As a location-recording engineer specializing in stereo recording, I'm always interested in checking out new options for capturing stereo images. My ears perked up when I heard that Røde recently introduced two affordable new microphones designed specifically for stereo-miking applications: the NT4 (see Fig. 1), an unusual-looking stereo mic, and the NT5 (see Fig. 2), a small-diaphragm condenser packaged in matched pairs. Along with my enthusiasm for stereo recording, I also have a fondness for strange-looking mics, so I jumped at the chance to test these new transducers from Down Under.
For this review, I received a single NT4 and a matched pair of NT5s. Both models have the same externally polarized (“true” condenser) capsule style. Two rows of narrow ports around the top of the cap help achieve its cardioid-only polar pattern. The gold-sputtered, half-inch diaphragm glints through an orderly array of small round holes at the address end of the mic, which is veiled by a finely woven mesh screen.
Both the NT4 and the NT5 are housed in heavy-duty, cast-metal bodies sporting a classy, satin-nickel finish and Røde's signature gold dot. The two mics share the same frequency-response characteristics, as well as a respectable maximum SPL of 143 dB, a dynamic range of 128 dB, and transformerless output circuitry. Neither mic provides an attenuation pad or highpass filter. A thin black label encircles the base of each mic, indicating manufacturer, model, and serial numbers.
Both models come in custom, hard-plastic carrying cases embossed with the Røde logo. The cases are secured with sliding plastic latches and fitted with form-cut foam interiors. The NT4 package includes the RM3 stand adapter; the WS4 wind shield; a custom, 5-pin, female-to-2-XLR-male stereo cable; and a 10-foot, 5-pin-to-⅛-inch-stereo-plug cable. The pair of matched NT5s comes with two RM5 stand adapters and two WS5 foam-rubber wind shields. The stand adapters are made of flexible, durable plastic and incorporate metal threading — a touch of quality that's nice to see, considering that some major mic manufacturers now use plastic threading on their stand adapters.
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO
The NT4 is a dedicated stereo mic fitted with two capsules permanently positioned as an XY coincident pair. A curved piece of metal on the top of the mic acts as a stereo bar to support the two caps, which are fixed at a 90-degree angle.
The NT4 is a bit of a Frankenstein creation, borrowing its body from the previously introduced Røde NT3 and sharing its capsule design with the NT5. The result is a mic that looks about as odd as a duck-billed platypus. The body is a beefy cylinder that tapers at the bottom. A rounded, internally threaded ring near the top of the mic allows access to the electronics inside. The NT4 can be powered either by a 9V battery or via phantom power (48V, 24V, or 12V). The bottom half of the mic screws off to reveal the battery compartment. Naturally, powering the mic by 48V phantom power yields the best results.
An oval window in the upper half of the body recesses the mic's on/off switch, protecting it from accidental bumps. The window also contains a red LED that indicates battery life. As long as the battery is good, the LED lights during power up and then shuts off; if the LED remains on after power up, it indicates that a new battery is needed. According to Røde, one 9V battery grants up to 400 hours of operation — a feature likely to make the mic popular among concert “tapers” whose recorders do not provide phantom power.
The NT5 is a pencil-type, small-diaphragm, mono condenser mic offered in matched pairs only; as of this writing, you cannot purchase a single NT5. This mic requires phantom power (48V, 24V, or 12V); there is no battery-power option.
I tested both mic models live and in the studio. The live performances were recorded in stereo direct to DAT. The groups I recorded and the venues I recorded at included an ensemble comprised of vocals, cello, sarod, gongs, and percussion at a small Buddhist church in San Francisco; a trio with clarinet, tenor sax, and shakahachi flute at a midsize, cement-floored venue; a classical cellist at an art gallery with hardwood floors and a high ceiling; a nine-piece ensemble composed of drums, congas, timbales, bass, keyboards, electric guitar, pedal-steel guitar, trumpet, and saxophones at a small club in San Francisco; and a large jazz ensemble featuring piano, violin, saxophone, flute, upright bass, drums, and Chinese erhu at Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland, California. I also used the NT4 as a drum-set overhead for an extremely dynamic player on a multitrack live recording of a jazz trio at a 19th-century church in Tiburon, California.
For the studio tests, I was assisted by fellow sound-arts instructor Steve Orlando. Working in Ex'pression Center for New Media's SSL room, we used the NT4 and the NT5s as drum overheads for a recording of a Latin jazz ensemble; as room mics; and on acoustic guitar. I also put the mics through several tests at my personal studio.
Other gear used for the tests included Daking 52270 mic preamps, a Langevin Dual Vocal Combo preamp, a Focusrite Green Series dual mic pre, a Mackie 1202-VLZ, an Allen & Heath 16:2 console, and an SSL 6000E Series desk. Results were recorded to DAT (Panasonic SV3800 and Tascam DA-P1), ADAT, Tascam DA98, and CD-R.
Both mics were easy to use and performed well, exhibiting a relatively even frequency response and quiet operation. I checked the mics' self-noise, which is rated 16 dBA, against a comparable condenser in my cabinet, the small-diaphragm Oktava MC012. The Røde mics were significantly quieter than the Oktavas.
The capsules of the single NT4 and the pair of NT5s proved sonically well matched. Moreover, the capsules in the pair of NT5s were from the same production run and even had consecutive serial numbers.
