Quest for the perfect mic: Mystery shopping for

Originally published May 23, 2016 for The Music and Sound Retailer as part of the  nationwide mystery shopping series. I met this new writing client at NAMM 2016.

Mics To Make The Heart Sing

For me, the quest for the perfect vocal mic to suit diverse live and recording situations is life-long. For that reason, I, as the MI Spy, was the ideal candidate to infiltrate the San Francisco Bay Area music scene. When buying a mic, there’s the question of how the frequency response works for a particular voice and application, of course; there are also, however, other considerations, namely ruggedness, handling noise, pickup pattern, dynamic versus condenser, live versus studio, feedback sensitivity or rejection, wireless versus wired, looks and gain. Prices can range from $75 (or less) into the thousands. I wondered whether the stores would let me test out mics before buying one. How much would their salespeople know about the factors that go into making a purchasing decision? I decided to find out.


Music Works
11225 San Pablo Ave.
El Cerrito CA 94530

I arrived to Music Works, in El Cerrito, at about 2pm on a balmy Friday. The storefront is homey and welcoming; there’s a red, wrought-iron, treble clef bike holder in front of the entrance, neon signs, and faded cutouts of Elvis and other musicians playing instruments in the window, along with an abundance of merchandise. Inside, the store is well-organized and clean, with clear displays that entice the shopper. Guitars are on the left of the shop; a center counter has a number of smaller items stacked high; ukuleles are in the back; and sound systems are on the right. All in all, a nice layout.

I was immediately asked if I needed help by a handsome clerk, to whom I replied that I was looking for microphones. “For what purpose?” he asked. “Performing,” I replied. In my role as MI Spy, I decided not to let on how experienced I was…at least, not at the outset. The clerk showed me two mic brands—Audio-Technica and Audix—and said I could order online. However, he recommended the Shure SM58 as the standard vocal mic. Saying that I hadn’t found that to be the best mic for my voice, I asked if different mics responded differently. “Is there a frequency chart that comes with each mic for the pickup range?” I asked. “Yes, you should be able to find that online,” he responded.

We also discussed the difference between supercardioid and hypercardioid pickup patterns. He spent a few minutes on his smartphone researching the difference, which he then shared with me. (Hyper is a bit wider, whereas super is tighter.) “You could also get an omnidirectional,” he noted. At that point, a nice man joined us and said he was a sound engineer who was helping out at the store. “I couldn’t help overhearing you say you didn’t like the SM58,” he said. “I’m surprised that any engineer would have trouble making an SM58 sound good.” We then discussed the SM57, which, he said, was an all-around good mic for everything from instruments to vocals. So, if there were a particular frequency you wanted to build up, you could use it for that, too.

Among the mics we looked at were an Audix OM5 dynamic hypercardioid for $265, an Audio2000’S hypercardioid dynamic mic for $109 and a wireless Audio-Technica System 8 for $174.95, which is actually quite inexpensive for a wireless vocal mic system. “How do you compare that to, say, a $1,000 Sennheiser wireless system?” I asked. “What would you look at in evaluating them side by side?” The man said it would probably vary in terms of the quality of the capsule and the extent of the wireless range.

It was time to ask my killer question: Did they have any thoughts on how to test out mics? “Of course. You can’t get performance conditions anywhere but on stage,” the man said. Also, the mics could not be returned; all purchases were final. Although we subsequently went over to the PAs to discuss various options, at no point did the store staff offer to let me test any mics on their sound systems.

Ultimately, I enjoyed some great conversations about live sound and mic technology, but I didn’t gain much information.

The Starving Musician
2474 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley CA 94704

Parking is a serious business in Berkeley. (I’ve never forgotten, while temping as a teen in the parking collections department, the ticket payers screaming “Fascist pigs!” at us.) So, after meticulously paying for parking and strolling past street people sitting in an encounter group circle by a lamppost, I found The Starving Musician, which has three northern California locations. With a smaller storefront than Music Works, it had a similar homegrown vibe: lots of merchandise in the window, a neon sign and assorted notices (“We Buy Gear,” “Radio Shack is That Way,” “No Public Restrooms”). I walked into the narrow, dimly lit, high-ceilinged store. A vast floor-to-ceiling display of guitar string packets made a colorful mosaic on the left. Guitar picks in cookie jars and pedals galore lined the counters that ran down the left side of the store. Amps were on the right. A dreadlocked guy was playing a simple five-note lick on an electric guitar over and over again. Three people were at the counter, and they all appeared to be employees.

No one acknowledged me for several minutes. So, I turned to my right and looked at the contents of a locked glass case. There were a number of vocal effects pedals, which caught my interest.

“Let us know if you have any questions,” a man at the counter said casually. “I do, actually,” I replied. “I’m looking for microphones for performing.” He responded, “Oh, microphones are back this way. For singing?”

