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Virtual Roundtable: Trends in Microphones

It’s the first link in your air chain. We ask manufacturers what’s next

AKG C414B-XLSRadio World Gear & Technology Editor Brett Moss asked representatives of several leading microphone manufacturers about the state of the broadcast microphone industry and what might be in the future.

How strong is the microphone industry overall and, more specifically, the broadcast microphone industry?

Joseph Wagoner, AKG: The microphone industry shows its strength organically by how many new names show up each year and the success of small boutique microphone companies that continue to thrive. The broadcast category is a special segment and requires special application considerations. It used to be centered on traditional product types like shotgun mics, lavaliers, in-studio wireless, ENG and movie production wireless. Today, with all of the reality shows, music and talent contest shows, the microphone selection and requirements have greatly broadened, which has increased the demand in this segment.

Rick Belt, Electro-Voice: Industry health data points indicate the wired microphone business has slipped just a little (maybe down 2 percent) over the past 20 months, but rest assured, it’s still a huge and healthy industry. With the marketplace applications of traditionally broadcast-oriented microphones on the rise, we’re seeing demand for broadcast-type microphones growing more than ever before.

Bob Heil, Heil Sound: It would appear to be very healthy for those manufacturers who are building serious, high-performance products. Heil Sound is up in sales for the 10th year in a row. Based on what we see with dealers who sell to the broadcast market, it is also strong. Formats for broadcast evolve, but a microphone is still a basic “must have” component. Thankfully!

For dedicated on-air studio radio broadcast, is there really any trend beyond what’s already out there and has been out there for decades?

Michael Edwards and Chris Nighman, Audio-TechnicaRick Belt, Electro-Voice: The most notable trend is that the once “heard-but-not-seen” radio personality has their own webcast or podcast presence, thereby putting a face to their sound. They have become webvision celebrities with their own fan base and Web channel — and the look of things is quite important.

When it comes to gearing up the productions, there seems to be two camps (schools of thought based on needs) which have taken shape: those users who need and choose traditional XLR interface with professional-grade audio processing, and those users who rely upon direct microphone-to-computer interface (i.e. USB). But neither camp has changed their expectation level for quality and ease of use. All users continue aspiring to achieve and maintain the well-established classic sound of the AM or FM radio voice …

Audio-Technica AT4047/SVJoseph Wagoner, AKG: I see variants to the approach in some on-air studios; there is more opportunity for use of large-diaphragm condensers for voice talent, and some use of boomset mics that incorporate the mic with the headphones. This approach provides the talent with the opportunity to move about with headphones on and always have the mic in the same relative position to the voice, like with the HSD and HSC boomsets from AKG.

Bob Heil, Heil Sound: There is no “trend” as I see it. Everyone still looks for a clean signal.

Can the Electro-Voice RE20 ever be dethroned as the king of radio?

Bob Heil, Heil Sound: I would argue that, for many broadcasters, it already has been dethroned. One of our West Coast distributors reports that the Heil PR 40 is their leading selling microphone.

Michael Edwards and Chris Nighman, Audio-Technica: I don’t know if it can be “dethroned” as such, but many broadcast studios are now choosing side-address LDC condenser microphones in addition to dynamics.

Joseph Wagoner, AKG: Old habits are hard to break, and the advantage of the RE20 is the reduced proximity effect, which allows the talent to move about with the proper use of compression/expansion on the mic and the listener hears little change. I believe it will be the search for better audio or a different sound that will continue to drive the use of some large diaphragm condensers as well as the boomset approach.

Electro-Voice RE20Rick Belt, Electro-Voice: Never! ☺ Challengers come, and challengers go, but we’re delivering more RE class (RE20, RE27N/D and the new RE320) microphones into the market than ever before. We see that as reassuring proof that 80 percent or more of the industry professionals will not settle for anything less than the established sound and user experience …

Rick Belt, Electro-VoiceIs the old dynamic interview microphone dead as the dodo?

