Voice-over / Podcast Recording Studio Equipment Reviews & Tips
I record voice-overs for all manner of things - phone lines, store announcements, radio, websites, etc. and along the way I learn a lot about what equipment is useful and what is superfluous to requirements or overly expensive. The following rambling diatribe is a description of the equipment I use and techniques I have learned. I do not claim to be an expert, which is why I'm not selling you an ebook! However I do like value for money and so the equipment I buy will not 'break the bank'.
I only record voice-overs, but the information and equipment suggestions on these pages may also be useful to those who record podcasts, audio books, and also community radio stations, RSLs, AM news/talk stations, 'home-based' internet radio stations, and more.
Please note: These are independent reviews. I am not paid in cash or in kind by any microphone manufacturer, nor given any free equipment to test (NB manufacturers - contact me to make this happen and I'll happily remove this sentence!!!). I bought all the items that I review with my own funds.
If you are setting up a studio and would like to contact me for advice or suggestions, please do and I'll try my best to advise - but please read these six pages before you do! Previous interesting questions and answers of note are on pages 5 and 6 of this article.
The Shure SM57 with the huge A81WS windshield (which cost nearly half as much as the mic itself! photo below right) pleasantly surprised me. It is not (nor ever has been) purported to be a voice-over mic. Yes - you do see them on every US President's podium since 1965, but this is more for their ruggedness than anything else. It is officially an instrument mic used for snare drums and other instruments, and is essentially an SM58 (the classic vocal mic) with a different head and therefore has a slightly different sound. The SM57 has a very different tone to that of the more 'clinical' condenser mics. I have to say I bought my SM57 more for fun than serious voice work, but read on to hear how it's now my most used microphone....
It will 'pop' a lot from plosive 'p' sounds without a windshield fitted. It's highly directional - rejecting sound from virtually everywhere except directly in front.
The large A81WS windshield has a sort of scouring pad material inside it, presumably to give it better structure and a less muddy sound than if it were made entirely of foam. It's a mid-grey rather than black, fits the SM57 snugly, and eliminates all popping - you will never pop the mic with this on! It's also nice to know in the specs that it is suitable for use when the wind is over 15 mph (which is rare in my studio unless I've had a lot of sprouts for dinner). You often saw SM57s on 1970s/80s rock concerts as the main vocal mics. They have a different sound to the SM58 because they don't have the ball-type grille - this means extended response in both low and high end because you can get closer to the diaphragm. Don't get me wrong - it's not a condenser mic sound, but in a blind studio test I read online featuring a great many mics and blindfolded people, a great number preferred the sound from the SM57 to the legendary Neumann U87 condenser mic (which is over 15 times the price)!
There is a well known modification which involves putting the mic body in boiling water to melt the epoxy glue that secures the output transformer inside so that it can be removed making the mic sound more like the SM7B (promoted by Shure as a radio / announcer / voice-over mic - see below) but with 10db lower output (= more noise) but this could arguably be achieved with simple EQing on your mixer. I have been informed that the SM48 is actually a transformerless version of the SM57 with more distinct highs (but the different basket shape), so that modification isn't really necessary.
I now use the SM57 as my main voice-over mic for non-broadcast recordings (i.e. phone greetings, store announcements, etc.). I honestly never thought I would - I feel I'm almost 'going back a step' with my microphone arsenal after using the clinical AKG C414, and I know some audio purists may be shaking their heads, but I really like using the SM57, and for the non-broadcast work I do it works perfectly. The big windshield is a must - I can't pop it, it sounds nice and warm, I don't necessarily have to worry too much about acoustic treatment for these recordings as you would with a sensitive condenser mic, and I don't feel I have to molly-coddle it like the AKG C414 so as not to damage it. You'll need a mixer to be able to properly EQ it and hear it 'live' before the signal goes into your computer (rather than use one of those direct USB audio converters). The telling thing is, ever since I've started using it, I've been receiving 10 times as many compliments for the voice work I've done - which never happened nearly as much when I was using condenser mics. It doesn't quite have the top-end frequency response of condensers, but if you EQ it well, and bear in mind that us humans can only hear audio frequencies that go so high, if you're recording an on-hold message for a telephone system - who would really notice?! Telephone frequency band = 300 - 3300 Hz, SM57 pick-up = 40 - 15,000Hz. You're well covered! I do use it without a windshield sometimes, but carefully so it doesn't pop, and the recordings have a slightly crisper high end because of this. For voicing radio ads, I use my AT2020 or S1000 (mentioned later) so that I sound just as crisp as other voice-over's voices in other ads played around the ad I'm voicing who will all be using condenser mics.
If you are just starting off, I would certainly recommend the SM57 as a first purchase. You may find you'll still have it in your studio when you become a pro!
A visitor to this website sent me an interesting email regarding the Shure SM7B (pictured left) - a voice microphone seen in many radio studios. I knew they were dynamic and expensive here in the UK, but the visitor informed me they were a lot less in the US. I thought that if it was better than the SM57 and specifically designed for studio voice work (rather than for instruments like the SM57), I'd give it a try because it would be more appropriate for the work I do - in theory it would perform better. So I imported one from the USA.
