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Build a Microphone Cabinet on any Budget

September 1, 2000
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Two Connoisseurs Help You Plan Your Mic Collection

Given the plenitude and diversity of mics - more than 500 models are available, with new ones appearing every year - choosing which ones to buy is no easy matter. Not surprisingly, we frequently get asked by readers which microphones are "best" for particular applications, as well as which are the best values. Of course, such decisions are rarely simple and clear-cut because they depend on such factors as what kind of recording you want to do, what preamps you will use, how much money you plan to spend now and later, and your personal taste.

Building a microphone collection (often referred to as a cabinet, closet, or locker) is a cumulative process. Typically, the owner starts with a handful of mics and adds to the collection from there. In that sense, the title of this article need not be taken literally: we aren't suggesting that you discard or trade in whatever mics you currently own and opt instead for one of the cabinets described here. Then again, if you're new to recording and you don't yet own any good-quality mics, you could very well take our suggestions literally.

Whether you're starting from scratch or building on your existing collection, we think you'll enjoy checking out our suggested mic cabinets. We've put together several possible cabinets at various prices, and we include details about the mics and some discussion of why we recommend them. Note that recommend is a key word here, as this article is very much an opinion piece. Both of us have years of "ears-on" experience with microphones in the studio and on stage, and we've been reviewing mics for EM for several years. We also have worked together on many critical microphone-comparison tests, often involving a half-dozen or more models - an experience that gives us a good vantage point.

Still, with so many mics on the market, we can't possibly be familiar with all of them. There are undoubtedly some great mics out there that we haven't worked with, and we certainly aren't going to recommend something if we haven't heard it. For the most part, then, the mics we've picked here are ones we either have encountered in reviews for EM or have used over the years in our studios.

Of course, people have divergent tastes when it comes to microphones, and the two of us don't always agree about what "flavors" of mic we prefer in various applications. Furthermore, we work in different types of studios and with different media. Myles Boisen works full-time as an engineer at his own commercial studio, Guerrilla Recording, where he records primarily to 1-inch analog tape. Brian Knave, on the other hand, works part-time (mostly evenings and weekends) in a much smaller personal studio and records primarily to Alesis ADAT. The sonic differences between digital and analog recording are sufficient to alter the perceived response of a given microphone - hence one factor in our individual preferences.

To take advantage of this diversity of opinion and give you a broader perspective, we made our mic selections independently of one another. And because your tastes and needs may differ from ours, we urge you to take our recommendations not as gospel but simply as well-considered opinions from two knowledgeable "insiders."

Breakin' it Down

To accommodate different levels of involvement in recording, we've come up with three hypothetical mic cabinets, which we dubbed Bare Bones, Basic Coverage, and No Compromises. To address varying levels of monetary investment, we have further specified different price ranges: budget, midline, and deluxe for the Bare Bones and Basic Coverage cabinets, and midline and deluxe for the No Compromises cabinets.

By budget, we mean "as inexpensive as it gets." For the deluxe level, we are working under the assumption that money isn't an issue. The midline prices, which fall between those extremes, are probably the most applicable to the discriminating personal-studio recordist who is serious enough to budget a fair amount of money for high-quality gear but not at liberty to drain the family savings and go into hock to feed a nasty gear habit.

Obviously, the mic cabinet that is best for you is the one that gives you the results you want and covers all the applications you need covered. Everyone's needs are different. If, for example, you're a songwriter using a 4-track cassette recorder to produce demos for pitching to publishers, you can likely get by with fewer - and less costly - mics than could, say, an engineer producing CDs for indie labels. Likewise, the microphone needs of a sound designer may differ from those of a jingle producer.

Fortunately, the microphones in the cabinets suggested here are not fitted together like tumblers in a lock - any one of which, if changed, renders the lock useless. Rather, they can be mixed and matched to suit your fancy. Moreover, all of these mics (even the least expensive ones) can give good results with a variety of sources, and most will continue to be useful even if you someday reach the No Compromises deluxe level. Mic cabinets, like studios, are works in progress.

Bare Bones Budget ($400)

By Myles Boisen

(1) Shure SM 57 ($146)
(1) Crown CM 700 ($289)

You really can't go wrong with the Shure SM 57 dynamic microphone - the perennial workhorse of the recording industry. Many top engineers swear by it for electric guitars, snare drum, vocals, and lots of other uses. The frequency response of this mic, though far from flat, is musical and seems ideally suited to the recording process, offering a midrange-rich sonic profile with just the right amount of cutting highs and low-end punch.

Even though there will always be limitations at the lower end of the condenser-mic spectrum, the affordable Crown CM 700 small-diaphragm condenser has earned a permanent place in my mic cabinet by virtue of its warm and pleasing sound. The CM 700 is not as bright as most of the competing models, but it does convey every bit of tone in a source and features a 2-position low-cut filter that helps get the mud out.

Like the Shure SM 57 dynamic, the CM 700 is a microphone that you may never "outgrow." I keep finding new uses for it, including resonator guitar and marimba.

Bare Bones Budget ($400)

By Brian Knave

(1) Shure SM 57 ($146)
(1) Audio-Technica AT3528 ($259)

I, too, recommend the SM 57 as a solid starting point for the Bare Bones cabinet - or for any mic cabinet, for that matter. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find a professional studio that doesn't have at least one SM 57 on hand, and big studios typically own a half-dozen or more. The particular thonk that this mic can capture from a snare drum has contributed to countless hit songs over the years, and, needless to say, the SM 57 is also a killer on stage ("SM," after all, stands for "stage mic"), whether you're miking vocals or guitar amps.

