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electronic MUSICIAN

Roundup – Microphones

July 11, 2012



 
If you’re into recording, microphones are your window to the world—and everyone enjoys a new view now and then. Like a photographer’s lenses, microphones not only capture our “images,” but shape and color their characteristics. And just like lenses, you need a good selection to cover every situation.

While some mics may be good for general-purpose use, more specialized models may be a better choice in some circumstances. With variety in mind, and sticking to relatively recent releases (within the past three years), I took a close look at eight microphones in eight different categories. First we’ll cover some of the typical characteristics and defining features of that mic category, then have a closer look at the particular model, and close with some other microphones that fall into roughly the same mic category type.

It was a lot of work, but I had a blast, and was very impressed with the field overall. In fact, there isn’t a bad mic in the bunch. I’d be happy to have any of them in my mic locker.
 
 
 
USB
Blue Yeti Pro
$249.99 MSRP, $249 street
bluemic.com

They’re not just for podcasting: USB mics are also excellent mobile-recording tools—you don’t have to haul a mic, mic preamp, and audio interface just to record your band rehearsal. They can also serve as desktop mics and headphone interfaces for VOIP applications.

But are they “pro”? Some look and feel cheap, offer only 44.1/48kHz sample rates, and top out at 16-bit resolution. That’s fine for low-res podcasts, but you can do better: Blue’s Yeti Pro USB mic offers sample rates up to 192kHz with 24-bit resolution. System requirements are reasonable (USB 2.0 port, 256MB RAM, Windows 7/Vista/XP Home Edition or Professional, or Mac OSX 10.6.4 or later), and both installation and operation are a snap.

The Yeti Pro’s build quality and heft inspires confidence. It weighs 1.2 lbs, not counting the 2.2-lb. removable yoke-style desktop stand (included). A standard mic stand mount is built into the mic’s base. The Yeti Pro retains the original Yeti’s three-14mm-capsule design; capsules can be combined to provide four polar patterns—omni, cardioid, figure-8, and X/Y stereo. Multiple patterns are rare in USB mics, but this feature really contributes to Yeti Pro’s versatility. In particular, stereo recording helps separate Yeti Pro from the pack.

In addition to its USB 2.0 out, Yeti has a 5-pin XLR output. A short XLR “Y” cable breaks this into color-coded left and right 3-pin XLR outputs; selecting a mono pattern mults the signal to both outs. (Note that the analog configuration requires phantom power.) There’s no pad switch, but the 120dB SPL rating (0.5% THD @ 1kHz) means you can use Yeti as a room mic for your guitar amp or drum kit with little risk of overload. However, it’s probably not suitable for close-miking a kick drum.

The overall sound quality is very pleasing—there’s a slight peak near 4kHz in most modes, a few dB of rolloff in the highs above 10kHz, and a somewhat steeper rolloff below 200Hz that minimizes boominess with close-miked vocals.

Few USB mics include regular XLR outs, but this option significantly increases the mic’s versatility and interfacing possibilities. Instead of being a specialist mic for podcasting duties (note that the digital headphone volume control and mute button on the mic’s front, usable only in USB mode, are ideal for podcasting), the Blue Yeti Pro is a real workhorse that you’ll find useful in the studio and on your mobile recording adventures. Most importantly, the sound quality is so good that it sets new standards for this type of microphone.

Alternatives: Studio Projects LSM, MXL Trio, sE Electronics USB2200a
 
 
 
Large-Diaphragm Condenser
Neumann TLM 102
$1,020 MSRP, $699.95 street
neumann.com

 
A good large-diaphragm condenser is often a mic collection’s centerpiece, and usually the first choice for lead vocals and other “featured” tracks. They also serve well as general-purpose mics for multiple recording tasks.
 
