The days when premium-quality, large-diaphragm condenser microphones cost a fortune are long gone. Indeed, low- and midpriced condensers now seem to be popping out of the woodwork. Nearly every mic manufacturer on the block has a budget offering, the competition is fierce, and prices continue to plummet.
But what has all this mass-market mic-manufacturing madness really brought us? Some exceptional gear, to be sure, but a lot of mediocrity as well. I'm all for lots of choices, but with so many mics out there, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish the really great mics from the so-so units.
Well, stand back-a guiding light may be shooting our way. CAD-a company that helped fuel the personal-studio condenser market in the mid 1980s with mics such as the Equitek E100-has introduced the VSM (formerly called the VSM 1), a large-diaphragm tube microphone that could turn out to be a benchmark for years to come. The VSM employs CAD's patented Optema capsule, which has a superthin (3-micron), 1.1-inch diaphragm and utilizes a special combination of tube and FET circuitry dubbed "servo-valve technology." Inside, a hand-selected and "burned-in" 12AX7 tube handles the input duties while a solid-state differential amp covers the output. The VSM is assembled and manufactured entirely (all the way down to the screws, I'm told) at CAD's plant in Conneaut, Ohio. Considering the VSM's quality, its $1,299 sticker price is quite reasonable.
THE LOOK AND FEELThe VSM is not a particularly photogenic microphone, thanks to a silver-gray complexion and matte black trim that don't translate well to pictures. However, in person it's a good-looking, impressive unit. The mic is beautifully shaped and seems to me the perfect size-just big enough to look important, but not so large as to be overbearing or make the mic stand tip over.
The mic has a fixed-cardioid polar pattern but otherwise is full featured, providing both an 80 Hz highpass filter and an attenuation pad. The pad offers three settings: off, -8 dB, and -16 dB. You access both filter and pad via two small, clearly marked toggle switches located in an oval "window" on the front of the microphone. You get a lockable custom flight case made of a sturdy black plastic. CAD includes a well-designed and effective shock-mount (matte black to match the trim on the mic), an external power supply, and a 30-foot, 7-pin cable. The VSM can pretty much live in the shock-mount because the flight case is designed to cradle the mic and mount as a single unit-very convenient for setup.
The VSM1PS power supply is housed in a small, ruggedly built metal box. The cable is high-quality Gotham with gold-plated Neutrik connectors. The power supply takes a standard IEC Type II cable and is manually switchable between 117 and 220 VAC, which is convenient for those traveling abroad. A 160 A "Slow Blow" fuse is located on the rear of the power supply.
TECH TALKFor a tube mic, the VSM is marvelously quiet. The signal-to-noise ratio is a very respectable 79 dB, ranking the mic near the top of its class. And the specs definitely support what I heard-or didn't hear, as the case may be.
The frequency response, rated at 10 Hz to 20 kHz, is also impressive. The VSM has a flat-sounding midrange, from about 200 Hz to 1.5 kHz. Below 200 Hz, the response rolls off smoothly, making for a mellow bottom end. At around 5 kHz there's a tiny presence bump, while a dip of perhaps 2 dB around 8 kHz seems to smooth out sibilance. The response rises smoothly again above 10 kHz, giving the mic a sweet clarity without it sounding contrived or overly "excited." Every VSM comes with its own frequency-response chart-helpful if you ever want to pick up a second mic for a stereo pair, as you can compare the charts to find a good match.
Bass-boosting from the proximity effect on the VSM is quite moderate (not nearly as pronounced as that on most Neumann large-diaphragm mics, for example), kicking in at about four inches away from the capsule.
WHOLE LOTTA MIKINGI recorded with the VSM at several studios ranging from a beautifully constructed million-dollar facility to a home setup in a friend's living room. I listened to the mic (and tracks recorded with it) through a variety of monitors, including Genelec 1031s, Hafler TRM8s, and Tannoy PBM8 LMs. One constant point of reference was my trusty Sony MDR-V6 headphones.
I also compared the VSM with a number of other microphones, including a vintage Neumann U 87, a Neumann TLM 103, an AKG C 414 EB, an AKG C 12 VR, an Audio-Technica AT4050, and CAD's premium, large-diaphragm tube condenser, the VX2.
Impressively, the VSM held its own against all the microphones, including the prestigious, high-end models. It sounded distinct from the Neumann U 87, presenting a crisper, cleaner image without sounding cold or lacking in body. The U 87, in comparison, could be described as sounding warmer and fatter but also a bit muddier.
The AKG C 12 sounded edgier and more sibilant than the VSM, with a more pronounced low-midrange tube quality. The VSM, in contrast, sounded smoother and flatter without being wimpy, even though its low mids weren't as big.
The CAD VX2 was an interesting case. This mic, which employs twin tubes and twin humbucking transformers, comes stock with a 1.25-inch capsule (the OS-125) but also works with the OS-110, the same 1.1-inch cap on the VSM. I expected the two mics to sound pretty much the same when the VX2 was fitted with the OS-110 cap. Boy, was I wrong. The VX2 had a much more heavy-handed tube quality, its dual-tube technology punching through the OS-110 capsule to create a rounder, heftier sound. In comparison, the VSM was airier, lighter, and a bit less present. The VSM sounded even less robust and up-front-its low end particularly diminutive-when compared with the VX2 fitted with the OS-125 cap.
