Not long ago, M-Audio introduced its first large-diaphragm microphone, the Luna (see Fig. 1), a condenser with a classic lollipop-shaped capsule. Several weeks after releasing the Luna, M-Audio brought out the Solaris (see Fig. 2), a nearly identical microphone that adds three selectable polar patterns, a switchable -10 dB pad, and a highpass filter.
M-Audio recommends both microphones for use on vocals, guitar, piano, and other acoustic instruments, and for stereo recording. Naturally, I was curious to see how such affordable microphones (both are priced under $350) would hold up in professional applications.
THE SUN AND THE MOON
Weighing a substantial 1.4 pounds each, the Solaris and the Luna are built like tanks and feature sturdy machined-metal housing and Class-A FET electronics. In both microphones, the 1.1-inch evaporated-gold diaphragm sits inside a 3-inch brass capsule, and the open-weave grille is internally reinforced with a fine mesh screen. The XLR connector is recessed under the base of the body. The Luna has a black finish; the Solaris is a matte silver.
To identify the cardioid address side of the Solaris, the M-Audio logo is etched in black into the silver housing along with the model name. Below that are switches for the -10 dB pad and the bass rolloff. The rolloff slopes below 125 Hz at 6 dB per octave. A three-position switch on the back of the Solaris allows you to select the pickup pattern: omnidirectional, cardioid, or figure-8. The Luna simply bears the logo and model name in white on the address side.
I received a pair of the Solaris microphones and two pairs of the Lunas, which enabled me to check M-Audio's claim that the frequency responses of the microphones fall within ±1 dB of one another. Each microphone comes in an aluminum carrying case with rounded edges, textured sides, reinforced corners, and a lock, and each is accompanied by an SM-4 shockmount in a separate cardboard box. I was pleased to discover that the shockmounts are made completely of metal rather than plastic. Either microphone can be screwed securely into the mount at the base of the suspended four-posted basket.
The SM-4 allows for a single-axis, 180-degree vertical rotation on a hinge with a smallish, angular metal knob that adjusts and holds the mic in position. The device is hard on the fingers, and it is difficult, though not necessarily impossible, to clamp it down enough to prevent the microphone from drooping.
Although the all-metal mount seems quite hearty, the elastic band on one of the mounts broke at the seam soon after setup when subjected to stress from an unintentionally pulled cable, and the microphone it had been holding dropped to the floor. It may have been a defect in that particular piece of webbing, but it alarmed me. It's a testament to the durability of the Solaris that the only damage it sustained was a slight ding on the edge of the grille, and more importantly, the microphone's operation wasn't affected. Misgivings about the SM-4 notwithstanding, the entire apparatus, mic and mount, looks solid and has class-act appeal.
I used the Solaris and Luna microphones to track male and female vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, and cello; as overheads and stereo room mics (in an XY-coincident setup) to record drums; and as close-mics on kick drum and floor tom. In addition, I put the mics through controlled loudspeaker tests to check consistency and features and conducted an A/B comparison with two popular midpriced large-diaphragm condensers, the Blue Dragonfly and the AKG C 3000 B. While the comparison microphones are both pricier than the M-Audio mics, this test helped me evaluate the sound quality of the review microphones.
Steve Orlando, a fellow engineer and instructor at Ex'pression Center for New Media, helped me out with testing during several sessions with his band, the Jingle Punx. We put the microphones through a Studer D950S console and a Digidesign Control|24. I also performed several tests using an FMR RNP8380 Really Nice Preamp at Guerrilla Recording with Myles Boisen, and at my own studio through an Allen & Heath WZ16:2DX. I recorded the results to Digidesign Pro Tools (at 24-bit, 44.1 kHz resolution); to 16-track, 1-inch analog tape; to 20-bit ADAT; and to CD-R.
Both M-Audio mic models performed well on male and female vocals for punk, funk, and jazz. The subtle high-end edge of the microphones enhanced the grit of the male punk-anthem vocals and lent some pop to the male funk vocals. However, the Solaris and the Luna both emphasized an undesired raspy quality in the smoky voice of a female jazz singer.
