Monday, May 6, 2013

Handheld Vocal Mic Shootout


This test was originally recorded on the Wirebender Audio Systems website. Currently, that page is live and contains pictures and other data that could be useful to you. However, the Wirebender site may vanish (along with the business) at any time, which is why I copied the article to the blog. Unfortunately, when the original page goes, most/all of the pictures will go with it. My apologies.

Description

The purpose of this test was two-fold: 1) we want to examine as many high-end vocal mics as possible to see if there is a reason to reconsider the industry “standard” vocal mic (the Shure SM58) as the go-to mic for all vocal situations and 2) if there was a clear winner I wanted to be able to confidently make a recommendation for a number of these microphones for use in our auditorium.

This is a subject near-and-dear to me. For most of my musical life, I've been disappointed with vocalists' (lack of) professionalism. If a guitar player, horn player, drummer, or even a keyboardist showed up at a gig or even a practice without an instrument, every other musician at the gig would be somewhere between unimpressed and disgusted by that lack of concern. A vocalist shows up no more prepared to put her best performance forward and everyone seems to think, "Awww, isn't that cute. The poor little singer needs someone to pick a mic for him." At best, we can expect a vocalist to believe that the world revolves around the output of a Shure SM58 and we consider that to be as good as it gets for singers. Again, no other musician gets to be this unaware of their primary instrument and still be considered "professional."

Like every other musical instrument, there is a "garbage in, garbage out" aspect to picking a microphone for a live or recorded performance, but that shouldn't stop a professional singer from knowing which instrument best reproduces or enhances her voice. A vocalist showing up with his own microphone just doesn't happen often enough to make me think vocalists are professional musicians, as a group. The fact that so few vocalists even know there is a difference between one mic and a hundred others is really depressing.

Part of the problem is that many live engineers don't know the difference between a mediocre vocal mic and the choices available. An engineer I work with told me that he can't think of a reason to leave the "standard." A client he works with regularly drives radio listeners crazy with the nasal, sucking sound the 58's midrange boost adds to the client's speaking voice. I guess that has become a trademark, but it keeps me from listening to the show even though I like a lot of the content. Convincing live guys to try a better mic is as difficult as convincing the artists to care about their sound.

With that bias out in the open, I'm ready to talk about this extended test. The premise of the test was "quality matters," even in a live music environment. The McNally Smith College of Music's auditorium is notorious for being vocalist hostile. There are 180Hz and several lower midrange resonances in the room that "harmonize" with similar bumps in the SM58 vocal mics that we usually use. That contributes to a muddy and honking tone that effects every vocalist who attempts to sing in that room. Not all vocalists are damaged equally. However, the more subtle the performance, the less appropriate the SM58 becomes for that task.

WARNING! There is one big downside to using condensers in a live environment that should be discussed before you ever consider this adventure: cables and phantom power. The live environment is not conducive to cable integrity and 48VDC can deliver a driver-shattering blast when it is toggled off and on through a defective mic cable. Before using a hand-held condenser on stage, you should be very careful in selecting the mic cable for this application and consider the talent and cable-abuse-tendencies of the performer. If there was ever a good time to consider quad-star mic cables, this is probably it.

The four hand-held vocal mics in this test are ElectroVoice's RE410, Shure's KSM9, Sennheiser's e965, and Neumann's KMS 105. The price range is from $200 (RE410) to $700 (street prices on all samples). All four microphones are cardioid condensers, the Shure and EV are electret condensers and the Neumann is a "DC-polarized . . . condenser " and the Sennheiser is an "externally polarized" 1-inch dual diaphragm condenser microphone. All four samples were well wind-screened, pop-filtered, durable appearing, and comfortable to hold. All four are audio frequency (AF) biased condensers. The heaviest was the Sennheiser at 396g and the lightest was the EV at 260g and the other two weighed in at 300g (the SM58 weighs 298g). All of our samples feel larger than the SM58 and a few vocalists commented on that ("This is a big microphone."); they are all about 20mm longer than a 58. With the screens on, all of the samples have a similar appearance, shape, and feel. (NOTE: All of the pictures on this page can be examined in greater detail by clicking on the picture.)