It has built-in bass roll-off and presense peak switches, and its frequency range goes all the way up to 20,000Hz, but it's not a smooth frequency response graph by any means and looks a lot like the SM57's graph. The pick-up zone seems larger than the SM57's. It comes complete with two windshields - the slender one which is the same girth as the mic body itself (see below), and a larger one which is fatter but makes it un-poppable (photo above). In many ways the SM7B is a modern version of the SM5B (pictured right) which was discontinued in 1986 yet still in active use in certain American radio station studios. I assume they clean the spit off the foam windscreen every decade or so...!
My verdict after testing: ...I think the SM7B and SM57 are very
similar. There is not enough audible difference between the two mics
which would make me think that one costs more than 6 times
the price of the other. The SM7B seems to have slightly more bass and
more top end, but only if you really concentrate can you hear the difference
(it's not like the difference between an SM58 and a Neumann u87 - it
is not easy to hear the difference between these two Shure mics). I'm sure you could
easily EQ this out so they sound the same. The difference is the visual
appearance - having the mic in a permanent yoke makes it perfect in
radio studios where mics get mauled about - along with the roll-off
and peak switches. I have since seen a user-tested frequency response
graph of the SM57 and SM7B absolutely side by side, and the results
were uncanny, with the same peaks and troughs. The SM7B did have more gain at lower and higher ranges,
but as had been said, nothing that could not have been adjusted with
EQ to make the SM57 sound the same. I'm comforted by this, and it confirms
that the SM57 above is indeed a valid microphone for voice
I personally found the SM57 gave a superior, crisper sound to the SM7B with the equipment I use.
I sold my SM7B to a music producer in London. As an aside, a Shure SM7 was famously used by studio engineer Bruce Swedien for most of Michael Jackson's vocals on his Thriller album (including Vincent Price's rap!), and on Red Hot Chili Peppers albums.
I also bought a Shure SM81 on a day when I was feeling particularly extravagant. With another A81WS windshield, I used this condenser as my main mic for a long time. I find it crisp and clear, with less proximity effect compared to large condensers. It is also more directional. It is very long! I also used it with the A81G, which is a plastic grille. This was the set-up used to record Brian Cobby's wonderful baritone voice for the UK's speaking clock back in 1985.
The rich chocolate tones of the late Brian Cobby at a filming of him reading the speaking clock
(for this filming it was a mock-up, as the most used phrases were only recorded once).
(You'll need to turn the volume up, and the sound is only on the left channel)
In the photo at the right, you can see in the background 2 x SM81s with A81WS windshield as guest mics. The presenter is using an SM7. I queried this directly with Shure, as the SM81 has not really been promoted as a speech mic.
Shure told me, "You are right, SM81 is not
highlighted for voice-overs in our catalog. As a general statement:
small condenser microphones produce an accurate recording, i.e. the
recording will not sound 'warm' and 'full' like recording with large
condenser microphones or with a special radio microphone like the
SM7, specially designed to give a very 'warm' sound.
However, when I re-read the HW International catalogue (Shure's UK distributors) from 1994 (I promise I'm not a hoarder), in a mic selection guide table recommends the SM7 as the "premium mic for VO / announce (dynamic) but the premium mic for VO / announce (condenser) is the SM81". I suppose this was long before they started the KSM large diaphragm condenser series, but still...!
For a while I used the Electrovoice RE20. I imported it from the USA (far cheaper at the time) because so many radio studios in the US had them, and a few VO artists I'd spoken to here in the UK had them too. I had it shipped over from New York and was quite surprised at how heavy it was (it is a dynamic rather than a condenser so its weight was justified). It is also highly directional, virtually blocking all sound that is off-axis. I've seen travel reporters on US radio stations actually speak into the side of an RE20 which reduces a lot of the high frequencies to make them sound like they are wearing a headset in a helicopter! Alas, despite my best efforts I really couldn't get a nice sound out of the RE20. I use a Mackie mixer which didn't seem to 'match' it - perhaps being too clinical in its accurate depiction of the dynamic mic's sound. Don't get me wrong - a lot of peoples' voices (and equipment) work really well with RE20s, but mine didn't. I may have been too used to the accuracy of my AKG C414 at the time of comparison.
It was pretty hard to make it pop even when lip miking. Proximity effect is almost zero because the many side ports vent away the air pressure that causes that effect. In the end I sold it to an ex-Capital FM newsreader and ITV VO for his home podcasting studio who prefered the RE20 over other mics as his voice 'cut through' more, which just goes to show how people prefer certain microphones for their own voice over others. Paul McCartney always seems to use the same mics since the 1970s when he records albums, and it's not like he can't afford the most expensive mic in the world - he must just prefer that particular one. Strangely, the RE20 is most often used in two very different applications - voice and saxaphone! I have read that the RE20 sounds a lot like the Sennheiser MD421 which is another dynamic (see later). Before the RE20 came along, most US radio stations had MD421s, and I know that Rick Dees prefered an MD421 in his own studio at KIIS FM even into the 2000s. The stations switched to RE20s because they looked 'sexier' and bigger. But according to broadcasters who've used both, you can get more 'balls' with an MD421 because of the bass-proximity effect, as it doesn't have the RE20's side-vents for the air to escape out of when you're close miking.
