Audio-Technica — long known in sound-engineer circles as a manufacturer of midrange to high-end transducer products, including microphones and headphones — used the latest annual Audio Engineering Society trade show in San Francisco to draw the curtain on a rare endeavor for the company: an inexpensive, side-address cardioid condenser studio microphone. That gem is the new AT2020, which, judging by the price, is aimed at project and budding home studios. But given the horizonlike frequency-response chart, this puppy may be aimed at more experienced studios, as well. Who couldn't use an extra studio condenser or, at this price, several?
The AT2020's low-mass diaphragm features a fixed cardioid polar pattern that translates a very wide frequency response (20 Hz to 20 kHz), especially considering the price. It has a max SPL rating of 144 dB, a dynamic range of 124 dB and a signal-to-noise ratio of 74 dB (1 kHz at 1 Pa). The mic requires standard 48V phantom power and operates with an impedance of 100 ohms. The body has no switches (such as those for multiple patterns or a low-cut filter), but the live side of the mic is clearly identifiable to anyone holding the mic. The 2020 has all the look and feel of an Audio-Technica mic: speckled black paint on a typical A-T cylindrical-shape chassis, with A-T's logo and the model number in silver just below the black grille. The package includes a screw-on, elbow-jointed and ⅝-inch threaded mic-stand mount, which, though not a full-blown spider-style shock, is still sturdy and well-made-enough to do the trick while not taking up extra space. Also included is a padded zip-up carrying bag and a ⅝-inch-to-⅜-inch thread-stand adapter.
My tests with the AT2020 included recording and monitoring tenor male vocals as well as a semihollowbody vintage Kay guitar, strung with steel flat-wound strings, played through a Fender Vibro Champ amp; small and large wind chimes; a single medium-size djembe drum; and outdoor ambience captured in a lightly wooded area populated by a variety of birds. I compared the 2020 to a couple of other lower-priced condenser microphones I had on hand, including an M-Audio Solaris and an MXL 1000. I also threw a higher-end, well-known studio standard, an AKG C 4000, into the mix for good measure. I ran the mics through a MindPrint En-Voice tube channel strip with all EQ and compression disengaged and recorded into Apple Logic Pro 7 via digital I/O directly from the MindPrint. All tracks were recorded at 24-bit, 44.1kHz. For all of the tests (except the outdoor ambience), I positioned each microphone's grille 90 degrees (straight on) to the sound source, 10 inches away. In all instances, I used the 2020 as the basis for comparison: I set a good gain stage for the 2020 and then recorded all four mics at the same preamp level, regardless of results.
GETTING THE BUZZ
Throughout the testing, I found the stand mount to be strong and fairly easy to position, though I did wish I had on hand a better variety of short and tall boom stands. I first recorded guitar, and the 2020 sounded great on the Fender. The recording was up-front in the speakers, and the tone was quite warm. The guitar's natural decay and dynamics translated well, and the mic easily (for better or worse) picked up the buzz from a mild grounding issue from the single coil pickup. Nothing in the frequencies seemed missing or overly boosted, and although it felt fairly full in the lower-mid range, that was a quality of the guitar's tone.
Upon comparing the recordings of the different mics, however, the 2020 recording contained the least pronounced bottom end. Although the downside to this may be obvious, the upside is that I found myself most partial to the recordings done with the 2020 and the most expensive of the mics, the AKG. What the 2020 lacks in bass translation, it makes up for in clarity. The one noticeable fact in comparing the mics, however, is that the 2020 produced the quietest signal out of the bunch, and this is important to note because the recording parameters were attended to with strict control. I didn't feel like I had to push my preamp too hard, yet there were definitely a few dBs of difference between the 2020 recording and the others, especially from the AKG.
The particular vocalist I was working with has a tenor voice, and I found the 2020 quite favorable on his vocal chords; I also found similar results as with the guitar tests. The warmth and clarity were once again present, and even though I didn't feel like anything was overly robust and sibilance was minimal, I would have liked to hear more bottom end. Once again, the much-pricier AKG clearly translated a fuller overall sound and was the loudest of the bunch, but in this test, the Audio-Technica's volume fared better, outperforming both the M-Audio and the MXL, and it sounded better than both. The 2020 was more up-front in the speakers and more “live” than the other two, and although its recording didn't boast the bass response of the AKG's, it also didn't possess the nasally tone that the AKG recording had.