We went upstairs to a small, dark room. Keyboards were arranged on one side; a glass case held a number of microphones. A closed door led to the lesson room. I could hear a muffled music lesson going on, and I could also hear the guy downstairs, noodling his five-note riff. It occurred to me that listening to such customers practicing could be a downside to working in music retail.

The clerk opened the case. Immediately, I spied a large-diaphragm condenser recording mic lying on its side. “Oooh…what’s that?” I asked. “That is a large-diaphragm condenser microphone for recording,” he said in a slow, patient voice that called to mind a teacher explaining long division to a grade-schooler. “Now, the reason they call this a large diaphragm is because in here there is a large piece of metal that vibrates and that’s very sensitive. You wouldn’t use this for performing.”

“What kind is it?” I asked. Having just sung into an enormous-diaphragm Brauner VM1 mic for a recording session at the world-famous Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, I was curious about large-diaphragm mics in general. “It’s a CAD,” he said. “Now, what you want to sing into live is the Shure SM58.” He continued to speak to me as if I were having difficulty understanding. “That’s mostly what we sell. It’s $99.”

“Do you carry Sennheiser mics?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “We’re not set up to sell Sennheiser. There are other dealers of Sennheiser around here, though.” He showed me an Audio-Technica PRO 61, which was selling for $89.99. “Is that one better than the Shure SM58?” I asked. “I’d say yes,” he replied, without elaborating. As we continued to converse, I revealed a bit more about my singing requirements and mic preferences. He continued to answer my questions, but he didn’t apologize for having acted as though I’d never seen a microphone in my life. Unlike the folks at Music Works, he did not ask me about my needs or my experience.

We continued to look at what else the store had on hand. The used mics were more interesting: for example, a beyerdynamic ribbon mic for $269.99 housed a thin plastic ribbon behind a somewhat-misshapen chrome basket. “This is very sensitive…not for live use,” he said. I asked if there was any sort of description of its frequency response, so he fished the frequency response graph out of the box. He also showed me an AKG C1000 S studio condenser mic in a case, which cost around $200.

“So, how would you test the microphones?” I asked. “Well, maybe if you had a friend who had a recording studio, you could ask him about mics,” he responded. “But couldn’t you set it up so that I could try a few mics side by side?” I asked. He frowned, saying, “Back when Leo’s Pro Audio was around, they were set up for that. Now, there’s nothing.” I found it ironic that he mentioned the defunct Leo’s, since that store had been renowned for its snobbiness. My first purchase there back in the day was of a completely unnecessary $60 de-Gausser to remove tape hiss (and, possibly, to erase credit cards). They had always treated me like a silly little girl. I thanked the man, walked past the rows of amps and cords, and exited the store.

Guitar Center
5925 Shellmound St.
Emeryville CA 94608

Next up? Guitar Center in Emeryville. Full disclosure: I love this place. It’s a perfect jewel of contemporary retail that gets both display and community right. The new Guitar Center kicks the old (El Cerrito) Guitar Center’s behind, and hard. Whereas the old store was just a gray box manned by goths, the new store has a bright, red-and-white color scheme. It has specialized rooms and sections galore: a keyboard room, monitor testing station, wood-paneled acoustic guitar room, percussion room and more. It’s a feast for the senses and, unlike many stores, it’s pristine, right down to the clean restroom with a baby-changing table and the tricked-out rehearsal and lesson rooms.

As soon as I approached the main counter, several clerks asked me if I needed help. I chose the man who seemed the most enthused when I mentioned microphones. We set to looking at the performing mics displayed in the counter case. (A display of about 20 different large-diaphragm studio condenser mics was nearby in a vertical case against the wall.) The Sennheiser e 935 and the Shure SM57, SM58, BETA 57A and BETA 58A were up top. A beautiful, new brushed-nickel-bodied Shure KSM8 caught my eye, so I asked about it. “That’s a $500 mic,” the man said. “It’s a dual-diaphragm dynamic mic.”

I told him that I use a Sennheiser e 945 supercardioid, but that I still have feedback issues in a big-band situation. I asked him about the Shure BETA models. “They get you five more decibels of gain before feedback,” he responded. However, he acknowledged that my existing mic is a very good one. He mentioned monitor wedge positioning as being crucial (check!), and then we began to discuss feedback-suppression processors. He recommended a dedicated mic preamp, or the goRack performance processor, which retails for $69 and combines a mic preamp, EQ, feedback suppressor, sub-harmonic synth and compressor.

We spent a few more minutes discussing live sound. The salesman took the time to go over to the mixer section of the store to show me ideal gain and fader settings on a board. At the conclusion of the visit, I thanked him for his detailed help. Although he hadn’t offered any way to test the mics when I asked him, he did say that the new (recently changed) return policy for microphones is 45 days. So, that reduces the risk for mic buyers who want to take advantage of the great big-box-store prices. Furthermore, he had given me plenty of new ideas for how to process vocals and get the best engineering out of any live setting.

