When EM reviewed the original Rode Classic tube mic in July 1997, and then again in a comparison of five tube mics in February 1998, the mic received kudos both times around. Not content to rest on its laurels, though, Rode has since made several improvements on the original design, culminating in the release of the Classic II. This new addition to the Rode family of microphones boasts an edge-terminated diaphragm; redesigned circuitry for lower self-noise and improved sonic performance; a beefed-up cable; and a sturdier mounting system. Hey, who says you can't improve on a classic?
A CLASS ACTThe Classic II, which looks much like the Classic but without the L-arm swivel bracket, is burly and built to last. The cylindrical casing is machined from solid brass and sports the same classy, matte-nickel finish as the original. No screws are visible, and the lines are simple and uninterrupted, giving the mic a smooth and streamlined appearance. The sturdy, open-weave, double-mesh grille affords a glimpse of the mic's gold-sputtered diaphragm, and Rode's signature gold dot marks the cardioid address side of the mic.
The power supply is a handsome box outfitted on one side with three chicken-head knobs. The middle knob enables the user to select one of nine polar patterns: omnidirectional, cardioid, figure-8, and six interim positions. The left knob provides two highpass filter options (one steeper than the other, but both rolling off at 125 Hz). The right knob offers 10 and 20 dB attenuation pads, as well as a flat setting. A mellow blue light on the front panel indicates that the power is on and that the tube will be hot to trot after a brief warm- up period.
The rear panel of the power supply provides an on/off switch, a voltage selector, and jacks for the special multipin plug, an XLR output, and an IEC power cable. A new feature on the updated power supply is a ground lift (called an "earth lift" in Australia), which is handy if you experience hum from grounding problems in the studio.
Though few things appear different on the surface, the Classic II employs some fundamental design modifications internally. I popped open the hood and found, as advertised, a dual, edge-terminated, gold- sputtered 1-inch diaphragm. According to Rode, edge-termination allows the diaphragm to move unrestricted by a center wire, resulting in fuller low-end response. Fellow engineer and EM reviewer Myles Boisen, who had tested the original Classic, took a listen and was impressed by the sonic improvements: he thought not only that the lows sounded fuller and flatter but that the highs were smoother, too.
Further dissecting the mic, I next discovered a well-organized PC board complete with a Jensen transformer and a General Electric 6072 twin-triode tube. Those are some impressive guts-and much more to my liking than what lay inside the fetal pigs I had to dissect in high school!
ACCESSORIZE, ACCESSORIZEThe Classic II is well accessorized. For starters, it comes with both a simple mic-stand adapter and a sturdy new "birdcage" shock-mount. Either of these ingeniously designed devices can be secured snugly between the base of the mic and the cable connector, negating any chance of slippage. Though made of plastic, both mounts have metal threads and seem extremely durable. I've recently seen a proliferation of mics- including some premium brands-accompanied by flimsy mounts with plastic threads. Rode, to its credit, has not taken the cheapie route and instead appears to be designing its parts for the long haul.
Also included with the Classic II is a redesigned, double-shielded, oxygen-free copper, multicore cable. Thick and impervious to kinks and tangles, the 30-foot cable terminates in massive-and I do mean massive-12-pin connectors with threaded sleeves for securely fastening them to the mic and power supply. These behemoth connectors have the solid feel of the precision-engineered connectors once standard with high-end European tube mics, and they are quick and easy to insert and tighten down, inspiring confidence in the design. On top of that, all of these components (plus the mic, power supply, and power cable) come nestled in form-cut foam embedded in a rugged aluminum flight case.
RODE TESTI tested the Classic II both in the studio and on location for some of my remote recording jobs. I certainly wasn't worried about damaging the mic when on location-the thing is built like an armored truck. Using Monster Cable and a Focusrite Green preamp, and recording direct without processing to a Panasonic SV3800 DAT recorder, I put the Classic II through the paces on male and female vocals, nylon- and steel- string guitars, clean and distorted electric guitars, electric bass, acoustic upright bass, flute, saxophone, drum set, hand drums, and various other percussion instruments. I also conducted a loudspeaker test, and, for good measure, I used the mic on a couple of "out-there" jazz sessions.
CHICKEN-HEAD TWISTEROne of my first observations was that the Classic II sounded somewhat dry and constricted in the straight cardioid pattern. Ted Keffalo of Event Electronics (distributors of Rode microphones) suggested I try the pattern one click to the right of cardioid (toward figure-8) for vocals. I gave it a try and the mic really opened up. It had a bit more room sound, which resulted in a less dry quality, and the highs were brighter- all this from just one click. On this setting, however, vocals were more prone to bass boosting (from the proximity effect) and plosives.
I subsequently tested the mic in each of the nine polar patterns and was impressed by how the tone varied from setting to setting. As I turned the knob right of center (that is, from cardioid toward figure-8), the highs became edgier and increasingly took on a more "sizzly" quality.
Reaching the figure-8 pattern, I was surprised to discover that the two sides of the mic sounded slightly different from one another. Specifically, the highs were smoother in the front lobe (where the gold dot is) than they were in the rear (where they sounded slightly more sizzly). The bass response increased quite a bit in the figure-8 pattern, as well. However, I was able to effectively control the low end simply by engaging the bass rolloff. (I preferred the one with the gentler slope in this application.)
The highs also increased as I moved the knob left of center (that is, from cardioid toward omni), and again I noticed an increase in the sizzle-up to a point, anyway. That point was the omni pattern, which proved the brightest pattern of the nine. Interestingly, however, it also had the smoothest highs, with less of the high- end sizzle that characterized some of the other patterns. Not surprisingly, the additional brightness of the omni pattern brought an increased sensitivity to sibilance. Another interesting observation is that, like the figure-8, the omnidirectional response was not uniform around the mic: at 90 degrees off-axis from the gold dot, on either side of the mic, I detected a slight coloration of the signal (probably due to the metal side supports for the grille cage).
IN THE RINGYou can listen to a mic all day long, but until you compare it with other, similar mics, it's often hard to draw a bead on its particular character and quality. So I compared the Classic II with a few other tube mics, including a Lawson L47MP and a Neumann M147, both of which are in the Classic II's price range.
First, I conducted a self-noise test. The Classic II's murmur, rated at less than 22 dB, was pretty much on par with the other mics, give or take a few decibels. Also worth noting is that the Classic II is considerably quieter than the original Classic, which was rated at 32 dB.
Typically, large-diaphragm condenser mics have "presence peaks," or boosts, around 4 to 6 kHz, which help bring out high-end detail in vocals and other sources. On the Classic II, the presence peak seems higher, centered at around 9 or 10 kHz. In the tests, this difference resulted in the Classic II sounding more "airy" in most applications than the Lawson and Neumann mics, albeit with quite natural-sounding highs. At the same time, the mic's midrange response (between, say, 250 and 1,000 Hz) sounded slightly attenuated in comparison with the L47MP and M147, making certain sources-for example, wood block, guitars, and saxophones-seem less "round," or full. In addition (and again, in comparison with the other two mics), I perceived a slight lack of depth or dimensionality in the Classic II's sonic character, especially when miking from a distance. (This aspect was less apparent when close-miking sources.)
IN THE LABFor the loudspeaker test, I placed the three mics three feet away from a stereo system playing back a mix of male vocals, guitar, bass, and drums. The Classic II sounded the most natural of all the mics in this test. It represented the bass nicely, and the high end was clear and accurate. Again, however, the slight midrange attenuation was evident, particularly on the snare drum, which had less attack and body.
I got similar results later when mono-miking a large jazz ensemble. The snare drum had less body and level in the "mix," and the cymbals sounded a bit darker than they actually were-this despite the mic's characteristic high-end boost and the fact that everything else sounded sharp and nicely detailed.
SMOOTH CROONEROn female vocals, the Classic II exhibited great clarity and an overall pleasing sound. Though a bit less full sounding in the mids, it otherwise sounded quite similar to the Neumann M147. The Classic II also sounded good on the male vocals I tracked, but here the attenuated mids made for a less robust sound than I got with the Neumann and Lawson mics. However, my subject's voice was fairly thin and reedy to begin with-characteristics that the Classic II only emphasized. I suspect that the Classic II would be most complementary on a male singer with a full, low voice. Also, on an overly midrangy or nasal vocalist, this microphone's characteristic sound might help to smooth out the sound.
