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Which Voice Over Microphone is Right for You?

by Dan Friedman on August 6, 2009

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As a voiceover artist, it is critical that you choose the right microphone for your voice, your room and your budget. When it comes to determining which microphone is right for you, there is only one good way to go about making this very important decision.

Before buying anything, YOU MUST LISTEN AND COMPARE FOR YOURSELF.

Typically, when voice talent begin their career or begin to invest in a home studio they choose a microphone based on one or more of the following: advice from friends or associates, familiarity with something they’ve used previously (perhaps an Electro-Voice RE20 from a radio station), what the sales person at the music store sells to them, or what they can afford. Although all of these factors should be taken into consideration, they serve as merely a starting point.

The advice of others is helpful, but how good something sounds to one person (or on one person’s voice) may not be as good for someone else. The best way to use the advice of others is to list all of the microphones they mention as possible options. For those who have had experience in broadcast, it is important to note that although those RE20’s and Shure SM7’s are great in radio stations for their sound and their durability, they are not necessarily the best choice for voice overs.

Of course the advice of a salesperson should always be “taken with a grain of salt”. They may be very knowledgeable, but they may also be getting incentives to sell you something that just isn’t right for your needs or your voice. Lastly, it is understandable that everyone wants to save money, but consider two things:

  1. Since this is your career, you want to sound your absolute best, and sounding your best should help you pay for your investment.
  2. If you do the research, you can still find the best microphone for you and your current situation.

The best advice will most likely come from the engineers you work most closely with. Engineers in the voice over industry often have the benefit of hearing many different microphones on many different voices. Not only do they know what they like, but they may also know your voice and the sound of your room well enough to know which microphones will work best for you.  Also, if you are working with them closely already it may mean that you are already earning money with them and that is the best reason to seek their advice and make a decision that will help keep them happy with your sound. But even with all of that being said…

Nothing can replace the experience of actually testing several microphones and listening to the myriad of choices and sounds that different microphones offer. It is truly an ear opening experience.

It should be noted that there are several microphones that are considered voice over industry standards and the only reasons to not choose one of them are: 1) if you absolutely can not afford them or 2) if they do not sound as good on your voice as something else. For voiceovers or voice acting, the Neumann U87, TLM 103 and Sennheiser 416 are industry standards because of their well known characteristics and sound quality. Therefore, engineers and producers generally prefer to work with these microphones.

If you either can not afford one of these microphones or they are just not working well for you, here is a plan that should help you find the best microphone for you and your situation. As a general rule, a large diaphragm condenser microphone will likely be the most appropriate choice as a voice over microphone. There is an enormous selection of LDC microphones available and they range in price from below $100 to up into the thousands of dollars.

Begin by making a list of microphones, and noting which ones fit your budget. Include at least one industry standard microphone (you will use this to compare others against). Start your list with all of the microphones that have been suggested to you. Read through descriptions of other microphones in music store catalogs, websites, industry blogs and forums. If you are serious about your career, you will not limit yourself to just the cheap ones. Remember, the idea is to find the best microphone for you and although you may not be able to afford “the best one” now, you will at least know what that is and may be able to get it later. Make no mistake, among inexpensive microphones there are some great values available and one may even be perfect for you.

If you are reading the specifications for microphones (and you should be) look for words and phrases such as: high signal to noise ratio or low noise, capable of withstanding high sound pressure levels or SPL, wide dynamic range, sonic clarity and transparent signal.

Note whether a particular model is generally used for vocals or instruments. Also pay attention to what accessories may be included in the price.

I strongly suggest using a shockmount. A shockmount is a “basket” that holds a microphone. It is designed to help eliminate vibrations that can reach the microphone through the microphone stand. Some microphones include a shockmount, for others it must be purchased separately.

After you’ve done your research, have made a list of microphones that interest you and that fit your budget, it is time to visit a music store with a pro audio department. Even if the nearest one is far away, it would be worth making the trip. This is your sound and your career we are talking about!

Bring along at least 3 scripts. Bring a high energy script that requires you to push your voice a bit, bring a script that matches the style you perform the most and bring a script that requires a close and intimate read. You may also consider including a script that contains several hard consonants such as “t” or “p”. When you get to the store let a salesperson know that you would like to test and compare some microphones. You will need to be setup with a mixer, a microphone cable and some headphones. Of course if you already have headphones that you are familiar with you should bring your own. If you can find a quiet area within the store, it would be best if you can use that space for your tests.

Ask for one of the industry standard microphones – you will want to keep this around to refer back to as you try others. Using the same exact audio chain and settings begin testing your reads through each of the microphones on your list (remember to turn the phantom power off and back on as needed when switching microphones). For this test you will want to have your headphones reasonably loud, but not so loud that they damage your ears. The idea is to listen closely to the nuances in the microphone. Do not worry about your read.

Use your ears and ask yourself the following questions as you listen. Listen to the high end. Is it crisp and clean or is it smeared?  A “smeared” high end has the sound of being distorted, where “s” seems harsh, brittle and possibly almost painful.  It sounds as though there is just too much of it and the sound doesn’t end cleanly. Is there not enough in the high end? Does your “s” seem to disappear or sound dull? Listen to the midrange. Is your voice coming through clearly as you know it, or does it sound affected? Does it sound a bit like it is coming through a telephone or a megaphone? Is the midrange seemingly harsh or is it seemingly dull or distant. Ideally, it should sound…the way you really sound. Listen to the low end. Particularly if you are a deep baritone, pay attention to how the deepest part of your voice is translating. The low end can be distorted in much the same way “s” can be distorted in the highs, except the lows will sound too thick or “muddy”.

