The Maturation of the Mic Market

Working on this issue’s coverage of Audio-Technica’s 50th anniversary reminded me of just how much the microphone marketplace has changed in the past two decades.
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fwells@nbmedia.com

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Working on this issue’s coverage of Audio-Technica’s 50th anniversary reminded me of just how much the microphone marketplace has changed in the past two decades.

I remember distinctly when the AT4033 was introduced in 1991. It quickly became a studio staple, impressing engineers who had the option to use much more expensive products. The AT4033 was a groundbreaking piece of technology. While its performance was excellent, that it performed at the level it did at a street price under $1,000—that was where it changed the game.

CAD was the next manufacturer that I recall bringing round moderately priced, high-performance mics. The number of competitors in this space quickly became difficult to follow, some having already come and gone, others still competing today, when the number of microphone manufacturers offering professional transducers is truly staggering. Price/ performance ratios continue to shift in the end-user’s favor.

A flood of almost ridiculously inexpensive microphones flooded the market in the later ’90s. Chinesemade microphones in particular had an early reputation for inconsistent performance (though sometimes high) and dubious build quality (though sometimes solidly manufactured). Often, such mics were direct, under-performing knockoffs of popular U.S.- and European-built products. Asian and Eastern European factories that did produce unique products, or were making quality OEM products for name brands who were looking East for lower manufacturing costs, often found their products reverse engineered or their designs appropriated for reproduction.

Microphones like A-T’s AT4033 remained competitive, even when more expensive, based on build quality and consistency. It’d be a fair wager that most of the early AT4033s are still in service, while the same can’t be said of their low-end contemporaries.

Today, the offerings from China and other low-cost Eastern manufacturers often compete directly with the products from venerable, legacy microphone brands, and the competition has driven many of those brands to head east for manufacture of at least parts of their product lines. To be sure, high-end, vintage microphones have continued to remain popular, to be the standard by which all subsequent microphones are judged. But an arsenal of expensive, high-end microphones is not necessary to produce quality recordings or to reproduce nuance on stage.

Ribbon microphones deserve their own mention. Once considered finicky, cumbersome and fragile devices, ribbons microphones had fallen out of favor, despite their significant role on landmark recordings. One of our industry’s living legends, Wes Dooley, began rebuilding and repairing the legacy ribbon. Then, under his AEA brand, he built faithful reproductions of the classics, and today continues to innovate from those time-proven approaches.

Royer Labs gets a special nod for pioneering work on modern ribbon microphones, offering the “ribbon sound” in a studio- and stage-friendly format. In the past few years, most major microphone manufacturers, and a number of newcomers, have added ribbon models to their product lines.

The upshot of all this is that microphones as a category exemplify a major trend in professional audio gear. Quality is high. Prices are reasonable to remarkably low compared to two decades ago. Today’s audio professional has an astounding variety of choices. That trend follows across a number of other categories of audio tools. Affordable technology has changed the very nature of modern professional audio. While many lament aspects of the studio business that are dead and gone, when it comes to filling a mic locker, you’ll find few audio professionals complaining.