The highs of the Solaris weren't quite as smooth as those of the Dragonfly and the C 3000 B, but the overall sound was clean and clear. The Solaris was especially nice on a soft-spoken female vocalist reading text, because it provided good definition on a quiet, smooth voice without emphasizing sibilance.
Drums and stereo
The mics provided significant definition to the cymbal crashes and hi-hat when used as overheads, although the emphasis in the high end sounded a little harsh at times. While the mics weren't the most flattering on bass drum, they sounded absolutely fantastic on the floor tom, capturing the rich tone of the drum and the crisp attack of the sticks on the head.
I set up two Solaris mics as an XY stereo pair (using the cardioid pattern setting on both) in the drum room during a session, to capture the overall sound of the kit. The large size of the lollipop grille prevented me from getting the capsules as close together as I usually prefer, and it took some time to overcome the drooping shockmount. But once they were set up, the mics performed well.
The cardioid pattern of the Solaris is fairly wide, so it picked up a good deal of the room, which worked quite well for the sound of the kit. The snare and the hi-hat sounded a little bright, but the attack on the kick drum was well defined, and the low end was beefy and well represented. With its multiple patterns, the Solaris would be an excellent microphone to try in middle-side and Blumlein-array stereo-miking configurations.
Guitars and strings
The Solaris really shone on classical guitar, capturing the instrument's rich tone with plenty of depth and definition. It actually sounded better than the mics from Blue and AKG for this application during the comparison tests. And while it offered slightly less sparkle than the Dragonfly on a steel-string guitar, the Solaris still picked up plenty of tone and pick sound. Placed in front of the amp of a distorted electric guitar, the Luna picked up the full, chunky tone and plenty of grit.
The Luna's high-end edge was a bit harsh on acoustic cello. However, the overall tone was good and definitely usable.
IN THE LAB
To closely check out the features and consistency between the microphones, I set up a controlled loudspeaker test in my studio, placing all six M-Audio mics in a tight cluster about six feet in front of a speaker system. Most of the microphones sounded very similar, but one of the Solaris and one of the Luna mics exhibited an audible difference in high and midrange response. However, these two microphones were similar in response to each other.
When switched to omnidirectional, the Solaris had an even pickup around the microphone, and the sound was open and clear. The figure-8 pattern setting offered good off-axis rejection and gave a similar response on either side of the capsule. The cardioid pattern is fairly open, and I didn't notice a lot of proximity effect when the microphone was close to a source. The low-cut filter was subtle yet effective, as was the 10 dB pad.
I'm impressed with the full sound and good definition of the Solaris and the Luna. Although I could hear a bit of an edge in the high-end response that sounded a bit harsh in some instances, the overall performance of these microphones is solid and clean. The Solaris in particular is quite versatile, with its three patterns, the pad, and the low-cut switch. The Solaris and Luna are attractive options for budget-conscious project studios and for engineers looking to expand their mic palettes without draining their resources.
Karen Stackpoleteaches sound arts at the Ex'pression Center for New Media and operates Stray Dog Recording Services. Special thanks to Steve Orlando, Myles Boisen, and Ann Dentel.
Luna and Solaris Specifications ElementcondenserPolar PatternLuna: cardioid; Solaris: cardioid, omnidirectional, figure-8 (selectable)Frequency Response20 Hz-20 kHzOutput Impedance200žSelf-Noise14 dBAMaximum Input Sound Level130 dB (@ 0.5% THD)Highpass Filter (Solaris only)-6 dB @ 125 Hz (switchable)Attenuation Pad (Solaris only)-10 dB (switchable)Power Requirements48V phantom powerAccessoriesSM-4 shockmount, aluminum caseDimensions3.00" (W) × 8.25" (L) 5 2.00" (D)Weight1.4 lb.
QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.0VALUE5.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Solid build. Overall sound is clean and clear. Comes with sturdy, lockable case and metal shockmount. Price. Solaris offers three polar patterns, highpass filter, and pad.
CONS: Shockmount is difficult to clamp down and position. Slightly edgy in high-end response.
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