Budget Mics, Big Sound

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

Photo: Bob Montesclaros

Decades ago, large-diaphragm condenser mics (LDCs) were the Holy Grail of gear acquisition and usually cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to several grand. Prized for their round, smooth attack, these mics sound great when recording voices, acoustic guitar, and bowed string instruments, or when used as room mics (see the sidebar “The Right Response”). This can be partially attributed to the large-diaphragm condenser's transient response, which is slower than the small-diaphragm condenser's. (For a technical overview of large-diaphragm condenser mics, see “Supersize My Mic,” by EM contributor Michael Cooper, at mixguides.com.)

LDCs have become something of a commodity in recent years, ranging in price from the $10,000 Neumann Solution D digital mic at the high end all the way down to sturdy and functional LDCs costing less than $100. Because we like a good bargain as much as anyone, we looked at four popular mics with a street price of just under a C-note: the Behringer B-1, the M-Audio Nova, the MXL 2006, and the Sterling Audio ST51.

All of the mics are single-pattern (cardioid), side-address condensers with 1-inch gold-sputtered Mylar diaphragms, and they require 48V phantom power to drive their internal FET preamps. Two of the mics tested here include shockmounts in their packages.

The goal of this roundup is not to provide a thorough review of each mic, but to investigate just how much — or how little — LDC you get for a hundred bucks. My hope was to gauge whether a project studio owner would be better off adding a few low-priced LDCs for specific tasks or investing in one versatile, high-priced mic that could cover every situation.

In the Studio

To begin, I set up a typical vocal session, recording both a male and a female singer. Because I had two of each model of microphone, I also used them in pairs to record an acoustic guitar, using a close-mic-and-room-mic arrangement as well as a sound-hole-and-neck configuration. The recordings gave me a good idea of the overall character of each model.

Purely as a reference point, and not to unfairly compare the sound quality, I also recorded the same sources with a couple of more expensive LDCs from my own closet: an AKG 414-BLS and a Studio Projects C3. I've used these mics on lots of projects, so I have a good idea of how much deviation from their performance I can accept from a new mic before it becomes unusable to me.

Behringer B-1

The Behringer B-1 ($99.99) has been around for several years, and I've used this model in demo situations before this roundup. Off the bat, one advantage the B-1 has is that it comes with the most complete set of accessories of the four mics covered here. You get a sturdy road-style case with metal corners and deep foam padding, a large foam windscreen, and a true spider-band shockmount. The mic slides easily into the mount when you squeeze the attached metal tension bands, and the mic stays put once it's in there.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 1: The Behringer B-1 offers the most extras of this group, including a pad/bass rolloff switch, a large windscreen, and a shockmount.

The B-1 is also the only mic in this group with a switch to engage either a bass rolloff (6 dB per octave at 75 Hz) or a -10 dB pad, standard features on higher-priced LDCs (see Fig. 1). You can engage only one or the other on the B-1 — a single slider switch moves left for the bass cut or right for the pad. The B-1, at 6.8 inches, is the shortest of the mics I looked at.

Sonically, the B-1 has a pronounced and audible high-frequency boost that begins to rise at 5 kHz and reaches 5 dB at 10 kHz. This boost was acceptable on the recordings I made with a male baritone whose round tones were offset nicely by the boost. However, a female vocalist with a bright upper-register tone brought out the worst in the B-1, and I quickly retired it from her session.

Recording my mahogany Martin D-18, the B-1's boost gave some life to the guitar's slight midrange boxiness. With the other B-1 set up about two feet away, I liked the character the mics imparted to my semidead control room. The B-1 also sounded good on small wooden percussion instruments like claves, but it sounded strident on anything metallic, like cymbals or triangle. But overall, the B-1 worked for me as a brightener of overly dark or muted sound sources.

M-Audio Nova

M-Audio's Nova ($99.99) is the only microphone here that comes with a mic cable, albeit a short (7 feet) and somewhat flimsy one. The mic is packaged in a cardboard box, with a vinyl pouch and a mic clip with a threaded ring that screws onto the mic stand.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 2: The M-Audio Nova''s sound stood out as comparable to that of higher-priced large-diaphragm condensers.

Despite the spartan package, the Nova is one of the most versatile mics of the four that I tested. Right out of the box it had a rich tone quality that belies its price. The Nova has Class A electronics and exhibited low self-noise. Like all cardioid condensers, it was subject to the proximity effect, in which low frequencies build up as a sound source gets closer to the mic. But the Nova retained its richness and consistency better than the other mics in this group as the singers moved off-axis (see Fig. 2).

My recordings confirmed my initial impression of the Nova. The female vocalist sounded great on it, and the baritone seemed to get richer without turning into a “bass” through increased low frequencies.

My guitar recordings also sounded good, although they leaned toward a mellow roundness rather than a sizzling shimmer. If I had needed a steel-string solo to really burn, I might have chosen a brighter mic. But on singer-songwriter accompaniment, the Nova made a great impression. When using a pair of them on the Martin, I preferred a sound-hole-and-neck arrangement, with added digital reverb, rather than using one Nova as a room mic. My control room was just too dead for a mellow mic like this one. In overall sound quality, however, the Nova stands out in the roundup.

