Yet another attempt at combining math and sound recording… Ye have been warned!
A number of threads on a number of field recording forums revolve around a simple question: I have X amount of money. Where do I throw it to improve my recording?
An obvious and common answer is, “upgrade your pre-amps!” This can be done a couple of different ways: The first is to trade out your recorder for one with better pre-amps. The second is to send your recorder to a shop to have the pre-amps changed out for better ones. The third is to buy an external pre-amp like the Sound Devices MicPre or MicPre-D, and plug it into the Line-In jack on your existing recorder.
But is that always the right approach?
A bunch of head-scratching, web-searching, and number-crunching led me to the conclusion that it’s not as obvious as it might appear. A number of factors come into play: noise level, sound quality, build quality, ergonomics and convenience, useful features of the gear, battery life, etc. Of these, the easiest to tackle from a quantitative standpoint is noise, so that’s where I’m starting.
Most of the calculations I’m doing are spelled out in an article on the RANE web site titled, Selecting Mic Preamps. The first set of calculations help you determine the maximum pressure levels a particular mic/pre-amp combination can handle. Since the field recording I’m doing involves quiet sources I skipped that bit and went to the second set of calculations. These help you determine the level of self-noise a given combination of mic and pre-amp will have. To run the calculations you need information about the mics as well as the pre-amps.
(If you’re recording loud sources that first set of calculations may be of use to you! You don’t have to skip them just because I did.)
Right now all of the mics I own are based off of Primo capsules: BT-EM172, BT-EM158, and BT-EM184. The data I used for the mics all comes entirely from the Primo datasheets.
I currently own two recorders: a Tascam DR-05 and a Tascam DR-70D. In the spirit of this question I’m looking at two competing solutions: one is to buy a new recorder, a Tascam DR-680 MkII, and the other is to buy a used Sound Devices MicPre to use as an external pre-amp. The data I used for the recorders comes from a mix of sources, the most important being the Avisoft Bioacoustics Microphone Input Noise Comparison website. The rest came from the manufacturer’s datasheets.
The RANE calculations require the self-noise and sensitivity of the mics in question. From these you can use Table 3 in their article to calculate the mic output noise. For all of these I’m using A-weighted noise values for the mics and recorders. A-weighted noise levels are scaled for the auditory response of a normal human. They tend to be about 5dB more optimistic than their non-weighted counterparts. So long as I stick to A-weighted for both, I’m comparing apples to apples. The numbers for my mics and for the DPA 4060 omni by way of comparison are:
- DPA 4060
- Self Noise 23dBA
- Sensitivity -34dB
- Mic Output Noise -105dBu A-weighted
- Self Noise 14dBA
- Sensitivity -28dB
- Mic Output Noise -108dBu A-weighted
- Self Noise 20dBA
- Sensitivity -32dB
- Mic Output Noise -106dBu A-weighted
- EM184 Cardioid
- Self Noise 22dBA
- Sensitivity -39dB
- Mic Output Noise -110dBu A-weighted
The RANE article says that when you compare the output noise of the mic to the equivalent input noise of the pre-amp, you really want to see a factor of -10dB lower noise in the pre-amp or better. A -10dB lower noise in the pre-amp means it’s only contributing 0.4dB of noise to the final signal. Looking at the recorders I’m using, along with the two I’m considering, their EIN levels are:
- Tascam DR-05 EIN -109dB A-weighted
- Tascam DR-70D EIN -120dB A-weighted
- Tascam DR-680 MkII EIN -127dB A-weighted
- Sound Devices MixPre -126dB A-weighted
Here’s how I’m reading this:
If I plug any of these mics into my DR-05, the noise from the recorder’s pre-amps will be the limiting factor. Getting a better mic won’t improve my sound with that recorder.
My DR-70D is -12dB lower noise than the EM172 that my go-to mics are built around. In this case the mic’s own self-noise is the limiting factor. Switching to a DPA 4060 won’t help from the standpoint of noise, either. (I’m not mentioning any improvements in the character of the sound, mind you.) This does imply that I’m coming up on the limits of my pre-amps with the EM184 cardioid mics.
Switching to either a DR-680 MkII or a MixPre certainly wouldn’t hurt, and the higher quality amplifiers on either device may improve the sound in other ways, but it probably wouldn’t help the noise much overall because the mics would still be the limiting factor. At most I could improve my noise levels by a tenth of a dB.
Unfortunately what this means is that to make any substantial improvement in the noise level of my recordings, I need to upgrade both my recorder and my microphones. Upgrading either one without the other really won’t buy me that much.
The Real Conclusion:
This leads to the next obvious question: Have I reached a point from which the only way to improve my gear is to throw orders of magnitude more money at it than I already have? (Or to word that only slightly differently, more money than I have at all?)
In short, is this it?
(Or is this the excuse I need to stop improving the gear I’m using and start building parabolic mics?)