Two other inexpensive dynamics worth checking out are the AKG D 880 ($138), notable for its big lows and crisp highs, and the Electro-Voice N/D 267 ($140), which has a smooth, round sound characterized by enhanced low-mids that really help fatten up a thin or underconfident voice.

Budget condenser mics are a relatively new phenomenon, and the price threshold seems to get lower each year. For this Bare Bones cabinet, I recommend the Audio-Technica AT3528, a small-diaphragm cardioid condenser with an overall bright but (for the price) quite smooth sound. I have tested this mic on many sources and was impressed by its versatility and accuracy. It sounds nearly as good as some small-diaphragm condensers costing twice as much. The AKG C 1000S ($288) is another good budget condenser - if you don't mind going a bit over our target price. Though it can sound thin in certain applications, this mic is quite versatile, in part because it offers a battery-power option - a real boon for location recording.

If saving money is a key concern, be sure to watch for what is evidently the lowest-price condenser mic available: the new Rode NT3 ($199), a "medium-diaphragm" (31/44-inch) model that has just begun shipping. I haven't yet tested the Rode in the studio, but I gave it a fair listen at the 2000 Winter NAMM show and was quite impressed. I remember the sound as being very clear and present, with sparkly highs and nice lows.

Bare Bones Midline ($700)

By Myles Boisen

(1) Shure SM 57 ($146)
(1) AKG C 3000B ($520)

At this level, the Shure SM 57 dynamic microphone is still a must, and it leaves you free to spend a little more money on a condenser mic.

I'm very impressed with the improvements that AKG has made to its original C 3000, and the large-diaphragm C 3000B gets my vote as a good general-purpose condenser mic in this highly competitive price class. This upgraded model offers a fuller low end and smoother highs than its C 3000 predecessor, with the added advantage of a very hot output level.

Of course, you may prefer to choose a microphone based on its features or its response on a particular instrument. For example, the Oktava MK 012 condenser may be more suitable for a studio that records only solo acoustic guitar (more about this later). For such specialized uses, it is essential that you shop around. Fortunately, in this price range there is no shortage of models to choose from.

Bare Bones Midline ($700)

By Brian Knave

(1) Audix OM-2 ($149)
(1) Audio-Technica 4033a/SM ($495)

For the dynamic mic in this cabinet, I've selected the remarkable Audix OM-2, an inexpensive handheld unit that I often prefer to the Shure SM 57 thanks to its more natural-sounding (that is, less "hyped") frequency response, and also because of its exceptional transient response. These qualities make the OM-2 an excellent low-cost choice for snare drum and toms. It also sounds great on guitar cabinets, vocals, and most other sources I've tried.

Although I, too, am impressed with the new AKG C 3000B, I'm recommending the Audio-Technica 4033a/SM, a cardioid-only condenser. Not only does it cost a bit less than the C 3000B, but it also comes with the very effective AT8441 shock-mount. In addition, the 4033 provides some useful extras, including an 80 Hz low-cut filter and a 10 dB pad, making it exceptionally versatile for a fixed-pattern condenser. This microphone, which already is fairly ubiquitous in both personal and commercial studios, has a big open sound with smooth lows, slightly attenuated mids, bright and very present highs, and excellent transient response. Its response seems tailor-made for many sources - including a wide range of vocalists, acoustic guitars, and percussion - and the mic is a good choice for drum overheads. And hey, we're still about $50 under budget, so you can afford some nice mic cables, too!

Bare Bones Deluxe ($3,500)

By Myles Boisen

(1) Sennheiser MD 421 II ($485)
(1) Neumann U 87 AI/SET A ($3,010)
The Sennheiser MD 421 II is one of my favorite dynamic microphones. It has a defined, rich tone that works great on electric guitar and drums, and it features a useful onboard low-cut filter. The 421 is also a highly regarded voice-over mic that offers an instantly identifiable, radio-ready sound.

My choice for a deluxe, solid-state condenser mic has to be the venerable Neumann U 87, thanks to its clear, smooth, airy highs; exceptional low-end warmth; and ability to deliver a big sound at any distance. This multipattern mic is truly a rarity - even in the world of pricey transducers - for the way it can provide great results with almost any sound source. Indeed, as I have stated before (see "Recording Musician: Ten Mics I Swear By," in the April 1999 EM), if I had to pick only one mic to use for the rest of my life, I'd choose this one. Also, the U 87 will do its part to bring in business: brand-name recognition, whether justified or not, is an important marketing consideration for any studio that accepts outside clients. Best of all, the U 87 will make both you and your client smile when the session is over.

For this cabinet, I have specified the U 87 AI/SET A, which comes complete with a swivel mount, windscreen, and cable. After all, the mic won't do you much good if you have no way to mount it on a stand. However, the U 87 is also available without accessories for $2,825.

Bare Bones Deluxe ($3,500)

By Brian Knave

(1) Sennheiser MD 421 II ($485)
(1) Neumann U 87 AI/SET A ($3,010)

Sound familiar? Well, as it turns out, this is the only cabinet for which Myles Boisen and I picked the very same mics - and in this case, his sentiments echo mine exactly, although I would point out that the MD 421 II is also a great vocal mic for certain "problem" singers.

However, if $3,500 is a bit steep for your Bare Bones budget, yet you want dearly to remain in the deluxe realm, consider combining the Shure Beta 58A ($332.50) with the Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics (BLUE) Mouse ($2,295). The Beta 58A is a very fine supercardioid dynamic with a bit more punch and sizzle than a regular SM 58 can muster. Not surprisingly, it works very nicely on snare drums and guitar amps, but it also is great to have around when the vocalist (typically a club singer) can't seem to get a good take without hand-holding the mic. It's a wonderful choice for trumpet, too.

