ACX Studio Gear Series Part 1: Microphones and Preamps

Today kicks off a new series for the ACX blog: studio gear. Over the next few posts, we’ll cover one of your most discussed topics and provide some guidance for the audio recording newbie, those with some experience, and the seasoned pro. Let’s kick things off where the magic starts – microphones and mic preamps.

Microphones & Preamps

Mics and preamps are the first pieces of equipment that will pick up and process the sound of your voice. Remember, any piece of studio equipment you buy is meant to capture the true sound of your voice in your recording space, so don’t buy an expensive microphone to improve or compensate for the sound quality in the room. We’ll cover how to get great room sound in a future post.

For a a brief overview of how a microphone and preamp work,  we turn to Sweetwater:

A microphone is a transducer, or instrument whereby sound waves are caused to generate or modulate an electric current, usually for the purpose of transmitting or recording sound. In all microphones, sound waves are translated into mechanical vibrations in a thin, flexible diaphragm. These vibrations are then converted by various methods into an electrical signal.

A preamp is a type of amplifier specifically designed to amplify very weak signals before they are fed to subsequent gain stages or devices. Preamps are commonly used to bring things like the output of microphones up to a level where more equipment can work with the signal. Preamps are called upon to deliver extremely high amounts of gain while introducing very low amounts of noise and distortion.

What to buy:

Now that you have a good understanding of what a microphone and preamp do, it’s time to figure out which equipment is right for you. The first factor you’ll consider will likely be price, so we’ll start with the cheapest options and work our way up to the most expensive. But first, a quick word on USB mics: we recommend you steer clear. They are often the cheapest option, but there’s a reason for that. By and large, USB mics will not offer the sound quality you need to deliver professional sounding, retail ready audiobooks. These types of mics can introduce hum and delay into your recording chain, necessitating various “fixes” during post production.

With that out of the way, let’s get to our first category:

nt1-a_accessoriesGetting the job done.

Microphone: Shure PG27 ($149), Studio Projects B3 ($159), sE Electronics X1, ($199), or AT2050 ($229), Rode NT1-A ($229 – this option is a great starter kit, as it comes with the microphone, cable, shock mount and pop screen.)

Preamp: M-Audio Firewire Solo/M-Track  ($149)  or Studio Projects VTB1 ($180)

According to Audible Studios Post Production Associate Darren Vermaas, these are all viable options for beginners looking to get into audiobook production, however

They are less expensive because they are manufactured with cheaper parts.  Cheaper parts are more prone to breaking. They will also generally be noisier, especially when combining a cheaper microphone with a cheaper preamp.  On the plus side, these preamps both have I/O connectivity to a computer and serve as an interface with a DAW as well as preamp.

On the other hand, all of the preamps below will require a seperate audio interface (such as an Avid Mbox or M-Audio M-Track) in order to communicate with your DAW.

Hey, that doesn’t sound half bad.

Microphone: AT 4040 ($299) or Rode NT1000 ($329) or Sennheiser MK4 ($399) or AT 4033 ($399)

B12A-Front_zd-e1369340204745-604x205

Preamp: Black Lion Audio B12A ($360)

Wow, impressive!

Microphone: Mojave Audio MA 201fet ($695) or Neumann TLM 102 ($699)

Preamp: Focusrite ISA One ($500) or Grace Design m101 ($685)

SUPER impressive!

Microphone: Neumann TLM 103 ($1,100) Neumann U87 ($3,600)

Preamp: Universal Audio Solo610 ($1,000) or Great River ME-1NV ($1,150)

Now that you have a variety of products to choose from, all that remains is to select the price range that best fits your budget and experience level. When comparing equipment, read users reviews and get the opinions of your peers. Whichever you choose, all of these options should set you up for success in your audiobook recording career.

Which microphone/preamp combo do you use in your studio?

41 responses to “ACX Studio Gear Series Part 1: Microphones and Preamps

  1. Mojave MA-200, UA Apollo Quad (excellent built in preamps). I am on the “artist’s” list at the Mojave Audio site, and frequently do mic comparisons for them. I have absolutely no fiduciary relationship with them. However, I can say in my 40 years in the business, (both as a studio musician and singer, and as an actor) I am hard pressed to find any microphone, or set of microphones, that meets the caliber of the product that they make – at the price point of any of their mics. (The mics were designed by David Royer – He is renowned in the recording industry for ribbon microphones used throughout the world.)

  2. I happen to have a Neumann TLM103 and UA Solo 610. I am glad to hear you recommend them!

    I have heard some say a high end mic attached to an ear piece allows you to move more freely (that is what they did in the last Las Mis. film. I heard Road makes one that is not as pricy as the one they used in the film. Any thoughts on that?

    Thanks

  3. I’m using a Blue Microphones Baby Bottle and and a Tascam US-144MKII digital interface, recording on an Apple MacBook Pro, using Audacity. My first book was just released, and I’m recording my second. I’d love to be able to email someone in the Post Production department, so I could find out how clean my submitted files are, and if there’s anything I could do to improve.