Acme House of Music
4444 Piedmont Ave.
Oakland CA 94611

Past most of the bustle of Piedmont Ave., a stone’s throw from the gorgeous hills of the Mountain View Cemetery, I was able to park right in front of the unassuming Acme House of Music storefront. I had called in advance to make sure the store had microphones for sale. A friendly woman had answered and assured me the store stocked them. Walking inside is a bit like walking into an eccentric music lover’s living room. Stacked to the right of the door are all sorts of cassette players, receivers, amplifiers and other rack sound items. To the left is a small sitting area that’s surrounded by bookshelves, all filled with old vinyl albums.

I stepped beyond the first section of the cramped store, and I was promptly greeted by the woman who had answered the phone. She was just leaving, so a young man behind the glass counter asked how he could help. I told him I was looking for performing vocal microphones. He immediately opened the case below him and pulled out a boxed Shure SM57, saying, “Well, for vocals, the SM58 is standard. This is an SM57; it’s about the same. I have an SM58 in the back.” We discussed whether there were any noticeable sound-quality differences between the 57 and 58. He said he felt the 57 was less “woofy,” whereas the 58 was optimized for voice.

I noticed several other used and vintage microphones in the case, including several chrome Electro-Voice mics. He pulled one out for me (listed at $75), along with a new Shure 55SH that had a $179 price tag. The SM58 would run me $110, he said. I also saw that he had a used wireless Sennheiser ew 100 and receiver. Although I asked, he didn’t know if it was a model that conformed to the recent changes in the frequency spectrum allocation, which have rendered some earlier wireless equipment obsolete.

We discussed my sound requirements, which ranged from acoustic jazz to loud salsa. Then, just as I had done in the other stores, I fished for a suggestion on how to test the mics. He didn’t take the bait at first, but, then, he said, “I suppose we could set you up right over here with a mixer and some headphones, so you can try the different mics.” I was thrilled that he was the first salesperson to have offered. I thanked him graciously and said I might want to do that someday soon. Then, we took a stroll through the rest of the store. The back half of the space opens up with a delightful amount of natural light through a massive window and a two-story space with racks of pleasantly displayed guitars. In the very back of the surprisingly deep store, there are percussion and keyboard sections, which were still in disarray. “We’ve only been here two years,” he told me, “so there’s more organization to do.” He continued, “There’s a lot more space in this store, though.” It was then that I realized that Acme is the continuation of a business that started in 1969 in my own neighborhood of Oakland. It was one that, sadly, I had never supported. This was my chance to make things right!

Right then and there, I decided to test the mics. I asked the man if he could set it up. He did so in one of several practice rooms with upright pianos, while I toyed with an electric auto harp and strummed ukuleles. He also rummaged and found a special four-prong cable for the vintage Electro-Voice that does not use a three-strand XLR cable.

Once he had the mics and headphones set up, I immediately wished I had brought my own personal microphone, the Sennheiser e 945, for purposes of comparison. Nevertheless, the salesman answered customer phone calls while I proceeded to evaluate. Here’s what I noticed: The SM58 delivered a full, woofy, nice vocal sound just as I remembered it. (I also own one.) The SM57 had a bit of a broader spectrum and it was brighter, but with more handling and breathing noise. (Not a surprise, because it’s generally used as an instrument mic and it doesn’t come with an integral windscreen.) The 55SH had less signal and detail, and it was duller, also as I remembered. (I own one of those, too.) The Electro-Voice had a certain pleasant warmth, and none of the woofiness of the SM58. Finally, the AKG C3000 B condenser microphone, available used for the excellent price of $120, had the crisp detail and airiness that a condenser mic should have, offering a good comparison with the dynamic mics. The salesman suggested that it could be used as a live mic, too…possibly for jazz…but not as a handheld.

When the man came back, we discussed my findings. He listened with interest to the vintage mic and tweaked the EQ, noticing that a boost around 6k really gave it nice presence. And, since it had none of the bass proximity effect of the SM58, there was no need to roll off any bass. I liked his EQ settings so much that I took a picture of them. Our conversation morphed into discussing mic preamps. He recommended buying a high-quality recording preamp that I could use for recording and performance, as opposed to a performance-only model, which, he felt, were often too limited. Like the man at Guitar Center, he noted that my existing performance mic, the Sennheiser e 945, is an excellent choice. He suggested that optimizing other aspects of the signal chain with channel strips might be more profitable in enhancing my vocal presence in loud live-music situations.

Ultimately, I was unable to resist the heft, sparkling chrome, vintage style and great sound of the Electro-Voice. I bought the mic, its special cable and a pair of AKG K240 Studio headphones on the salesman’s recommendation.

The Sale

In terms of a good vibe, a genuine sense of family business, convenience of location, an intriguing selection of merchandise and genuine clerk expertise, I have to give it to Acme Music. I’m delighted to have found this store, and I intend to go back. Guitar Center will remain a fun hang for me, and I’m pleased to have made the acquaintance of the folks at Music Works.

I doubt I’d return to The Starving Musician, though, unless I really needed that beyerdynamic ribbon mic.


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