Compared with the other three mics-the TLM 103, C 414, and AT4050-the VSM consistently captured a truer-to-life sonic image while still sounding pleasantly distinctive. In contrast, the TLM 103 sounded sibilant; the C 414, lacking in body; and the AT4050, significantly smaller. Certainly, each of these mics has characteristics that might be complementary to particular instruments in various situations; overall, though, the VSM sounded better to my ears.
As is true of all tube mics, the VSM needs to warm up in order to perform optimally. But after working with the mic extensively, I realized that it required more warm-up time than other tube mics I've used-a good 15 to 20 minutes rather than the usual 5 or 10. Before the mic has warmed up sufficiently, the sound is thinner and not as lifelike. But after 15 minutes or so, the tube stabilizes, the electronics get warm and cozy, and the VSM's true colors begin to show. Only then do you get the smoothness, full body, and translucent highs that distinguish this microphone.
BANG A GONGThis isn't the mic I'd normally grab for drums, but, for the sake of this review, I gave it a shot. First, I positioned it on a snare drum about six or seven inches from the head at a 45-degree angle with the 8 dB pad on. The sound was decent-very open, jazzy, and natural, capturing the warm tone of the wood shell nicely. The transient of the stick hit was rather laid-back, though, so I wouldn't choose this mic if I wanted an aggressive, snappy quality.
I also tried the VSM on kick drum, this time with the 16 dB pad engaged. The mic captured a clean sound with a nice image of the skin, but there wasn't enough low end for my taste. Then again, I like a really phat kick.
The VSM sounded cool as a drum overhead: the cymbals were sweet, bright, and airy; the toms cut through without sounding harsh; and the room sound was well portrayed, with a realistic sense of space. I would bet that a stereo pair of VSM overheads would sound fresh.
The VSM did an amazing job of capturing the distinctive personalities of a variety of percussion instruments. It represented the percussive swoosh of shakers, the slap and pop of congas, and the distinctive dry-husk flavor of a South American bean pod beautifully, without any harshness or biting transients. I love the way this mic's high end is rounded and smooth but doesn't sacrifice clarity. It's a very refined sound.
PICK, PLUCK, AND TWANGThe VSM is hands down one of the best mics I've heard on nylon-string acoustic guitar. Positioned about four inches out from and a bit below the sound hole, and angled slightly toward the bridge, the mic sounded fantastic, with glossy, even transients and a sensuous, warm presence. Positioning the mic was remarkably easy. With other mics, I've worked for what seemed hours trying to find that perfect placement where the mix between body and strings was just right. With the VSM, though, I nailed the spot on the first try. Incredible.
I got similar results miking a steel-string guitar. Again, the microphone was a breeze to position, and it captured a great sound: full-bodied but not domineering, with a translucent quality to the strings. For an edgier, more midrangy and aggressive sound, I'd probably look for a different mic-the VSM is just too polite.
On an old Fender blond combo amp, the VSM presented a very true-to-life image. On this particular track, though, we needed a more nasal, "in-your-face" quality-something to roughen up the already saccharine sound of the amp. An old, banged-up Shure SM57 proved just what the producer ordered, which just goes to show that no one mic-even one as slick as the VSM-can be all things to all tracks.
VOCAL PURRINGSAs a vocal mic, the VSM is the cat's meow. I auditioned it on several vocalists, and it always sounded solid, regardless of the singer's gender. On male vocals, the VSM tended to smooth out the voice, with only a slight bit of tube coloration in the low mids, making for a clear, unencumbered sound. The mic was most complementary to male singers with an edgy, nasal tone that needed taming. If more body was desired, it was simply a matter of moving the singer in closer to the mic to capitalize on the VSM's mellow proximity effect.
On female vocals, the VSM performed superbly, creating a round, silky, very present sound with a nice balance of air and punch. The mic was always a candidate for female lead vocals, and it proved exquisite on background vocals as well. In addition, it handled sibilance beautifully, capturing the kind of track that needs little or no de-essing at mixdown.
Naturally, despite praise from everybody who heard the mic, it didn't get picked for every vocal track. But this says more about the huge variety of human voices (not to mention the artistic license provided by a well-stocked mic cabinet) than it does about any shortcoming on the VSM's part. In general, especially given situations where a closet full of mics isn't available, the VSM will fit the bill for vocals most every time.
ITS OWN THINGCAD often gets pigeonholed as a maker of low-end mics best suited for grassroots, hip-hop, and home productions. Pardon the pun, but that's a bum rap. Though it's true the company's innovative designs and low prices helped spearhead the personal-studio market for microphones, CAD has also demonstrated its high-end capabilities with the VX2, a truly first-rate transducer. At $2,249, though, the VX2 is too expensive for many personal-studio budgets.
That's where the VSM comes into play. Bringing much of the VX2's technology and appeal into an affordable price range, the VSM sits poised to be a classic. This mic is distinctive both for its smooth, clean, translucent sound and for its all-around flexibility. I especially like that it doesn't try to copy the sound of classic Neumann and AKG mics. Instead, the VSM has its own sound and stands on its own merits. If you're shopping for an affordable large-diaphragm tube condenser mic, the VSM is a shoo-in.
Erik Hawkins is a musician-producer working in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit his Web site at www.erikhawkins.com for more equipment chitchat and tips on what's hot for the personal studio.