The BLUE Mouse is an exquisite mic both sonically and visually, and it's definitely in the same class as the Neumann U 87. A hand-built Class A discrete unit, the BLUE Mouse features a cool rotating capsule grille that makes positioning a cinch. This mic sounds beautiful, and like the U 87, it works splendidly on a variety of sounds. However, it provides only a fixed-cardioid polar pattern (its biggest limitation) and, by design, no onboard pads or filters.

We've defined the Bare Bones cabinet as one dynamic mic and one condenser mic - a spartan combination that's surprisingly powerful. Depending on which level you choose (budget, midline, or deluxe), this cabinet can handle the needs of: the sampling wizard; the small demo studio; radio, TV, and Web-audio producers; and MIDI producers requiring only a modicum of recorded audio. (See the sidebars "Twittering Bones" and "A MIDIot's Mic Picks" for profiles of two professionals' basic mic cabinets that are only slightly bigger than our Bare Bones picks.)

Indeed, as long as you don't mind the restriction of building your songs track by track (through overdubbing), a Bare Bones cabinet can cover lots of ground. For example, you can capture a surprisingly good drum-set sound by sticking the dynamic in the kick drum and positioning the condenser mic overhead. You could also stereo-mic a piano (dynamic on the low strings, condenser on the mids and highs) or an acoustic guitar (dynamic near the 12th fret, condenser pulled back a bit to hear the whole instrument), or you could do a 2-track pass of a guitar amp (dynamic mic up against the grille cloth, condenser several feet back to capture room sound).

The Bare Bones cabinet will also serve well for mono sources, whether you're tracking vocals, guitars, horns, or percussion. (For more ideas, see "Recording Musician: The Mini Mic Cabinet" in the April 1996 EM.)

Think a handful of mics isn't sufficient to let you compete with the big guys? Well, check out Twittering Machine Productions (www.twittering.com), the brainchild of keyboardist and EM author Peter Drescher. A San Francisco-based operation, Twittering Machine provides music, sound effects, and voice-overs for multimedia software and the Internet. Drescher, whose list of clients includes Adobe, Beatnik, Sonicopia, Sprint PCS, AT&T, and WebTV, runs the whole show using just three mics:

(1) Neumann TLM 103
(1) Neumann KM 184
(1) Shure SM 58

"I've used these microphones to record a wide variety of audio," explains Drescher, "usually to DAT and then digitally transferred to Digidesign Pro Tools for editing and processing.

"The Neumann KM 184 is my main general-purpose mic. I've used it to record everything from dogs panting, dump trucks, and footsteps in snow to electric guitar, pan pipes, and African bells. The TLM 103 is terrific for voice-overs, and I've had some success using both Neumanns for stereo recordings of my Steinway piano. And even though I've used the SM 58 to record harmonica `green-bullet style,' mostly I use it for hammering nails (just kidding!).

"Although some Neumann mics have been criticized for being too bright, the presence boost on the TLM 103 provides a clarity that works to my advantage, given that the end product is frequently 16/22 MPEG compressed audio files. I always figure it's best to start with the cleanest, clearest signal possible before decimating it for Internet delivery, in the same way that a drawing done in bold Magic Marker will fax better than a sepia-tone photograph. But truth be told, I also use Neumann mics in large part due to the justified prestige the name carries. Whenever a client asks me what kind of mics I use, I'm always proud to say, `Neumanns, of course!'"

Need more proof that a "bare bones" mic cabinet is enough to get you into the big leagues? Craig Stuart Garfinkle (www.midiotmusic.com) is a Los Angeles-based music producer and an Emmy-nominated composer for film, television shows, commercials, stage, and songs. A Pro Tools user, Garfinkle employs only four mics for his productions:

(1) Neumann TLM 170
(1) AKG C 414 B/ULS
(1) AKG C 1000
(1) Shure SM 57

"I describe myself as an in-the-trenches working composer - no longer a neophyte, but not a superstar," says Garfinkle. "My experience runs the gamut, from feature films to prime-time and network sitcom themes to animation scoring for Disney." Highlights of Garfinkle's career include Mojave Moon (a feature film starring Angelina Jolie), the theme and music for NBC's The Jeff Foxworthy Show, songs for Disney's movie The Little Mermaid, music for the Dungeons and Dragons games, and, in 1999, the Emmy-nominated score for public television's Visions of Arizona.

Currently, Garfinkle is composing a new musical identity for Warner Brothers Cable TV Network and a collection of musical identities for Hasbro's Fantasy Factory. "Also, look for the feature The Best Man in Grass Creek, to be released theatrically this fall, which includes some of my best scoring to date," adds Garfinkle.

"I learned what mic technique I know mostly by happenstance," he says. "I have a stable of brilliant musicians that I am lucky enough to work with - Frank Gambale and Gregg Leisz (guitar), Bobby Hurst (bass), Steve Tavaglione (saxophone, woodwinds), Steve Smith (drums, percussion), Sid Page (violin) - and I just ask them where I should put the mic based on the type of sound I want to get. After years of doing this, I've learned a lot."

Garfinkle says he would love to have the luxury of searching for the "perfect" mic for every sound source and project, "but that just isn't the reality. The TLM 170 is a great vocal mic for just about any application. I use the C 414 as a backup if for some reason the 170 doesn't sound right for a given singer. I started using the SM 57 and C 1000 on electric guitars at the suggestion of Frank Gambale; he much prefers either mic to a large condenser, and often I'll use a blend of the two. The sound is brighter and more biting than that of the TLM 170 or C 414. For most acoustic guitars, however (especially nylon-string), I use the TLM 170 because its sound is warmer. For saxophone and woodwinds, it's a toss-up between the TLM 170 and the C 414. Likewise with percussion and violin: it all depends upon whether I want the sound to be warmer (TLM 170) or brighter (C 414).

