You Don't Need Expensive Equipment to Make Amazing Music. - A Discussion of How Industry Standards Have Changed.
Spotify gets 20,000 new song submissions every day. Having a nice microphone will not set you apart - but having a fresh and creative approach to working within your limits, whatever they are, will make all the difference.
I had a discussion with my niece today - she is about to start high school in September, and is ready to dig in with some home recording. She has a beautiful voice, and just needs to get a lot more experience with singing, and recording, and arrangements. The typical stuff.
A few weeks ago I recommended that she buy an inexpensive usb mic, and go from there. Her music teacher, as it turns out, advised her to spend more money. So she texted me and we had a discussion. I imagine her teacher - she lives in San Francisco - has some experience in the industry, and is continuing to give what was, at one point, good advice. I thought it would be helpful to go into a little bit of detail about what has changed.
So, first up: what is different now? Well, we have two kinds of mics. I'm not talking about ribbon mics and dynamic/cardioid vs. condenser, or anything like that - I'm talking about XLR compared to usb. As it turns out, the mic she was thinking about buying was a mid-level AKG condenser with an XLR-out, on sale for about $150. She probably would have bought that, if she hadn't asked me first, and this is why her teacher's recommendation, although genuine and well-intentioned, was not very good advice. He had not even asked her what she planned to do with it. Again, I can imagine the old paradigm - if you are a young singer, starting out, buy yourself a good mic to bring to gigs. I remember getting that advice 20+ years ago. As it turns out, she has no intention of playing shows at the moment. She didn't know that she wouldn't be able to plug that mic into her computer without an interface. She would have been excited for it to arrive, and immediately been frustrated that it didn't work with her computer out of the box. Back in the day, home recording was mainly analog, and the 4-track and 8-track machines all had XLR inputs - no analog to digital conversion needed, and you didn't need an interface. Today's world is totally different - most people are recording directly to computer. Simplicity rules. Here is what I said to her:
Hi Lucia! The difference between this mic and the one I suggested is that they are for different use cases. The one you have linked to is an XLR mic, which means it would be great for bringing your own mic to a gig, for example, but if you are going to record at home, this one will NOT plug directly into your computer. You will have to buy a separate interface, which is not super expensive, but annoying, and then all of a sudden you have two different cords, etc. It just becomes a hassle. And then that is before you starting talking about the A/D (analog to digital) technology that the interface uses - essentially, you can have a nice XLR mic but it will still be bottlenecked by the quality of your interface, so either you spend more money for a really good interface, or you don’t, and make the quality of your mic pointless. I would say, respectfully to your music teacher, that if you are going to record at home, it is less important that you ‘invest’ in a high quality mic, and more important that you find something easy to use, and get into the flow of recording. Things like mic placement, good gain management, and strong performance are way more important than mic quality at this stage in your development.
Getting into the flow, and feeling like you can get started easily, is what will get you excited about the recording process. You do not need an expensive mic to get started. Times have changed.
Your Mic Is Not an Instrument
So, to extend just a little bit, the idea of where her music teacher was coming from: the old wisdom, which still makes sense today, is that buying cheap instruments is a waste of money. This is true, and I stand by it. If you are starting out on guitar, for example, consider buying something mid-level, and not totally low quality, because it is very hard to make badly-made instruments sound good. A seasoned pro can make almost anything sound good, but as a beginner, it truly does help to have an instrument with good tone, that stays in tune easily, etc. But your mic is not an instrument - it is a tool. Big distinction. Your voice is the instrument. Starting out with a cheap mic will only teach you to listen more, try harder, and understand the complex dynamic between performance, equipment, and final product. Learning how to record vocals in a home studio will take a lot of dedication and time. By the time you have the skills necessary to actually need a better microphone, you should also have the ears required to actually hear the difference in sound quality. That in and of itself is a gift. Bottom line - the skills that you learn from recording your own voice with a 'cheap' microphone will only make you both a better singer, and a better recording engineer. If you can afford to skip that step, fine - but you don't need to invest a lot of money up front.
Limitations Can Help You
I have two simple stories for you - there are many more, but these 2 come to mind. One is about LoveLeo, a successful artist that I have written about before. He got started recording songs directly into Soundcloud, with the 'cheapest mic he could find.' The most critical component to success, often enough, is creating a process that can be sustained, that allows a musician to connect quickly with an audience - quality microphone not required. He slowly began to upgrade his equipment, and now can afford the best gear, but he started out with whatever he could get his hands on. Starting out with a 'cheap' mic did not slow him down at all.
The other story, which is similar, brings us to the pop duo Moby Rich. They said this last year about their hit, "Sabotage:"
We did all the vocals for this project, even up to today, on an iPhone 5.
Quality microphone not required. As an artist, limitation can often be the spark that leads to improvisation, and inspiration. Opera singers need high-quality microphones. Pop singers, not so much. A good song, a sticky hook, and an awesome vocal performance will get you noticed, whether you used a vintage Telefunken U47, or an old iPhone to record the vocals. Don't let anything hold you back - if all you have is a cheap microphone, just find a way to make it rock. Innovation is everything.
Doesn't Anyone Care About Sound Quality?
Short answer: no. No, they don't.
Long answer: we now master songs to be way too loud - most pop songs are not very dynamic to begin with. The mp3 format is not a friend of sound quality. Most people don't invest in good speakers anymore. If you have an amazing, Rihanna-level voice, you are going to get noticed anyway - regardless of the mic you used to record the vocal. If you don't have that kind of voice, you are going to need to write and produce your way out of that deficit - lyrics, instrumental hooks, sound design, stylistic choices. Spotify gets 20,000 new song submissions every day. Having a nice microphone will not set you apart - but having a fresh and creative approach to working within your limits, whatever they are, will make all the difference.
Good luck - and don't give up.
Cover photo courtesy of Jason Roswell.