I've seen these with popper-stoppers mounted on the front, and suspension mounts. These look very odd are not required for your purpose - it's not that sensitive a mic!
As one of the first microphones I purchased, my AKG C414 B ULS really opened my eyes as to what a great mic can pick up. If you have poor acoustics or don't acoustically treat the room you'll be recording your voice in, I would advise against getting a sensitive mic like this - you will hear your room very easily - not only heating pipes / outside / neighbours, but the acoustics of the room as your voice bounces off walls will be picked up by the mic, and possibly your PC whirring away. It also requires a good low noise mic pre-amp - I used a Joe Meek VC3Q and there was a great deal of noise and hiss from it.
Although the C414 isn't specifically a voice-over mic, I had worked with them in the BBC's radio studios in the basement at Broadcasting House and found them to be very versatile with the switchable polar patterns (cardioid, hyper-cardioid, figure of eight and omni), bass roll off and attentuation switches and flat frequency response. I'd only ever seen them in two other radio studios (I think Ireland's 2FM and Key 103 in Manchester). It came with a clever custom suspension mount, windshield and case (this AKG C414 B-ULS version has been superceeded by the 'digital' version). You do need the supplied suspension mount as it will pick-up low frequency rumbles if put in a normal stand clip. Proximity effect is noticable - you need to be a good distance away (ie hand-span minimum) from the mic to achieve a more 'natural' sound without EQ. I mostly had it in hypercardioid mode but switching to other patterns is easy to do and rather interesting to hear the difference. Frequency response is as flat as they come, hence it being widely considered a 'reference' mic. I eventually sold mine to a TV station in London for their continuity announcer studio. You can now get an AKG C214 which only has the front facing diaphragm (so doesn't do the figure 8 or omni patterns), but makes it more affordable.
The ATM31a - what a mic! My first proper microphone, I purchased one of these years before I was doing voice work when I was starting out in radio, and eventually began using it as a general purpose mic (with a windshield for outdoors) which gave a perfect sonic quality for vox pops - so much richer and fuller than reporter's omnidirectional dynamic mics. It's essentially a studio condenser mic that can be phantom powered or alternatively use power from an internal 1.5v AA battery if no phantom is available. It's not quite as full sounding as the C414 of course, but its diaphragm is about 1/4 the size and it cost around 6 times less, so this is to be expected. Audio Technica in the UK were very helpful when supplying this mic directly to me back in 1994, soldering an XLR cable for me to use with it before dispatch, which was really above and beyond the call of duty! I really can't praise this microphone enough - I think it's a cracker. Sadly, I heard it was discontinued by Audio Technica in 2006 but I saw it still for sale in 2009. In fact, it's been replaced by the AT8031 which appears to be identical in technical specs but now has the addition of a low end roll-off switch.
More recently I bought another Audio Technica mic - the AT2020. Only £70 (in 2005), it's made to a high standard in China and has a 16mm diaphragm. It pops less than the C414 because the grille is more heavy duty and thick woven. With AT's thick foam windshield you could virtually lip-mic with it. It comes with a metal stand mount (not elastic suspension) and a storage pouch. It would be a viable and more cosmetically pleasing side-address alternative to RE20s in American radio stations (and a LOT cheaper).
As an aside, I do find the mic technique and sonic quality of American radio presenters' microphones quite poor in comparison to UK ones, mainly because the majority of UK stations use large diaphragm condensers and American stations use RE20s or other dynamics that are compressed and limited like crazy, with the presenters 'eating' the mics. It's like listening from inside their mouths sometimes. But lots of US stations still used tape carts well into the 2000s!
Anyway, this AT2020 mic stands up very well to other mics - I would say it even gives the C414 a very good run for its money, even though it is the same price as a good dynamic. This is currently my favourite microphone which I now use for most voice-overs. I don't need much acoustic treatment to use it either. I would certainly recommend it as an ideal condenser mic first purchase. You can get it in a USB format now, but bear in mind you won't be able to live EQ it through a mixer with that model so it may not sound as flattering.
The Russian-made Oktava MK319 was an alternative to the increasing number of cheaper Far Eastern-made condenser microphones - yet is very competitively priced and excels in build quality. It has a very wide cardioid pick-up (it's almost omni, really). It comes with Russian instructions, and the online shop from which I purchased it put the price up by £20 the day after I'd ordered, then stopped selling them altogether - maybe I got the last one in the country!? It seems very well made and sturdy, with reed switches for a long switch life but no shockmount (just like the AT2020, presumably to keep cost down). I've heard that the quality of the transformer is far superior to the far eastern made mics in this price range. It looks nice too, with a slightly 1970s recording studio look to it.
Americans aren't too keen on these, but there seems to have been an issue with a 'duff batch' of stock that a chain of guitar stores bought at a knock-down price which has given them a bad name - customers weren't aware that they were seconds when they bought them and assumed all MK319s are like that. Apparently these mics have the same internals as the MK219 but in a different body which is acoustically less 'boxy'.
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