Mic It Up! - EMusician

Mic It Up!

Three microphones. Three price ranges. Do you have to drop big bucks to get a great microphone?
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Three microphones. Three price ranges. Do you have to drop big bucks to get a great microphone?

It’s a mic lover’s world out there. I mean, how many hundred models are there available on the market today? All types of mics from all over the world, and at all price ranges. I’ve got a mic locker that’s stocked with a variety of different things; some, like my Soundelux U99 get used all the time. Others — and I’m not mentioning any names here — maybe should go up on eBay. But in reality, they’re all colors that I use to get particular effects, so I hang on to all of them because they’re all useful.

But right now I’m sitting in front of three large-diaphragm mics. They couldn’t be more different from one another: tube, solid-state, single-pattern, multiple-pattern, pad, no pad, from Germany, China, and at prices that span a wide range — one of them is 15 times as expensive as one of the others. But here’s what we’re talking about:

  • Audio-Technica AT2020 ($169 MSRP, $100 street)
  • Mojave Audio MA-200 ($995 MSRP)
  • Brauner Phantom V ($2,675 MSRP, $2,200 street)

No rational engineer would ever say that these three mics are competitors. They’re at far too different price points to make any kind of apples-to-apples comparisons. But that’s why I’m here, to set these mics up and give them a listen on a variety of sources to figure out: Is one really 15 times better than another? And can you get by without spending a wad of cash for a large-diaphragm condenser?

I cocooned in to give these mics a once over. My new studio (am I ever gonna settle in one place for long?) features a nice, quiet, acoustically controlled iso booth that’s perfect for really focusing in on the sound of a source with a microphone. For today’s sessions I’ll be hitting the diaphragms with male vocals, steel- and nylon-string acoustic guitar, and a couple of screaming guitar amps.

THE BASICS

The AT2020 is finished in matte black, and has a look, heft, and “feel” that’s reminiscent of my AT4040s and AT4050, though it has the same squared-off top and grille style as the AT3035 and AT3060. The mic comes with a soft carrying pouch and a pivoting standmount, which threads onto the bottom of the mic for security. The AT2020 fills out the Audio-Technica line with an amazingly affordable side-address large-diaphragm mic that’s aimed at general-purpose use in home and project studios. But there’s no reason it can’t be used in pro studios, too.

The MA-200 resembles a U 87 in appearance, with a matte black body and silver grille. It’s a heavy mic, and screws onto the included spider-style shockmount. Other accessories include a hard case for the mic, a power supply, 7-pin mic cable, and a larger hard case that holds the mic (in its case) and all its accessories. The mic was designed by David Royer of Royer Labs ribbon mic fame, and is manufactured in China using components specified by Royer. In fact, Mojave ships some components (such as the Jensen transformers and tubes) to China for the assembly. A 24-hour burn-in and all quality-control checking is done in the U.S.

The Phantom V is brother to the Brauner Phantom C, which is a cardioid-only version. It’s finished in satin nickel, and includes a 10dB pad and a polar-pattern selection switch on its body. The Phantom V is surprisingly solid and heavy, and snaps firmly into its unique “C”-shaped shock mount. Also included is a hard case that holds the mic mounted in its shock mount. Dirk Brauner designed and builds the Phantoms in Germany; the intent was to make a lower-cost, flexible large-diaphragm mic based on the capsule in the VM-1 mic that could be used both for vocal and instrument miking applications.

IN USE

The first application most engineers think of for large-diaphragm mics is vocals. All three of our contenders excel in this application. The AT2020 offers a nice, round tone with good dynamic response. The mic doesn’t suffer from the “over-hyped top” syndrome that many moderately priced mics seem to be afflicted with. The top is open and contained, with good detail, but without excess fizz or harsh screech.

The MA-200 has a wonderfully fat, chewy midrange, with full, tight bottom (Eaasssy. . . . —Editor). It also has natural-sounding top-end. If you’ve heard a tube ’47 or one of several clones on the market, the MA-200’s mids and lows will immediately sound familiar to you; to my ears it’s a bit more open on the top end. True story: My wife heard tracks I’d recorded of my voice from upstairs and thought that I was singing live — the MA-200 can sound very natural.

