Large-diaphragm condenser mics and compact digital amps? Natch.

I’m trying to make Eugene happy. He calls to tell me there are some mics at EQ Central. First come, first serve. I’ll be there soon, I tell him, my plans scuttled. I jump in the car and drive south, daydreaming about which mics. Of course, there must be a smorgasbord of very expensive, exotic things to choose from. ‘Choose wisely’ says my reverb-drenched inner voice.

I get there as soon as I can — but I’m late. They have come . . . and gone. Pieces of cardboard, bubble-wrap, packing peanuts, furniture overturned, nothing. Damn. No, wait; something has escaped the scavengers: two small Flying Mole digital amplifiers. “But where are the mics?” I dig deeper — only two left. One long and thin: a CAD GXL3000; one perfectly round: a BLUE 8-Ball. I gather up them up: the Laurel and Hardy of microphones.

Like Iron Chef — you find out what the secret ingredients are and then you begin. So off I go with the 8-Ball, the CAD, and the Flying Mole M100s. What can I make with that?

CAD stands for Conneaut Audio Devices and is located in Ohio. Is BLUE an acronym? Seems to be. At least I remember it being so. Like, Baltic, Latvian, UE, something, something. I don’t know — the microphones are manufactured in Latvia, though (below Estonia on the Baltic).

Both mics are large-diaphragm condensers; both need to be 48-volt phantom powered. And they couldn’t look more different: The CAD has the “vintage” look of the large-diaphragm mic of days gone by; the 8-Ball looks, well, like an 8-Ball. And I’ve never used either of them before.

The 8-Ball is a fixed-pattern cardioid; the CAD sports two diaphragms and will produce three patterns (omni, figure-8, cardioid). A –10dB pad and a low-end roll-off is switchable on the microphone and it comes with a suspension-type shockmount. There’s a problem with the 8-Ball’s mount. You get about 90 degrees and that’s it. So, combined with its size, some placement is impossible. You cannot sneak it in between a rack tom and a low hat. There’s a shockmount (the “Ringer”), which may give you more and greater angles — but that makes its footprint the size of a dinner plate. . . . But to be fair, the CAD mic is big, too.

First off: There is nothing more subjective than testing mics. Not just the effect of program, room, distance, humidity, proximity-effect, and so on, but the built-in bias that most folks have, myself included. No one wants to believe their $1,500 microphone sounds like shit. And no one wants to believe it could be out-done by a lower-cost model.

And both the GXL3000 and the 8-Ball are very low cost. The street price of both is under $200. So I thought it best to do a completely blind test. I knew I’d need a yardstick; a microphone I was familiar with (I used an AKG C414 TL-II as my control — also a large-diaphragm condenser and a mic I know well (or thought so). I set up the three mics in news conference fashion.

I recorded 45 minutes of the usual misery — piano (three feet away), spoken word (my 15-year-old reading from Ecce Homo — always a barrel of laughs), some acoustic guitar and singing, percussion, wooden flute, electric guitar, and a bit of drumming.

I won’t waste space explaining how I fooled myself; take my word for it — I had no idea which microphone was which until the end of the test. And I won’t waste space describing the nuance of each mic on every source. Generalizing: The CAD GXL3000 and the AKG C414 TL-II are very similar. So similar, in fact, I was sure one was the other during the listening trial. The CAD mic is a bit brighter and, I would have to say, a little more detailed sounding than my 414. I didn’t expect that. The AKG sounds a bit more “realistic.” The CAD sounds more “exciting.”

But hands down, I preferred the CAD over the AKG on the acoustic piano. I’ve seen the GXL3000 on sale for >$170 — that’s about seven times what I paid for the AKG in the early ’90s. The 8-Ball didn’t fare well on piano or spoken word; it had a scooped-out, nasal sound. Thin. But, on a close-miked acoustic guitar (a Taylor) I liked the 8-Ball over both the AKG and the CAD. I was so vexed by this outcome I made myself repeat the test a few days later, switching all the wiring and mic pre-amps around — and ended up with exactly the same result. The GXL3000 is an excellent microphone. The 8-Ball, while it didn’t work in some applications, still, in my opinion, beat the others on some close-miked sources. So much for my expectations.

