Harsh economic conditions are forcing audio recording facilities to make smart purchasing decisions in every area of their business. Fortunately, developments in component technology and increased access to a skilled Asian workforce have led to a proliferation of inexpensive, high-quality microphones.
For example, Studio Projects' B series mics have a one-piece, spun-brass body and a three-micron capsule. Its C series has a dual-cast body and a six-micron capsule. Both series include two FET models and a dual-triode tube model. I recently performed a blind test between Neumann's U87 and the C1 and C3 mics, with the help of longtime U87 owner Joe Cerisano, one of the premiere session singers in New York City. We recorded the same phrase three times, first with the U87 and then with the C1 and C3. On playback, the C3 needed a 2dB boost to match the level of the U87 and C1. Other than that, we were unable to distinguish between the three products.
The company brass attributes the mic's performance to its body design, saying that eliminating highly reflective surfaces inside the mic body helps them avoid a hollow, tinny high end. One design characteristic of the C series that is very different from the U87 is that it uses a solid-state FET design rather than the high-quality Jensen transformer used in the U87. This saves dealers somewhere in the range of $100 to $150 per mic, but some users feel that the FET circuitry is not as stable as a transformer. Will the FET circuitry result in a compromised sound over time? The jury is out on this one, but even if a microphone that costs roughly ten percent of another mic and tests just as well wears out more quickly, then a strong case can be made for it using the old price/performance scale.
Image plays a big part in which mic studio owners choose. High-end clients don't want to see inexpensive equipment in the rooms they use. As a result, companies like Studio Projects are correctly eyeballing the project-studio market. As a result, Studio Projects decided not to manufacture shotgun mics.
Clients for shotgun mics (television stations, primarily) can't afford to experiment with new technology. They prefer the industry's proven leaders, including Sennheiser and Sony. Thus, the strategy of Studio Projects, and perhaps other microphone manufacturers, is to build small-diaphragm mics and a stereo large-diaphragm mic and expand according to market demand.
One day, the field may open up for manufacturers of low-cost microphones. But these days, live applications are handled exclusively with the products that have shown their ability to withstand difficult climatic conditions. Mike Pappas, electronics maintenance engineer for National Mobile Television, considers durability and performance to be critical attributes. For example, NMT uses Sennheiser ME 66 shotgun mics for covering tee and green locations on golf shows. They also use shotguns, typically Sennheiser MKH-70s or MKH-816s, on handheld cameras.
For announcers, headset reliability is at the top of the list. In these mission-critical situations, Sennheiser HMD 25s are typically used.
Recent history has shown that the encroachment of affordable technology cannot be stemmed. The new, affordable mics have found a home in recording studios (both the project variety and those that cater to the wider public) and audio post rooms. However, in all areas of audio production, mission-critical applications have continued to rely on traditional tools. Field applications, for example, are still handled almost exclusively with traditional, high-end gear. Time will tell if budget technology will be able to make inroads in rooms that cater to the upper tier. In the meantime, the continued growth of project studios and offline rooms ensure the success of companies that provide quality tools at affordable prices.
Gary Eskow is a composer and journalist who lives in New Jersey. He's held a number of editorial positions in the field of audio journalism, and is currently a contributing editor at Mix magazine.