The TLM 102 is disguised in a smaller-than-expected package. While this design may mean a lower “wow” factor for impressionable clients, the Neumann name and outstanding overall sound quality will quickly quell any apprehensions. Additionally, the TLM 102’s small size opens up other possibilities, especially for placement—it can fit into tight spots (like toms, where the TLM 102 shines) that other mics couldn’t accommodate. Due to its relatively light weight, the TLM 102 can swing out over a drum kit without requiring an extra heavy-duty stand, and it sounds fantastic used as a mono overhead or percussion spot mic. The basic appearance resembles the earlier TLM 103, only smaller; it’s available in either black or nickel finishes.
 
The TLM 102, like many other large-diaphragm cardioid condenser mics, is fairly stripped down—no pattern, pad, or bass rolloff switches. As long as your preamp has a pad, you won’t miss it on the TLM 102—it handles levels up to 144dB so yes, use it on kick as a second mic to augment your large-diaphragm dynamic. The response won’t flinch, even on the loudest of amps or when blasted with a trumpet. Stick it on a snare drum’s side; it can handle the level and reward you with a highly authentic representation of the drum.
 
The frequency response is impressively flat, with a gradual rolloff below 75Hz, and a 4–5dB presence peak centered at 10kHz that extends from about 6kHz to 15kHz. That’s higher than the 5–7kHz centered peaks you’ll find on several other mics; the result is less stridency in the upper mids, and more sparkle in the “air”  region. There’s some proximity effect, so close-miking can fatten up the low end on thin-sounding sources. The TLM 102 lacks a highpass filter, so to trim lows, you’ll need to rely on your preamp’s highpass filter.
 
The only included accessory is a standard SG 2 stand mount. Because the TLM 102 is somewhat susceptible to stand-borne vibration despite the internal elastic capsule suspension, budget for an EA 4 ($129.95 MAP) or similar shock mount.
 
The TLM 102’s overall sound is remarkably smooth, natural, silky, and sensual—even on fairly reedy voices. Although it lacks some of the upper midrange emphasis of other mics, in return, it offers more body and richness than some of the more “hyped,” bright-sounding FET condensers. Aside from being present, crisp, and open without being harsh or strident, it’s also a fairly quiet mic with low self-noise. In short, this is one of the best new mics to come from Neumann.

Alternatives: Bock Audio 195, Sennheiser MK4, Audio-Technica AT4047/SV, AKG C-214, Audix SCX25, Microtech Gefell M 930, Mojave Audio MA-201fet
 
 
 
Ribbon
Cloud JRS-34P

$1,499 MSRP, $1,399 street
cloudmicrophones.com


Ribbon mics have surged in popularity. Their ultra-light diaphragms promote excellent transient response, providing a more detailed and natural sound than most small- or large-diaphragm, moving-coil dynamic mics. Coupled with less-accentuated upper-midrange and high frequencies, ribbons yield a detailed yet mellow sound—the perfect foil for digital recording’s harsh edges. However, ribbons are the most fragile mic type by far, and their low output levels usually require a high-gain, low-noise preamp.
 
The Cloud JRS-34P is hand-made in the U.S. from U.S.-sourced components. Designed in collaboration with Stephen Sank, and named in honor of his father, the late Jon R. Sank—an RCA engineer who designed some of their best ribbon mics, including the BK-11A—Stephen used the knowledge and tools his father passed down to him to create a new mic that follows the tradition of classics like the RCA BK-10A and BK-11.
 
The JRS-34P lacks the onboard Cloudlifter JFET preamp built into the active JRS-34A model, but other than that omission (and a different body color), is identical. Why passive? The low-output impedance (150 ohms) and passive electronics allow for creative “loading” (thus more potential sonic variety) when paired with mic preamps using different input impedances. (Using a Cloudlifter Z outboard box, I could get multiple sounds from the JRS-34P without changing preamps.) The Cloudlifter Z’s variable impedance is also more versatile than the fixed impedance (3-kilohm) Cloudlifter built into the active JRS-34A, so if you have a variety of mic preamps or a Cloudlifter Z, the less-expensive passive version makes sense.
 
