FIG.1: The T.H.E. microphone system lets you combine a KA-04 preamp with anumber of large- and small-diaphragm capsules. This set includescardoid, hypercardoid, diffuse-field omni, and free-field omnismall-diaphragm capsules.
Small-diaphragm condensers — the bread-and-butter mics of thestudio — are frequently used in situations that call for brightor accurate high-end pickup, fast transient response, and relativelyuncolored fidelity. As such, they are often used singly to record handpercussion, plucked stringed instruments such as acoustic guitar, andbowed stringed instruments. They are used in pairs on drum kits (asoverhead mics), piano, mallet percussion, and chamber or stringensembles. In addition, small-diaphragm mics are perfect formedium-distance spot miking of large ensembles and of operaticvocalists (as seen on the Three Tenors broadcasts). However,small-diaphragm mics are rarely used for close-miking vocalists,because they tend to be sensitive to popping and lack the enhancedwarmth of large-diaphragm models.
In the classical recording world, highly accurate small-diaphragmmics — especially those with a relatively flat frequency response— are standard equipment for concert-hall recordings ofsymphonies, choirs, and chamber groups. Matched stereo pairs orspecially designed surround configurations, in which all the mics aretested and have identical responses within close tolerances, arepreferred by audio purists for that kind of work.
For this article, I compared an international collection of cardioidcondensers priced from $480 to $1,100 each. All are end-addressmicrophones with straight, cylindrical bodies — often referred toas pencil condensers — and diaphragms measuring approximatelyhalf an inch in diameter. Each mic is a solid-state, transformerless,externally biased “true” condenser using 48V phantom power.With the exception of the AKG C 480 B/CK 61, which is 6.75 inches long,all of the mics are 4 to 6 inches in length.
Many of the mics featured here are part of modular systems, made upof a preamp body and an array of removable and interchangeable capsules(see Fig. 1). Generally, modular mics represent the top of amanufacturer's product line, in terms of both electronic sophisticationand price. Most manufacturers of modular systems offer omnidirectional,hypercardioid, and other unidirectional pickup-pattern capsules. Somealso make specialized modular capsules such as binaural spheres, largediaphragms, and pressure-zone plates. For this article, I tested themicrophones with the recommended standard cardioid capsule only.
This article is not meant to be an all-inclusive roundup of pencilcondensers in this price range. To narrow the list of transducers to amanageable size, I've left out mics that appeared in Brian Knave'sMarch 2000 article on small-diaphragm condensers, “To Tell theTruth” — which featured eight small-diaphragm condensermics priced under $600 — as well as mics recently reviewed inEM (the text of articles mentioned here is available online atwww.emusician.com).
THE MATCH GAME
The term matched pair means different things to differentpeople, microphone manufacturers included (see the sidebar“Match, Anyone?”). Unfortunately, there is no industrystandard for microphone matching, but the companies in this reviewrepresent a range of common approaches and procedures for micpairing.
Of the seven manufacturers, three — Audio-Technica, Neumann,and Pearl — sent consecutively or closely numbered mic pairswithout documentation of any matching program. AKG sent two mics, mademonths apart, that have divergent numbering, but the company includeddocumentation of the mics' closely matched frequency response. OnlySchoeps and the two smallest companies here, Josephson and T.H.E., havein-house programs for assembling and rigorously testing matchedpairs.
SETTING THE COURSE
All of the listening tests were conducted at my studio, GuerrillaRecording, in Oakland, California. For the tests using live musicians,I recorded two mic pairs in each pass through two stereo FMR RNP8380mic preamps to a 1-inch, analog, 16-track tape machine. The musiciansplayed to recorded guide tracks so that the multiple performance passeswould be of approximately equal intensity and would sync up easily forcomparison.
For auditioning, fader levels were calibrated using meters and byear to establish equivalent listening levels and to compensate forslight variations in gain between mics. The players' observations abouttheir tracks were solicited in separate listening sessions after allthe recording was complete; I've included an assortment of theircomments to round out my own impressions in the following discussion ofthe individual mics.