    • Hi, Bill, I’m currently working on my first book. If you email ACX Support and ask this question, they will give you a link where you can submit a short sample for technical feedback. I found this process extremely helpful – they gave me specific input as to how to improve and worked with me as I tweaked the sound.

  4. No mention of the Heil PR-40 ($327), which I was thinking of getting. Curious to know where it would otherwise fit in the breakdown. And I experience no hum or delay with my USB mic.

  5. I believe you are mistaken concerning the Studio Projects VTB1 having I ” I/O connectivity to a computer and serve as an interface with a DAW as well as preamp.”
    SJB

  6. I think this list is very incomplete without the Apogee One and Duet. Granted, they only work with Macs, but they still have great-sounding mic pre’s.

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  8. Started off with a used Yeti by Blue and a used MAC running Garageband. The whole rig cost $900. Used it for a year, saved up and spent add’l $2k on a used TLM103, new Aphex Channel preamp and signal processor, and Focusrite 8i6 audio interface (incl cables , stand, and sound treatment for small closet). Same Mac and Garageband. Not the cheapest way to go but it’s good stuff. Saved at least 20% using Ebay.

  9. Started w a used Yeti by Blue and a used Mac with Adobe software. Ended up using, and still use, Garageband. Cost around $900. Used it for a year, saved up and spent an add’l $2k on a used TLM103, a new Aphex Channel preamp and processor and Focusrite 8i6 interface (incl cables, stand and sound materials for small closet). Recently narrated and produced first audiobook and have uploaded over 420 segments of original programming to YouTube in last two years. Not the cheapest setup but it’s good stuff.

  10. This is all so subjective and depends so much on a persons voice and the environment in which they are recording. That said, there is a Nuemann U89 on my desk and and an Aphex 230 in my rack. I purchased the U89 decades ago when it was $1200. Now new ones are well over $3000. Although I also have a Rode NTG-3, I will probably use the U89 for most every style of narrating I do. It’s beautiful mic. Very full and true sound.

  11. I agree with Larry Wayne. In addition to the quality/price ratio you also need to try different mics and see how your voice sounds with them. I recommend purchasing locally if you can. Many music stores have a return policy that will let you try out equipment and return it until you find the right stuff for you. I started with a Blue Snowball and audacity but that wasn’t giving me the results I wanted. I’m now using a Sterling Audio ST55 and Avid Fast Track Solo and love the results I get.

    • Hi Alan, What computer do you use with your Fast Track Solo? Bought our home studio equipment, was going to set up, and then the computer decides to retire so need to find a budget friendly replacement. Am accustomed to using Macs. Thanks for any help.

  12. I have a Yeti mike, good earphones, and I have MAC. I was using Audacity for software. I had no idea about amps. Can someone tell me how to add to what I have to get started. I am using a big walkin closet for a studio.

  13. I use an AT4040 with an M-Box Mini. Running Pro-Tools on Mac OS 10.8.

    I’ve produced two books for ACX and I’ve had very good feedback!

    At some time in the future, I’d like to check out higher-end mikes to see how they sound. But for now, the AT4040 is great.

  14. My main mic is the Neumann TLM-103 paired with a True Systems P-Solo preamp, which is a very clean and low noise pre, on the level of a Grace m101, to which it is most often compared.

  15. I have the Rode NT1-a and have tried a dozen good mics (condenser and dynamic) without finding one that makes me sound better. This post has made me wonder, however, whether what I hear is being limited by the rest of my setup. I’ve been using a small Mackie mixer (the predecessor of the 402VLZ4) as my preamp because it killed off some noise issues — where does this fall in the quality contiuum?

  16. My AKG C414 XLS sounds magnificent going into my Apogee Duet 2. It’s a little strange not to see a mention of the C414, as it’s been a workhorse studio mic for decades. And the Apogee products are top recommendations from studio and in-store pros as well.

  17. I am a pre-beginner…once a good soundproof space is set up (for me a closet with central foamed box (mic inside box) and room full of pyramid sound foam surround), shouldn’t my higher end MXL USB mic be adequate ? would low gain on mic or use of garage band (apple)feedback prevention setting help to eliminate the echoing/empty warehouse background I still hear ? I am at my 4th ‘at home makeshift studio trial.’ Some who remembers this phase have advice ? be kind…. or do most people go to a real studio to do a demo, then sink $ in after first job arrives ? david

    • David, you need more sound dampening in your recording space. The mic is picking up the echo room sound still. Try a closet if you can, or somehow get more dampening in the space you are using. And yes, go to a real studio for your demo. Better yet, take a class first to help you prepare a demo. There are lots of voice over classes in most cities.

      • Keep in mind that the drawback to a studio demo is that part of what you are auditioning is your entire production setup — that is, if you get a job, you’ll be expected to deliver the same quality of sound and editing as in your demo. From that perspective, it might be better to keep working on your home setup right from the outset, as it will be a painful scrambe to do that in the week or two between getting a job and having to turn in your final-quality “first 15 minutes” — unless you’re willing to keep paying for studio time when narrating your first book. If you think you really want to do this, then a few hundred dollars’ worth of acoustic paneling is a good investment.