The ribbon material is pure aluminum, only 1.8 microns thick, and follows the RCA 44 ribbon specs: 2.5" long, 0.19" wide and 13 corrugations per inch using a vintage RCA corrugation tool. The ribbon is tuned to 12Hz. The mic has modern improvements like neodymium magnets and a high-quality Cinemag output transformer. The classic bi-directional polar pattern offers outstanding side rejection of 45dB. This characteristic is advantageous when miking multiple sound sources within the same room, such as a guitar-playing singer. The build quality is first-rate; accessories include a hardwood storage box, drawstring cloth mic cover bag, and allen wrench for tightening the mic’s built-in stand mount. I also tested the optional Cloud universal shockmount, which does an excellent job of isolating the mic from stand-borne vibrations (and works great with other medium to large mics).
 
Although the recorded sound depends largely on your preamp, you’ll still hear a world-class ribbon mic: excellent detail and smoothness, great transient response, outstanding off-axis rejection at the sides, abundant proximity effect, and a very pleasant, natural sound quality without any harshness. The highs aren’t as extended as a quality condenser, but the detail isn’t lost, either. You’ll need a good preamp, but the mic’s sound will delight you.

Alternatives: Beyer M160, Royer R-121, AEA R84, Audio-Technica AT4080, Blue Woodpecker, Cascade Fathead II, Shure KSM313
 
 
 
Multipattern Condenser 
Lewitt LCT 940
$2,099 MSRP, $1,499 street
lewitt-audio.com


Multipattern condenser mics are more versatile than large-diaphragm condenser and fixed-capsule small-diaphragm condenser mics, due to their user-adjustable polar patterns—savvy recordists can exploit variable polar patterns for stereo mic techniques like Mid-Side and Blumlein stereo, and tailor the mic’s “null points” to suit particular recording needs. (Good mic technique includes aiming the mic’s “dead side” at what you don’t want to capture, not just aiming the sensitive side toward the sound source.) Multipattern condensers let you tailor the amount of room ambience captured without altering the mic’s physical placement, by dialing up a wider or tighter polar pattern.
 
The LCT 940, designed by Lewitt CEO Roman Perschon in Vienna, Austria, is manufactured at their own Chinese facility. Don’t let that idea put you off—this is an exceptional mic, and the package exudes class; obvious care went into both the design and build quality. Nine polar patterns are selected via a large jog dial on the power supply, with the selected pattern illuminated in white. Patterns include bi-directional, super cardioid, cardioid, wide cardioid, and omnidirectional, along with four intermediate patterns. (With intermediate patterns, neighboring patterns are illuminated in red.)
 
Additional switches on the power supply select attenuation (–6dB, –2dB, and –18dB pad) and highpass filter (–12dB/octave at 40Hz, and –6dB/octave at 150Hz or 300Hz) settings. While quieter than most mic switches, there’s still a slight audible pop when adjusting the settings. (Lewitt says they have since corrected this.) “Locking” the front panel settings prevents unauthorized adjustments, and you can even engage a self-attenuation feature that automatically applies appropriate attenuation if the mic senses clipping. Accessories include a camera-style case, power supply with a generously long 26' 11-pin cable, foam windscreen, and a really nice shockmount.
 
The LCT 940 provides both tube (12AX7) and FET-based amplifiers and impedance converters, available simultaneously, to bring the capsule’s low output up to usable mic levels. This is a very quiet mic—especially by tube mic standards—with cardioid-mode self-noise ratings of 12dBA (tube) and 8dBA (FET). FET mode is similar to Lewitt’s LCT 640, and tube mode, the LCT 840. Mics with both tube and solid-state signal paths are extremely rare, and the LCT 940 is the only one I’ve seen that can blend between a warm, fat tube sound and a clean, clear FET sound in any ratio.
 
This mic is open-sounding and very detailed, but not hyped or harsh. Even without the FET/tube signal-path blending, the many different low-frequency rolloff settings and polar patterns provide exceptional sonic adjustability. This is the first Lewitt I’ve tried, but it won’t be the last—I’m very impressed that a single mic can give this degree of versatility, and fit so well with a wide range of sound sources.

