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These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Hey Emmett, 
What’s some of your favorite gear? I’m at a point where I can upgrade. I’m currently using just the 416 and SSL2 (which you recommended) in my StudioBricks booth. I have a MacMini with an M2pro and Beyerdynamic headphones. I know I don’t NEED anything else, but I think it’s time to step up.
Thank you,
Sam

 

Hi Sam,


I could give some simple suggestions here, but I see an opportunity for some content for my website, so you’re getting a very long answer, with lots of recommendations that don’t necessarily apply to you. But your answer will be buried in here too, I promise.


Telefunken ELA M 251 E

My favorite mic, is the Telefunken ELA M 251. Current price is around $12k, so it’s definitely not a mic for everyone. I don’t own one, but I’ve spent some time with them, and it’s a luxury item I’d love to add one day. To me, this is the mic that just sounds how a mic should sound. And, well, for the price, I suppose it ought to. No one in the world needs a 251 to book work, even at the highest level. But if you ever find yourself with an opportunity to try one out, even if it's just in a store, take a listen. I think there's probably a good chance you'll say, "Yeah, it sounds nice, but not $12,000 nice." And you may be right, but it really doesn't sound like any other mic you'll hear.


sE Electronics sE2200

Not everything I like, however, carries an astronomical price tag. On the budget side of mics, I really like the sE2200. sE is the “un-Chinese” Chinese mic company. I say that because their design and build philosophy is more like European mics. They pay employees more than typical Chinese mic factories, and their employees have quite a bit more training and skill. Their facility, while not as impressive as, say, Neumann’s factory, is devoted to microphone manufacturing. The sE2200, specifically, sounds and behaves very similarly to the Neumann TLM 103, but you can buy four sE2200s for the price of one TLM 103. And I did. These are my standard guest mics for anything that isn’t totally mission-critical.


Mojave Audio MA-201

Going up from there, is the Mojave MA-201. It’s on the affordable side, but it’s one of my favorite mics, at any price. Mojave is the condenser mic offshoot of the highly-respected Royer Labs, who are known for their ribbons. They are constructed in the US, but have a definite German flavor to their sound. Unlike other companies, however, Mojave mics are not clones, but their own distinct family of mics. It is my opinion, based on sound alone, that the MA-201 could sell for double the price, and would still be a great value.


Sennheiser MKH-416 P48

I can’t skip the standards, so the Sennheiser MKH-416 is next on the list. It doesn’t actually count as one of my favorites, because I don’t think it’s a great sounding mic, but it’s consistent and reliable, and it’s a sound people want. I use the 416 for more than 95% of my work. I may find the sound to be uninspiring, but the paychecks that have resulted from the 416, fill that inspirational void. Sam, I know you’re already using the 416, so this entry is for the content page.


Microtech Gefell M-930

Then there’s the Microtech Gefell M930. Believe it or not, Gefell is more of a true Neumann mic, than a Neumann. This is Georg Neumann’s other company. They don’t spend a lot on marketing, so you may not have heard of the brand, but it’s extremely highly regarded. It is similarly good on-paper to Neumann’s TLM 103, but many agree it has a smoother, more pleasing sound. It may seem like you’re giving up some brand recognition, but all engineers know Gefell, and I’m not aware of any that don’t love the brand.


Naumann TLM 103

Speaking of the TLM 103, it’s next on the list. Like the 416, the 103 is a standard, and often a safe choice. It’s a great sounding mic, with especially low self-noise and high sensitivity. It will pick up a gnat in your neighbor’s yard, so it requires a great space. It also responds strongly to placement. I’ve run into a lot of people who don’t like the sound. Without fail, everyone who has taken the time to work with me, ended up liking it a lot. It just needed a placement adjustment, or their space needed more work.


Manley Reference Cardioid

The Manley Reference Cardioid is an interesting mic. I love Manley Gear, and I love the way the company is run. They simply operate with a high level of integrity. Unfortunately, I find their gear much more suitable for music, than VO. Articulation is such an important part of VO, but Manley gear is much more about tone, than articulation. With that said, the RefCard mic is a really good choice on some performers. It’s a very large-sounding mic. It performs best on deep male voices. It brings out the richness of a deep voice, in a way most other mics cannot. And it does it in a natural way that sounds great, and can’t be replicated with EQ. It will NOT make a small voice sound big, nor does it enhance the depth of a voice that doesn’t already have those qualities. A little self-awareness is important with this mic. I know it’s not for me, because I don’t have a big voice. But I appreciate it for what it is.

Neumann U87Ai

Last on the list, is the Neumann U87Ai. It’s possible that more professional voiceover recordings have been done on this mic, than any other. It may not be the very best choice, but it's never the wrong mic for a voice. The U87 is incredibly consistent, with mics matching in sound, even years apart. In my opinion, it’s overpriced, and I don’t even love the sound. But it’s the standard for a reason, and my comparison is in relation to the price-point. For the cost of a U87, there are just many very, very good choices. But as an addition to your studio, a U87 provides instant credibility.


