in the golden age of audio gear. On the whole, inexpensive audio gear (under $500) sounds better than ever and is a much better value than even a decade ago and way better than 20 years ago. The same can be said for mics, as there is a large variety of cheap mics that provide much higher performance for the price than we could have imagined back in the 70s and 80s.

That said, there are some pitfalls to be aware of before you buy. Here’s an excerpt from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook 3rd edition that covers the potential downside of inexpensive mics.

“One of the more interesting recent developments in microphones is the availability of some extremely inexpensive condenser and ribbon microphones in the sub-$500 category (in some cases even less than $100). While you’ll never confuse these with a vintage U 47 or C 12, they do sometimes provide an astonishing level of performance at a price point that we could only dream about a few short years ago. That said, there are some things to be aware of before you make that purchase.

Quality Control’s The Thing

Mics in this category have the same thing in common; they’re either entirely made or all their parts are made in China, and to some degree, mostly in the same factory. Some are made to the specifications of the importer (and therefore cost more) and some are just plain off-the-shelf. Regardless of how they’re made and to what spec, the biggest issue from that point is how much quality control (or QC, also sometimes known as quality assurance) is involved before the product finds its way into your studio.

Some mics are completely manufactured at the factory and receive a quick QC just to make sure they’re working and these are the least expensive mics available. Others receive another level of QC to get them within a rather wide quality tolerance level, so they cost a little more. Others are QC’d locally by the distributor with only the best ones offered for sale, and these cost still more. Finally, some mics have only their parts manufactured in China, with final assembly and QC done locally, and of course, these have the highest price in the category.

You Can Never Be Sure Of The Sound

One of the byproducts of the rather loose tolerances due to the different levels of QC is the fact that the sound can vary greatly between mics of the same model and manufacturer. The more QC (and high the resulting price), the less difference you’ll find, but you still might have to go through a number of them to find one with some magic. This doesn’t happen with the more traditional name brands that cost a lot more, but what you’re buying (besides better components in most cases) is a high assurance that your mic is going to sound as good as any other of the same model from that manufacturer. In other words, the differences between mics are generally a lot smaller as the price rises.

The Weakness

There are two points that contribute to a mic sounding good or bad, and that’s the capsule and the electronics (this can be said of all mics, really). The tighter the tolerances and better QC on the capsule, the better the mic will sound and the closer each mic will sound to another of the same model.

The electronics is another point entirely in that a bad design can cause distortion at high SPL levels and limit the frequency response, or simply change the sound enough to make it less than desirable. The component tolerances these days are a lot closer than in the past, so that doesn’t enter into the equation as much when it comes to having a bearing on the sound. In some cases, you can have what could be a inexpensive great mic that’s limited by poorly designed electronics. You can find articles all over the Web on how to modify many of these mics, some that make more of a difference to the final sound than others. If you choose to try doing a mod on a mic yourself, be sure that your soldering chops are really good since there’s generally so little space that a small mistake can render your mic useless.”

You can read additional excerpts from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook or my other books on the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com.