"Due to crazy deadlines and the need to be able to instantly recall and edit mixes, I record almost exclusively to hard disk. Because of this, I have found that my Bellari RP 220 tube preamp is a necessity for introducing some warmth into the system. Otherwise, things come off sounding a little cold. If the budget allows, I like to track to 2-inch analog tape and then load the tracks onto a hard disk. That's the best of both worlds."

Basic Coverage Budget ($2,000)

By Myles Boisen

(1) Sennheiser E602 ($319)
(2) Sennheiser E604 ($249 each)
(2) Shure SM 57 ($146 each)
(2) Shure BG 4.1 ($275 each)
(1) AKG C 3000B ($520)

As I look at this list, I'm amazed by how much you can do with just eight microphones. With this setup (plus some talent and a lot of empty tracks), it's possible to get a thoroughly professional drum sound, then move the mics around and overdub a whole band to perfection.

The Sennheiser E602 is an amazing kick-drum mic that can turn any bass drum into a thundering arena-rock monster. It's also a viable choice for electric bass and other low-end sources.

Sennheiser's E604 is another technological wonder, adapted especially for use on toms but equally effective on electric guitar, organ, brass, and more. And if your drummer doesn't need four mics for snare and toms, try an E604 underneath the snare for some extra snap.

For drum overheads, a pair of small-diaphragm condensers is a must. The Crown CM 700 (mentioned earlier) would work, but for general use I've found the brighter response of the Shure BG 4.1 to be more suitable. Also, it runs on batteries, so it can double as a location-recording microphone for concerts, sampling, or environmental recording.

And if you're just doing drums, don't let that large-diaphragm condenser sit idle: try using it a bit outside the bass drum for a more realistic kick sound, or place it a few feet back from the kit to capture the live ambience of the entire drum set.

Basic Coverage Budget ($2,000)

By Brian Knave

(1) beyerdynamic TG-X 50 ($249)
(1) Shure SM 57 ($146)
(3) Audix OM-2 ($149 each)
(2) Audio-Technica AT3528 ($259 each)
(1) Audio-Technica AT4047/SV ($695)

It's not easy putting together a cabinet of this size for only two grand. If you do the math, you'll see that we both came in slightly over budget, but we were close enough for practical purposes.

Again, I've enlisted the remarkably priced AT3528 - only this time as a pair for drum overheads and other stereo applications. Also, I've stayed with the SM 57 for snare and the OM-2 pair for toms - a combination that I know works well because I've relied on it many times.

For the large-diaphragm dynamic, I've selected another low-cost favorite of mine, the beyerdynamic TG-X 50. This mic has amazing attack and a very natural sound overall. It's especially good on bass-guitar cabinets, but it makes a very punchy kick-drum mic, too, especially for jazz and other applications where realism is desired.

My pick for the large-diaphragm condenser at this price has to be Audio-Technica's new AT4047/SV, a lovely-sounding microphone specifically designed to have a vintage FET sound. What this means, at least to my ears, is an overall warmer sound than that produced by other solid-state mics in Audio-Technica's 4000 series, as well as smoother (though still very present) highs. Trust me: this mic does not sound like a budget model. In addition, the 4047 comes with a great shock-mount, and it provides both an 80 Hz low-cut filter and a 10 dB pad, making it a truly exceptional value.

Basic Coverage Midline ($3,500)

By Myles Boisen

(1) Shure SM 57 ($146)
(1) Electro-Voice N/D 468 ($278)
(1) Sennheiser E604 ($249)
(1) Sennheiser MD 421 II ($485)
(1) Sennheiser E602 ($319)
(2) Oktava MK 012 ($499.99 each)
(1) Neumann TLM 103 $995

At the midline level, you gain the ability to further refine your sounds by comparing different microphones on the same sources. For example, you can try out both the MD 421 II and the E602 on floor tom and kick drum and alternate the SM 57 and the N/D 468 (a compact supercardioid mic with a neat rotating capsule) on snare. The crisp highs and thick lower midrange of the N/D 468 make it my personal favorite for this crucial application.

I'm very enthusiastic about Oktava's MK 012, and the reason is simple: this small-diaphragm condenser microphone is a real bargain that sounds great on vocals, drums, percussion, acoustic guitar, piano, and many other sources. The MK 012 can cover most of the bases for a personal studio, whether you're recording voice-overs, singer-songwriter vocals, acoustic instruments, or samples.

For critical applications, a matched stereo pair is a necessity that is well worth the extra bucks. Matched pairs of Oktava MC 012 sets (which include interchangeable cardioid, omnidirectional, and hypercardioid capsules, as well as an insertable 10 dB pad) are, to my knowledge, sold only through an online retailer (www.sound-room.com). I recommend these products highly. Single (cardioid only) MK 012 mics available in stores can be matched by listening, but this process requires patience, a good stock of microphones on hand, considerable skill, and lots of luck. It is worth noting, however, that the MK 012s sold in stores are often priced far below the suggested retail. (Guitar Center, for example, frequently offers them for $149 each.)

In addition to the Oktava mics as the stereo pair, I'm recommending the Neumann TLM 103 as the large-diaphragm condenser in this category. It makes a great ambient drum-room mic, and it is a solid choice for vocals, acoustic instruments, percussion, electric guitar, and other sources.