On the inside, there are some noticeable differences. The Sennheiser and the Shure take a similar approach to shock-mounting the capsule. The capsule body narrows to a thin neck near the body of the microphone, where it is rubber-mounted to the mic's body. The Neumann capsule appears to fit through an o-ring into the body. The EV capsule is suspended on a tripod stem-mounting. The finish of the Neumann and Shure are works of art, aside from being microphones. The Sennheiser is a lot more utilitarian, but still very substantial looking. The EV capsule looks cheap, in comparison to the other mics, but appears to be well-mounted and durable.

There are 3 different approaches to pop filtering taken by the 4 manufacturers. The Shure and Sennheiser use a relatively thick and dense foam inside the metal grill. The Neumann uses three layers of grill work--from the outer structural grill to an inner fine metal grill to a very fine nylon screen housing--as "carefully adjusted acoustic filters" to minimize plosives and sibilance. The RE410 EV has the simplest system; a thin foam filter lining the grill and another layer of foam applied directly to the face of the capsule.

The EV and Neumann come in cardioid (RE410 and KMS 105) or super-cardioid (RE510 and KMS 105) versions. The Sennheiser and Shure have switchable polar patterns: cardioid and super-cardioid. The switches are just inside the grills. The Sennheiser also has a high-pass and -10dB preattenuator switches inside the grill. This is an exceptionally intelligent place to hide these switches, since they can't accidentally be operated by a user.

The four manufacturers took three different storage attitudes toward these high-end vocal mics. Shure ships the KSM9 in an aluminum road case. Neumann ships the KMS 105 in a narrow slightly padded nylon case, similar to a small tool case. EV and Sennheiser both package their mics in the usual zipper bag. The Shure case is, obviously, better protection but a microphone bag is more likely to be the kind of case used for a touring mic.

We did some totally subjective "quality and performance" tests, first. With the sensitivities calibrated to equal values in the sound system, I put each mic's pop filters, handling noise, gain-before-feedback, selectivity, and other characteristics to the test. Since this was a subjective test, our measurement values are equally subjective. As a reference, we used a new Shure SM58 and a Mojave MA-200.

Then, we followed the performance tests with a listening test. This is, of course, even more subjective. Our test voice was a strong female vocal and she did a terrific job of repeating her performance from mic-to-mic. I'm not going to put a lot of weight on the "favorite" mic in this test, but I do think it is important to note that all four of our test mics were unanimously voted to be improvements over the SM58 and all four test mics were less popular than the studio microphone, the Mojave MA-200. Even through an auditorium PA, in a variety of listening positions, those selections were consistent.

In a particularly well-considered listening test, Pete Greenlund suggested that we all pick our two favorite mics with our test voice. Every vote included the Sennheiser e965, so we'd consider that our official "winner," for whatever that is worth. Likewise, in every test the SM58 was a clear "loser." No one picked the 58 as one of their two favorites.

Outside the semi-clinical test, we tested the microphones in a variety of performances. The best experiment was a vocal department showcase where several male and female vocalists performed a variety of genres; from stark 3-piece songbook jazz to rock to a full-out pre-produced R&B/Gospel number. Everyone who heard that show noticed the difference in how easily the vocals found a prominent place in the mix, without the usual EQ games and the associated irritation factor. Again, I don't think it makes sense to pick a winner from this experiment. It's more important to note that the overwhelming loser was the "standard" and that it was clear to everyone how complete that defeat was. If there was any question before, after this performance it was clear that upgrading the quality of a vocal mic makes a dramatic difference in the sound quality of the overall performance. The subtlety of the voices was dramatically improved. You could hear more emotion in the voices, more air and breath, and the voices didn't have to be pushed as hard into the mix as with the SM58. The quality of the whole sound system seemed to be improved by the vocal performances.

