In this interview, Soren Pedersen outlines the recent updates to this handy online Shure mic comparison tool, gives a walk-through of how to use it, and explains how his team recorded all the samples in the most scientific conditions possible.
Allison Wolcott: What makes the new Mic Listening Lab better than the old one?
Soren Pedersen: First and foremost, the consistency of the samples. The first version of the tool grew over time. We kept adding samples to it, but it was hard to compare mics because the samples weren’t apples to apples. In the updated tool, we’ve eliminated all the variables. Now, if you filter for all the acoustic guitar samples, and you choose your mics, you’ll hear the exact same performance captured by each mic: same space, same preamps, same instrument, same musician. It’s a true comparison tool instead of just a collection of recordings.
Also, the new layout gets you to where you want to go faster than the old one. We’ve curated suggestions by application rather than just adding a bunch of recordings and leaving it to customers to find their way. You choose your application right away.
Finally, pricing is visible in the tool, so if you’re like me and don’t even want to hear what you can’t afford, you can choose to compare only the mics in your price range. That said, a higher price doesn’t always equal a better sound for what you’re trying to accomplish, so keep that in mind.
AW: What’s the best way to listen to the samples? Should people use headphones?
SP: Computer speakers won’t let you hear the differences between samples. Whether you’re on desktop or mobile, I definitely recommend headphones. [Editor’s note: The tool is responsive, so you can use it on mobile, but the desktop experience is better.] I always use the nicest headphones I can find because the differences between these samples can be subtle, especially when it comes to our higher-end microphones. With those, the difference is more about aesthetics than quality. Headphones will give you a much more consistent and informed listening experience.
If you can, use a headphone amp, external sound card, or an interface—I use our MOTIV™ MVi, personally—because the samples sound much better than the onboard sound card in a computer allows. The headphone amp on the iPhone is pretty good, though you’ll still get some improvement if you use a separate amp.
AW: How should people approach making mic comparisons?
SP: Listen to just enough of a sample to give you a solid sense of the mic—probably three or four seconds—then listen to a second one. It’s difficult to effectively compare more than three or four in a row. I recommend comparing two, then whichever one wins, compare the winner to another mic, and keep going until you get the one you think will sound best for your application.
Critical listening is hard. It takes a lot of training to do. So, we tried to eliminate the variables that make it intimidating. All you have to do is choose your application, listen to a few curated tracks, and choose. You don’t have to take copious notes. Just listen, and trust your ears. There are no right or wrong answers here. In many cases, what you’ll hear in the tool are aesthetic differences rather than quality differences, so the right mic for you is whichever one sounds best to you.
The best example of the aesthetic versus quality differences is the piano tracks. We have five samples, and they’re all very nice microphones. They just sound different. There’s one I’d recommend if you’re doing a solo piano recording (and that’s the KSM44A), but it’s probably not the right choice if you’re doing a rock record. In those cases, the BETA®181 might be better since that mic’s more punchy and focused.
AW: When is a tool like this most useful?
SP: I think it’s most useful at the very beginning of the shopping process. This tool was designed for anyone who might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of microphones in our product catalog and needs a way to narrow it down and hear what they’ll get for their money.
It also can be really useful if you already own one of our microphones and are considering an upgrade or a different sound. Using the piano example again, if you own the PGA181, which is very affordable, and are wondering what the next level up sounds like in comparison, you can hear four examples of that.
Most people don’t have access to four our five mics at a time to compare, so this tool lets you compare in a way that you can’t really do anywhere else. It gives people access to a professional shootout scenario similar to the ones we do here when we’re comparing mics as part of developing new ones.
AW: How did you record all the tracks for the new-and-improved Mic Listening Lab?
SP: Shure has such a huge talent pool that almost all the sound sample performances were done by Shure Associates. Included in the tool are samples for vocals (both stage and studio, two male and two female), acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, drums (jazz and rock), strings (violin, cello, upright bass), horns (saxophone, trombone, trumpet), and piano.