This shopping list not only will set you up nicely, but it also comes in a few bucks under budget. I suggest you spend the surplus on business cards so you can recoup some of your investment!

Basic Coverage Midline ($3,500)

By Brian Knave

(1) Electro-Voice N/D 868 ($338)
(1) Audix D1 ($219)
(3) Audix D2 ($219 each)
(2) Earthworks SR77 ($599 each)
(1) BLUE Dragonfly ($1,095)

At this price point, I get to include one of my favorite kick-drum mics, the Electro-Voice N/D 868. This unit consistently provides a fat, round, warm, and solid thump, practically regardless of the drum. Also, it has exceptional off-axis rejection, making isolation a snap. Another contender here, though a tad more expensive, is the long-standing AKG D112 ($382).

You've probably noticed that I really like Audix dynamic mics; their superior transient response makes for a natural sound, which I like on drums. Here I'm promoting the D1 and D2 for snare and toms, respectively. With this budget, you can afford to forgo the handheld models and use mics that are more specifically designed for easy positioning around the kit. (Be sure to check out the sidebar "Drum-Mic Kits," which details drum-specific microphone packages from several manufacturers.)

My choice for small-diaphragm condensers - and here we're talking very small diaphragms - is the Earthworks SR77. This distinctive cardioid mic is a stunning performer, both in the studio and onstage, providing the extremely realistic sound that Earthworks is known for. I can hardly get through a session without using this mic. The SR77s are exceptional on acoustic guitars, percussion, drums (as overheads), and pretty much anywhere you want to capture the sound as is. The only drawback to Earthworks mics is their relatively high self-noise levels (a slight, airy hiss); however, this is usually easy enough to work around, especially in busy mixes.

Another great-sounding - and very quiet - small-diaphragm condenser I recommend highly is the MicroTech Gefell M300 ($495). In a recent comparison test (see "To Tell the Truth" in the March 2000 EM), this beautifully engineered mic was a consistent favorite in nearly all of the applications.

For this cabinet's large-diaphragm condenser, I could hardly decide between the Neumann TLM 103 and the BLUE Dragonfly. Both are amazing - equally quiet and first-rate in sound quality; either one will serve you well.

In the end, I picked the Dragonfly, if only because I find it a tad more forgiving on a broader range of instruments. For vocals alone (depending on the singer), I more often prefer the TLM 103, thanks to that distinctive Neumann presence boost. However, that same boost can sound a bit harsh on some sources (such as triangle or harmonica). The Dragonfly is a flatter-sounding mic, so if you're recording lots of acoustic instruments - guitars, pianos, drums, percussion - I think it's the way to go.

Then again, neither mic offers switchable polar patterns, attenuation pads, or low-cut filters. If you need the versatility afforded by these "extras," you might want to up your budget a bit and go for the AKG C 414 B/ULS ($1,258). This impressive mic has a smooth sound, nicely extended highs and lows, and great transient response. It's not only a great value but truly a classic that will do any mic cabinet proud.

Basic Coverage Deluxe ($7,500)

By Myles Boisen

(1) Shure SM 57 ($146)
(1) Electro-Voice N/D 468 ($278)
(1) Sennheiser E604 ($249)
(1) Sennheiser MD 421 II ($485)
(1) Sennheiser E602 ($319)
(2) Neumann KM 184 ($1,458 for matched pair)
(1) Lawson L47MP ($1,995)

At the risk of getting boring and predictable, I've already scored my ideal dynamic drum-mic cabinet at the lower-budget level, and I'm sticking by those choices. These mics have always served me well, so my strategy here is to upgrade the condenser-mic section of my growing vault while still keeping a little dough stashed away in the bank.

For drum-overhead miking, I'm moving up to the highly regarded Neumann KM 184. Known for its low noise, crisp and detailed response, and full lows, this relative newcomer has already established itself as an industry standard. Additionally, it is available in specially matched stereo pairs.

In this category, however, I must give an honorable mention to my all-time favorite among small-diaphragm condensers: the Schoeps 221b, a vintage tube microphone with switchable cardioid and omnidirectional pickup patterns. Fortunately, these mics are still plentiful - you can get one for about $1,000 - and are often available in pairs (though there's no guarantee they will be closely matched in response). The KM 184 and 221b are also excellent for many other stereo-miking applications, including acoustic guitar, piano, and percussion.

In the exalted large-diaphragm condenser microphone category, nothing says "deluxe" quite like the Lawson L47MP tube mic, which is plated in 24-carat gold. This microphone has become an indispensable tool in my studio ever since Brian Knave and I brought it in for an EM comparison test two years ago. It's my first choice for vocal, saxophone, and organ tracks, and it can do amazing things for hard-rocking electric guitar, acoustic guitar and bass, and room ambience. In addition to its lush and "tube-y" tone, the L47MP has a continuously variable pickup-pattern selector on the power supply that can be adjusted from the control room to produce dramatic changes in room sound and timbre.

Basic Coverage Deluxe ($7,500)

By Brian Knave

(1) Electro-Voice N/D 868 ($338)
(1) Electro-Voice N/D 468 ($278)
(2) Sennheiser MD 421 II ($485 each)
(1) Electro-Voice RE20 ($748)
(1) Neumann U 87 AI/SET Z ($3,200)
(2) Earthworks QTC1 ($2,000 for matched pair)

Here's a cabinet that will rock almost any drummer's world - and then turn around and handle the rest of the band with aplomb, finesse, accuracy, and punch. Electro-Voice's awesome N/D 868 captures a thunderous kick, and its hip N/D 468 does thwack duty on the snare. The two rack toms are fully covered by the Sennheiser MD 421s, and the booming floor tom is tamed by Electro-Voice's RE20 (a versatile cardioid that's notable for not building up much proximity effect at close range - hence its favored status among radio announcers).

