For the past five years, microphone companies have peppered the U.S. market with large-diaphragm, multipattern condensers, many from the same foreign factories but sporting different monikers and trim — sort of like Lincoln and Mercury. However, one of the biggest players in the mic industry has refrained from entering the fray — until now. Behold the KSM44, Shure's first large-diaphragm, multipattern condenser mic.
A few years ago, Shure Incorporated (formerly Shure Brothers) tested the waters with the KSM32, a medium-diaphragm condenser mic featuring a ¾-inch-diameter capsule and a fixed cardioid polar pattern. A solid mic that has been well received by personal and professional studios alike, the “budget” KSM32 laid the groundwork for its sibling. The KSM44 provides three polar patterns: cardioid, figure-8, and omnidirectional. Unlike much of the competition, the KSM44 is designed and built in the United States.
The KSM44 clearly borrows heavily from the KSM32: the two microphones share the same exoskeleton, and except for the pattern-selection switch on the front of the 44, they look identical. Internally, however, they are very different beasts; whereas the capsule in the 32 was based loosely on the Shure SM81 capsule, the 44 boasts an all-new Shure design. The capsule comprises dual 1-inch-diameter diaphragms with ultrathin, gold-vapor-deposited membranes.
Like the 32, the 44 utilizes transformerless output circuitry, which provides a quieter and more transparent output than transformer-based designs. The self-noise in cardioid pattern is a scant 7 dB SPL, making the mic usable for voice-overs and critical recordings of quiet sources.
Also like the 32, the 44 provides two highpass filters: an 18 dB/octave filter at 80 Hz and a 6 dB/octave at 115 Hz. The first is a standard low cut found on many condenser mics. The second is designed to counteract excessive bass boosting from the proximity effect. (The mic also has an internal 17 Hz subsonic filter — in case you record near a herd of rhinoceroses.) The 44 also has the same 15 dB attenuation pad as the 32. Even without the pad engaged, the mic can handle a healthy 132 dB SPL.
The pad and rolloff switches are well designed and click into place with authority. The small metal switch ends are easy to move with a fingertip, and they feel more solid than the switches on most mics. They protrude from the body casing only slightly, so it takes more than an accidental bump to move one. My only nitpick is that on the test mic, one switch wasn't perfectly centered; it worked fine, however.
Like its forebear, the KSM44 ships in a rugged aluminum flight case and comes with a standard swivel-mount and a very effective shock-mount. (The 32's shock-mount is black; the 44's is the same champagne color as the mic.) The mic is also ensconced in a protective and stylish maroon velveteen pouch.
Like most Shure mics, the KSM44 is built like a tank and feels solid. According to Shure, the mic's durability test involved dropping the prototype ten times in a row onto a hard floor from a height of 6 feet. After ten falls, the mic had to exhibit the exact same performance as before the abuse. (As tempted as I was to repeat that test, it violated my sensibilities to intentionally drop a condenser mic.) In addition to the 44's rigid body, the mic also utilizes an internal capsule shock-mount that helps buffer the capsule from sound-inducing vibration. Even when I used the mic without the shock-mount, I noticed very little handling or “foot stomp” noise.
Popping is kept at bay by a three-stage integrated system: the external screen and two internal foam layers. Together they effectively neutralize the majority of plosives. In most cases, I could have used the mic without an external pop filter.
Whereas the KSM32 was designed to be flat sonically, Shure wanted to add a touch of color to the KSM44. The designers dialed in a slight high-midrange presence boost, primarily to enhance vocal recording. With the 44 in cardioid pattern, the two mics sound noticeably different from each other: the 32 sounds a touch “honky” and the 44 a bit more forward and open. However, the 44 is not nearly as bright or edgy sounding as most of the Chinese-manufactured knockoffs that have flooded the market in recent years.
