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Jumping the (shot) Gun on a New Mic Purchase

Hi Emmett,
I love the insight you provided in [social  media discussion group] regarding microphones. It seemed like you were dismissive of shotgun mics, but then you said you use one for most of your work, so I’m confused…I want to upgrade my mic. I’m using the [Rode] NT1, and I’m really unsure of the right mic to get. I like the idea of less noise from a shotgun, but I hear they sound bad in small spaces. If you have time, can you give me some advice on this?


Hi David, thanks for reaching out!

There’s actually a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with why my response came off as dismissive toward shotgun mics. 

Shotgun mics are more accurately called interference tube mics, which are not to be confused with tube mics, which use a vacuum tube in their circuit design. An interference tube, is the long, cylindrical body of a shotgun mic, which is lined with slots or ports. These ports allow unwanted sound from the sides to enter the tube in such a way that they interfere with those same sounds entering at the end of the tube. That’s a very technical way of saying they offer the all-around most narrow pattern of any type of mic, eliminating most sound coming from the sides of the mic. Along with that, it’s important to note that they do have a rather prominent rear pickup lobe, so they aren’t very good at stopping noise from behind.

Shotguns were designed to be used in field settings. Because of that narrow pickup pattern, they’re able to capture more of their target sound, and less of the sound around them, which is hugely helpful in an environment with very little control.

But there’s a trade off. With the sound traveling all the way down that tube, and some wanted sounds slipping into those side ports and interfering with the source, combined with a small diaphragm, they are simply not capable of capturing the same sound quality as a large diaphragm condenser mic. The inherent design is limited by the features.

Going a step further, the type of capsule used, the length of the tube, and the design of the ports, all have a profound impact on the sound and behavior of the mic. Shotguns are categorized as long, medium, or short shotguns. Only short shotguns receive any attention in the VO world. Longer shotguns can work amazingly well as field mics, but do not perform well for voiceover. Amongst short shotguns, each still has a different design style and different components. Most designs are not at all well-suited for voiceover work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, none is an ideal choice for someone seeking the best sound quality. 

I can hear you in my head, saying, “But, but, but—“ I’m getting to that part. Stay with me.

Ernie Anderson, one of the most prolific announcers of all time, disliked the confinement of working from a booth. So the engineers set him up in the control room with a Sennheiser shotgun mic, which was commonly used on sets. The noise rejection was enough to make the recording usable, and Ernie’s voice would sound good through a tin can with a string, so it worked. 

Much like today, people paid attention to what others were using. Ernie, being at the top of the food chain, got lots of attention, and as you’d expect, people copied his style. The Sennheiser MHK-416 (in the early years, it may have actually been a 415 for Ernie) became a staple of Los Angeles voiceover recording. It happened so much, the 416 came to be known as the “LA mic.” The sound, while not actually as good as other options, became very familiar to listeners. That continues today. 

So the sound that is desirable, is the sound of the 416, not just the sound of shotgun mics. Again, most shotgun mics aren’t well-suited for VO. The 416 does a good job, while also offering some benefit in imperfectly-treated spaces. Lots of shotguns sound worse, but a few sound better. Even these, however, cannot satisfy the desirability of the 416 sound. This is especially true of some of the budget options you may hear people recommend, saying things like, “It’s 90% the sound of a 416.” Or, “they sound the same; save your money.” They don’t sound the same. They don’t even sound that similar. To the untrained ear, there may be some resemblance, but you aren’t sending recordings to those with untrained ears. You’re sending audio to people who listen to professional audio every day. Some may not know or care, but I don’t wish to speculate about the percentage who do know and do care. 

It should also be noted that the 416 is not an especially quiet mic. Condensers generate their own noise, and while the 416 falls into the acceptable range, many large diaphragm condensers are quieter mics. But in a space where noise is present, the 416 may seem quieter because it’s likely to pick up less environmental noise.

So why do I use the 416? Two reasons. The first, we’ve already covered. It’s a familiar sound, and the mic is accepted, and even praised, by studios around the US. The second reason: it’s an easy mic to use. Once you learn some of the ins and outs, it isn’t a fussy mic. It’s easy to get a good sound without much messing around. On the other hand, a high quality large diaphragm condenser requires some extra care. It isn’t as easy to get that good sound. It’s capable of getting an even better sound, but usually not without a better room, better placement, and overall, more attention. I stay busy, and the 416 is simply a more efficient choice for me. If I had all the time in the world, and an unlimited budget, the 416 wouldn’t even crack my top 10 list of favorite mics. But this is a business, and I care more about doing business, than satisfying my geeky desires.

You also mentioned hearing shotguns sound bad in small spaces. I’ve heard the same of large diaphragm condensers. Nonsense to both. If the space is poorly-treated, both will sound bad. If it’s well-treated, both will sound good. There is no inherent relationship between the type of mic, and the size of the space.

As for what you should purchase next, it depends on your personal wants and needs. At this point in your career, do you need an upgrade? The NT1 you have is a fine mic. It’s unlikely you’re going to lose any bookings because of sound quality, due to that mic. If you’re seeing a lot of auditions demanding specific mics, that’s an important consideration. How’s your space? Better mics really reveal flaws in the space. There’s a reasonably good chance your money would be better spent improving your space.

Don’t buy a shotgun mic because someone on social media said to. Not even me. Buy one to fill a gap or solve a problem. Buy one because you want to, and are in a good position to plunk down the cash. For now, the best mic is the one in front of you.



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