THWACK, DING, AND BOOMAs a room mic on drum set, the Classic II sounded overall very good, but again the definition and body of the snare drum were slightly underrepresented. Also, the low end tended to be a bit boomy. (Once again, this tendency was easily tamed by engaging the highpass filter.)
I also used the Classic II to mic a number of percussion instruments, including tambourine, maracas, shakers, dumbek, frame drum, wood block, and chime. The mic proved a fine choice for shakers and hand drums-thanks largely, I think, to its full lows and natural-sounding high end. As mentioned previously, though, the wood block revealed the mic's penchant for playing down certain midrange frequencies: the recorded sound had lots of attack (meaning good transient response) and sufficient lows, but overall was a bit thin and lacking in body. This is not meant as a negative comment about the mic-many great vocal mics, after all, would prove less than ideal for particular percussion instruments-but simply as an indication of the Classic II's sonic predisposition.
STRUM AND THUMPOn both acoustic and electric guitars, I tend to prefer a mic that fully represents the mids and low mids-in contrast to many engineers who like a mic that plays down those frequencies. Therefore, for my tastes, the Classic II (in cardioid) didn't do full justice to the rich, warm tone of a Takamine nylon-string classical guitar or to a strummed steel-string guitar. Overall, the sound was slightly thin and the low strings were rather thuddy and boomy.
Of course, one of the great things about this mic is the big selection of tones available via the various polar patterns. After toggling through all the pattern selections and experimenting with placement, I found that if I put the mic in omni and placed it approximately 18 inches from the 12th-fret position, angled toward the sound hole, a fuller, more balanced sound emerged. The lows were still a bit boomy, but engaging the gentle bass rolloff on the power supply tightened things up nicely. The results had a bit less sparkle than I would have liked, and not all the harmonics were fully represented, but the sound was definitely usable.
The Classic II didn't sound bad on electric guitar, but again, it wouldn't be my first pick in this application, due to its emphasizing of the wrong elements. Specifically, the high end was overly exaggerated and the lows were too boomy, whereas, again, the mids were not quite well enough represented.
The Classic II fared better on electric bass, where it captured plenty of attack and low end. But I especially liked this mic on acoustic upright bass. The extended lows afforded by the edge-terminated diaphragm really filled out the bottom end-so much so that I found myself rolling off the lows again to tighten up the sound.
FULL THROTTLEI brought the Classic II to a location-recording gig at Yoshi's Jazz House at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, to record the Full Throttle Orchestra, a large ensemble composed of tenor and alto saxes, flute, trumpet, upright bass, electric guitars, and drums. I positioned the mic at the edge of the stage, about six feet in front of the "horn section" (which included the flute), set to the cardioid pattern so as to minimize room noise. The Classic II sounded clear and bright on the flute-very impressive. On the saxes, though, the sound was a bit edgy and lacking in body for my liking. The mic captured sufficient "bite" from the trumpet, but I would have preferred a warmer sound.
ONE FOR THE RODETastes in large-diaphragm tube condenser mics run the gamut. Some folks like fat low mids and smooth highs; others want sparkly highs and attenuated lows. There's no right or wrong, of course, just what floats your boat and works best for the source and song.
The Rode Classic II brings another distinctive voice to the table. Characterized by bright, sometimes sizzly, yet natural-sounding highs; mildly attenuated mids; and big, full lows, this mic is almost certain to attract a loyal following. Thanks to its nine polar patterns, the Classic II is quite a versatile choice, too. And if quality of construction is a principal concern, look no further: you'd be hard pressed to find a more sturdily built microphone and cable.
In my tests, the Classic II performed admirably on a range of instruments, especially vocals, small hand drums, assorted percussion, upright acoustic bass, electric bass, and flute. It also earned a gold star in loudspeaker tests. However, to my ear, the slightly shy midrange response made it somewhat less suited to recording acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and horns. Of course, no microphone is perfect for every sound source-which is why engineers typically have a selection of mics. But for any studio looking to enhance its mic collection with a distinctive-sounding, quality-built tube transducer, the Rode Classic II deserves a serious audition.
Karen Stackpole is a recording/mastering engineer and an instructor at Ex'pression Center for New Media. Special thanks to Myles Boisen for his contributions.