As overheads, you have a matched pair of the amazing Earthworks QTC1 single-point omnidirectional mics. The QTC1 is a strong contender for being the most accurate-sounding microphone on the planet, and it's definitely the least expensive in that rarefied category. The QTC1s are easy to use, too: keeping the 3-to-1 rule in mind, you can pretty much position them almost anywhere. On drums, I like them as a spaced pair, hunched close on either side of the kit, but they also work surprisingly well in XY and ORTF configurations. And just wait until you hear these mics on acoustic guitars, pianos, percussion, upright bass - in fact, just about anything you can think of.

You won't go wrong if you choose the Neumann U 87 as your large-diaphragm condenser. (The AI/SET Z is the fully loaded version, complete with premium shock-mount.) On the other hand, if you have a hankering for tube warmth instead, you might want to consider the Neumann M 147 ($1,995), which is a fixed-cardioid design (obviously less versatile than the U 87, but an impressive mic for what it does), or the Lawson L47MP ($1,995), which covers all the polar patterns and then some.

No Compromises Midline ($9,000)

By Myles Boisen

(1) Sennheiser E602 ($319)
(1) beyerdynamic TG-X 50 ($249)
(1) Shure SM 57 ($146)
(1) Electro-Voice N/D 468 ($278)
(2) Sennheiser E604 ($249 each)
(2) Sennheiser MD 421 II ($485 each)
(1) Royer R-121 ($995)
(1) Crown CM 700 ($289)
(2) Oktava MK 012 ($499.99 each)
(2) Neumann KM 184 ($1,458 for matched pair)
(1) Neumann TLM 103 ($995)
(1) Lawson L47MP ($1,995)

No big surprises here, except that a beefier budget has allowed some expansion and different flavors in the dynamic-mic department. The beyerdynamic TG-X 50 sees a lot of duty at my studio when more attack and definition is needed from a kick drum, and it is also a favorite for rock bass-guitar tracks.

On electric guitar, I constantly pair the Royer R-121 ribbon mic with a Sennheiser MD 421. Sometimes I use both tracks in a mix, but more often than not, the warm personality of the Royer wins the guitarist's favor. The R-121 (or its British counterpart, the $1,195 Coles 4038 ribbon mic) is also excellent for acoustic bass, cello, brass instruments, hand drums, and a variety of other sources.

I've already covered the other mics listed here. The only change is the Crown CM 700, which is slated for hihats in this comprehensive cabinet.

No Compromises Midline ($9,000)

Bt Brian Knave

(1) Electro-Voice N/D 868 ($338)
(1) beyerdynamic TG-X 50 ($249)
(1) Electro-Voice N/D 468 ($278)
(4) AKG C 418 ($329 each)
(1) Sennheiser MD 421 II ($485)
(1) Royer R-121 ($995) (1) Crown CM 700 ($289)
(2) Earthworks SR77 ($1,300 for matched pair)
(2) MicroTech Gefell M300 ($495 each)
(1) AKG C 414 B/ULS ($1,258)
(1) Lawson L47MP ($1,995)

For this cabinet, I'm still using the N/D 868 and N/D 468 for kick and snare, respectively, but I've switched to AKG C 418 miniature condensers for the toms. These great-sounding little units come complete with convenient clips that clamp onto the rims of the drums for quick and easy setup. For hi-hat, I picked the Crown CM 700 - not only because of its low price and great sound, but also because it offers a 2-position low-cut switch; with most hi-hats, I typically engage them both.

Like Boisen, I chose both the Sennheiser MD 421 II dynamic and the Royer R-121 ribbon for miking electric-guitar amps. I also love the Royer on horns and percussion, and I find it indispensable for recording violin and any other potentially "scratchy" sources.

The Earthworks SR77 and the MicroTech Gefell M300 are my choices for small-diaphragm condensers in this category. Having both pairs really expands the sonic palette, as the two models, though both very accurate, have quite different "attitudes."

I took the same approach in the large-diaphragm department, going for maximum flexibility and range of sound by using both the multipattern, solid-state AKG C 414 and the multipattern Lawson L47MP tube mic.

If you don't mind spending a few extra dollars, a different multipattern tube microphone that would fill this cabinet out nicely is the CAD VX2 ($2,249). This smooth, gorgeous-sounding mic employs two tubes and provides three polar patterns (cardioid, omni, and figure-8) and two interchangeable capsules: the OS 125 (1.25-inch diameter), which has a big, warm sound; and the brighter-sounding OS 110 (1.1-inch). The VX2 also provides an 80 Hz low-cut filter and two attenuation pads.

No Compromises Deluxe (no price limit)

By Myles Boisen

(1) Sennheiser E602 ($319)
(1) beyerdynamic TG-X 50 ($249)
(1) Shure SM 57 ($146)
(2) Sennheiser E604 ($249 each)
(1) Electro-Voice N/D 468 ($278)
(1) Sennheiser MD 421 II ($485)
(1) Electro-Voice RE20 ($748)
(1) AEA R44CX ($2,795)
(1) DPA 4011 ($2,190)
(2) Earthworks QTC1 ($2,000 for matched pair)
(2) Neumann KM 140 ($2,650 for SKM stereo set) with AK 20 ($975), AK 30 ($775), AK 31 ($975), and AK 43 ($775) capsules (two each, with accessories included)
(1) Neumann U 87 AI/SET Z ($3,200)
(1) BLUE Bottle Mic ($4,500) with B0, B1, B2, B3, B4, B5, B6, and B7 capsules ($750 each, except for B4 at $1,500)

Oops, I got carried away on this one. But I can use all these mics - really! The only drum-mic change is the addition of the RE20, a large-diaphragm dynamic equally at home with kick drum, floor tom, trombone, electric guitar, or bass cabinet.

