There's no mistaking the sound of a good tube microphone. Though typically not as accurate or transparent sounding as solid-state models, tube mics tend to have one thing going for them that their transistor-based cousins don't: character.
The new Rode NTV tube condenser microphone is modeled after a vintage tube-mic design that connects the lead wire to the edge of the capsule rather than to its center, an approach said to improve both transient and low-frequency responses. I used the NTV to record a variety of instruments during a two-month test period and was quite impressed. Here's the scoop.
STUDIO READYThe NTV is a true condenser mic with a fixed cardioid polar pattern, making it a good candidate for vocals, acoustic guitars, and other close-miked sources. The mic provides no filters or attenuation pads. The only embellishment on its stainless-steel body is a brass dot beneath the grille to indicate the front of the capsule. The NTV contains a hand-selected ECC81 twin-triode tube and, as a result, runs slightly warm to the touch. Solidly built and quite hefty, this mic warrants use of your beefiest mic stand.
The accompanying power supply is beefy, too. It connects to the NTV via a 30-foot multipin cable (described as "double-shielded, oxygen-free copper, multicore cable") that screws into the base of the mic chassis. The multipin jack, XLR output jack, and IEC power-cord jack are all on the rear panel of the power supply, which also provides a ground-lift switch and a compartment for the fuse. A cool-looking blue LED that slowly lights up as the tube rises to full voltage distinguishes the front of the power supply.
The mic, power supply, and accessories come in a quality aluminum flight case that is well padded with foam and provides a fitted compartment for each component. Accessories include a standard mic clip and a birdcage-style shock-mount. The shock-mount, which suspends the NTV from the power connector rather than from the mic body, works beautifully. This is an exceptionally nice package for the money.
CHARACTER WITNESSThe NTV features an aggressive sound with a distinctly vintage vibe. It imparted some attitude-in the positive sense-to just about everything I miked with it. It's a quiet mic, too, and capable of handling fairly high SPLs (130 dB max), so it readily accommodates parts that range from a whisper to a roar.
One interesting quality: the NTV's timbre changes slightly as the source gets louder-not unlike the way a guitar preamp works. The tone is milder at low levels and acquires a more aggressive coloration with added SPL. I loved this personality trait.
The NTV proved especially well suited to recording vocals, thanks both to the aforementioned qualities and to a very detailed sound that picks up all sorts of nuances in a voice. It's not a "pure" sound by any means, but practically every vocalist I had use the NTV sounded good with it.
Positioned directly on-axis to the source, the NTV exhibits a huge bottom end and a silky top end. However, this position tends to exaggerate sibilance on vocalists. I got the best results by angling the mic 25 degrees off-axis to the singer's mouth, which provided a milder tone better suited to pop applications. (A pop screen positioned to keep the singer back from the mic also helped.) On the other hand, the sibilance doesn't sound harsh, and for certain tracks-say, an aggressive rock mix-the extra presence helps the voice cut through without the aid of equalization.
BACKFIELD IN MOTIONFor a cardioid mic, the NTV's rear rejection performs less effectively than several cardioid condensers in my collection. I first noticed this when cutting a rough vocal with playback in the control room over close-field monitors. The singer was standing about eight feet from the monitors (which were pushing about 70 dB) and off to one side, directly facing the speakers. I've tracked roughs this way quite a bit with other mics and have never experienced the amount of bleed I got with the NTV.
Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on the application. In this case, I actually liked hearing more of the room than usual because it added some life to the dance track I was working on. The openness of this mic's polar pattern would probably make the NTV a great choice for a compressed room mic on drums in lieu of having a good omnidirectional microphone.
NEXT IN LINEAny mic will sound different when used with different preamps. The NTV, however, seems particularly chameleon-like in this regard. It fares quite well with moderately priced solid-state units, providing plenty of meat and sauce to make up for the blandness of generic preamps. The NTV can even make inexpensive mixer preamps sound pretty good.
When coupled with high-end solid-state preamps-for example, Neve or API-the NTV sounds absolutely spectacular. It also becomes more sensitive to mic placement.
I also auditioned the NTV through a tube preamp: the En-Voice MindPrint tube-based preamp/EQ/compressor, which I was reviewing at the time. The MindPrint is a wonderful box capable of adding its own special sauce to a signal. However, the combination of the NTV and the MindPrint proved a bit over-the-top in terms of tube coloration. Specifically, it created a fuzziness in the top end and a dip in the midrange that just didn't work for my tastes. Hey, sometimes more is just too much.
LOS OTROSOn acoustic guitar, the NTV once again imparted a characteristically aggressive sound. Using a Mackie console preamp and an Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor (a compressor and tape-saturation emulator), I got a killer fat tone that would be great for rock or pop. In fact, it sounded kind of Beatles-y. I actually wrote myself a note to remember that particular setup for the future.
I also created a great electric-guitar tone by using the NTV to mic a close-field monitor playing back a track recorded earlier from the direct output of a Boss GT-5 (employing the internal amp/cabinet simulator and an external guitar preamp). I thought I liked the guitar tone before, but miking the speaker gave it some air, which the NTV is more than capable of capturing with style. The in-your-face nature of the NTV made the guitar track roar. Sometimes more really is more.
CASE CLOSEDIf you're looking for accuracy and transparency alone, the Rode NTV is not the mic for the job. But if you want character and attitude, the aggressive personality of the NTV delivers them in spades. I love the way the sound gets more aggressive as the source gets louder.
Despite its signature sound, the NTV is extremely versatile, proving useful in a variety of applications. As long as you don't mind auditioning the NTV to make sure it's appropriate for the task at hand, you won't be disappointed having it in your collection. And you can't complain about the price, either, especially given the wealth of accessories.
Producer and songwriter Rob Shrock is musical director for Burt Bacharach. He has recorded and performed with Elvis Costello, Dionne Warwick, LeAnn Rimes, Mikaila, Wynonna, David Foster, George Duke, Cyndi Lauper, and a host of other artists.