IN THE TRENCHES
I was merciless in testing the KSM44. Not only did I audition it on a wide range of instruments but I also put it up against a variety of microphones. I usually have a bunch of lovely mics at my disposal, so my standards are quite high. Because Shure describes the KSM44 as a professional studio mic but has priced it within reach of the personal studio, I thought it only right to compare it with professional-level mics (including some that cost several times as much) as well as similarly priced ones. The test sessions covered a range of styles, including rock, pop, roots, and the ubiquitous folk/rock/pop singer-songwriter thing. I recorded to 2-inch analog tape as well as to Digidesign Pro Tools/24 using the 888 interface in 24-bit mode.
My first session with the 44 was at Room 9 from Outer Space, in Boston. There I tested the KSM44 alongside the following microphones: Neumann U 87; AKG C 414 B/ULS, C 414 TLII, and 414 EB; Audio-Technica AT 4050, AT 4047, and AT 4033; and the KSM32. I compared overall sounds, polar patterns, off-axis responses, proximity effect, and rolloffs. Each model was patched through the same channel of a Vintech 1272 preamp, and I recorded all tracks into ProTools so I could edit the segments together for back-to-back comparisons.
Although the KSM44 has a noticeable yet smooth peak in the 6 kHz region and another bump around 12 kHz, it sounded considerably less colored than the other mics. The low mids and bottom end are quite full and lush — very Neumann-like — and yet the top end was more open and natural sounding than the U 87s. In fact, compared with the other mics, the KSM44 exhibited the best overall balance of detail, presence, body, and thickness. It also proved the best mic for my voice, sounding clear and full and providing a nice forward nudge without excessive rasp or edge. (Second and third picks for my voice were the 4047 and 4050, respectively.)
I also tried the KSM44 through some different preamps. Each imparted its own character, and the 44 worked well with all of them. The mic sounded fairly neutral through a console preamp in the studio's Trident 80B. The sound was similarly smooth through the Vintech 1272 and an API 512C — and it was downright luxurious through a Telefunken V72. On the lower end, through a PreSonus MP20, the KSM44 sounded a tad edgier. A nice bonus is that the 44's high output level minimizes preamp noise — helpful if you don't have access to superquiet, high-end mic preamps.
As for off-axis response, I was pleased not to hear any particularly nasty peaks or notches. At 180 degrees in cardioid pattern, the microphone exhibited the typical large-condenser low-frequency bump; but at 90 degrees to either side, the frequency response was pretty even. The figure-8 pattern was nicely consistent, with the rear capsule sounding slightly darker than the front (like the other mics I tested). Also typical of the microphones I tried, the figure-8 sound was a little darker overall, with a more pronounced midrange. (Interestingly, the KSM44 sounded the most like the KSM32 when it was in the figure-8 pattern.)
Bass boosting from proximity effect on the KSM44 is comparable to that on most other dual-diaphragm mics I have used. In addition, the proximity filter does a great job of evening out the response without excessive thinning of the sound source.
On a male singer, I auditioned the 44 against a gorgeous-sounding Neumann U 47, an AKG C 12A, and an Earthworks SR69 (a small-diaphragm cardioid condenser designed for stage use). Pick of the litter came down to the U 47 and the KSM44. Although the 44 didn't have the depth and austerity of the U 47, it had a similarly rich low end. However, the KSM44 had a little more high-end detail — presence and articulation — which helped the track sit nicely in the mix and ultimately led to my preferring it. But I was surprised and delighted by how much the Shure evoked the character of the Neumann in this test.
I next auditioned the 44 on a male singer with a hearty voice. During previous sessions I used a Neumann TLM 103 on him, which sounded great, but because of the singer's propensity to crowd the mic, the bass boosting was a little too severe and the sound too thick. I switched to the KSM44 in omni, which sounded wonderfully clear, but then the room reflections were a bit much. Finally, with the 44 in cardioid and the rolloff in the second position, I achieved perfection for the mic-eating singer. I still received a nice, full sound, but trimming off some proximity bump with the 115 Hz filter made him sound much more present and intelligible.