With the help of drummer and EM contributing author KarenStackpole, I recorded an Ayotte travel kit in my live drum room. Thatsetup let me hear how the mics reacted to both fast and slow rockdrumming in a room with plenty of ambience. For these tests, mic pairson stereo bars were set in XY configuration with an angle of about 90degrees between them, on boom stands placed at eye level about sevenfeet in front of the kit. Stackpole's listening evaluation took place afew weeks after the session and was done as a blind test with no visualindication of which mic pair she was listening to at any giventime.
I performed the acoustic guitar tracks myself in the relatively deadand unflattering acoustics of a large vocal booth. For this test, Isplit up the mic pairs, using one as a close mic about a foot from theinstrument's 12th fret, and the other as a distant room mic. Leavingthe vocal booth's double doors open, I positioned the distant micsabout eight feet away, again at eye level, on a boom stand pointing atthe guitar from an adjacent carpeted area of the studio. Stylisticallythese performances ran the gamut from chunky low-end chords to fullstrumming to intricate moving lines.
For the string-duo recordings, I employed cellist Marika Hughes andviolinist Carla Kihlstedt of the group Two Foot Yard (you can read moreabout this group's style in my November 2003 article “Tracking inthe Unplugged World”). Opting for a naturally roomy,medium-distance recording, I placed the duo in the live room about sixfeet apart. The mic pairs were split in this case, with one mic acouple of feet in front of the cello bridge, and the other above theviolin, pointing down at the bridge from a distance of four feet. On anoriginal composition covering a range of dynamics and techniques, thismiking arrangement was intended to capture a natural timbre from bothinstruments. The setup gave these tracks a healthy blend of room sound,and it resulted in off-axis bleed of each instrument into the otherintrument's mic.
To get a slightly more scientific take on the timbre of these mics,I set up a controlled loudspeaker test. In this test, the mics were setup one by one at exactly the same position in a shockmount 2 feet infront of a full-range powered monitor. Each mic then recorded a varietyof complex music mixes to a digital 8-track recorder. Test conditionswere as close to laboratory measurement standards as I could arrange inmy studio, and playback and recording levels were carefully calibratedusing standard test tones and the best gear at my disposal.
The loudspeaker test had three phases: an initial test thatconfirmed stereo matching of five of the pairs to my satisfaction; asecond test that compared all seven models with each other underidentical conditions; and a final retest of two stereo pairs —the Neumanns and the T.H.E.s — aided by the able ears of KarenStackpole. Evaluations of the seven-mic test over Tannoy PBM-8 monitorsand Grado SR-125 headphones were also performed under blind-testlistening conditions.
Along the way, I also evaluated these mics for self-noise, outputgain, and susceptibility to low-end rumble. In these categories, allthe mics performed similarly and as expected for transducers designedfor critical recording uses.
AKG C 480 B/CK 61-ULS
Althoughthe Austrian AKG C 480 B/CK 61-ULS modular system ($1,047 each) is oneof the most expensive mics tested for this article, its packaging isfar from fancy. Each mic comes packed in light foam inside anoncorrugated cardboard box. A zippered mic pouch with the AKG logo, afoam windscreen, a plastic SA 40 swivelmount, and a manual accompanythe mic.
AKG included an individual frequency-response chart with eachcapsule. The charts show that this pair of CK 61-ULS cardioid capsules(serial numbers 36610 and 36759) have a 1 dB difference from each otherfrom 80 Hz to 11 kHz. Below 80 Hz one of the capsules rolls off gently.Both capsules have presence peaks of about 2 dB at 5 kHz and 10kHz.
The C 480 B preamp body offers a range of switchable options thatare rarely seen on mics of this type. The low-cut switch has threepositions: flat (marked “lin” for linear), 70 Hz cutoff,and 150 Hz cutoff. The highpass filter has a 12 dB-per-octave slope. Again switch also features three settings: +6 dB (a boost designed foruse with the lower-output CK 69-ULS shotgun capsule), 0 dB, and a -10dB pad position. Optional capsules for this modular mic system includethe CK 62 omni, the CK 63 hypercardioid, and the CK 69-ULSsupercardioid shotgun.