 

Solid State Logic SSL2

Another place to look for immediate improvement, is the interface. You’re already using the SSL2. For me, the SSL2 is a near-perfect choice for a basic interface. It’s clean, reliable, provides plenty of gain, and sounds good. I was highly skeptical when the product came out, because SSL had no experience catering to the small home studio user. I expected it to be a cash-grab, which would ultimately tarnish their name as a high-end brand. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how good the SSL2 has been from the start, and how their higher-end products have maintained their quality. Other brands were not able to cater to both high-end, and budget users, but SSL has figured it out. 


Audient iD4 mkII

I’m putting the Audient iD4 here, but it doesn’t exactly belong. I think SSL owns this price category. Audient also makes excellent products. They do sound a little different. Audient preamps have more character, while SSL is more transparent. In most cases, I would recommend SSL over Audient. But if some additional character is desired, or if the SSL2 just isn’t the right product, for some reason, the Audient iD4 would be my recommendation. 


From there, you really have to make a big leap. That’s when we get into RME products.  The Babyface Pro FS is what RME considers their entry level product. I, on the other hand, would not consider any RME product to be “entry level.”

RME Babyface Pro FS

Their entire product line is completely professional-grade. The hardware, software, and drivers are all remarkably stable and reliable. Their preamps and converters are pristine and transparent. And if you have a problem, their support team will solve it. My UFX has been running, virtually nonstop, for over a decade. There are very few interfaces built to handle that kind of use, and even fewer companies that will continue to keep their legacy products working with current operating systems for that long. One thing to note about RME, is that they cater to a professional user. Their TotalMix software is the most powerful and flexible interface control software on the market. But with that power, comes a learning curve. Lots of videos, forums, and documentation is available, but it’s important to know, it isn’t exactly a simple setup.


You may have noticed I didn’t mention the UAD Apollo. As popular as it is, you’d think it would be on my list. I even own one, which I use for my mobile rig. I didn’t forget to mention it, it really didn’t make my list, because I don’t recommend it for most VO users. The Apollo is a unique line with an interesting history. UAD started as cards, inserted into computer towers, which would allow UAD plugins to run, without using the processing power of the computer, itself. UAD plugins emulated the specific sound of hardware processors. They were not the only company making products like this, but their emulations were arguably a little better, and they were the only ones getting licensing to copy products from other brands, so the visuals were also very appealing. 

Universal Audio Apollo Twin

The UAD cards were not a huge commercial success. Setup was always a challenge, and they were just too much for the typical home user. An external FireWire box followed, but it had compatibility problems, and was just not very well received. Then, the Apollo line of interfaces was released, and they changed everything. They worked better, and fit very nicely into home studios. UAD continued to improve, by releasing their Unison preamps, which are a combination of software modeling, and hardware impedance control. Very cool technology.


But it’s important to understand the nature of UAD. When you buy an Apollo, you’re paying for the DSP technology and features, much more than the hardware. If you’re someone who likes to work with loads of high-end gear, UAD is a far more affordable path, than hardware. For VO, raw audio is often the expectation. The DSP is only advantageous when you’re using processing. And the Apollo hardware? It’s not that good. It isn’t bad, but it does not match the hardware quality of other options in the price range. So for those who won’t use the DSP, it’s money wasted. It can also be tricky to setup, and just isn’t a great choice for a lot of people who want one.


 

Now, let’s look at a couple preamps. The preamps in most modern interfaces are very good. A clean, transparent signal has become easy and inexpensive. Better interfaces have better preamps too, but there are still some advantages to standalone pres. It’s one area to look at, when everything else is already working really well. Differences are subtle, but worth it, once you’ve reached a certain level. There are quite a few good ones, but two that I very consistently recommend, one of which I own.


John Hardy Co. M-1

First up, is the John Hardy M1. It is my single favorite preamp. I have yet to find a pre I like better. It’s extremely clean, but not entirely colorless. The color it does have, flatters spoken-word. It’s a very “fast” pre, so it captures the articulation of consonants very accurately, and can also adapt to dynamic performances.


Avalon V5

Next, is the Avalon V5. It has many of the same qualities as the Hardy, but with slightly less color. Like the Hardy, it’s fast and articulate. The biggest difference in sound is the character. I simply prefer the character of the Hardy over the Avalon, but that part is entirely subjective, and some people prefer the Avalon’s (lack of) character.


Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5017

I’m going to throw one more in, and that’s the Rupert Neve Designs Portico-series preamp. I don’t like it with every mic, but I love it with the TLM 103. Without taking away the brightness, it softens the edges of that mic, and they make a hell of a pair.