The KSM44 also sounded good on female vocals, and under other circumstances, I would have been happy to use it for that application. In this case, though, I had a wonderful AKG C 12A at my disposal, and anything C 12-like normally kills on female vocals. Again, the 44 sounded fine, but it didn't have the lush, velvety quality of the C 12A. However, that's comparing apples with oranges.
WHAM BAM SLAMMIN'
I tested the KSM44s on a drum set at Rear Window Studio in Brookline, Massachusetts, first as overheads and then for close-miking. For overheads, I prefer warm sounds and not a tremendous amount of high end, so I regularly use ribbon and tube mics. I especially like the smooth and focused sound of my Neumann KM 84s, particularly in the room at Rear Window, so I put the 44s next to the Neumanns. The KSM44s captured considerably more high-end detail and more bottom than the Neumanns. They were also faster and crisper sounding, which took some getting used to, and the off-axis response sounded a bit rough in that room. In the end, I stayed with the KM 84s.
Next, I tried close-miking the toms with the 44s. I was astounded by the results. The toms sounded full and round, with plenty of attack and body. I often use large condensers (Neumann FET 47s, AT 4047s) on toms, but the Shure mics set a new benchmark.
I was also impressed with the 44 on snare drum. More often than not, large condensers sound somewhat muted or overly compressed on snare drums. But the KSM44 sounded huge and true to the sound of the drum. The hi-hat bleed was a little more pronounced than what you would get with a dynamic mic, but the character of the bleed was much more musical. Many dynamic mics commonly used on snare drums sound ragged off-axis, giving the hi-hat bleed a nasty midrange honk. With the KSM44, the bleed sounded just like the hi-hat, only at a lower level. The downside was the bulk of the microphone, which made positioning a bit of a challenge.
KSM44 Specifications Elementexternally polarized (DC bias) capacitor (“true” condenser)Diaphragmdual 1", 2.5-micron, 24k-gold-sputtered MylarPolar Patternscardioid; figure-8; omnidirectionalAttenuation Pad15 dBHighpass Filters(2) 18 dB/octave @ 80 Hz; 6 dB/octave @ 115 HzFrequency Response20 Hz-20 kHz (±3 dB)Dynamic Range125 dB (cardioid)Sensitivity-31 dBV/Pa (cardioid)Signal-to-Noise Ratio87 dBASelf-Noise7 dBA (cardioid)Maximum SPL132 dB (149 dB with pad) into 2,500• (for <1% THD; cardioid)Dimensions7.37" (H) × 2.2" (D)Weight1.08 lbs.
On kick drum I did something I've never done with a large condenser — mine or anyone else's. I stuck the 44 inside the drum, about three inches from the batter head. Initially, I had the mic's pad switched off and instead used 30 dB of external padding at the preamp. Not surprisingly, the mic overloaded — but not nearly as drastically as I expected. I then engaged the pad, and the sound was not only distortion free but it was also much better than I expected. In fact, it was darn good, with plenty of attack and thump.
I then put the pair of KSM44s in omni pattern and positioned them seven to eight feet from the drum set and about 15 feet from each other. I ran both through a Joemeek VC7 mic pre and slammed the signal with a Joemeek SC2 compressor. Huge yet defined drum sounds leaped from the speakers.
For miking bass cabinets, I favor the Royer R-121 ribbon microphone for a good reason: it sounds great. So I put the KSM44 in figure-8 mode (to match the Royer's inherent pattern and to darken the 44's sound a bit) and placed both mics about six inches from a vintage Ampeg B-15N — the classic flip-top combo bass amp.
The two mics sounded more similar than I expected. However, the Royer was a bit more even and focused sounding overall, and the 44 provided a little more high-end information than I wanted for bass guitar. But I'm sure that had I put up the 44 by itself, I wouldn't have complained. The sound was smooth, punchy, and true to what was coming out of the amp.