From another evaluation perspective, this show was also mixed for the school's iTunes U site. I mixed that show and, as in the auditorium, it was a lot easier to find a place for the vocals and to optimize them for the video. Again, there was no comparison between the output of any of these four condensers and my past experience with the SM58. Just as there are only certain applications for a mid-sized dynamic vocal mic in the studio, you can make a case for limiting its use in a live environment. When the application fits, the 58 is a fine choice. It is a durable, well-regarded, always dependable, somewhat limited vocal microphone and, as long as you know what you are getting, you can use it appropriately. When a vocalist knows how to use a microphone to get the most out of her voice, our test proved that it's worth upgrading to take advantage of the talent.

Microphones Under Test

ElectroVoice RE410 List $320 $199 Street

Physical Description & Initial Impressions

At $200, the RE410 is about 28% of the cost of the other test mics. The other manufacturers (except Neumann) have vocal condensers in this price range, so the RE410 is unfairly out of its price range. However, the mic’s performance kept it in the game through all of the tests.

The capsule construction is not nearly as elaborate as the other 3 mics, but it appears to be durable and well-isolated from the body. The pop filter is the usual metal screen lined with a relatively thin foam filter and a 2nd layer of foam is applied directly to the surface of the capsule. The outer screen is ringed with EV’s rubber bumper design, to protect the screen from damage when the mic is dropped. The mic body is “EV’s Warm-Grip handle.” The RE410 is the lightest of our test mics, something that a couple of vocalists appreciated.

Specifications

Transducer: Self-Biased Condenser
Polar Pattern: Cardioid
Frequency Response: 50Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity: 4mV/Pa
Maximum Input Sound Level: >140dBSPL
Power Requirements: 24 to 48 VDC
Output Impedance: 250 Ohms
Dimensions: 7.15 x 2.0" (182 x 51mm) (Length x Diameter)
Weight: 9.2 oz (260 grams)

Application Impression

Like all of our test mics, every listening test proved an improvement over the “standard.” The EV had a slightly subdued top, less bright (or “harsh”) than either the Shure or the Neumann, and less present than the Sennheiser. The EV’s pop filtering worked better than either the Shure or Sennheiser, but that double filter might have contributed to the feeling that the RE410 has less presence than the other mics. The handling noise was lowest on the EV. It seemed to have the most proximity boost, which some vocalists took advantage of and those with better technique didn’t notice.

If you’re on a budget, the RE410 is almost insignificantly more expensive than an SM58 and is a dramatic improvement in sound quality. I think the fact that this mic held its own with more expensive models proves that looking at the rest of that price range (AKG’s C5 & C535EB, EV’s RE510, Sennheiser’s e865, Shure’s Beta 87A/C & SM86, for example) would be a useful experiment.

Neumann KMS 105 $998 List, $699 Street

Physical Description & Initial Impressions

The KMS 105 is a single diaphram, “DC-polarized studio condenser capsule,” super-cardioid-only microphone. (There is a cardioid version, the KMS 104.) All the microphones in this evaluation have a similar profile which is conducive for traditional hand-held vocalists but somewhat difficult for a rap/rock vocalist to grip in their preferred manner.

The 105 has the most complex pop/wind filter of the four mics we tested. The first level of filtering is a fairly coarse, durable metal screen. Inside that, about half the distance to the capsule, is a much finer metal screen, and directly over the capsule, suspended about ¼” above the capsule surface is an even finer nylon screen. There is no foam used anywhere in the 105’s filtering system, according to Neumann this eliminates ‘clouding’ or ‘muffling’ of the sound.” The capsule is more solidly mounted to the microphone body than the other three examples. This could result in higher handling noise and less durability, since the element appears to be less isolated from the body.

