Big, rich, detailed sound from a surprisingly small package.
Former East German microphone manufacturer Microtech Gefell earned distinction not only for building classy, ultramodern, great-sounding microphones, but also for turning out some of the more weird-looking - and wonderful-looking - mics on the market. The conical grille assembly on the company's M 900, for example, resembles a Mercury space capsule, and the sculptural UM 900 (Cher's new favorite) could pass for a Brancusi.
By comparison, the Microtech Gefell M 930 looks pretty standard. "Same old, same old," I thought, upon seeing the photo of the mic on the sales brochure. But what wasn't clear from the picture was the diminutive dimensions of the M 930. Opening the attractive tongue-and-groove hardwood storage box, I found to my surprise, nestled in form-fitted black foam, the tiniest large-diaphragm microphone I had ever encountered. There should have been a note attached to the mic that said "Eat me," for I certainly felt as if I were in a scene from Alice's Adventures in Audioland. I held the little thing up to the light to check the size of the diaphragm. Sure enough, there was the 131/416-inch diaphragm, practically filling the compact wire-mesh grille head.
The M 930 is a side-address condenser mic with a fixed-cardioid polar pattern. Microtech also offers the identical-looking M 940, a supercardioid version. Both mics come in either a dark-bronze or satin-nickel finish, and both employ a new capsule design derived from the classic M7 (whose capsule was developed by Georg Neumann in 1932 and used in the CMV 4a, U 47, U 48, U 49, UM 57, and UM 70 microphones). The M 930's price and specifications suggest that it's slated to compete with the Neumann TLM 103, arguably the mic to beat in the personal-studio market. For that reason, I made sure to compare those two mics closely, in addition to the other tests I performed.
ATTENTION TO DETAILThe dark-bronze finish on the M 930 I tested was gorgeous - deep, lustrous, and a testament to the mic's exceptional quality of manufacture. Though the M 930's lines are nothing spectacular, everything about its build points to painstaking attention to detail. Even the heft of the mic feels perfect.
The address side of the diaphragm is indicated by the silk-screened model number and polar-pattern symbol; the MG logo is silk-screened on the opposite side. Supplied with the M 930 is a sturdy, plastic-lined, slide-fit swivel-mount finished to match the mic. Easy to maneuver, the mount holds the mic securely at any angle and does a fair job of reducing shock and rumble. However, the mic did pick up some sound when I rattled the stand, so I recommend a shock-mount for critical applications. An optional rubber-lined, doughnut-style shock-mount is available for the whopping price of $150.
INNER SELFThe M 930 is opened, with some difficulty, by unscrewing a left-threaded hex nut that secures the grille assembly to the body. The internal components appear as sturdy and well finished as the exterior ones (see Fig. 1). The electronics are contained on a tiny circular circuit board attached to the underside of a hard-plastic diaphragm mount by means of a single screw. The whole assembly floats on a rubberized plastic ring - the internal shock-mount - which is the only part of the capsule attached to the mic body. Small alignment pegs ensure that the capsule-mounting system, body, and grille are reassembled correctly and that the diaphragm faces the right way.
According to Microtech, the new transformerless electronics created specifically for the M 930 and M 940 include special impedance-converter circuitry that reduces the mic's noise floor to 7 dBA - that's quiet with a sotto voce q - while increasing maximum output levels to around 17 or 18 dBu - loud with a capital L. Add a maximum SPL rating of 142 dB, and you have the specs profile of a modern, professional-quality, and very versatile condenser microphone.
The frequency-response chart for the M 930 shows that the mic's response is more or less flat up to around 6 kHz, above which it rises quite sharply, peaking by +4 dB at 11 or 12 kHz - a response that suggests sparkle in the highs and some edge in the high mids. In addition, the mic's polar-pattern responses show excellent rear rejection and outstanding side rejection across all frequency ranges. This is largely because the null arc extends about 60 degrees to each side of the rear of the mic, rather than the usual 45 degrees. Indeed, the M 930's side rejection is so good that the M 940 supercardioid beats it only at the highest frequencies.
