A great-sounding live vocal mic that you might never have heard of [with video]

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Record-Producer.com.

Friday September 1, 2017
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It goes without saying that the Shure SM58 is the classic live vocal mic and it is the standard by which all other live vocal mics are judged. This is not to say that the SM58 is the best vocal mic, or that it will be everyone's preference; it is that the Shure SM58 has been so commonly used ever since its introduction in 1966 and it has performed so reliably that it is without doubt the standard for comparison. To put it another way, if you are involved in live sound in any way from vocalist to FOH (front of house) engineer to monitor engineer and you see that the Shure SM58 has been specified for vocals, then you will know that nothing can possibly go wrong with this aspect of the show.

But would you use the Shure SM58 for a studio recording? Well yes, if the singer likes it, and it is a known fact that singers commonly have their own preference of microphone. Performance-wise it is not a good idea to go against this. Also some vocalists like to hold the mic even in the studio, and the SM58 has very good resistance against handling noise, which clearly is important.

But no, other than for the above reasons you probably wouldn't choose the SM58 for a studio recording. While not going so far as to call it harsh, it doesn't have the smoothness of response that a good studio mic should have. And other than its intrinsic presence peak it doesn't flatter the vocal. You get what you get. A good studio mic will give you more.

So, use the Shure SM58 for live work and a studio mic of your choice for recording? Probably yes.

But there is a halfway house between live and studio, and that is broadcast. So if you are working in a radio studio, live but without a studio audience, should you choose a mic that is directed at live sound, or a studio mic because you are in a studio?

Rather than try and press you with my own opinion, I'd like to present some interesting evidence. This evidence is the band Haim performing the Shania Twain classic That Don't Impress Me Much on the Like A Version segment on Australian radio station Triple J.

Great vocal sound starts with great vocals, and these girls can definitely sing. From that point on, much is down to the microphone. Further processing downstream can enhance the sound.

So what do you think of the vocal sound? Well to me it seems full, smooth, and with hardly any faults (more on the faults later). In fact it makes me wonder whether it could be better with any choice of microphone. Different certainly, but actually better. I doubt it.

It's easy to see in the video that the microphones are what you would expect a live vocal mic to look like. They are not the Shure SM58, and neither are they what we would normally consider studio vocal mics. So the next question has to be, what model are they?

Well I've looked closely at still frames and I am pretty sure that they are the Audio Technica ATM710, with the Shure A85WS windshield - the purple tint that the wind shield seems to have in the video may be caused by the studio lighting. (If anyone can tell me that I'm wrong about either the mic or the wind shield, I'll be pleased to post an update.) Audio Technica describes this mic as "a professional cardioid condenser microphone designed to capture vocals in performance and recording applications". So it looks like a mic in the style of the Shure SM58, but it is a capacitor mic, not a dynamic. This should allow it to capture a more accurate, more detailed sound. Whether more detail is always desirable in a live mic is debatable - often that detail can include all kinds of sounds you don't want, such as breath blasting, popping, leakage from other instruments, background noise, wedge and side-fill monitors, and wind noise in an outdoor event. But this is a radio studio, and thus a more controlled environment.

Obviously what we are hearing is not the raw output from the mic. There may be EQ, there probably is compression and there certainly is reverb. There could be harmonic enhancement too - although this segment looks like the band just turned up and performed, I think we are listening to a very well honed and crafted mix. Still if the end result sounds good, it must have come from a good starting point, which is the mic. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Let's learn more

The first place to learn more about a mic is usually the manufacturer's data sheet, which you can find here. To pick some key features, this is a capacitor mic, in contrast to the Shure SM58 and many other vocal mics that are dynamic. It has a cardioid polar pattern, and it features a 10 dB pad and 80 Hz high-pass filter. There is plenty of other interesting information but I'll leave that to your further researches.

There is however one very interesting point that is made among Audio Technica's other marketing materials, which is that this mic, "excels in venues with controlled stage volume or in-ear monitoring". This implies that the ATM710 does not excel in venues where traditional wedge and side-fill monitors are used. If, in practical use, then this actually is so and the ATM710 has an inferior resistance to feedback than other commonly-used mics, then Audio Technica's honesty is to be commended here. If this is so, then it is probably due to the frequency response and the polar pattern, bearing in mind that the polar pattern of a mic varies with frequency.

Not so famous?

Coming back to the headline of my article, I have to wonder why this mic is not more commonly known or used, seeing that it is clearly capable of excellent results. Maybe it's the controlled stage volume issue that is putting people off. Or maybe in the studio because it doesn't look like a studio vocal mic normally looks. But from what I hear in this video, it definitely warrants further investigation.

Issues?

Now what about the small issues I mentioned earlier? Well the mic is not immune to popping and breath blasting (having tested a sample without a pop shield) although the degree is well within expectations. Neither is it immune to handling noise, but once again within normal limits. With the wind shield, listening to the video, then there is a tiny but perceptible degree of popping on 'p' and 'b' sounds, and the characteristic sound of a foam wind shield suppressing breath blasting but not quite eliminating it. Nothing much to complain about, but not the highest degree of perfection attainable.

Close microphone position

Of course, the issues mentioned above are exaggerated by the close mic position. But why so close in the first place? Well in live sound vocal mics are used very close-up in order to win the battle against feedback. Also when placed close to the sound source they will pick up less leakage from other instruments, and other background noise. So in live sound there is a definite reason for the vocal mics to be close. In the studio, things are more flexible. You would choose the distance of a studio mic according to the sound texture you wanted to capture. Further away will be more natural, but at the expense of an increasing proportion of ambience and ventilation noise. A closer position achieves a more present, up-front sound, but exaggerates unwanted mouth noises.

In a radio studio it would be entirely possible to use a more distant microphone position. But then for the video clearly the station would want it to look like a live performance and the close position is what viewers will expect. And the headphones? Only drummers ever wore headphones on stage and these days everything, at least at the high end of the industry, is in-ear. OK, there's a bit of a conundrum here but my feeling is that using typical studio mics with fabric pop screens would look too much of an artificial setup and the way it's done here appears more 'organic'. Radio presenters and their guests normally wear headphones, so any other kind of monitoring would not be appropriate, and the video is clearly a 'behind the scenes' view of a radio show and not specifically a video production.

Conclusion

My personal conclusion here is that I like the band, the sound and the overall look and presentation of the video. Oh yes, and from what I hear I like the Audio Technica ATM710 too. In fact it does impress me much. Clearly there are horizons beyond the traditional Shure SM58 for live sound, and mics that appear to be intended for live sound may have a useful place in the studio.

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