Alternatives: Mojave MA-300, Audio-Technica AT4050, Telefunken AR-51, AKG C-414 XLS, Shure KSM44A, Lauten Audio LT-381 Oceanus, Neumann TLM67, Charter Oak SA 538
 
 
 
Large-Diaphragm Dynamic  
Electro-Voice RE320
$419 MSRP, $299 street
electrovoice.com


Large-diaphragm dynamic mics may not be as popular as their small-diaphragm cousins, but every well-rounded mic collection needs at least one—they rock for sound sources with high SPL and lots of lows, like kick drums and bass cabinets. They can also work well on guitar amps, sax, and brass (especially bari sax, trombone, and flugelhorn), have been a voiceover/broadcast favorite for decades, and have even supplied the lead vocal tracks for many hit songs. They’re less susceptible to vocal overload and sibilance issues than most condenser mics, and their tendency to highlight and accentuate the lows makes them ideal for nasal- or thin-sounding singers.
 
From the outside, the RE320 looks much like an all-black version of its famous predecessor, Electro-Voice’s legendary RE20. Its size is identical, and the weight nearly the same, but significant differences make the RE320 more than just an RE20 with a new paint job.
 
The RE320 replaces the RE20’s highpass filter with a dual-position voicing switch. The flat setting sounds similar to the RE20, but not quite as full below 100Hz, and with a touch more upper-mid detail. This makes vocals cut through a bit better. The response is relatively flat, but a slight presence peak in the 5kHz–10kHz range helps with articulation. It really helps miked guitar amps cut through a mix, too.
 
The other switch position has a pre-EQ’ed character tailored specifically for kick drums, with increased lows, a dip in the low mids centered at 380Hz to reduce mud, an enhanced peak at 4kHz for beater attack definition, and a fat, punchy sound overall. It does remarkably well at giving a great kick drum sound with little effort.
 
Like the RE27N/D (another RE20 descendent), the RE320 uses a neodymium magnet; its output level and sound both sit somewhere between the RE20 and RE27N/D, with the RE320 being hotter, slightly brighter, and more detailed/open than the RE20, but not as much so as the RE27. Compared to the RE20, the RE320 has a bit snappier response on attack transients.
Because it incorporates a humbucking coil, it’s very resistant to hum and noise. The “Variable-D” design also means less susceptibility to proximity effect and off-axis coloration—this is a very quiet and forgiving microphone, and a great choice for vocalists who can’t stand still.
 
While the RE20 is manufactured in the U.S., the RE320 is built in Asia, which probably explains its lower price tag. Still, the build quality appears to be up to E/V’s usual high standards, and the RE320’s sound quality and versatility make it an excellent choice for your first (or second) large-diaphragm dynamic mic.

Alternatives:  Shure SM7b, Audix D6, Heil PR40, AKG D112, Sennheiser MD 421-II
 
 
 
Small-Diaphragm Condenser  
DPA 2011C
$799 MSRP, $799 street
dpamicrophones.com


Small-diaphragm condenser mics excel for flat frequency response, minimal off-axis coloration, dynamic range, fast transient response, and high-SPL-handling capabilities—with the tradeoff of higher self-noise levels. They require phantom power, and tend to be more fragile than dynamic mics. They’re good on practically anything (with the possible exception of ultra-low frequency sounds)—drum overheads, acoustic instruments such as acoustic guitar and mandolin, woodwinds, acoustic grand and upright pianos, and general stereo applications (particularly A/B spaced pairs for choirs and X/Y stereo instrumental recording). 
 
With a history of exemplary small-diaphragm condenser designs, DPA is considered one of the world’s premier microphone brands—their 4011 cardioid condensers are recording studio standards. The new 2000 Ceries bridges the gap between DPA’s affordable miniature mics and their more expensive 4000 Series.
 