VOICE MY CONCERNSI tried the M 930 first as a vocal mic, by recording my contralto and a friend's deep singing voice. We sang a variety of songs with a wide range of tonal demands. I ran the M 930 through a couple of different preamps, including an upgraded (by Audio Upgrades) dbx 760X and the new XDR preamps in a Mackie 1202-VLZ Pro mixer. The signals from the two preamps sounded similar, though the Audio Upgrades-enhanced dbx circuitry added a little warmth.
I wasn't too impressed by any of the recordings, and in particular I didn't like the way the higher frequencies in my voice were handled. Sure, the M 930 was ultraquiet, clean, and transparent, had plenty of output, and captured a reasonable amount of "air." But the flavor of the high-end boost and the general top-end "cut" of the mic sounded like a Shure SM57 on steroids. Then again, my taste in vocal mics runs flat and warm, like British beer. If you need to cut through a dense rock mix with a male voice that is less than piercing, the M 930 could be just the ticket. But overall, it didn't strike me as the first mic to reach for when tracking vocals.
To get a more pleasing vocal response from the M 930, I varied my singing distance and angle in relation to the mic. For example, I increased bass response (via proximity effect) by getting closer to the mic. The resulting sound, however, was too boomy and lacked definition. The off-axis vocal sound wasn't too promising, either: there was considerable attenuation of the highs, and the overall sound was nasal.
WHERE IT SHINESInterestingly, the qualities that cause me to dislike a mic for vocals are often the same ones I appreciate in instrument mics. Therefore, I couldn't wait to try the M 930 in various instrument applications. Fortunately, an engineer friend, Tracy Collins, had an upcoming session at Mirror Image Studios with a Christian rock band called Crosscut. The session was booked in Studio B - the smaller of the two studios at Mirror Image - which is outfitted with a couple of ADAT XTs, Tannoy PBM 6.5 LM monitors, a Soundcraft Ghost 24/8/2 console, a Macintosh 7100/80 AV Power PC (loaded with umpteen sound applications), and lots of midquality outboard equipment. I felt comfortable with the gear and the general sound of the room.
Crosscut needed to add several instruments to an already busy set of instrumental and vocal recordings that were grafted to a core of MIDI tracks on Collins's old but beloved OpCode Vision. We worked on a gospel song called "Life Is a Glorious Thing." Collins doesn't like to spend a lot of time messing around with complex miking setups - an aficionado of the Shure SM57 and Rode NT2, he knows what he wants and how to get it. This being his session, my involvement was minimal: I served as chief mic-stand adjuster, mic-placement consultant, and extra pair of ears.
The session producer, Frederick, decided to record himself playing tambourine first. He had an expensive, really fine-sounding tambourine, and he played it very well. We positioned the M 930 and Collins's Rode NT2 2 feet 6 inches apart in the middle of Studio B's small, semilive (we call it half-dead) room. We put Frederick about two feet from the mics and directed each signal to a separate track through the Ghost's built-in mic preamps.
It was immediately clear on playback that the M 930 captured the tambourine much better than the Rode NT2. There was better high-frequency definition, more depth, and more of a general sense of presence and air. The jingles sparkled and the sound of Frederick's hand striking the head was particularly solid - deep and drumlike - leading us all to wonder how the M 930 would sound on toms, congas, and other hand drums. Needless to say, we kept the M 930 track.
Next, we set up to record guitarist Richie Cash's Strat through a Line 6 AX2-212 guitar amp/cab - an application for which Collins would usually use an SM57. To compare, we set up three mics. We experimented first with the M 930, moving it around the cab, only to find that it wasn't too picky about positioning. The M 930's final position was about six inches out from the left speaker. We put the SM 57 in a similar position in relation to the right speaker, and then positioned the Rode NT2 near the control-room window as a room mic.
We recorded a separate track for each mic with minimal compression and no EQ. Whoa! This time everyone was surprised - the M 930 absolutely smoked the SM57. The M 930 track had cut and presence (qualities typically associated with SM57s) in spades, along with a deep, beefy bottom end that gave Cash's guitar solo a richness and authority we loved. The M 930 would be worth keeping in a pro mic closet for this purpose alone - a condenser mic with all the benefits of an SM57, plus oomph.
After the Crosscut session, I went back to my studio and auditioned the M 930 on a big and sonorous bodhran. I played the instrument hard, to get as much rumbling low end as possible, about a foot in front of the mic with no compression. Whoa, again! The M 930 captured the bodhran beautifully, and it had no trouble with the SPL. I was especially impressed by how the mic captured the richness of the low-frequency resonance and the delightful harmonic ring from the beater hits. Considering its tiny size and particular response, I bet that the M 930 is a killer choice for close-miking toms.
