Recently, I decided that I needed to add a microphone or two to my microphone stock. The current collection is a little on the eclectic side, made up largely of an assortment of surround-sound and stereo units that I use for the effects side of recording, plus some vintage bits and pieces that get wheeled out as working props from time to time. I rather fancied laying my hands on a decent stereo pair for the odd piece of classical music recording that I do as an unpaid sideline to my theatre work. My first choice was ruinously and unjustifiably expensive, so I turned to the Internet for some serious research and was astonished by what I found in terms of price and choice, particularly from the Chinese market, where “matched pairs” of Neumann KM184 look-alikes were being offered for a hundred bucks and change.

Now, I’m no microphone snob, but I do rather wonder about what I’m going to get for that sort of money. Take off the dealer profit, the transport costs, and the wholesaler’s cut, and you’re looking at about ten bucks in terms of components and construction costs. Anyway, the plethora of weird and wonderful models on display set the memory bank switches to the “it was never like that in my day” section, and I allowed the mind to drift a little in that direction. Cue twinkly time-shift music…

The microphone stock in my first theatre was pretty basic: two moving-coil cardioids in the shape of AKG D190s, two AKG 451/CK1 capacitor mics, an AKG D12, and an elderly ribbon mic of no immediately discernible provenance. Bizarrely, the backstage relay was sourced from a pair of vintage Neumann KM83s, but we didn’t have an SM58 or an SM57 in stock; I never could work out what kind of twisted logic led to that particular state of affairs.

To be fair, I didn’t do a lot of recording or have much of a need to amplify the trio that we had in our tiny orchestra pit for the Christmas musical, but I did spend time with a simple mixing desk and an assortment of musician friends, learning how—or, more frequently, how not—to mic up a variety of instruments with my meager collection. AKG and Shure were the main providers of microphone systems in the UK back then, with a range of affordable dynamics that could be pressed into service for almost any situation, and the modular nature of the AKG 451 series made it a popular choice because capsules could be added as funds allowed. The headier realms of the large-diaphragm condensers from the likes of Georg Neumann were the stuff of trade-show and catalogue dreams for me and for many like me, but I persevered and slowly began to learn that there was more to choosing and using microphones than simply picking the most expensive one in the shop and trying to use it for everything.

Eager to learn, I bought a book, simply titled Microphones, written by a scholarly fellow by the name of A.E. Robertson. It was effectively a handbook written for the BBC sometime in the early1950s and pretty heavy going in places, but it contained a huge amount of useful information. I still have my copy, purchased new in cloth cover from George’s Book Shop, Bristol, for the huge sum of about $2.50 (£1.10 pence in those days and a substantial part of my weekly wage. The flyleaf has it marked down from £1.50, and I guess it had been on the shelf for some time before I came across it). Being a BBC reference book, the diagrams and pictures refer mainly to microphones used by that corporation—the STC range of moving coil and ribbon microphones alongside some new-fangled devices like the Sennheiser “Tubular Line Directional Microphone,” the predecessor of the rather more well-known and succinctly named MKH 816 shotgun microphone beloved of film and TV crews—but the basic principles of each type of microphone were explained in detail, and I still refer to it from time to time for the excellent and timeless information it contains.

I learned about the advantages of omni-directional microphones, the disadvantages of some directional microphones, and the immense versatility of my favorite type of microphone polar pattern, the figure-eight. Of course, I had all of these to play with: the cardioids of the AKG mics, both moving coil and capacitor versions, the omni-directional Neumann KM83s, and that bi-directional ribbon mic, which was a real eye-opener. After a little detective work, I discovered that the ribbon mic was a GEC BCS 2372, made for broadcast work, and that it sounded beautiful—a classic body shape modeled, I suspect, on the RCA equivalents, with a bi-directional pattern that allowed two people to share the microphone facing one another and superb off-axis rejection of unwanted sounds. It sounded great on speech and on strings and was an education as to what good microphone design was all about. I was sad to leave it behind when I left and have only ever seen a similar model in a private microphone collection.

Why do I like the figure-eight polar pattern? Well, you can do a lot with a figure-eight polar pattern besides simply using it as a double-sided microphone. Add it to a cardioid pattern microphone, and do a bit of polarity-based matrixing, and you’ve got yourself a mid/side stereo setup that lets you open up or narrow down the stereo spread post-recording; add a second one, and angle the pair 90° apart, and you have another of the classic minimalist stereo recording setups, the Blumlein pair, named after one of the early pioneers of stereo recording, Alan Dower Blumlein. Look him up, and marvel at his prescience and his 120 patents in the field of audio and television, after you’ve finished reading this, of course.

When I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, with its two in-house bands in London and Stratford, I was expecting to find a bigger selection, but with a couple of exceptions, it was the same situation, with AKG D1200s rather than D190s, and the ubiquitous AKG C451 modular system covering almost everything else. I’m pleased to say that, by the time I left, things had changed somewhat. Large diameter condenser mics from Neumann and AKG in the form of U87s and 414s arrived on the scene, along with two beautiful Coles/STC 4038 ribbon microphones, looking exactly like the ones in Mr. Robertson’s book. A Milab variable angle stereo mic joined the collection following the closure of the company’s UK distributor, along with a couple of DC21s from the same source. The moving-coil contingent grew with ElectroVoice RE20s, Beyerdynamic 201s and 101s (the much under-appreciated omni-directional version), and Sennheiser 421s.

We chose what we did, not based on price, but on how the microphones sounded and how their characteristics suited the music that was played. For one show set in the 1950s, I used a couple of venerable STC 4033A microphones, once the standard float mic for London’s West End shows of the period. The model featured two transducers inside a rather large black crackle-finish case; a bi-directional ribbon could be combined with an omni-directional moving coil unit via a switching system to give three different polar patterns: omni, bi-directional, or directional. Setup in front of the band, they imparted a definite period big-band patina to the overall sound balance.

“Enough of all this nostalgia,” I hear some of you microphone newbies crying. “What are you going to buy for your stereo pair? We need recommendations. We need the benefit of your years and your ears, so stop reminiscing, and put us out of our misery.”

Well, I’m not going to give you recommendations, but I am going to suggest something that many of us have been doing for years. Next time you want to buy a microphone, don’t base your choice on looks, price, name, or someone else’s ears. Go to your local rental house or friendly recording guru, and beg, borrow, or, in the most extreme case, rent a few mics for a week or so. Try out different polar patterns, ribbon mics, large and small capsule condensers, old and new models, cheap and cheerful, and way out of your price range microphones. If you’re in a college that has a music department, you’ve got a fantastic opportunity to see how various microphones work with large and small ensembles, solo instruments, choirs, or solo vocals. Use your ears, rather than your eyes or your wallet, and I can guarantee that you’ll come up with some pretty surprising results.

Finally, if you find this advice in any way useful, and you happen to come across any old Neumann KM86s, KM83s, KM84s; Schoeps Colette systems; AEA, Coles, or RCA ribbons; or B&K, DPA, Josephson, or Earthworks small capsule condenser mics lying unused in dusty closets, just pack them up carefully and send them to me. I’ll send you a couple of hundred bucks so you can buy a whole bunch of the latest and greatest models to come from the Far East. Is it a deal?

Oh, and if you want a copy of A.E. Robertson’s book, AbeBooks has a copy available at the bargain price of $155.

John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for over 30 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound.