Mics of Many Colors

It's no secret that cardioid microphones are preferred for the vast majority of studio recording applications, particularly when tracking instrumental
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It's no secret that cardioid microphones are preferred for the vast majority of studio recording applications, particularly when tracking instrumental and vocal soloists. But recording becomes a lot more interesting if you have a variety of pickup patterns at your fingertips, including omnidirectional and figure-8, especially when it comes to drums, orchestral instruments, amplifiers, and vocal groups. Fortunately for recordists on a tight budget, there are multipurpose mics on the market that offer three or more polar patterns, letting you maximize the timbral palette of your mic closet with a minimum outlay of cash.

The seven microphones in this roundup are solid-state, side-address, large-diaphragm, multipattern condensers within a price range of $599 to $1,080. The mics were compared in a number of everyday recording situations — such as on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, and drums — so I could learn their strengths and weaknesses and figure out where they would excel. The results should allow you to determine whether a particular microphone is right for you.

What's in a Pattern?

Each of the three main polar patterns — cardioid, omnidirectional, and figure-8 — has advantages and disadvantages, and it's useful when a mic allows you to easily overcome a recording problem at the flick of a switch. By their nature, directional mics, such as the cardioid, capture the sound in front and reject sound in their null points. It's the mic to choose when you don't want a lot of room sound in your recording. However, an inherent problem in some directional mics is sonic coloration as a sound source moves off-axis.

Directional microphones also give you the proximity effect, which is a boost in bass frequencies as the mic gets closer to the sound source. This can be used to your advantage in some applications, such as vocal recording, but it can be a problem when you're tracking instruments that have a complex lower midrange.

Figure-8 and omnidirectional mics capture the room ambience that cardioid mics reject, often resulting in a more lifelike recording. When used with a cardioid mic, these mics open up a new world of timbres. One common technique is to position a cardioid mic close to a sound source and use an omni or figure-8 mic farther away as a room mic. Another technique is to combine a cardioid or omni mic in a coincident pair with a figure-8 mic for mid-side (M-S) stereo recording. (See the article “Front and Center” about M-S miking techniques in the March 2006 issue online at www.emusician.com.)

On its own, a figure-8, or bidirectional, microphone can be used to record two instruments or vocalists at a time: the front of the mic is pointed at one person, while the other person is positioned directly behind the mic, at 180 degrees. Bidirectional mics offer superior rejection of sounds arriving at the sides of the mic (90 degrees and 270 degrees).

As the name suggests, omnidirectional mics pick up sound from all sides, producing a unique sonic signature and capturing the maximum amount of room ambience. And because there is little or no proximity effect, omni mics are an interesting alternative for close-miking instruments such as acoustic guitar and bass drum.

Except where noted in the table, all of the mics in this article offer at least cardioid, omnidirectional, and figure-8 patterns. The switches for the polar patterns and other features, such as attenuation pads and bass rolloff filters, are located on the mics themselves rather than on a separate box. The mics require 48V phantom power and are designed for studio and live recording.

ADK A-51TL

The ADK A-51TL has a conventional cylindrical shape and silver satin finish. A 4-position pattern switch (omnidirectional, cardioid, hypercardioid, and figure-8) is located on the rear-address side of the body (see Fig. 1). The A-51TL was designed for use as an orchestral recording mic, and there are no bass rolloff or pad controls.

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FIG. 1: Designed for orchestral recording, the ADK A-51TL offers four patterns—omnidirectional, cardioid, hypercardioid, and figure-8—but has no pad or rolloff switches.

The A-51TL kit comes in a latching briefcase, with a thick foam windscreen and a shockmount. The shockmount is the ubiquitous Chinese design used by many manufacturers; it has a thin metal outer ring with an inner collar that widens to accept the microphone when the two handles are squeezed together. When the handles are released, the collar clamps around the mic body and holds it in place by friction. The ADK T-Super mount ($149.99) — a heavy-duty metal suspension shockmount with a threaded ring that the mic screws into — is also available.

The ADK A-51TL is an international product, with a European designer, a Chinese capsule and body, and electronic components of European or Japanese origin. The mic and accessories are assembled in China. No literature or frequency traces were shipped with the mic, but it comes with a five-year warranty.

AKG C 414 B-XLS

The AKG C 414 is an industry standard with a pedigree dating back to the 1960s. Compared with other contemporary C 414 models, such as the C 414 B-XLII and C 414 B-TLII, the C 414 B-XLS is designed to have a flatter response and neutral high-end characteristics. This is the smallest and lightest mic in the roundup, and its flat, trapezoidal body is instantly recognizable (see Fig. 2).

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FIG. 2: The AKG C 414 B-XLS has electronic “smart switches” on the front and back for choosing polar pattern, pad level, and rolloff position.

According to the manufacturer, the C 414 B-XLS is transformerless, whereas all of its predecessors had transformer-coupled output electronics. AKG says the transformerless output gives the mic a wider dynamic range and a fuller low-end response. In addition, the C 414 B-XLS offers innovative “smart switching” once it receives phantom power. All of the buttons are electronic rather than physical switches, with green LEDs that indicate the currently selected status. The settings are recalled even after the mic is powered down.

Five polar patterns are selectable from the front of the mic: omnidirectional, wide cardioid, cardioid, hypercardioid, and figure-8. In addition, three bass rolloff positions (40 Hz, 12 dB per octave; 80 Hz, 12 dB per octave; and 160 Hz, 6 dB per octave) are available.

The C 414 B-XLS has three pad settings (-6 dB, -12 dB, and -18 dB), although according to AKG, this model doesn't use conventional pads. As 48V phantom power is applied to the mic, it is converted to 96V. When the attenuation controls are engaged, the polarization voltage going to the capsule is lowered. The company adds that this system keeps the noise and distortion specs the same in all settings.

The C 414 B-XLS has a thin stem that holds its XLR jack and fits in a number of small-diaphragm mic holders. The supplied suspension shockmount is made of black plastic, with a collar that twists to lock around the stem of any mic measuring 0.75 to 1.02 inches in diameter. Other accessories shipped in AKG's deluxe briefcase include a form-fitting foam windscreen, a dual-layer pop screen with gooseneck and stand clamp, and a thorough manual with useful recording tips and applications.

An enclosed laboratory frequency graph shows the frequency response of the mic in all five polar patterns. Wide cardioid appears to yield the flattest response, at ±2 dB from 40 Hz to roughly 15 kHz. All patterns on the C 414 B-XLS exhibit a fairly flat response below 3 kHz and bumps in response at 3 kHz, 6 kHz, and 15 kHz. The capsules, electronics, and all significant parts are made in AKG's factory in Vienna, Austria. The mic comes with a three-year warranty.

Audio-Technica AT4050

The Audio-Technica AT4050 has a stealthy, matte black look (see Fig. 3). The multipattern selector is located on the front of the mic beneath the silver logo, and the bass rolloff and pad switches are on the back. The AT4050's body is slim, and as with the AKG C 414 B-XLS, its thin stem fits into many small-diaphragm mic holders.

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FIG. 3: The Audio-Technica AT4050''s pattern selector is on the front of the mic. The pad and rolloff switches are on the back.

A black metal AT8449 shockmount is shipped with the mic. Unlike with most of the shockmounts in this roundup, the AT4050 does not attach physically to an inner cage assembly within the mount. Rather, it is held by friction within two rubber bands. Initially this arrangement took a minute to figure out and did not inspire confidence. But the mic does stay in place once it is pushed fully into the inner collar, and it will hang upside down without slipping. All switches are easily accessible once the shockmount is in place.

The AT4050 comes in a black vinyl-covered storage box with foam lining, with a cloth dustcover to fit over the mic when it's left mounted on a stand. A spec sheet and deluxe Audio-Technica catalog poster are the only literature included. Audio-Technica's AT40-series mics, including all the parts, are manufactured in the company's Japanese factory and are covered by a one-year warranty.

CAD Equitek e300-2

The CAD Equitek e300-2 has a unique appearance, with a short, stocky body and a larger-than-average metal grille. Switches and a brilliant gold mesh screen adorn the on-axis address side of this mic (see Fig. 4). One special feature of the e300-2 is its use of rechargeable nicad batteries (included) to provide the higher current required by the mic's op-amp-based circuitry. However, the e300-2 can also operate on batteries alone, without external phantom power.

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FIG. 4: The CAD Equitek e300‑2 can be powered by the included rechargeable nicad batteries.

One aspect that is slightly confusing is the battery switch itself, which is marked 1/0 on the mic but is referred to as On/Off in the manual. An individual frequency response graph of the test mic revealed a basically flat response in cardioid mode from 40 Hz to 5 kHz, with a sharp dip of -6 dB at 6 kHz, and a broad peak of about 4 dB between 9 and 14 kHz. The published frequency chart in the brief CAD manual shows no dip at 6 kHz, but does indicate that the flattest response for this mic occurs in figure-8 mode.

The mic comes with a sturdy metal suspension shockmount, which screws securely onto threads encircling the mic's XLR connector. The e300-2 is shipped in a black molded-plastic carrying case. The mic is made in CAD's U.S. factory and comes with a two-year warranty.

Groove Tubes GT-57

The Groove Tubes GT-57 has a classy gray logo and model number engraved over a matte black finish (see Fig. 5). The grille is fine satin mesh on both sides and not as see-through as that of most mics. The bass rolloff and pad switches are located on the front of the mic, and the 3-position pattern selector is on the rear. Groove Tubes' large-diaphragm capsules are made of ultrathin 3-micron Mylar, with a special Disk Resonator design that the company says enhances high-frequency reproduction.

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FIG. 5: Besides having three polar patterns, the Groove Tubes GT-57 has a switchable –10 dB pad and a 75 Hz low-frequency rolloff.

The GT-57 is the only mic in this roundup that does not include a suspension shockmount: the SM4 ($49) basket-type shockmount is available as an optional accessory. An all-metal swivelmount is provided, and the set comes in a small latching storage case without a carrying handle.

In addition to a basic manual, a very informative 40-page booklet titled Choosing & Using Microphones by Groove Tubes founder Aspen Pittman is included. This booklet goes into scholarly depth about microphone types, technical issues, tips and applications, and a number of other topics related to microphone usage. The GT-57 is made in China from Chinese and American components, and it carries a one-year warranty.

Røde NT2000

Besides being one of the largest mics in this roundup, the Røde NT2000 also stands out by virtue of the rotary controls located on the front-address side of its silver satin-finish body (see Fig. 6). All settings on the NT2000 are continuously adjustable throughout their range, which is a unique and very attractive feature on a multipattern solid-state microphone.

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FIG. 6: Key features on the Røde NT2000 are the continuously adjustable controls for polar pattern, bass rolloff, and pad.

The polar patterns range from omnidirectional at one extreme to figure-8 at the other. The bass rolloff goes from 20 to 150 Hz, and the pad ranges from 0 to -10 dB. The silver thumbwheel controls are a bit smaller than a dime and not easy to grip, especially for a person with large fingers. The pattern selector is particularly stiff and difficult to adjust. However, the calibration notch in each knob acts as a catch for a fingernail, making the controls easier to manipulate.

A large plastic suspension shockmount ships with the NT2000. The base of the mic slips through a hole in the bottom of this rugged mount's inner basket, so that it can be securely attached using the removable threaded metal ring that screws onto the mic stem.

The mic case, which includes a molded handle, is the size of a briefcase and is made of molded black plastic. A manual with helpful recording tips is provided. The NT2000 is made in Australia and comes with a ten-year warranty.

SE Electronics Z3300A

The SE Electronics Z3300A is a hefty mic, with a cylindrical, silver satin body and a large grille that brings to mind the vintage Neumann U 47. It offers three polar patterns, a rolloff at 100 Hz, and a -10 dB pad. All of the switches are located on the front of the mic above the bright red logo (see Fig. 7).

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FIG. 7: The SE Z3300A puts all three switches—pattern, pad, and rolloff—on the front of the mic.

A large all-metal suspension shockmount is standard equipment. This well-made shockmount is also reminiscent of a vintage German design, and the mic screws securely into a threaded ring mounted on a base at the bottom of the inner basket. SE Electronics included no literature or frequency traces with the Z3300A, but the mic and shockmount are housed in a square latching briefcase. SE Electronics mics are manufactured in China and come with a two-year warranty.

Getting to Know You

To get an idea of the similarities and differences between the mics, I set up a controlled comparison test and recorded the results using Digidesign Pro Tools LE. The mics were set up in pairs, side by side, 13 inches from an E-Mu PM5 powered monitor, using Blue Kiwi mic cables and Monster speaker cables for the connections.

I used calibration tones to set comparable microphone gain levels, and all mics required 35 to 40 dB of gain through a Focusrite Green 1 stereo preamp. A variety of mixes and solo instrumental tracks were played through the speaker, and all of the mics were tested in cardioid, omnidirectional, and figure-8 patterns. Besides the loudspeaker trials with music mixes, I conducted tests for self-noise, rumble, housing resonance, and switching noise.

The results were evaluated in the Headless Buddha Mastering Lab, through Dynaudio BM 15 monitors. Additional steps were taken to carefully match track levels during playback, both by ear and using the meters. The following tests were conducted in cardioid mode only.

On an acoustic rock mix the Røde NT2000 was robust and dynamic, rendering kick drum and acoustic bass with remarkable clarity. The AKG C 414 B-XLS and ADK A-51TL treated kick and bass elements favorably, while the Groove Tubes GT-57 sounded full but unfocused and sometimes boomy in the bass around 150 Hz. In general, the other mics seemed to lose low-end definition and warmth across a variety of mixes.

The NT2000 and C 414 B-XLS transducers offered a strong midrange with lots of tone, sounding full and smoothest overall. The Audio-Technica AT4050 was also smooth in high-end response, but comparatively it lacked punch and upper-bass warmth. The A-51TL and GT-57 also conveyed good midrange and upper bass, but their incisive highs diminished smoothness. In contrast, the CAD Equitek e300-2 and SE Electronics Z3300A often seemed a bit hollow and lacking in midrange detail, and they skimped on upper-bass fullness.

The GT-57, e300-2, and Z3300A were quite bright, bringing acoustic guitar and hi-hat to the fore, and emphasizing vocal sibilance in pop mixes. High-end harshness was of particular concern with these mics on a hard-rock mix with a very bright drum sound. Alternatively, the AT4050 brought a smooth clarity to the percussive highs that I found quite listenable. The C 414 B-XLS was also flatter in the treble response, almost to the point of sounding muffled. In this test the NT2000 was comparable with the brighter mics, but managed to balance prominent highs with its trademark solid bass.

Interestingly, it was on a mellow jazz instrumental with brushes on snare that I heard how different all these mics truly are. Because of subtle variations in treble and midrange response, the swirling brushes brought out different characters in each mic, and no two sounded alike in this test.

The C 414 B-XLS came across as darkest with its soft highs and full lows. The AT4050, NT2000, and A-51TL models were fairly well balanced, with the NT2000 and A-51TL having the advantage of bigger bass response. The GT-57 and Z3300A sounded similarly bright and pingy on acoustic guitar and cymbals. And the e300-2 was again very bright, emphasizing a sandy character in the brushes and downplaying the rich midrange of this mix.

Switches and Noise

Self-noise was not a problem with any of these mics during testing or sessions. In auditions, when inching playback gain up to higher-than-average listening levels, the Z3300A was the first to display an audible noise floor. This observation seems to be in keeping with the mic's relatively high 20 dB self-noise rating.

In testing, all the mics except the e300-2 and NT2000 (which is continuously adjustable) emitted a transient click or pop when switched from one pattern to another. The C 414 B-XLS had the gentlest pop, but it was still audible. When switched, the other mics sounded sufficiently nasty to warrant a cautionary note: always turn the preamp gain down when switching from one pattern to another.

When tapped with a pen, the AT4050 produced a noticeable midrange note that did not sustain. The body of the GT-57 did ring on a high, chiming note when mounted in its supplied swivelmount. When clamped inside the multipurpose ADK shockmount, the GT-57 resonated subtly on a low, unpitched tone when tapped.

The remaining mics issued only a dull thump, indicating good body damping and a lack of housing resonance. None of the mics demonstrated stand-borne vibration when shockmounted.

Voiced Opinions

My studio partner, Bart Thurber, and I used the test mics often on various recording sessions over the period of a month. Although such observations are perhaps more subjective than those made during controlled testing, they do serve to establish a real-world impression of each microphone.

Thurber tested the A-51TL on a male rock vocalist, commenting that he found the mic to be of above-average audio quality, yet a little too bright and bass-lean for his taste. On female vocals the Z3300A was warm and accurate. The singer and I both noticed a fuzziness with the e300-2, due at least in part to its prominent high end.

On a different female vocalist, I was very impressed with the AT4050 and would happily use this mic for final vocal tracks. Though a touch sibilant at times, Audio-Technica's condenser was well balanced tonally, exhibiting nice presence and loads of detail. The AT4050 also did a very good job in various pickup modes on two different violinists, never sounding too bright or scratchy.

On another male vocal session, the NT2000 was roughly comparable to the Lawson L47MP tube mic I usually use. Like the Lawson, the Røde had lots of warmth in the lower registers, and a good balance of highs to lows. The overall timbre pleased everyone in the control room.

At a different session, again with a male singer, the C 414 B-XLS worked well to deliver an authoritative, chesty sound. This mic is not overly bright, and may not have enough presence for some vocalists. But in this session, it was the perfect choice to downplay some scratchiness in the vocal that was emphasized by the NT2000.

Drums and More

Although the Z3300A sounded a bit thin in comparative testing, it was still able to transform a rock kick drum into a thunderous marching bass drum with close placement in omni mode. The C 414 B-XLS was always a reliable performer for kick drum, especially on double-headed jazz drums.

The C 414 B-XLS was also great for snare brushes, and I preferred it over the GT-57 for this application. But AKG's mic was too dark and thick with sticks on the snare, especially during rock-style playing. I found the AT4050 to be always pleasing and more versatile for a range of snare drumming styles.

Thurber does primarily rock recording at the studio, and he really took a liking to the Røde NT2000. For drum overheads, Thurber praised the NT2000 as well balanced and “not too crispy,” and he used a pair on several of his sessions. He also rated the NT2000 and A-51TL highly as drum-room mics in omni mode, and gave the thumbs-up to the AT4050 as an overhead pair.

In a close-mic placement on cello, the NT2000 was rich, though a bit dark and lacking upper harmonics. However, the mic did offer good, uncolored off-axis pickup in cardioid mode.

For an accordion track, I paired up the A-51TL on the keyboard side with the Z3300A in omni over the chord buttons. Both mics worked well and complemented the high harmonics of the instrument, with the Z3300A being a bit brighter.

After trying the GT-57 on acoustic guitar, Thurber decided not to use it for tracking, citing its brittle highs and tubby low end. On the other hand, the microphone worked well for creating an airy background group-vocal part in omnidirectional mode, and I also found its brightness well suited to a variety of hand-percussion instruments.

Track Record

After several weeks of recording, the individual characteristics of each microphone began to reveal themselves. For example, the ADK A-51TL is a big-sounding mic with a pleasing tonality. Sometimes, though not always, it exhibited more high-end presence than I like. In figure-8 mode, the A-51TL's high end softened in an interesting and potentially beneficial way. The low end also filled out appreciably, highlighting the versatility of this mic while maintaining its basic tonal character. The mic's omnidirectional pattern was consistently full and bright, but less penetrating in the upper mids.

On the other hand, AKG's venerable C 414 B-XLS conveyed neutral highs, a dependably flat low end, and plenty of midrange tone. This mic kept its signature sound in omni mode without brightening to the degree that other microphones in the roundup did. However, its figure-8 pattern was thicker in the mids and upper bass, sometimes to the point of being slightly muddy.

With its latching briefcase, shockmount, windscreen, and pop filter as standard accessories, the C 414 B-XLS wins the prize for having the most features. In addition, it offers five switchable patterns instead of the conventional three, and a variety of pad and bass rolloff choices. However, it's the most expensive mic in the roundup.

The Audio-Technica AT4050 presents a nice middle-of-the-road character with its well-balanced and always pleasant tonality. This mic was never as bright as the GT-57, e300-2, or Z3300A, nor as full in the low end as the A-51TL, C 414 B-XLS, or NT2000. Timbral changes through the patterns were subtle and predictable: a bit thinner and brighter in omni; a darker and thicker bass in figure-8.

By comparison, the CAD Equitek e300-2 always sounded overly bright to me, and often strangely filtered in cardioid mode. The omni pattern delivered even less low end, more exaggerated highs around 10 kHz, and significantly lower gain. I was surprised to find that the mic's figure-8 pattern offered the best fidelity. In this pattern, the e300-2 came close to the fairly neutral sound of the C 414 B-XLS's cardioid pattern, with a rounder low end and smoother highs.

I would describe the basic quality of the Groove Tubes GT-57 as a classic “smile curve.” It has abundant lows and highs along with a slightly attenuated midrange. The high-end response was sometimes too edgy, both in testing and session work. However, this mic maintained its tonal character in all patterns, with only minor variations in response between cardioid and figure-8. In omni mode, it was about 1.5 dB lower in gain, predictably brighter, and less focused in the lows.

I was surprised again and again at how big the Røde NT2000 sounded. It has a low end that is fuller and flatter than the rest of the mics, but one that is never exaggerated.

The NT2000 tested well and was a favorite around the studio. It became darker and more midrangy in figure-8 mode, and smaller and brighter, though not at all grating, in omni mode. Although its timbral shifts between polar patterns are more dramatic than those of some of the other mics, the NT2000 always maintains its tonal balance and musical sound quality, making it a truly exciting recording tool.

Like the GT-57, the SE Electronics Z3300A was often too edgy for me in testing. But it was a solid performer in the studio. The Z3300A showed lots of tonal variation when changing patterns: its bidirectional pickup exhibited a hot sound with pronounced upper mids, and the omni pattern was notably brighter above 10 kHz and lacking in midrange tone. However, of the mics residing at the low end of the price scale, the Z3300A offered the best fidelity during sessions and trials, as well as the most impressive set of accessories in its class.

Flying Colors

All of the mics in this roundup offer good- to high-quality audio, appealing features, state-of-the-art specs, and solid value for the money. Although some of the mics varied noticeably in frequency response through their range of polar patterns, that could be seen as a bonus if you have a limited mic closet: it's like getting two or three different mic timbres for your money.

On the other hand, you may prefer a mic that holds more of a consistent or reliable tone through its pickup patterns. Your aesthetic tastes will determine which mic you select, whether it's one with some extra color and high-end zip, such as the ADK A-51TL, the CAD Equitek e300-2, the Groove Tubes GT-57, or the SE Electronics Z3300A, or one with a smoother high end and flatter response overall, such as the AKG C 414 B-XLS, the Audio-Technica AT4050, or the Røde NT2000.

Myles Boisen is the head engineer at Guerrilla Recording and the Headless Buddha Mastering Lab in Oakland, California.

MICROPHONE FEATURES COMPARED

Click Here for a comparison chart of microphones featured in this article.

MANUFACTURER CONTACTS

ADK Microphones
www.adkmic.com

AKG Acoustics
www.akg.com

Audio-Technica
www.audio-technica.com

CAD Professional Microphones
www.cadmics.com

Groove Tubes
www.groovetubes.com

Røde Microphones
www.rodemic.com

SE Electronics
www.sonic-distribution.com