Specifications

Transducer: DC-Polarized Pressure Gradient Condenser
Polar Pattern: Supercardioid
Frequency Response: 20 Hz - 20 kHz
Sensitivity: 4.5 mV/Pa
Maximum Input Sound Level: 150 dB, 0.5% THD
Power Requirements: Phantom 48v +/-4v, 3.5 mA
Output Impedance: 50 Ohms
Dimensions: 7” x 1.8" ( 180 x 48mm)
Weight: 10.5 oz. (297.5 g)

Application Impression

Our subjective test of characteristics like handling and wind noise, plosive and sibilance, and proximity effect indicated that the KMS 105 was at the low end of the group’s performance. In practical application, none of those things were an issue with this microphone. Possibly, because our show vocalists were talented and, possibly, because they were able to get what they wanted from the microphone without eating the mic, solo’ing up the vocal mic on a very stage-active performance illustrated that this is a quiet, present, very natural sounding microphone.

Neumann generates a lot of loyalty and some of us really wanted it to sound better than the competition, just out of a misguided sense of history. Neumann’s typically high prices have an ability to generate “you get what you pay for” reactions, too. In application, the KMS 105 did not disappoint. Male and female vocals through this microphone are easily placed in the mix and present even when they are substantially below normal levels.

Sennheser e965 $1050 List $699 Street

Physical Description & Initial Impressions

The Sennheiser e965 uses a traditional metal grill with a foam filter lining the grill. In our sample, the threads securing the pop filter to the body of the mix used the coarsest threads of the four microphones, but those threads seemed to be either damaged or self-locking, as the filter would not easily screw all the way to the body.

The e965 is a dual-capsule, programmable polarity microphone with switches inside the pop filter to select cardioid or super-cardioid polar patterns, a high pass filter, and a -10dB preattenuator. The switches are small, but easily actuated and the labeling is clear. The capsule is nicely shock-mounted on a rubber pedestal, which should protect the microphone from drop-damage and vibration and handling sensitivity.

Specifications

Transducer: Externally polarized 1” dual diaphragm AF condenser microphone
Polar Pattern: Cardioid/super-cardioid, switchable
Frequency Response: 40Hz to 20,000Hz
Sensitivity: 7 mV/Pa (2,3 mV/Pa) (with preattenuation)
Maximum Input Sound Level: 142 dB (152 dB) (with preattenuation)
Power Requirements: 48 V/ 3,5 mA
Output Impedance: 1000Ω
Dimensions: 1.89 x 7.83" (48 x 199mm)
Weight: 13.97 oz (396g)

Application Impression

The multiple pattern capacity impressed every live guy who saw it. The fact that the mic includes a high-pass filter, preattenuation (and a very high MaxSPL), and is stage-invisible black only added to the attraction.

The e965 was the winner in our super-subjective, one-act listening test. Everyone voted it as one of their two favorites. In a live performance, I’d say all of those votes were well-founded. Used on male and female vocals, the e965 allowed those voices to sail over the top of the mix. For both lead and background vocals, there is nothing bad to say about this microphone.

Shure KSM9 $875 List $699 Street

Physical Description & Initial Impressions

Of all of the test microphones, the KMS9 is the prettiest construction. The capsule and body interior are polished to a high satin finish and users can’t help but be impressed with the solid feel of this microphone. The pop filter is the usual metal screen linked with a relatively thick foam. The dual element condensor can be programmed to cardioid or super-cardioid, with a switch located below the capsule and inside the pop filter. Like the e965, the KSM9’s capsule is rubber mounted on a pedestal and appears to be durable and handling-isolated.

Specifications

Transducer: Condenser (Electret Biased)
Polar Pattern: Cardioid / Supercardioid switchable
Frequency Response: 50Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity: -51 dBV/Pa (2.8mV/Pa)
Maximum Input Sound Level: 152 dB
Power Requirements: 48 Vdc +/- 4 Vdc, 5.2 mA typical at 48 Vdc
Output Impedance: 150 ohms
Dimensions: 1.92 x 7.51" (49 x 191mm)
Weight: 300 grams (10.6 oz)

Application Impression

My first live show experience with the KSM9 was pretty depressing. The mic did a fine job, when it was allowed to do a job. However, the vocalist was a hiphop artist who insisted on wrapping his hand around the pop filter and smashing his face into the front of the screen. Still, the KSM9 did a better job than a 58 would have done with the same task. Regardless, the vocalist was incomprehensible (probably his intention) for the majority of the show.