The Phantom V loves vocals. In cardioid mode it has full bottom end, and a present, punchy midrange that really makes vocals pop. The top end is airy and detailed. The dynamics are outstanding. The Brauner mics don’t attempt to copy “vintage” mic sounds; they proudly sport a tonality all their own that works very well. Vocals tracked with the Phantom V have a nice presence that sits well in mixes, with excellent intelligibility.

All three mics did well on steel-string and nylon-string acoustic guitars; any one of them was great for tracking. The AT2020 has natural midrange and good dynamics. Its restrained low end kept boominess under control when the mic was too close to the soundhole; excellent for seating a strummed steel-string part in a rock mix. The MA-200 sounded fat and rich, with round bottom end and natural highs. It had wonderful presence without sounding strident. The Phantom had extended low end and exciting detail on top; you could really hear fingers on the strings. It benefited from being placed slightly farther back than the other two mics. I especially liked the Phantom in figure-8 pattern for steel-string where it had fatter bottom. For classical guitar I preferred the omni pattern with its more balanced bottom end and lack of proximity effect.

On electric guitar, the Brauner had thick bottom end and lots of clean top; this worked particularly well on cleaner tones. The MA-200 picked up midrange crunch like crazy, and captured nice low-end thump. There was no annoying fizziness in its top end. The AT2020 delivered round midrange, without excess bottom; its tone sat well in a dense mix without EQ.

The shockmounts for the MA-200 and Phantom V worked very well. The Phantom’s shockmount was especially easy to position with its long, easy-to-grab adjustment lever. The AT2020’s pivot mount was more difficult to get into certain positions; I had trouble hanging the mic upside-down for vocals, for example. The Brauner snaps into its mount quite tightly. The AT2020 and MA-200 both screw into their mounts for extra security. The AT2020 can also use the optional AT8458 shockmount.

All three mics have low self-noise — even on quiet sources like classical guitar, none of them had noise problems. The pad on the Phantom allows it to stand up to ridiculously loud sources, but all three mics handled high volumes well.

WHICH ONE?

The obvious answer to “which of these mics should I buy?” is: All of them! Each of these mics has a unique tonality and is valuable for that fact alone. Beyond that, it really depends on what you’re after. If you want an affordable mic that will work on a wide variety of sources, the AT2020 is hard to beat. It sounds great, is quiet, and, sheesh, at that price, go out and buy a pile of them. Not that you’ll want anything to happen to them, but for a “pro” studio, if they get beat up by errant drum sticks, you won’t be out a bundle. For a home or project studio, this is a great mic to get you started. Good for vocals and instruments, if you can only afford one decent condenser mic, the AT2020 should be a contender for you.

At its $1,000 price point, the MA-200 is simply amazing. You’ll immediately recognize the debt it owes to the tube ’47 — if you’re after that fat, punchy, chewy ’47 tonality with a more open top end, the MA-200 will do it for you. Some mic snobs might be put off by this mic’s Chinese manufacture. Forget about it. The MA-200 rocks no matter where it was made. For a grand, it’s a stupid-good deal. In fact, the MA-200 has become one of my favorite microphones.

And even though the Brauner comes in quite a bit more expensive than the other two mics, it offers multiple polar patterns, a 10dB pad, and an open, full, rich tonality that’s especially flattering to vocals. It also excels on acoustic instruments. If your budget allows you to step up, then the Brauner mics are superior transducers that offer a complementary sound to many of the old standards.

Taken in context, all three of these mics are excellent sounding instruments, and are each great values at their respective price points. If you’re waiting for me to declare one the winner, you’ll be disappointed. All three do what they are intended to do at their price point. Does the AT2020 compete directly with the Phantom V, for example? Yes and no. I’m not going to tell you there’s no difference in the response of a $170 mic and a $2,700 mic — of course there is. The extra money for the Brauner is well worth the detail, dynamic response, and richness. But that doesn’t mean that the AT2020 isn’t a fine microphone, offering a sound all its own that’s equally valid in the right applications — even in a mega-studio.

As for me, I can only afford one of these right now, and what my studio needs is best met by the MA-200. And that’s the only way to choose a mic, regardless of whether the price is rock bottom or sky high: buy what you need and what sounds good.