The two sets of wind chimes I tested with are quite different; the tubes of both appear to be made of aluminum, but the low-toned chimes are large, hollow and struck by a piece of oak whereas the higher-pitched ones are several octaves up with smaller, solid tubes struck by a small solid-aluminum ball. The larger of the two is quite a bit louder, with long sustain like Tibetan singing bowls. The smaller, higher ones are very delicate and brittle-sounding, and this became quite apparent in the tests. The low chimes as captured by the 2020 were crystalline but not harsh. The attacks were strong without overkill, and sustain translated well. The sensitivity of the AKG was a bit much in this scenario, as there was too much background noise. The M-Audio sounded similar but was just a bit dull by comparison, and the MXL was a tad muddy. The 2020 did not introduce much self-noise, if any, and didn't put much room sound into the recording (in this case, where it wasn't desired). For this test, I clearly rated the 2020 as my favorite of the bunch.
As a diversion from all of the other tests, I did not reset the preamp gain when I switched over to the high chimes; instead, I kept it right where it was to test the microphones' sensitivity with a very quiet sound source. Although each mic still imparted its signature sonic color, in this test, that color was the least pronounced. Here, too, the 2020 translated the tone of the chimes well, though it was, again, the quietest of the lot. The chimes sounded bright and a tad harsh (their natural sound, not a product of the mic), yet the 2020 lacked some shimmer that the other mics translated.
Next, to test the opposite end of the SPL spectrum, I set up each mic directly underneath the sound hole of a medium-size, low-tuned djembe drum. The djembe has a great quality for testing mics; because it's similar to a dumbek, it achieves a deep, resonating low tone from the middle of the skin but transmits a much higher pitch when struck around the perimeter. There, the 2020's sensitivity and bottom-end limitations really presented themselves. It was clearly the quietest and least boomy of the crop. What was a good preamp level for the 2020 drove both the AKG and the MXL recordings into clipping, and the M-Audio recording was a few dBs louder, as well. Although the 2020's recording still sounded clear and warm and the mic took the sound pressure well, the 2020 transmitted by far the least bass to the recording, yet the high mids that this particular djembe exudes came through beautifully nice and clear, and depending on the eventual mix situation, this could be a nice benefit.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
The area surrounding my Northern California-based home studio is strewn with tall pine, redwood and oak trees that are happily populated by a variety of different birds. I am also situated on a hill right off a major highway, and from an outdoor balcony, I can hear the constant hum of highway traffic mixed with the sound of chirping birds of several species. I set up a boom on the balcony for the mics to capture this sonic recipe of natural and mechanical life. I had mixed feelings about the 2020's ambient recording of this outdoor area; the recording was again very natural-sounding and loud enough without excessive preamplification. It also possessed the least noise of the mics (coming in almost identical with the Solaris). Yet I wasn't convinced that was an entirely good thing, because rather than just displaying the 2020's low self-noise (which I believe it indeed has), the results might also point to its lack of sensitivity. Both the AKG and the MXL mic contained much more “noise” (or simply the sound of airflow — I deliberately abstained from using a windscreen), yet the sound of the birds from both was comparatively more up-front and strong than that of the 2020. However, although the 2020 is not a shotgun specifically designed for ambient miking, the recording was still good nonetheless, and if I was going to commit one of these recordings to something commercial, I might very well pick the 2020 over the others because of its comparatively quiet nature.
GETS GOOD GRADES
Audio-Technica has created something quite good for budget-minded project studios with its AT2020. It was crisp, clear and warm-sounding on everything I threw at it. The mic never sounded distorted, handled high SPLs without a problem, picked up quiet sources and seemed to possess a very low self-noise. It did especially well with lower-midrange to middle-high frequencies, which makes it a good choice for vocals; guitar; and likely for woodwind instruments, such as alto sax. On the other hand, it is not the most sensitive of studio condenser microphones that I've used — even among low-priced ones — and the bass response is not especially strong. It may not be the ideal choice for baritone voices, bass or other low-frequency sources unless you specifically want to capture those things without any tubbiness or muddiness.
The rock-bottom pricing may also make the 2020 an attractive piece for recordists who are just getting into recording live drums; although not currently available in matched pairs, a pair of 2020s will run just higher than $300 and will work quite well as some modest overheads or room mics. Regardless, as a versatile addition to the mic locker or to start off your collection, the AT2020 gets a high GPA on this report card, especially considering its flat, un-embellished response on a variety of sources and its impressive anyone-can-afford-it price point.
AT2020 > $169
Pros: Good sound for a great price. Wide, flat frequency response. Low self-noise. Quality construction. Great on basics such as vocals and guitar.
Cons: Lacks robust bass response. Not especially sensitive.