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Small Steps Towards Better Recorded Sound Quality Pt. 2 - Let's Talk Mics

Here it is. The post you've been waiting for. Microphones. Specifically, let's talk about microphones for recording operatic voices at home, which has been a struggle for many of us during this lovely pandemic we've been having.

I set this up as a little experiment: I recorded myself singing a short passage using 6 different microphones simultaneously. I'll show you exactly how I set up each mic for peak (see what I did there?) performance while recording in my home studio and play the audio example from each so you can compare them. All of the audio clips you will hear are direct from the microphone; no editing has been done.

To start out, my home studio is 12'x12'. There are acoustic treatments in the form of sound panels on 2 walls, a large sound-absorbing curtain, and some foam flooring in half of the room. The microphones were all roughly 9 feet away from me while recording. My goal was to keep every recording under a -6 decibel peak, below -12 if at all possible. These levels are a good rule of thumb. When monitoring your own levels, make absolutely sure you do not hit or cross above the zero threshold. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

The passage I chose for this experiment is from the finale of Rossini's La Cenerentola. It gives you a wide range in both dynamic and pitch (A3-B5) to really put the microphones to the test.

Microphone #1 is a stereo pair of RØDE NT 5s. This matched pair will run you about $700, and they require an audio interface, as well. I'm going to assume most of you don't have these laying around, so we'll call them the "control" in this experiment.

The levels for these mics are monitored with an app that pairs exclusively with the audio interface. Unfortunately, I didn't keep a very good eye on the control, because I was much more worried about the levels on the other 5 mics, so you'll hear a clip at the top of this recording. Regardless of that clip, this is a good recording to compare the other 5 against.

Microphone #2 is an MXL 770. This handy condenser microphone is a good all-purpose mic, and only costs about $80. I have used this mic for podcasting, underneath pianos to give an extra sound kick to the room mics, to record voice, etc. However, like the RØDEs, this mic also needs an audio interface, which is an extra investment on top of a microphone. If you are willing to make that investment, the MXL 770 is a great bang for your buck. You'll hear that it lacks some of the clarity of the stereo pair, and because it is a single microphone, you don't get a sense of location in the room. But for an $80 microphone, you could do much worse. MXL also has spectacular customer service.

The levels for this mic were also monitored with the app that pairs with the audio interface.

Microphone #3 is the Blue Yeti

This is a multi-pattern mic, meaning there are 3 capsules inside that can be configured differently to give you different pattern settings. The main reasons people like this microphone are 1) It is a USB mic, so you can plug it directly in to your computer without the need for an audio interface, and 2) It only costs about $129 (which is cheaper than the MXL 770+the audio interface+XLR cables+headphone adapters, etc). I most often use this mic in its cardioid pattern for recording podcasts. For the sake of recording operatic vocals, the stereo setting is the one you want; this will mimic a setup like the RØDE stereo pair. Because there is no audio interface, we have to get creative with monitoring the levels for the Blue Yeti. I recorded via GarageBand, because I assume that's what most people use at home. To "monitor" the levels, hit record and watch the wave forms as you sing. You'll be able to tell when they peak out, because the forms reach beyond the upper and lower levels of the track. I had to test it a few times to get to an audio setting that didn't peak, and you will have to do your own experimentation with this to find what works for you. Here was what I came up with: I turned the gain on the Yeti all the way down. By all the way down, I mean literally all the way down. Don't worry, it will still pick up sound.

Blue Yeti Microphone

From there, I turned the Record level in Garage Band down to about 15% I say "about," because there is no numerical indication of the actual level. If this is the route you take for your recordings, happy experimenting!

Here is the result. You can clearly hear the quality is not on par with the MXL 770. It's got an almost "woofy" sound, and there is an effect of airiness in the the tone that isn't there with the other mics. It certainly picks up the lows better than the highs, so lower mezzos, tenors, baritones, and basses might have a better time with this option than those of us who live in Rossini mezzo or Soprano land. That said, for a home recording with a cheap USB microphone, it's still not the worst I have heard.

Microphone #4 is the Zoom H1 Handy Recorder This little cutie has gotten me through many a college voice lesson and music rehearsal. Newer models have come about since my college days, but the H1 is still in high demand, so much so that Zoom had to bring it back into production to meet that demand. I have a mini tripod for this guy, so that the stereo pair can be aimed towards the sound source.

The screen on the zoom actually has a dB peak monitor on the left-hand side. That would be quite handy (pun intended) if the screen wasn't so small. It's impossible to see from any kind of distance. The only way to check it would be to select an input level you think is appropriate, make the recording, and then listen back to see if the levels worked out.

However, there is an option for the recorder to auto-adjust levels, which is what I chose for the sake of this experiment. This isn't always an ideal setting, because the zoom adjustments can't possibly keep up with Rossini (you'll hear that in the recording).

That being said, this tiny recorder actually packs a lot of punch. If you have the time to experiment and find the input level that will keep your dB peak below the -12 ideal, you can make a decent at-home recording with it. I would argue that it gets a better sound than the Yeti, and it's much more compact, so you can take it anywhere. As a plus, it records to an internal SD, so when you bring it to rehearsal or your voice lesson with you, you don't have to set up a laptop like you do for the Yeti. Honestly, if you are looking for low cost and convenience and don't mind sacrificing some sound quality (compared to a RØDE stereo pair, for example), the Zoom H1 is the way to go.

Microphone #5 is the built-in microphone on my MacBook Pro.

Again, I recorded directly in to GarageBand and used that to "monitor" my dB peak. I had to turn the record volume all the way down to 0, and the recording still peaked. I was actually surprised this recording turned out as clear as it did, despite its obvious flaws. Note: I have heard people sing directly in to their built-in MacBook microphone via Zoom for live masterclasses, and it sounds nowhere near as clear as this clip. To make the built in mac mic work in a zoom environment, you'll have to do some experimenting either by recording yourself in a zoom session and listening back to figure out what adjustments are needed, or with someone whose ears you trust on the other end directing your adjustments in real time.

Last and certainly least, we have Microphone #6 - my trusty iPhone SE.

I recorded this with the Music Memos app. This is something I do on a regular basis in my practice, because I can quickly and easily listen back to my vowels, consistency of air, etc. I know that the sound quality is not going to be up to my standard, so I have the added bonus of not getting distracted by "does it sound good," and I can focus more fully on the issues at hand. To re-phrase what I just said: I purposely record myself with my iPhone, because I know the sound quality will be bad. Many companies will tell you that you can submit a simple recording from your iPhone; they just want to get an idea of how you sound. Sure, an iPhone will give them an idea, but it will lack the depth of even the little Handy Zoom H1. If you have to go this route for recording, make sure the listener knows it's phone-quality audio they are getting.

If you missed part 1 of this home recording series, check it out here.

I will follow this up in 2 weeks with Part 3 to touch on a few miscellaneous recording topics. If you have any questions about recording you'd like answered (to the best of my non-audio engineer ability, anyways), comment below.

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