The next opportunity for the Shure was much more musical. Again, used on male and female lead vocals, the KSM9 performed beautifully. In our listening test, the Shure and the Neumann tied for points. In fact, some listeners commented that they couldn’t tell the two apart.

Overall Test Impressions

After calibrating all of the microphones for equal output through our sound system (using a tone generator and the console metering), one of the Live Sound classes performed some totally subjective tests of a variety of specifications and used equally subjective terms to describe their impressions:



  • The “Handling” noise test was simply a repeated finger drumming on the body of each microphone with our test subjects voting for their impression of the amount of noise transmitted into the sound system (“ugly” is worse than “bad”).
  • The “Wind” noise was a burst of breath from the same distance (3.5”) into each mic, with our test subjects evaluating the amount and offensive-ness of energy in the sound system.
  • “Pop” was a fixed distance (3.5”) test with the words “pop” and “burst” spoken into each mic.
  • “Syb” was a fixed distance (3.5”) sibilance test test with the words “see” and “snake” spoken into each mic.
  • “Voice” was a quality evaluation with a female vocalist as the signal source. This test allowed all of the test subjects to select their two favorite microphones and that data was sorted to determine which mics received the most votes. The SM58 received no votes.
  • The proximity (“Prox”) test was a subjective evaluation of the bass buildup as a test voice moved from 1' to an inch. There was also attention paid to the mic's pickup of surrounding sounds, so some of the rating included a pattern and rejection evaluation.
  • The “Gain before Feedback” test was done with a variety of preamp settings, not particularly related to the microphones’ sensitivity and with a monitor EQ set for our SM58s. As such, the test was imperfect but provided some information..

  • Again, obviously these are subjective evaluations. Some of the tests were made more complicated by the fact that our Live Department has a convention of putting all faders at unity while adjusting preamplifier gains for “optimal” signal. That makes figuring out some of the gain relationships difficult (see the “Gain before Feedback” test) to interpret. However, the SPL measurements were straightforward. While a vocalist sang into each mic, the mic gain was increased until the system began to feedback. At that point, the SPL was measured.
    In editing the audio recordings made with these microphones for the school’s iTunes U website, I needed minimal HP filtering to remove unwanted stage and vocal noise from the performance. The isolation was excellent and the vocalists’ tone was a dramatic improvement over past experiences. In contrast, the same task on an SM58 vocal requires substantial EQ at a variety of frequencies to remove the occasional plosive and sibilance burst, the nasal quality of most vocals, and the usual handling noises, along with gating or muting to get rid of the bleed from the rest of the stage.

    I expected these microphones to make a noticeable difference in performance quality. My go-to live vocal mics have been EV RE18s and RE16s for three decades. I was surprised at how much difference these four microphones could make on a stage, but the reaction from the rest of the people involved in those live performances was dramatic. Without exception, everyone was blown away with how good our school’s sound system could sound. All through the vocal department showcase, the technical people involved in the production commented on how clear, present, and powerful the whole mix sounded. Vocals are the most important instrument in the mix and putting an investment into vocals pays big dividends.

    5/1/2013 NOTE: This test was conducted two years ago. Since then, some industry and competitive things have happened that might make me review some of the contestants, assumptions, and winners/losers. When the Neumann/Sennheiser rep was informed of our results he wasn't even a little surprised that the e965 beat out the 105. In fact, the Neumann people had requested their own e965 to see what made it such an overwhelming choice of non-deaf sound professionals (a rarity) and vocalists.

    2 comments:

    Unknown said...

    Thank you. We are looking for to purchase a quality mic for live use and this was a huge help narrowing down what to test ourselves. Thanks for keeping this up despite taking down your other site.

    Thomas Day said...

    In 13 years at MSCM, I still think this is one of the coolest things I did at the school. When I started teaching audio and recording, I'd hoped to do dozens of similar tests, but this one was about the only real qualitative test I managed to pull off. I'm very proud of it and I'm glad it was of use to you.

    Wirebender Audio Rants

    Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.