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Building out the Home Studio, Part 6 - Getting a Good Mic

Sometimes, spending more on something simply means you wasted money because another less expensive item would have worked just as well.

But, this is not one of those stories, much to my wife's and those hoping for a good budget story's chagrin :-). One of my first blog posts was about my first mic that I bought, a budget $150 AudioTechnica. For what it is, and what I was able to spend at the time, it was pretty good.

Recently though, I wanted to have more vocal pieces in my mixes, so I was working with several singers in my home studio. This was for them to gain experience being recorded and me to learn to mix vocals better. We managed some ok results - but still things kept sounding a bit muddy. Like this.

So I spent two weeks pouring over how to mix vocals, revisiting the tracks my singer had recorded and EQing all kinds of different ways - even buying a few recommended plugins and trying those - all in an attempt to improve the voice quality. While I was definitely getting better (having never really worked with vocals before), and had a better sound than my first attempts, I still couldn't make it sound crisp and lively the way I wanted. The way the "pros" sound.

Finally, after trying everything I was forced to confront the truth. My mic just wasn't cutting it. It was the only explanation left. The "mud" in my sound had to be because of the microphone.

Of course, this now meant I had the excuse to do one of my favorite things: research a new piece of gear. Call me weird but I love pouring through forums, gear websites and retailers looking at all the angles I can to find out what piece of kit will suit the best. In this case, for vocal work it quickly became clear it would be easy to spend many times what I could afford on a new microphone. Fortunately, there seemed to be several good mid range options that promised the clarity and quality sound I was looking for.

After a lot of research I settled onto the C214 or C414 mics by AKG. Both are condenser mics, both get great reviews. Both were highly recommended for vocals. But the C414 is generally about $1100 - $700 more than the C214. Ouch. I had pretty much decided to go for the C214 because of this - until I managed to get such a good deal on the C414 from Sweetwater that I just couldn't resist. So I closed my eyes, pressed the order button, and the rest is history.

I admit I was nervous about whether this investment was worth it. Would a mic costing nearly 10x what I paid for my original really be that much of an improvement? What if I used the new mic and still had the same muddy results? Then it would mean I was either clueless and talent-less at mixing, or that I hadn't correctly diagnosed what the problem was with my vocals and where the "muddiness" was coming from.

The moment of truth came the following week when one of the singers came back to the studio. We had her sing the exact same track as before and.... there was NO MORE MUDDY SOUNDING VOCAL! The vocals I've recorded since have been crisp, clear, and give me a lot more leeway in mixing the way I want.

In short, I am thrilled with this mic. It is very clear, picks up everything I could want and almost nothing I don't. My studio isn't perfectly quiet for recording and this mic does a great job getting the singer without the rest of the room noise (like my studio computer, or the singer's headphones) coming into the mix.

The moral of the story is, most things in music can be improved through learning new techniques, changing your approach, or doing some clever mixing. But sometimes, it really does pay to invest in the right piece of equipment to do the job! If you're going to record live performances, invest in the best mic you can - you won't regret it because it'll save you tons of time and frustration on the mixing side of things.

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