Which microphone is best?
When we come to recording, it is a complex art. The lack of general knowledge on the topic causes a lot of mystification. There is a ton of musicians, artists, amateurs that fill music shops, try different microphones, write essays, ask for advice, etc. After a long search, one ends up usually with what sounded best for him - which is entirely subjective.
When one starts with recording work, issues multiply. It is difficult to obtain the expected result, as there are always some unforseen variables that make the recording sub-standard. Little by little, one learns what to avoid and what to look for, mostly by intuition, but with no clear understanding of the underlying reasons.
In this chapter, we will examine all the significant variables that must be taken into account when choosing a microphone. We will remove all the hype and learn what is truly needed. The most important parameter we will be looking for is frequency response. If a microphone has a flat response, this means it records a faithful representation of reality. If the response is not flat, has peaks or higher and lower bands, the recording will be distorted.
Therefore, if we are removing all the "hype", what we need is a reference microphone. This is a type of microphone that has a completely flat frequency response curve. Thus, it is completely faithful in its sonic representation.
Electret exhibit the flattest response. All other types of microphones must be checked. In general, ribbon microphones are very flat, but modern ones may be designed with extended or excessive highs, to adapt to the modern ear - which requires distortion and noise. Condenser microphones must be carefully chosen, as they are usually distorted. One must look specifically for condenser reference microphones, or condenser measurement microphones. Dynamic microphones are not advised for professional recordings, as they will lack in dynamic range. All will display a same compressed volume.
The great advantage of a reference microphone is that there are softwares and VST plugins that classified all the most important microphones of every age. Therefore, they can easily apply the equalization curve of any microphone to the flat curve of the reference microphone. The result is that your recording will sound as if it were recorded with the microphone of your choice.
Conversely, if you use a distorted microphone, you need a two step approach. First, you need to apply equalization in order to flatten the enhanced or lacking peaks of the microphone's intrinsic frequency response. Then, you can use a software to transform your music as it were recorded by any microphone. However, equalization is not a perfect science and you will lose definition in a two step operation. Therefore, starting directly with a reference microphone will make your life much easier.
For us, the big winner is the ribbon microphone. It has a very flat response, erases all the noise of the highs, gives excellent basses, produces a very creamy sound, masks defects and enhances qualities, and has a balances transient response.
To make an example, an operatic voice has a point in the highs where there is a "turn" in the voice. This allows to take the higher notes. Songs that revolve around this turning point have the characteristic of being very challenging for the voice. But, aside this, a well performed turn sounds like a sigh and can move the listener. If you try to record the singer with a condenser microphone, its very short transient response will enhance the mechanical shift of the voice, resulting in an unpleasant sound, and you will have lost all the effect. The ribbon microphone, instead, mimics the way the human ear hears the sound - i.e. with a slower transient response. Therefore, you will appreciate the natural sound of the sigh and the recording will be very luscious, endearing, and moving. Compared to a dynamic microphone, which will also capture the sigh, but it will be like a punch in your face, the ribbon microphone will be very "sexy".
When it comes to an actual recording, some compromise must be made when using ribbon microphones, as they grab the sound in a figure of eight pattern. If we need to do a stereo recording, we need to place two ribbon microphones with a 45° offset one on top of another. This is called Blumlein configuration.
To make a ribbon microphone more directional - i.e. have a cardioid output - you need to put a screen on its rear. This might be any rigid soundproof surface, foam, or polystyrene panel.