Now I’ve read of 8-Ball use on kick drum. And now (because of the lack of low and low mids) I know why. So, anything frumpy-sounding, anything that proximity effect would hurt, this mic will help. And let me say this — part of the 8-Ball’s charm is its design — and, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s cool-looking; but think of its strength re: camouflage. Need to get right in there at a historical re-enactment? The 8-Ball looks as natural sitting next to field cannon as it does embedded in a broken mizzenmast. And, yes, I know: Star Wars conventions.

From the Latvians I would humbly suggest something smaller: the Golf-Ball! Yes. Something smaller would be great.

Flying Mole is a Japanese company manufacturing amps for the audiophile market. For all I know there’s an entire subset of Japanese society that likes, maybe worships, Flying Moles. Schoolgirls wearing Flying Mole backpacks, Flying Mole talking keychains. Trading cards.

They make the DAD-M100 digital amplifier. It is Mono: You may need/want two and they list for $349 each; not too bad. What a weird feeling to pick up an amplifier and notice the difference in weight with and without the power cord. Can be had with XLR or phono input with binding posts outputs or XLR in with Speakon connector out.

What can I say? I plugged them in, they sounded great.

Small: approx. 10" x 5" x 2". Light: 1.4 lbs. (not a typo); they go loud: 100 watts (8 Ohms). Didn’t get hot. How can you use them? Everything you would use any power amplifier for: monitors, headphone and monitor mixes, home theater, and so on. And for very short speaker-cable runs, you could Velcro the Moles to the back of your speakers.

Having one extra, small, high-quality amplifier lying around is essential. And it’s so nice not having to drag around a huge behemoth. . . .

So I wanted to dream up something where I could use both a Flying Mole amp and the two mics; this is it. Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, drummers would show up regularly with garbage, thrown-together kits. Cracked shells. Broken bottom heads. Strainers held on with paper clips, duct tape; snapped-off snares hanging down. There was a phase where punk-rock drummers were using those woven, coated, Kevlar (?) heads — horrible. Non-tunable, but impervious to beer and/or lighter fluid. You could stick pens, knives through the damn things, cut holes in them and still play; they sounded awful. I hated those heads. And so many other things can go wrong. Bad bleed on a bottom mic. A squeaky hat stand.

Anyway, post-basics, I’d occasionally do the following: I’d set up a snare (usually a Ludwig “Black Beauty” or the Rogers in the photo), strainer tight — on its side. Lean an Auratone (any small speaker would work) on the rim. Run the snare track from tape to an amp (the Flying Mole amp is perfect for this app) connected to the Auratone. Snare right off the tape would usually work with the highs cut off and an EQ’d low-mid bump. The snare track will “play” the snare drum. Helps to tune the drum head (that’s why you should always carry a drum key in your pocket) — which will make huge differences in the sound.

Kick, toms bleed “triggering” false hits? Then snare track first through a Valley People Dyna-mite (or whatever you can make work). Make a sub-mix of the kick and toms tracks, EQ the low mids up, highs down: this feed to “key” a hard limit with about 20dB or more gain reduction with the fastest attack and release — and this will virtually eliminate any kick or toms bleed on the snare track. In other words, the snare track is running through the limiter, but is not being limited at all. The kick and/or toms (or whatever) is triggering the limit through the external “key” input. It essentially shuts down the snare track when the kick and toms are hit. What if the drummer is hitting the kick and snare at the same time? Well, not only is he an idiot but it’s more work; you must manufacture and record a track to key the limiter. It sounds weird coming out of the speaker? It doesn’t matter. All you’re doing is making a noise to vibrate the drumhead.

Fiddle with mic placement and phase to come up with all kinds of nice (and not so nice) crispy snare sounds to mix back into the track.