“Innovative” and “microphone” are words that are not used together often, so it’s news when a manufacturer creates a microphone that’s different from the pack. The AT5040 from Audio-Technica fits that description, employing four rectangular diaphragms (each two microns thick) functioning as one very large membrane. One of the tradeoffs of microphone capsule design is that smaller diaphragms tend to have better transient response and increased self-noise. By electronically summing the output of the four diaphragms, Audio-Technica has developed a cardioid capsule with the transient response of a small diaphragm but the low noise level (5dB) of a large diaphragm—one of the lowest-noise mics on the market.
The AT5040 is an electret condenser requiring 48-volt phantom power. Maximum SPL for 1% distortion is 142dB, yielding a dynamic range of 137dB. While the AT5040 was designed with vocal recording in mind, it can also be used for acoustic instruments. Unlike many contemporary condenser mics intended for vocal use, the AT5040 does not possess a “presence peak”; its frequency response falls within a few dB of flat from below 40Hz out to 20kHz.
Audio-Technica ships the AT5040 in a hard plastic case with a very-well-designed AT8480 shock mount and an individual frequency response printout. The AT5040 is assembled by hand and features a five-year warranty.
Hands On When I connected the AT5040 to a Grace 201 microphone preamp (an extremely quiet and transparent preamp), my first reaction was, is this thing working? It’s that quiet. Suffice to say, any noise you may hear through the AT5040 is not coming from the microphone. My first recording with the AT5040 was a steel-string acoustic guitar. “Realistic” doesn’t do the AT5040 justice. The snap of fingers on strings was reproduced with uncanny accuracy and when the player listened back, he commented that the recording sounded very close to what he heard while playing.
I used the AT5040 through a Vintech X73 preamp and a DeMaria Labs ADL1000 compressor to record several male vocalists. First up was a singer with a whispery voice, similar to John Mayer. The AT5040 captured all the airy, soft phrases without letting them get lost. With another vocalist whom I’d describe as more of a hard-rock screamer, the AT5040 was just as effective at handling the opposite extreme. When that singer moved close and got loud, the mic did not sound like it was running out of headroom.
The AT5040 has a gentle proximity effect. This is not a microphone that will produce a bloated lower midrange when the vocalist gets close. At a distance of around four inches, there’s this sweet spot where the mic sounds amazing: immediate, articulate, and realistically in-your-face, without sounding artificial or EQ’d—a refreshing contrast to mics that simply sound like you’ve turned up the equalizer. It sounds like the vocalist is getting closer to you, rather than getting closer to the microphone. Low-frequency response is extended enough that you’ll need a highpass filter, either in the preamp or mixer/DAW. The shock mount is effective at isolating the AT5040 from most mechanically-transmitted noise, but I found that some did work its way through the mic stand.
Audio-Technica has clearly achieved their goal of creating a first-class vocal/instrument microphone. The AT5040 somehow maintains accuracy while adding just the right amount of enhancement to vocals. Its ability to produce stunning realism sets it apart from the pack, and even if you can’t afford it, you really should make a point of hearing it.
Steve La Cerra is an independent audio engineer based in New York. In addition to being an Electronic Musician contributor, he mixes front-of-house for Blue Öyster Cult and teaches audio at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry campus.
Strengths Accurate, transparent sound; extremely quiet operation.
Limitations Hot output may overload some preamp inputs (no pad).