The R44CX is a replica of the famed RCA 44BX, the "Big Daddy" of ribbon mics. Formerly made by Bruel & Kjaer, the 4011 cardioid small-diaphragm condenser will handle an SPL of 158 dB. That ought to work as a hi-hat mic!

Earthworks offers several amazing mics that look like surgical implements and sound closer to reality than any transducers I've heard. The QTC1 is an omnidirectional condenser available as a matched stereo pair with high-end response out to 40 kHz.

The KM 140 set features compact microphone bodies with interchangeable small-diaphragm capsules to cover every imaginable recording task. I needed a stereo pair of these, but I showed restraint by picking only five of the seven available capsule types. With the BLUE Bottle tube mic, I'm afraid I had to go for a full set of all eight interchangeable capsules - everything from large-diaphragm vocal capsules to the Perspex Sphere omnidirectional.

A few other last-minute "impulse items" that I just couldn't live without for my No Compromises deluxe cabinet would include a Lawson L47MP ($1,995); a vintage Neumann U 47, the one with the long body and chrome top (about $8,000 used); a Manley Reference Stereo Gold mic ($8,000); and a Fentone high-impedance crystal mic ($100 to $200 used).

No Compromises Deluxe (no price limit)

By Brian Knave

(1) Electro-Voice N/D 868 ($338)
(1) beyerdynamic TG-X 50 ($249)
(1) Electro-Voice N/D 468 ($278)
(3) Sennheiser MD 421 II ($485 each)
(1) Electro-Voice RE20 ($748)
(1) Sennheiser MD 441 II ($895)
(1) AEA R44CX ($2,795)
(1) DPA 4011 ($2,190)
(2) DPA 4007 ($1,400 each)
(2) Schoeps CMC 5 ($645) with MK 21 ($680) and MK 6 ($1,475) capsules
(1) Neumann U 87 AI/SET Z ($3,200)
(1) BLUE Bottle Mic ($4,500) with B0, B1, B2, B3, B4, B5, B6, and B7 capsules ($750 each, except for B4 at $1,500)

Talk about a dream cabinet! Interestingly, it was mostly in the deluxe realms such as this one that Myles Boisen and I selected many of the same mics. We both adore the BLUE Bottle Mic - it's quite simply the most beautiful-sounding microphone I've ever recorded with - as well as the stunning R44CX ribbon mic. Also, we both picked the DPA 4011 cardioid for hi-hat. Actually, a pair of 4011s would be nice, but I chose the 4007 omnis for my first pair of small-diaphragm condensers, both for variety's sake and because I love single-point omnis on acoustic guitars, drum overheads, and the like.

For the other pair of small-diaphragm condensers, I'm going for the stellar Schoeps modular system - in this case the CMC 5 mic body (amp) and just two capsules: the warm-sounding MK 21 subcardioid and the MK 6, which offers switchable polar patterns (omni, cardioid, and figure-8).

Ordinarily I would stop there, but like Boisen, I will take the liberty of indulging some of my fancies, too. Among the other microphones I would want for my dream studio are a matched pair of Earthworks QTC1 omnidirectional mics ($2,000) and SR77 cardioid mics ($1,300); a Lawson L47MP ($1,995); a MicroTech Gefell UM 900 tube mic ($3,500); a Neumann M 149 tube mic ($4,850); a vintage Neumann U 47 (about $8,000); a Neumann RSM 191 A-S mid-side stereo mic ($4,550); an AKG C 12 (about $5,000 used); an AKG C 426B stereo mic ($3,395); a pair of Schoeps BLM 3 boundary-mic capsules ($960 each) with CMC 5 amp bodies ($645 each); a Schoeps KFM 6 Stereo Sphere ($6,735); a pair of Royer R-121 ribbon mics ($995 each); a Coles 4038 ribbon mic ($1,195); a vintage Shure 707A crystal mic ($175 to $200); a whole bag of Shure SM 57s . . . but I'd better stop now before I get carried away!

Cabinet Closed

In writing this story, we had to leave out many great mics - a problem you'll have once you start putting together your own cabinet. Clearly, the transducer market is beset with an embarrassment of riches. We hope we've given you a head start in figuring out your budget, your applications, and your microphone needs.

Although the Basic Coverage cabinet would obviously work for any Bare Bones application, we have tailored it specifically for bands seeking to record and release their own records using minimal gear. To that end, it contains just enough mics (five dynamics and three condensers) to allow full miking of a 5-piece drum kit - yet not for recording the whole band at once. In other words, overdubs are required. But if you don't mind building your songs instrument by instrument, the Basic Coverage cabinet should serve your needs.

We have a large-diaphragm dynamic for the kick drum, four other dynamics for close-miking the snare and up to three toms, and a pair of small-diaphragm condensers for overheads. That leaves one large-diaphragm condenser for use either as an ambient room mic or on hi-hats.

With all the mics positioned on the drums, you can then use DIs to record bass, keys, and dummy electric-guitar tracks - thereby laying down the basic tracks for a song or an album in one pass. Playing the core instruments together gives a lively, natural feel, and having everyone but the drummer use DIs helps isolate the drums, keeping those tracks pristine. Once the drum tracks are nailed, the other basic instruments can be retracked if necessary - at which point you'll have several cool mics at your disposal. After that, you can lay down the acoustic instruments, vocals, sweetening tracks, and so on.