During drum-overhead testing in the SSL studio, Orlando put up the NT5s alongside his personal favorite for that application, a pair of Neumann KM 184s. Admittedly, that was not a fair comparison with regard to price, given that a single KM 184 costs more than the pair of NT5s. Still, the NT5s fared well. The Røde mics were sonically a bit darker and not quite as full sounding as the Neumanns, but we were really impressed by the quality of the sound. The NT5's frequency-response chart shows a relatively flat response (±2.5 dB) up to around 14 kHz, at which point it begins to roll off, dropping approximately 8 dB by 20 kHz. That seemed in keeping with the relatively darker quality of the highs as compared to the Neumann KM 184.
To compensate, we applied approximately 3 dB of shelving boost at 10 kHz. After that simple EQ adjustment, it became a challenge to determine which mics were which in the mix — the sound quality of the Røde mics was that good.
Both of the Røde models also sounded rich and detailed on an acoustic guitar miked close. I preferred the NT5s in that instance, because of the positioning flexibility afforded by using separate mics — the stereo image captured by the NT4 can sound overly wide in close-miking applications. For example, with the mic positioned a few inches back and directly facing the 12th-fret area of the acoustic guitar — which effectively aimed one cap at the lower fretboard and the other at the sound hole — we noticed a “hole-in-the-middle” effect. That is no deficiency of the NT4, but rather it is the inevitable limitation resulting from the fixed 90-degree angle of the mic's caps — think of it as a trade-off for the convenience, ease of use, and guaranteed phase-distortion-free (and thus mono-compatible) performance of the NT4. That said, you can easily tighten up the stereo image after the fact by panning the two channels closer together.
Any sense of a hole in the stereo image diminishes as you pull the mic back from the source, so overall the NT4 is better suited to miking from a distance. The mic worked well as a drum overhead when positioned a few feet above the drummer. (Then again, that's an application for which engineers often want a wide stereo spread.) I was impressed by the detail that the NT4 captured on the drums, and the caps handled the huge dynamic range — from pianissimo to mezzoforte — without a hitch.
In addition to being easier and quicker to set up than the NT5s, the NT4 really came into its own with stereo ensemble recordings — that is, with the mic positioned ten or more feet back from the players. When recording the aforementioned amplified instrumental ensemble at the small club in San Francisco, I placed the NT4 about 14 feet in front of the stage, elevated on a balcony, and pointing down at the group. From that position, the NT4 still picked up appreciable low end from the bass player, and the highs were detailed enough to reveal subtleties in the fairly dense room mix.
To get a better sense of the Røde's sonic performance in that setting, I compared them with my AKG C 3000 B pair — the mics I typically use for direct-to-DAT recordings. The C 3000 B is a large-diaphragm mic, so the test wasn't exactly apples to apples; still, it was useful to hear the differences. As before, the Røde mics sounded darker — the AKG C 3000 Bs have a definite presence boost. Even so, both the NT4 and the NT5s sounded natural, and they did an exceptional job of picking up richness and subtle nuance from the instruments and their ambient reflections.
LOW RØDE, HIGH RØDE
With the new NT4 and NT5 microphones, Røde has not only come up with a couple of great-sounding and affordable mics, but it has also contributed nicely to the art of stereo recording. At only $899 for the NT4 and $599 for the matched pair of NT5s, these mics should appeal to budget-conscious studio owners and location recordists alike.
Sonically, both mics performed admirably, even holding their ground against comparable models costing twice the money. Though in comparison they sounded darker and less sparkly in the highs (a quality some readers will view as a minus, others as a plus), the Røde mics captured plenty of detail — enough to impress a group of pro engineers who took a listen out of curiosity. In addition, the mics were quiet and smooth sounding, and the capsules were well matched on both models.
For those who want the quick setup and error-free stereo capture afforded by a dedicated stereo mic, the NT4 is the way to go. It is especially well suited for 2-track concert recording and as a drum overhead (though less so for close-miking apps, due to the fixed 90-degree angle of the caps). Those who prefer, as I do, the positioning flexibility afforded by a pair of small-diaphragm mics can opt for the NT5s. Thankfully, Røde lets us have it both ways.
NT4 and NT5
stereo and mono small-diaphragm condenser microphones
NT5: $599 (matched pair)
FEATURES3.5EASE OF USE4.5AUDIO QUALITY4.0VALUE4.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Smooth, natural, detailed sound. Good low-end pickup. Capsules well matched. Affordable. Easy to use. NT4 can operate on 9V battery (up to 400 hours per battery). Durable stand adapter. Nice carrying case. Excellent as drum overheads. Rich and detailed on acoustic guitar.
CONS: Sharp roll-off of frequencies above 14 kHz results in relatively dark-sounding high end (which might also be construed as a “Pro,” by the way). Fixed 90-degree angle of capsules makes NT4 less well suited for stereo close-miking applications.
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NT4 and NT5 Specifications
Elementexternally polarized, DC bias capacitor (“true” condenser)Diaphragm½", 6µm, gold-vapor-deposited MylarPolar PatterncardioidStereo Capsule Arrangement (NT4 only)90° XY (coincident pair)Frequency Response20 Hz-20 kHz (+2.5 dB/-8 dB)Dynamic Range>128 dBSignal-to-Noise Ratio78 dBSelf-Noise16 dBAMaximum Sound-Pressure Level143 dBPower48V, 24V, or 12V phantom (9V battery option for NT4)DimensionsNT4: 9.13" (L) × 1.26" (D) NT5: 4.65" (L) × 0.79" (D)WeightNT4: 1.06 lb. NT5: 0.22 lb.