How are the “t” and “p” consonants coming out? Is the microphone popping easily on these consonants? How does the microphone react when you change your proximity to it? Listen closely for all of the details and ask yourself each of those questions. Compare your favorites to each other and to the standards (remember that it is perfectly fine if one of the standards is your favorite). Ask a friend or someone in the store for their thoughts on the sound. Choose the one that sounds best. If you can’t decide which one sounds best, go with the one that sounds the most similar to one of the industry standards.

Once you make your choice, bring it home and try it out in your own studio. Be sure that it still sounds as good to you at home as it did in the store. Remember that your microphone captures the sound of your environment as well as your voice and it may become evident that some changes to your room are necessary… but that is for another article.

Whether you are just starting out or are a seasoned voice over professional this process should be fun as well as informative. Best of all, after you’ve gone through the process and made your decision you will have confidence knowing that you made the best choice for you, your voice and your budget.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Rich Van Slyke August 7, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Excellent article. You got it exactly right Dan.

Howard Ellison December 28, 2010 at 7:00 pm

First mike I tried upon setting out on narration as a later-life career was a semi-pro ribbon, made in 1950. Very flattering! Warm, cosy. My daughter said it sounded like a pre-war radio. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, her young ears could hear the noise that comes with amplifying an old low-output mike, so it had to be replaced by the ever-quiet Rode NT1A. It gets me jobs, and can be gently eq’d to suit the work in hand, but there’s still a certain character about that old Cadenza ribbon and (as an ex BBC man) I could yet be tempted by the legendary Coles 4038 ribbon. Not as iconic as a Neumann, and a quarter the price, but I recall it as very well behaved on most voices, not to mention musical instruments.

Dan Friedman January 5, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Thank you for your comment Howard! The biggest potential problem with ribbon microphones is that they are bidirectional, as such they will pick up the room as well as the source.

Howard Ellison February 25, 2011 at 7:23 am

Hi Dan. How right you are on that point – it’s a reminder that a good acoustic and noise isolation is always high priority, if it’s not to limit our aspirations. By the way, you probably know there was another Brit mike, I forget the brand, which combined a ribbon with a moving coil dynamic to neutralise the rear pickup. Popular in TV drama, but hard-going on the boom-swinger as it was heavy. Hazardous to actors… hence “It’s a Knockout”!

Trevor Jones April 9, 2011 at 2:47 am

Great article! Everyone seems to get stuck on getting the mic everyone recommends instead of the one that’s right for them – which might not be the same thing!

Trevor Jones

Pierre Maubouche April 22, 2011 at 3:31 am

Great article. One thing not mentioned: the importance of the pre-amp, which can dramatically alter (in a good or bad way) the sound of your voice on your mic.

My mic is a Neumann U87, my pre-amp is an Avalon VT-737S and it works very well with my voice but… depending on your voice it might not be the best choice. For instance for more medium voices or if most of your work is for radio a U89 might be more appropriate – this is just one example…

If you’re a professional VO making a living out of your trade, one advice: invest in the best possible mic/pre-amp combination for your voice. And if your register is deep then make sure to try the Neumann M149 – this is my next investment!

Howard Ellison April 29, 2011 at 5:12 am

Lucky you are, Pierre, to own a Neumann! I started, as posted previously, with the NT1A and it continues to bring work, but I did get a ribbon as well – the Coles 4038 as designed by the BBC.
It is much crisper than the vintage Cadenza I tried, and better still given a tiny bit of top EQ. The sound is ‘friendly’ – great for long-form. Even with the HF lifted, there’s less need to edit clicky ‘k’s – a time saver.
Dan Friedman was right about acoustic with a bi-directional: I put up more lagging. But an unexpected plus with the ribbon is less pickup of low-pitched exterior noises, such as vehicles passing.
I assume this is because generalised sound pressure of that kind reaches both sides of the ribbon? It’s not the side-null effect, as rotation makes no difference. Anyone come across that?

Kurt Feldner January 14, 2012 at 11:05 am

Listened to someone the other day say his audio chain includes a Neumann TLM103 with a Lexicon Alpha audio interface. I’d been doing some extensive research lately, wanting to get an audio interface to work with my Harlan Hogan VO-1A microphone. I currently use a MicPort Pro pre-amp. Because the Lexicon Alpha seems to have a nice pre-amp, I figured this means I’d be able to remove the MicPort Pro from my chain. So I placed the order for the Lexicon Alpha yesterday and afterwards, noticed it does NOT include phamtom power, which I believe my microphone requires. This would seem to make a lot of sense, but then I think back to the VO veteran who told me he uses the Lexicon Alpha in his chain with his Neumann TLM103, which should likewise require phantom power. If he can use it in his setup with a large diaphragm condenser microphone, does that mean I could do the same with mine?

Dan Friedman January 16, 2012 at 10:32 am

Kurt,

Its quite possible that they left out the piece of information that explains how they are powering the mic or perhaps they meant to say the Lexicon Lambda or Omega (both of which have phantom power) as opposed to the Alpha.

Dan Friedman
http://www.procommvoices.com
http://www.sound4vo.com

Howard Ellison August 11, 2012 at 5:42 am

Stumbled back on this thread… For a current audiobook, I offered the producer a choice of read through the NT1A or the Coles ribbon. He listened and said he loved the warmth of either mike, but would opt for the condenser version as this book is factual so it merited maximum crispness. Just another thought to complicate life for you!

Dirk de Beuk November 2, 2012 at 9:30 pm

My mic is a Neumann U87 Ai, my channel strip is a Rupert Neve Designs Portico II and it works very well with my voice.

Fernando Godinez May 16, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Fantastic articles..ok I am wanting to buy a neuman 103 have booth with professional acoustic foam….dont know quality tube preamp to buy? M5 Avalon for this type of mic. I will be doing voice overs.

Thank You for your time.
From Chicago/Cicero IL

Fernando

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