BUT COMPARED WITH WHAT?As mentioned previously, I thought it important to compare the M 930 with the Neumann TLM 103. Thankfully, Michael Mills of Erehwon Studios in New York City was kind enough to loan me one. The mic was in pristine condition, with only two or three sessions under its belt.
I focused on vocals for the first comparison, recording myself flat through the same preamps I had used in the initial test. I did separate passes with the two mics, routing the signals to separate tracks of my Innovative Quality Software SAWPro digital audio workstation. In addition to singing, I also did some voice-over-style talking.
The TLM 103 was much kinder to my singing voice, giving a general smoothness and depth to the low mids not found in the M 930 tracks. For dialogue, however, the M 930 provided greater clarity than the TLM 103.
To test for sibilance, I recorded over-the-top renditions of the line "Sister Suzy's sewing socks for silly sailors." Here, the two mics performed about equally, no matter how much I lisped the esses. This result, in conjunction with the M 930's very low noise floor, suggests that the mic might be useful in broadcast applications. (Then again, the lack of depth in the lower mids might put off some dialogue recordists.) I also sensed that the M 930 would be a fine choice for Foley (sound effects), thanks to its exceptional clarity.
DUELING ACOUSTICSNext, I compared the two mics on acoustic guitar, again using the same signal path. I played a Goodall Grand Concert - finger style - with the mics aimed at the 12th fret from about two feet away in a live room. This time, the M 930 shone. The TLM 103 couldn't match the detail of the M 930, which also offered sweeter capture of the guitar's tone, better tonal balance across the strings, and, again, more level. Although the Goodall Grand Concert I played was not boomy (as dreadnoughts can be), I was left with the impression that the M 930 would handle boomy, problem guitars very well.
Clearly, the M 930 and TLM 103 have broadly similar responses. Each has a particularly low self-noise rating and a high SPL rating, their polar patterns are similar, and both are notable for their clarity and transparency, at least up to the lower kilohertz. The differences become noticeable in the mics' handling of the higher frequencies: whereas the TLM 103's presence boost starts at around 4 to 5 kHz and drops off at approximately 17 kHz, the M 930's upper bump starts a little higher on the frequency chart and ends sooner. I must also add that the character of the M 930's presence peak sounds - in comparison - a tad artificial, suggesting that it might be a function of the electronics rather than the construction of the capsule. (That characteristic "Neumann airiness" is said to be due to the way Neumann attaches the diaphragm to its housing, as opposed to any electronic filtering.)
Although they sound similar, the M 930 and TLM 103 are certainly not interchangeable. For one thing, the M 930 has far more output than the TLM 103. More important, though, are the sonic differences. The TLM 103's presence boost is much more flattering to most singing voices. In comparison, the higher presence boost of the M 930 can sound tinny, particularly on female voices and male falsettos. On the other hand, that same boost provides more detail, which is usually preferable for instrument recording.
Another sonic difference is that the M 930, though very rich in the lowest frequencies, lacks the TLM 103's depth in the lower mids. But even that characteristic can be useful. In multitrack recording, for example, it's often necessary to cut the low mids to restore clarity to a mix. Using the M 930 on select instruments could eliminate the need to mess with the EQ later.
SELECT STUNNERThe M 930 is a well-built, versatile, and great-sounding mic, a worthy addition to the Microtech Gefell range of microphones. At only $795, it's one of the better values out there in the large-diaphragm condenser market - excluding the half dozen or more Chinese-made knockoffs of recent years. But the M 930 is no knockoff: it's a true, hand-constructed German microphone, and the quality is first-rate.
Though not quite the all-singing, all-dancing, all-purpose microphone the manufacturer claims it is, the M 930 does sound stunning in many applications. This mic's ability to capture rich lows and detailed highs make it an ideal general instrument mic. I especially liked it on percussion, hand drums, acoustic guitars, and guitar cabinets. In addition, the M 930's diminutive size makes it easy to position in tight spaces - a real boon when miking drums. A viable option for many applications, the M 930 is a valuable addition to any mic cabinet.