If you've ever done any work in major recording studios, you know that the microphone cabinets tend to be first-rate - and typically, they're huge. Indeed, a big selection of mouth-watering microphones can be a main attraction for producers, engineers, and artists alike.

For an idea of what it takes to compete at this level, we could trot out any number of major studios' mic collections. But one thing you'd discover - especially with long-standing, established facilities - is that many of the mics they use are "vintage," which is to say, you couldn't just go to your local audio store and purchase one of them. This is less likely to be the case, however, with new studios.

Starstruck Studios (www .starstruckstudios.com), owned by country singer Reba McEntire, is one of Nashville's premier new recording facilities. Designed by Harris, Grant & Associates' studio-design team, Starstruck opened for business in 1996. In addition to its acoustics and design, it is noted for housing two studios with mirror-image control rooms, each equipped with identical gear.

So which mics would you buy for a world-class recording studio? You might want to strap on your drool bucket before perusing this stately list:

(1) AKG C 12
(2) AKG C 12 VR
(4) AKG C 414 B/TL II
(8) AKG C 414 B/ULS
(4) AKG C 3000
(12) AKG C 460B/CK 91
(4) AKG D 112
(12) AKG C 391 B
(2) AKG CK 93
(2) AKG C 24 (stereo)
(4) Audio-Technica AT4030
(4) Audio-Technica AT4050
(4) B & K 4007
(2) Coles 4038
(2) Electro-Voice RE20
(1) Neumann U 47 FET
(2) Neumann M 149
(3) Neumann M 269
(8) Neumann U 87
(4) Neumann TLM 170
(4) Neumann TLM 193
(8) Neumann KM 184
(1) Neumann SM 69 (stereo)
(12) Sennheiser MD 421
(12) Shure SM 57
(2) Sony C 800
(2) Sony C 800G
(2) Sanken CU-41
(2) Telefunken ELAM 251

The No Compromises cabinet is designed to accommodate virtually any recording task you could imagine, including tracking a large band all at once. In our estimation, such a feat requires a minimum of 16 microphones (nine dynamics and seven condensers): that should be enough to cover the drum set, the bass guitar, two electric guitars (or a single electric guitar if you want to double-mic), the stereo acoustic guitar or piano, and vocals.

The drum-set microphones consist of a large-diaphragm dynamic for the kick drum, five other dynamics for the snare drum and up to four toms, one small-diaphragm condenser for the hi-hats, and a matched pair of small-diaphragm condenser microphones for overheads. One large-diaphragm dynamic is also appropriated for the bass-guitar amp (to be used in conjunction with a DI track), and there are two dynamics - including one ribbon mic - for electric guitars.

In addition, a second matched pair of small-diaphragm condenser microphones can be used to stereo-mic an acoustic guitar, a piano, a percussion setup, or whatever. And you have a choice of large-diaphragm condensers (one solid-state and one tube mic) for vocals, room-miking, and miscellaneous sources.

Of course, these 16 microphones can be used in any number of other combinations. No matter how you use them, however, they will almost certainly allow you to record without compromises.

Making the commitment to record drums in your personal studio is a big step, and often it requires a significant increase in the number and types of microphones in your cabinet. Some manufacturers simplify this task by offering cost-effective mic kits specially designed to accommodate drum recording. Here are several packages currently available, most of which include a handy carrying case:

AKG offers the Drummer's Ultimate Package ($996), which consists of one cardioid D 112 dynamic mic for the bass drum and a pair of hypercardioid C 418 condenser mics for snare drum and toms.

Audio-Technica's KitPak ($500) has four custom-engineered cardioid dynamic mics: two for snare/tom and two for kick/tom. It also includes a heavy-duty carrying case and drum-miking instructions.

Audix has packaged its four D-series hypercardioid dynamic microphones and ADX-50 prepolarized condenser mic in four different drum packs. The DP1 ($931) consists of one D2 for the toms, one D4 for the bass drum, and one ADX-50 for use as an overhead or hi-hat mic. The DP2 ($1,177) gives you one D1 for the snare, hi-hat, or cymbals; two D2s for the toms; and a D4 for the bass drum. The DP3 ($1,755) is the full-size kit: you get one D1 for the snare, two D2s for the toms, one D4 for the bass drum, and two ADX-50s for overheads. Finally, the DP4 ($1,506) offers one D1, two D2s, and two D4s (for bass drum or floor tom). Each package ships in an aluminum flight case.

CAD is offering three complete packages with plastic carrying cases. The PDK3 ($249) includes two cardioid NDM10 dynamic mics for snare and toms, and one cardioid NDM11 dynamic mic for bass drum. The PDK5 ($449) gives you four NDM10s and one NDM11, whereas the PDK5C ($449) puts together two NDM10s, one NDM11, and two cardioid CM15 electret condensers. The CM15 is designed for use as an overhead, cymbal, hi-hat, or snare-drum microphone.

Sennheiser offers three drum packs. Each contains dynamic mics from the company's popular Evolution series and comes with a carrying case. The SET604A ($747.95) provides three cardioid E604s for snare drum and toms; the SET604B ($817.95) consists of two E604s and one cardioid E602 for bass drum. The SET604C ($1,066.95) gives you three E604s and one E602.

Shure recently unveiled its DMK57-52 Drum Mic Kit ($663), comprising three cardioid dynamic SM57 mics for snare drum and toms, one supercardioid dynamic Beta 52 for the bass drum, three A56D drum mounts, and a carrying case.

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