One exception was the handheld vocal mics. We learned the hard way that we had to record the handheld vocal mic samples individually or else the mics would be out of position. It’s physically impossible to put five mics in the tiny sweet spot where the singer’s mouth goes.
Also, because not every top-flight player at Shure has a top-flight instrument, we occasionally hired outside musicians with premium instruments. One of the goals with these samples was to record premium instruments in pristine conditions. With acoustic stringed instruments like the violin, this is extremely important. In our violin sample, you’re hearing a beautiful violin played by a world-class violinist. Same thing with our upright bass sample.
Another goal was eliminating as many variables in the samples as possible. We wanted the same performance in the same space with the same instrument and the same musician for all the mics in every application. We wanted the conditions to be as scientific as possible. So, with drums, we had 22 drum mics mounted at once. It took a full day to get what boiled down to a 12-second drum recording.
Speaking of drums, my being a drummer helped us figure out our approach to creating and presenting drum samples. We realized early on that hearing four different mics on a tom, for example, isn’t that useful. Instead of recording each piece of the kit separately, we recorded the whole kit at once. In each drum sample, you’ll hear a mix of six different microphones on a kit. Those mic mixes represent our PG ALTA, SM and BETA collections. Most of the BETA mics are supercardioids, so the sound is much drier and tighter than the SM or PG ALTA collections. Those are the kinds of holistic impressions you’ll get when you listen to a whole kit recorded.
The recording part was really fun. In most cases, we’d have a 30-minute setup time. Then the artist would come in and play for 15 minutes max (often it took them longer to unpack their gear than to record a track), and that was it. It was a nerdy couple of days in the studio. It definitely didn’t feel like making records or making music. It was more like a science experiment, very clinical. We think the end result is cool.
AW: Given that the project was more science than performance, what instruction did you give the musicians for these recordings?
SP: We asked the musicians to stand very still because the mic positioning in relation to the sound source is critical in this kind of recording. On a drum kit, that’s less of a big deal, but on a violin or acoustic guitar, it’s a very big deal.
Aside from that, we just asked that they play something clean and that wasn’t copyrighted. We recorded a few minutes of each instrument, then pulled the most representative 10 seconds or so for the final track. In the final tracks, we wanted to have a range of low to high frequencies, and, in some cases, a range of playing styles. For acoustic guitar, we have a finger-picked sample and a strummed sample. For drums, we have a rock and a jazz sample.
AW: How did you determine the appropriate length of the samples?
SP: In doing shootouts every day here, we’ve learned that samples longer than five or six seconds are hard to compare because you don’t remember the differences. Your ears adapt to the new sound too quickly to compare longer tracks than that. We want you to be able to hit Play, hear a few seconds, then hit Play on another mic, and hear the same track recorded under the same conditions. If you do that, you can make a really informed comparison.
AW: How can people access the Mic Listening Lab?
SP: Go to shure.com/miclab to get started.
To get you familiar with navigating the updated Mic Listening Lab, below is a step-by-step walk-through of how to compare vocal microphones.
Navigate to shure.com/miclab. Then, select VOCALS from the horizontal menu at the top.
Lotsa mics, right? How to narrow down? Click the STAGE VOCALS link on the top left, below the grey Comparison bar.
Seven microphones is still a lot to compare. It’s better to compare microphones in pairs, as explained earlier in this post. Since people often ask the differences between the SM58® and BETA 58A®, let’s start with those.
Click the grey COMPARE button at the bottom of the SM58 and BETA 58A images. This will add both microphones to the COMPARISON bar above all the mic results.
Click the now-blue COMPARISON button. A box with only the SM58 and BETA 58A will appear on top of the seven Stage Vocal results.
From here, you can choose which sample you want to hear. The “Female 1” sample is the default, but click the dropdown under each mic image to see all the available comparison options.
To get back to the original seven Stage Vocal results, click outside the grey box containing the SM58 and BETA 58A.
Compare samples, add more mics to the comparison, clear them out and start from scratch—it’s up to you. Happy comparing!