The DPA 2011C consists of two main components—the MMC2011 capsule (two 4060/4066-style miniature diaphragms sharing a common backplate in a single cardioid capsule) and MMP-C preamp/compact body. This helps increase sensitivity, while reducing noise levels. The 2011C is a couple of dB noisier than the 4011C, but still measures a fairly respectable 20dB (A-weighted). The capsule mounts just under the rear grilles of the short interference tube, keeping the cardioid pattern tight and consistent. 
 
The 2011C’s modular design lets you swap capsules (including 4000 Series capsules), bodies, and preamps. The C (compact) body type is similar to DPA’s larger A-style preamp, but with a slightly rounder, more “forgiving,”  and slightly less-transparent tone. DPA’s B-style preamp adds high-boost and low-cut filters; the 2011C includes no switches.
 
The 2011C’s frequency response is quite flat, with only a relatively mild, broad 3dB peak centered at 12kHz. The lows are extended, too; at moderate-to-close miking distances, the 2011C has a balanced sound, with plenty of body in the lows to support the detailed highs, and the option to exploit the proximity effect.
 
Off-axis sound quality greatly influences the way a small diaphragm condenser sounds, especially when used in stereo pairs, and the 2011C is very uniform. This characteristic greatly increases the sense of realism with stereo. The pair of 2011C mics I tested were selected to match within 1.5dB sensitivity, making them ideal for stereo pair usage. DPA also included an accessory kit with one of the nicest stereo bars I’ve ever used, which features markings for A/B, ORTF, and X/Y stereo configurations to speed setup.
 
DPA designed this mic in part for live sound, and tailors the off-axis frequency response to increase gain before feedback. For the studio, you might prefer two 2011C mics instead of the pricier 4011; they have a definite sonic resemblance, and the 2011C’s dynamic range (117dB typical), self-noise, and maximum SPL before clipping (146dB) are all within a few dB of DPA’s higher-end offerings. You get roughly 80 percent of the 4000 Series sound quality at half the price—that’s impressive value. If you’ve wanted DPA quality but couldn’t afford it, the DPA2011C is the DPA for the rest of us.

Alternatives: Neumann KM 184, AKG C451B, Røde NT55, Audix F9, Mojave Audio MA-101, Audio-Technica AT4051, Shure KSM141
 
 
 
Stereo  
MXL Revelation Stereo
$2,499 MSRP, $1,995 street
mxlmics.com


In the days of analog tape, stereo mics were a specialty mic category—given track limitations, dedicating a pair of tracks was a rare luxury typically reserved for drum overheads or the occasional horn section. However, with computer recording largely eliminating track limitations, we have more opportunities for stereo recording, and more mic options for those situations. Most stereo mics are large- or small-diaphragm condenser types; some are fixed X/Y stereo, while others offer adjustable patterns and even movable capsules. There are even a few stereo ribbon mics.

The unique MXL Revelation Stereo has twin large-diaphragm, center-terminated capsules configured in a fixed 90-degree X/Y stereo arrangement, and twin tube electronics. While its hand-selected Electro-Harmonix EF86 pentode tubes are less common than 12AX7 and 6072 triode tube types, these high-gain, low-noise tubes have a long audio history, appearing in such mics as the vintage Neumann U67. They’re an excellent choice.

The Revelation Stereo is well accessorized. The camera-style case holds a two-channel power supply, 15' seven-pin cable, and two 15' Mogami XLR cables. Internal wiring is also Mogami. The power supply has a main power switch, twin XLR outs, and a pushbutton switch that engages a 12dB/octave highpass filter at 125Hz. The mic has a –10dB pad as well. The case lets you store the mic without removing it from the included large, well-engineered shock mount and Y-yoke mount, which simplifies disassembly and storage.

A good stand is a must—at three pounds, this mic is heavy. If you’re going to swing it out over a drum kit, use sandbags to counterbalance and secure the stand. I’m less convinced about using stereo on point sources such as single vocalists, but you can easily run just one output and use the mic as a standard cardioid condenser. In this case, rotate it 45 degrees off-center so the capsule in use is on-axis.