MXL 2006

The MXL 2006 ($99.95) comes nestled in a black plastic case with adequate foam padding, and it includes a nice shockmount with an extra elastic (see Fig. 3). The mount is a bit sturdier than the one that comes with the Behringer and is somewhat easier to use because the metal tension arms are a bit bigger, giving you more leverage with which to squeeze the holder open and slide the mic in. The case also includes a soft cloth for keeping the screen free of moisture. (MXL offers an optional stand-mounted pop filter, the PF-001, for $24.95.)

This Class A FET condenser has a pronounced rise across its frequency-response graph, reaching up to 10 dB at about 9 kHz. The mic's graph suggested that the MXL 2006 might have very good off-axis response. And in operation, the mic exhibited good uniformity at a distance of about eight inches and within about 30 degrees left or right of center. I felt that the mic could be a good choice for small vocal group recording. At closer distances, though, the proximity effect required individual singers to maintain their center position as well as their distance.

That said, the MXL 2006 was clearly a winner in terms of sound quality for the buck. The steady rise in output at upper frequencies sounded pleasing when my baritone stretched out on some Michael McDonald-style soul riffs. Male vocals had punch and presence without any of the honkiness I feared might come through, based on a first listen to the mic.

The female singer came across well, too, though I preferred the sound of the Nova for her voice. Instead of highlighting this singer's occasionally strident sound at the top of her chest voice, as some mics do, the 2006 flattened out those frequencies and simply sounded crisp rather than coarse.

I liked the 2006 on my Martin as well. The mic's high-end boost seemed to bring out some buried ambience in my studio when placed about two and a half feet back from the guitar and paired with the other 2006, which was about six inches away and angled toward the sound hole.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 4: The Sterling Audio ST51 sounded very good on vocals, acoustic guitar, and percussion. It didn''t add undue color to the recorded sound.

The Sterling ST51 ($99.99) is the best-looking mic I examined in the roundup — its sleek black housing and screen are offset by silver trim (see Fig. 4). The mic comes with only a pouch and a screw-on mount similar to the one that comes with the Nova. And like the Nova, the out-of-the-box sound quality of the ST51 indicates that the value of the product may be all in the mic and not in the accessories.

Of these four mics, the ST51 came closest to having the natural sound of a more expensive large-diaphragm condenser, and it maintained its transparent and clear sound working with all the recording applications I set up. On my male vocal recordings, this Class A FET condenser added very little color to the natural sound of the singer's voice, letting the baritone's rich low notes fill up the track without creating any problematic honk or bass buildup in any part of his range. Similarly, my female vocalist was held in check by the ST51's flat frequency response in the high end, and she could wail without her upper register turning into a tinny screech during loud passages on rock tunes.

I also liked the ST51 on my acoustic guitar, finding several mic positions that resulted in usable recordings. The ST51 reminded me of why studio owners audition multiple mics, especially when they need a single mic to cover lots of ground. Although not perfect, the ST51 handled basic recording tasks in a workmanlike fashion and sounded good on anything I used it on.

All of this testing left me with a few clear impressions. The Sterling Audio ST51 and M-Audio Nova showed the most versatility and the most consistent high-quality sound in the most applications. Close behind was the MXL 2006, which includes a good shockmount in the deal. For specialized recording tasks, the Behringer B-1's pad or bass rolloff, not to mention its accessories, would come in handy.

I also feel that the budding studio owner who wants a large-diaphragm mic that records everything equally well will have to spend more than $100. However, inexpensive LDCs make it possible to obtain several mics for specialized situations, such as choosing one that best suits a particular vocalist, even if it is less than optimal for other studio tasks. And having a collection of low-cost mics allows you to record more musicians and different types of instruments simultaneously.

But with so many mics available at tempting prices, it's important to audition the ones you are considering on as many different sound sources as possible. The low prices make it easy for anyone who doesn't have a large-diaphragm condenser to get one, and those who do will generally see improvements in the sound quality of their recordings.

Rusty Cutchin is a producer, engineer, and music journalist in the New York City area. Michael Cooper owns Michael Cooper Recording (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording).

Budget Large-Diaphragm Condenser Features Compared Model Behringer B-1 M-Audio Nova MXL 2006 Sterling Audio ST51

Diaphragm 1" 1" 1" 1" Polar Pattern cardioid cardioid cardioid cardioid Pad -10 dB none none none Rolloff 6 dB/octave @ 75 Hz none none none Frequency Response 20 Hz-20 kHz 20 Hz-18 kHz 30 Hz-20 kHz 20 Hz-18 kHz Maximum SPL 138 dB (0 dB), 148 dB (-10 dB) 128 dB 130 dB 134 dB Size 6.8" (L) × 2.28" (D) 7.3" (L) × 1.9" (D) 7.5" (L) × 1.96" (D) 7.5" (L) × 1.8" (D) Weight 1 lb. 1.5 lbs. 1.3 lbs. 1.1 lbs. Price $99.99 $99.99 $99.95 $99.99

Manufacturer Contacts Behringer
behringer.com M-Audio
m-audio.com MXL Audio
mxlmics.com Sterling Audio