On acoustic guitar, I put the KSM44 against a U 47, Royer R-121, and Earthworks SR69. I compared the results blind, and I rated the KSM44 as first pick, followed by the 47. I then put up a Neumann KM140, which is one of my favorite acoustic-instrument mics, and it won hands down. Again, though, the KSM44 captured a nice, broad sound with full mids and plenty of high-end detail yet no brittleness. During another session, I tried some stereo-miking setups, including XY, Blumlein, and Middle-Side. The 44s worked wonderfully in each but especially so in the M-S configuration (because of the well-defined figure-8 pattern), providing excellent imaging and definition.
For close-miking electric-guitar amps, my first-call mics are the Royer R-121, Coles 4038, AT 4047, and, occasionally, SM57. The KSM44 didn't thrill me when close-miking a Vox AC30. However, when I positioned the mic approximately 18 inches in front of the amp, the sound came alive. The mic captured the overall character of the amp and made for a perfect blend in the track.
Not surprisingly, the 44 delivers more detail than any dynamic mic I've used on a guitar amp and also more deep bottom. It combined well with the other mics I usually use — the Shure and the Royer made for an especially deadly combination.
On grand piano, I set up the KSM44s against my standard KM 84s, and I received the same results I had in the drum-overhead comparison: the 44s had a wider frequency response, but the Neumanns had a more focused and elegant sound. I liked both sounds and could have gone either way, but for the track in question, the 44s gave the piano a little more cut, which it needed.
I also compared the 44s to a pair of AKG C 414 B/ULSs, which many people regard as default piano mics. But good as the 414s sounded, the KSM44s were less colored and more to my liking.
I was surprised by the KSM44's response to horns. As I expected, it did not react well to trumpet. However, it worked nicely on tenor sax and trombone, and it really shone on clarinet.
I usually lean toward ribbon mics and other darker- or flatter-sounding mics when recording horns. But overall, the 44 worked wonderfully in that difficult application — thanks again to its mild, rather than excessive, presence boost.
The KSM44 is a versatile, workhorse-type mic with three distinctly useful sounds based on its polar patterns. It delivered very good to excellent results on every instrument I tested it on, including vocals, drums, acoustic guitars, bass and guitar cabinets, and even certain horns and wind instruments. That's a major accomplishment for any mic. The only thing I flat out didn't like it on was trumpet. In addition, the KSM44 is superbly quiet, solidly built, and handles high sound-pressure levels (SPLs) with aplomb. The mic comes with a full complement of amenities, including an aluminum flight case, a swivel-mount, and a very effective shock-mount.
Anyone who has been in the studio game for a while knows that no microphone works in every situation, and only a few seem to shine in a wide range of applications. The Shure KSM44 is one of the latter. I'm always looking for new mics to replace the classic workhorses, many of which have been around for 20 to 30 years, and the KSM44 is the best new all-purpose large-diaphragm condenser I've heard. In fact, if I could have only one large-diaphragm, multipattern (nontube) condenser mic in the less-than-$2,000 price category, the KSM44 would be it.
The only negative thing I can say about the KSM44 is that, workhorse that it is, it's somewhat lacking in character; it doesn't really have a signature sound that makes your jaw drop. The KSM44 isn't your Spinal Tap, “goes to 11”-type mic. But then, if it were, it probably wouldn't be so versatile — you can't have it both ways. However, what the KSM44 does do is cover a lot of recording applications in regal fashion — yet you don't have to be royalty to afford one.
Sean Carberry is an assistant professor of production and engineering at Berklee College of Music, production engineer at WBUR-FM, and freelance recording engineer in Boston. He can be reached at www.carpedonut.com.
large-diaphragm condenser mic
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Smooth, clear, full sound. Moderate, appealing presence boost. Versatile. Extremely rugged. High SPL handling. Comes with flight case, shock-mount, swivel-mount, and velveteen pouch. Built in the United States.
CONS: Not ideal for overly bright or strident sound sources. Could be said to lack personality or a defining, signature sound.