Michael Edwards and Chris Nighman, Audio-Technica: Depending on the specific application, we feel there is still a place for dynamic interview microphones. Not only have audio quality and handling noise improved over the past few years, but when durability is a factor … there is no other option.

Joseph Wagoner, AKG: Let’s just say that networking of audio and remote control are becoming more available and desirable every day.

Rick Belt, Electro-Voice: Unlikely, considering demand for Electro-Voice RE and 635 class dynamic interview mics is on the increase.

Bob Heil, Heil Sound: The dynamic interview mic isn’t necessarily dead, but nobody has done anything to improve on 45- to 50-year-old technology, that’s for sure. Add to that how many manufacturers have their mics assembled and final-tested offshore, seemingly without regard for how they sound. I don’t believe in that one bit.

By comparison to the air studio, on the production side there’s great deal of activity. We’ve seen cheaper and better mics, with a bifurcation of affordable large diaphragm and good-sounding lav/minimics for mobile devices, and USB connections. Have we entered a Golden Age of high-quality, inexpensive production microphones?

Heil Sound PR 40Rick Belt, Electro-Voice: Changes in technology as well as methods of gathering and delivering sound have somewhat diversified the acceptable quality baseline expected of sound capture tools. However, the fundamental technologies and sound exclusive to Electro-Voice RE class studio and field production mics cannot be emulated or synthesized by DSP. As with any portion of the production gear economy, “you get what you pay for” in microphones is still a baseline reality.

Michael Edwards and Chris Nighman, Audio-Technica: It’s important to remember there are always tradeoffs. Although it is now more possible than ever to get a decent microphone at a great price, often times this means sacrifices in quality and consistency.

Joseph Wagoner, AKG: I think the key word here is “mobile.” What is driving this more than the “microphone” is the complete solution with a palm-sized digital recording device that has built-in microphones or interchangeable microphones. These devices can be used for everything from an interview, to recording a live stereo track. Some of the most current offerings even have multitrack capabilities. When it comes to sophisticated productions, that game is still the same and the song remains the same … Quality products are needed for a quality result.

Bob Heil, Heil SoundWith quality audio processors readily available, is microphone quality that important? Can’t mediocre audio be fixed in production?

Bob Heil, Heil Sound: Quality will always be important. In my opinion, it all starts at the microphone and it can’t be “fixed” by a processor. Keep in mind, too, that at its heart, broadcast is one person with a particular “voice,” one microphone and a set of headphones. That mic needs to sound great at the beginning of the audio chain.

Michael Edwards and Chris Nighman, Audio-Technica: Capturing quality audio at the source is still very important. Not only does this speed up the workflow downstream, it also ensures the highest quality content. It’s difficult to fix things like transient response and self-noise in post-production. Frankly, why “fix it in the mix” if you can get it right at the source?

Rick Belt, Electro-Voice: At Electro-Voice, we believe (and are never seriously challenged on the topic) that in order to achieve the best results, you have to start with the best quality source signal. There are myriad sonic characteristics which collectively contribute to what is perceived as good sound, and most of them cannot be put back in a deficient signal if they were never there to begin with.

What’s in your skunkworks? Or rather, because you won’t want to reveal any secrets, what’s an interesting next step for a broadcast industry microphone? An Ethernet connector with power over Ethernet that can communicate directly with WheatNet, Livewire, Ravenna? A mic with a built-in codec? A USB mic with built-in digital processing?

Joseph Wagoner, AKGMichael Edwards and Chris Nighman, Audio-Technica: We launched the ATND971, the world’s first Dante-enabled microphone. This was a big step for Audio-Technica and the microphone industry as a whole. We see the network audio trend continuing for other markets as well.

Joseph Wagoner, AKG: Let’s just say that networking of audio and remote control are becoming more available and desirable every day.

Rick Belt, Electro-Voice: The future is ripe with opportunities to serve the signal transfer revolution.

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