The head grille is very open, and uses a single layer of mesh. Stripping out extra mesh layers is a popular trick for mic-modification gurus, but this process makes the mic more susceptible to breath noises and vocal plosives. Here, like with these modded mics, you’ll need to use a good pop screen with vocals.

Overall, the sound is agreeably warm and relatively uncolored by any major frequency-response peaks or dips. I really liked it as a room mic and drum-overhead mic, where its balanced sound worked great on the cymbals. The X/Y stereo configuration picks up less room ambience than some other stereo designs, such as M-S and Blumlein stereo configurations. X/Y also has better mono compatibility than most other stereo configurations, and is probably the best choice for a single-pattern stereo mic.

Alternatives:  Avantone CK-40, Røde NT4, MXL V67Q, Audio-Technica AT4050ST, Sontronics Apollo, Violet Flamingo Stereo, Royer SF12, Shure VP88, Audio Engineering Associates (AEA) R88, Telefunken ELA M 270, Manley Gold Reference Stereo
 
 
 
Small-Diaphragm Dynamic
Telefunken M81
$279 MSRP, $249 street
telefunken-elektroakustik.com

Small-diaphragm dynamic mics are often chosen as a “first microphone” due to their low cost and wide availability; their relatively simple, rugged design also makes them a “workhorse” choice for live use. In the studio, they’re a good match with guitar amps, hand drums and percussion, rack toms, snare drums, brass instruments, rotary speaker cabinet horns, and more. While they usually lack a condenser’s extended frequency response and snappy attack transients, or a ribbon mic’s detailed sound and fast transient response, they’re tougher than those mics. If dropped, hit, or subjected to tough environmental conditions, a small-diaphragm dynamic mic has a better chance of survival than more delicate models.
 
The M81 revises Telefunken’s M80 with a more linear frequency response. The M81’s high frequencies aren’t as “forward” as the M80’s, and the low-frequency rolloff seems slightly lessened, giving a more balanced sound. The M81’s twin presence peaks, centered between 4–5kHz and 9–10kHz, help with articulation, vocal intelligibility, and bring out the attack of rack toms and the crack of a snare. While not as present as the M80 in a “bright, modern vocal mic” way, it still offers plenty of upper mids and highs for vocals, especially when the M80’s extra brightness is a bit much for a particular singer.
 
The 30Hz–18kHz frequency response is pretty extended by dynamic-mic standards; the top-end response offers a somewhat condenser-like quality, presumably due to the diaphragm’s relatively light weight and moving coil. Less mass generally equals better transient response, and the M81 fares better than many other moving-coil dynamic mics. The tight cardioid pattern provides reasonable levels of off-axis coloration and very good gain before feedback, which is appreciated on a loud stage. The M81 also works well when placed close to a sound source, as the well-controlled proximity boost can fill out the sound a bit.
 
On the outside, the mic replaces the M80’s black body and standard chrome grille with a cool flint-gray body and tri-chrome black grille. The body design is exceptionally well-balanced, and the slightly rubberized finish is easy to hang on to, even with sweaty hands. The handling noise is quite low, due to the mic’s rubberized finish and internal rubber capsule mounting. Breath noise and pops from plosives are reasonable for this type of mic, and it is noticeably less sibilant than the M80 on hissy singers.
 
The M81 is a first-rate, general-purpose small-diaphragm dynamic mic that works well in a variety of applications. If you need extra highs to help your voice cut through a mix, the popular M80 is still available—but overall, I find the M81 to be a better mic, or at least a more versatile and balanced-sounding one. Its more neutral character flatters a wider range of sound sources, and it’s an excellent choice for both live and studio applications.

Alternatives: Shure SM57, Audix i5, Sennheiser e609, Heil PR22, AKG D7, Audio-Technica ATM650, Electro-Voice N/D767a n

Phil O'Keefe is a regular contributor to Electronic Musician.
 
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