 

Moving on to headphones, there are typically two sets I recommend. This is an area where I don’t recommend cutting a corner. You want your headphones to be comfortable, as accurate as possible, durable, and closed-back, to avoid bleed.Neither set is very exotic, but my main set kind of was, when I began using it more than 20 years ago. The

Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro (250 ohms)

Beyerdynamic DT-770 Pro. I got my first set 20 years ago. At that time, they weren’t common in the US at all. A friend in the UK recommended the Beyerdynamic brand, so I went on the hunt for them. I immediately loved the comfort and sound. I had been going through a set of headphones about every 6-8 months, so my hope was to get some longevity. I never imagined I’d still own the same set 20 years later. But I do, and they’re still fantastic. I now own four sets. I recommended them to everyone who would listen, and I’d like to think I’m partially responsible for their success in the States, though they do a good job of selling themselves. They certainly aren’t exotic anymore, and might have even secured a spot as the most popular studio headphones.


Audio-Technica ATH-M50x

I also really like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x. They’re at a similar price-point to the Beyerdynamics. They’re completely different than the Beyers, but they, too, are durable and comfortable, for most people. One VO colleague says the Beyers just don’t fit will with his particular cranial shape, but the ATs are comfortable. I find the opposite to be true. In any case, the sound profile is also different, but it's impossible to create headphones with a truly flat frequency response. Both sound good, and sound as accurate as one can expect from a set of headphones. And both are excellent choices.


 

Presonus Eris Studio 5

On to monitor speakers. I think the best value on the market, is the PreSonus Eris line. They're some of the most affordable monitors you can buy, but you wouldn't know it to listen to them. They're a truly great value, and yet, they're high enough quality to meet the needs of most voice actors. They're available in numerous sizes and configurations, but I'm partial to the simple 5" model, which is small enough to fit most spaces, but large enough to deliver some punch.


Focal Solo 6

In my studio, the main speakers are the Focal Solo6 be with Sub6. They’re my absolute favorite monitors to work with. While they're a pricey option, they offer exceptional detail and quality, and they expose every flaw. That type of detail is important, especially if I edit without headphones. Since I was introduced to the Solo6 in 2010, I have yet to find a pair of monitors I'd rather own. Except maybe the updated model.


Genelec 8010a

My backup set is also my favorite tiny set: the Genelec 8010A with 7040A sub. In a small space, these are hard to beat. They are tiny 3-inch monitors. They're shockingly small, in fact, at around the same size as PC speakers from the 90s. However, they sound much larger than their size would indicate. If space is a serious concern, these are a great solution.


 

Mogami Gold XLR Cable

Cables are another good one to talk about. Pretty simple, for this one. I use and recommend Mogami Gold and WBC. WBC is essentially the same thing, for less money. Both are proven choices I trust with the most demanding applications. The Mogami-branded cables have a slightly better fit and finish, but both cables are made with Mogami wiring and Neutrik connectors.


 

Weiss A1

And there are a few other random pieces I love. The Weiss A1 is a preamp, with the best de-esser I’ve ever heard. The preamp, itself, is exceptional. It’s right up there with the Hardy and Avalon. But it’s a far more rare piece, as each one is handmade in Switzerland. You don't see very many of them in-use. I love the Hardy for the preamp, so I skip the Weiss preamp and just use the phenomenal de-esser. But it's extremely strong for both applications.


Rupert Neve Designs 543

The Rupert Neve Designs 543 is a unique compressor/limiter, that’s far more flexible than most. It allows you to change the style of the detection circuit, and the amplification circuit, giving you four distinct compression behaviors. In a sense, it can operate with the characteristics of a smooth vintage compressor, or it can sound modern and aggressive, and everything in between. And it does all of this, without trying to be something it's not. It isn't a clone or mimicry of any other compressor. 


iZotope Nectar 4 Advanced. This is my "desert island" plugin. I recommend it for everyone. In fact, I like it so much, when someone comes to me for a processing tune-up, they receive three stacks for the price of one, if they also own or purchase Nectar. It makes my job easier, so I pass that on by providing more. People often think I earn a

iZotope Nectar 4 Advanced

commission from recommending Nectar, but I don't. Once upon a time, I had an arrangement for free iZotope products for myself, but that, too, has ended. I buy them, just like everyone else. BUT, if you're interested in a purchase, talk to me first. I've gotten pretty adept at finding the best deal at any given time. It's almost always possible to save at least a little off retail price. So why do I like Nectar so much? It has everything you need for processing tools, in more flavors than I can count. Sure, I own a lot of processing tools, and I love all of them, but Nectar is the one I truly need. It, alone, can do most of what all of my hardware can do.


 

For you, Sam, there are a few places you can look. Let’s double check and make sure your booth sounds as good as it possibly can. If it does, you could look at adding a large diaphragm condenser, to give you a choice of sounds. Or we could look at upping your interface or adding a boutique preamp. Buying gear when you don’t really need it, is way more fun than being cornered into an emergency buy. 


Emmett

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