  18. Hi all –
    total newbie here — I’ve only used a snowflake before, which requires very upclose speaking. I’ve seen good reviews of AT2020 and the blue yeti — yet ACX discourages usb mics. Is it really necessary to use a non-usb mic to make a professional-level audiobook? I’ve seen some reviews that suggested the non-usb mic plus preamp setup can also add to distortion?
    Also, I’m in a studio apt with no closet — am considering building an insulated “sound-box” to put my mic inside, a few feet away from laptop fan noise — is this sort of set-up realistic? thanks a bunch for any feedback!
    Rik

    • Rik,
      For that kind of advise you should consult with someone who has set up other people’s studios. I suggest Dan Lenard “Home Studio Master” or George Whitiam “VO Tec”
      Dan uses what looks like a canvas like material that has some very nice acoustic properties. It works well in apartments or settings where your constriction options may be limited. I think he calls it studio suit.

    • Rik: I got into this 6 months ago (VO and audio books).

      I’ve done two audio books for ACX.

      My limited experience re: mikes? You get what you pay for.

      So USB mikes are fine for auditions (and on the road) but for professional audio books you need the best fidelity of sound you can get (within reason and budget:)

      I bought an AT4040 mike and an M-Box Mini (which comes with Pro Tools Express software) (and plugged it into my Mac) for under $500 and I’m good to go.

      Good luck!

      Hope that helps.

  19. Hi, Chris and Robert –
    thanks a bunch for your feedback! The apogee mic looks versatile for macs, but most reviewers are skeptical about usb mics for pro voice-over recordings.
    looking at http://voiceoveressentials.com/content/USB_Microphone.htm
    sounds like an interesting combo–
    thanks again, I’m sure it will be an interesting journey!

  20. It’s ridiculous to pay $1000+ for a preamp to do audiobook work. As long as the unit has an slr in, level knobs for output and headphones, is clean-sounding, that’s all you need. Get creative–go to Ebay and buy something used from a reputable seller. I got my Neumann U87 from a guy in Australia for half the price quoted above; a 32-bit, discontinued but brand new USBPre interface and a used computer to top it all off (including a 1680×1050 Dell monitor from Dell refurbished). Bought Pro Tools and a Macbook Pro used also. Right now everything is working, so I’m happy.

  21. So many fancy names and numbers! What’s a person to choose. Being someone who prefers less equipment than more, I took the plunge into a USB mic. Plug and Play! MXL.009. It records at 24bit/96kHz with zero latency. I do a lot of recording in my homestudio as well as professional studios. One series of books I do in a studio with a Neumann. I do the pick up lines in my studio with the MXL. Can you atell teh difference on an mp3? Nope!

    Jack’svoice – heard on three continents.

  22. Right on J – USB mics are not the devil’s spawn. And talking into a Neumann is like driving a Jaguar.

  23. Hi, all–
    thanks for the heads-up on the MXL.009! Even Harlan Hogan gives it an excellent review on Amazon (from three years ago, so maybe his mic has come out since then). Hmm, I just ordered Harlan’s mic — for about the same price. Harlan Hogan better than MXL, anyone (for professional voice-overs in home studio, not just on the road)?

  24. The CAD E100s is a beautiful sounding mic, Made in the USA and around $400.00. Also use an AKG C414 XL II, better value than a TLM 103. Focusrite Forte is one of my pre’s along with a modded ART Voice Channel.

  25. E100S into a Focusrite 2i2.

    Dynamic mics can also work well for audiobook production, I’ve done a number of audiobooks with a Heil Pr40 into a Cloudlifter into a Shure X2u. If you’re looking at a Heil mic you might want to choose the Pr30 over the 40 since it’s a little less harsh sounding. Recordinghacks has done a wonderful shootout of dynamic mics if you’d like to give them a listen. I’ll toss a couple links at the end of this post that people might find useful.

    The only reason I got the E100S is simply because I’m pursuing both audiobook and non-audiobook voice work. Using a dynamic mic in the rest of the VO industry is a bit like trying to sell plantains to people looking to buy bananas. You can do it, and some are even looking for plantains, but it’s an unnecessary barrier.

    http://recordinghacks.com/2011/06/02/ultimate-podcast-mic-shootout/
    http://recordinghacks.com/2011/12/22/best-200-podcasting-condenser-mics/

    If you’re interested in one of those dynamics BSWusa has some great package deals.

    http://www.bswusa.com/SearchResults.aspx?q=package&Min=0&Max=0&FieldId=0&FieldValue=

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  27. Anybody have advice on how a Zoom h4n compares in quality as a preamp? I already own one, which I use for video projects, and as I put together my starter studio I’d prefer to not drop money on something new if I can avoid it.

  28. @ James, yesterday a buddy of mine asked me to edit an audition he did on a Zoom recorded using the on board mics which he recorded in a closet.

    It was a little frustrating that his audio sounded every bit as good as my Neumann TLM103 mic / UA Solo 610 combo in a 4×6 vocal booth with extra treatment!!

    I don’t know yet how the preamp sounds if you plug in a decent outboard mic but I have no reason to think the quality would suffer.

  29. Pingback: Upgrading Gear for Voicework | ShariWhitman.com

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