Because the right-side mic of the C 480 B/CK 61-ULS pair beganmalfunctioning during the drum test, I made a separate evaluation of itagainst the right-side mics of all the other pairs. It struck me asnice and bright whether heard on its own or mixed in with the guidetrack. In general, the C 480 B/CK 61-ULSs also delivered a good, sharpattack on all the drums, but lacked some fundamental lower-midrangetone on the kick and snare.
Cellist Hughes and I agreed that this mic excelled on arco (bowed)cello and gave the duo recording a high-end sheen that could beperceived as either bright or thin. In fact, our string listeningsession ended with a long discussion on the merits of thecharacteristically crisp AKG sound contrasted with the smoothertonality of the Neumann KM 184 pair in this test. The musicians seemedtorn between the two, concluding that the C 480 B/CK 61-ULS was moreopen in the high end, with a pop sound and more condenser-like shimmerthan the KM 184. But in terms of fidelity, the C 480 B/CK 61-ULS didn'tquite capture a balanced violin tone; as Kihlstedt put it, it was“not bad, but not special.”
At both positions in the guitar test, the C 480 B/CK 61-ULS had amellow tone quite similar to that of the Neumann and Schoeps mics.These three mics were also similar in that their sound was not alwaysas incisive and bright as I would have liked for a sparkly pop mix. Allthree had a good, solid midrange tone, but in the close-mic positionthe C 480 B/CK 61-ULS missed some of the low-end tone and chunkiness onmy chordal playing.
In loudspeaker tests, the C 480 B/CK 61-ULS delivered a full soundthat was similar to the Neumann KM 184 through headphones. Heard onmonitors, its midrange was flat — it was close to thestill-flatter midrange of the Schoeps, but noticeably crisper. At timesthe C 480 B/CK 61-ULS brought out some harshness in cymbal sounds.
The Japanese-made AT4051a ($595 each) arrives in aclassy padded plastic case that snaps closed with a metal button latch.A foam windscreen and durable AT8405 swivelmount with a solid metalbase are included in the roomy case. Rectangles cut into the case'sdense foam can be removed to make room for additional modular capsules,namely the AT4049a-EL (omnidirectional) and AT4053a-EL(hypercardioid).
A single-sheet manual sent with each mic details specifications andimportant user information. According to the manufacturer's chart, thefrequency response of the AT4051a cardioid capsule featured in thesetests is basically flat below 1 kHz, with a mild bass boost around 50Hz. Its high-frequency response begins gently rising at 2 kHz and peaksat two “humps” centered at 7 and 15 kHz. The preamp body(an AT4900a-48) has a low-cut switch that engages an 80 Hz, 12dB-per-octave filter. The serial numbers — A02373 and A02374— on the mics sent for review are identical for the preamp andcapsule.
Audio-Technica's small diaphragm elicited a unanimously positiveopinion from the participants in the string listening session. The micwas repeatedly described as “smooth.” Kihlstedt and I bothcommented on the pleasant softness of the violin's upper registerthrough the AT4051a. Hughes, who tended to find the other mics suitedeither for arco or for pizzicato playing, praised the AT4051a'shandling of both bowed and plucked lines. She also remarked that itconveyed a “human quality” that was rich in depth andclarity without being too defined. For Kihlstedt and Hughes, who do awide range of professional work in studios and in symphonies, theAT4051a seemed to strike just the right balance to work well with avariety of musical and production styles.
The AT4051a really impressed me when used as a close-mic on acousticguitar. It seemed to have all the body of the warmer Neumann andSchoeps models, with the added benefit of a perfectly defined high-endsparkle. At a distance, it took on a smoother and more neutralcharacter not unlike the Schoeps, but retained its characteristicwarmth and presence.
On the loudspeaker tests, the AT4051a conveyed a solid andimpressive midrange that subtly brought the snare drum, vocals, andother lead instruments to the foreground. The mic's overall airinessand listenability were as pleasing as the Josephson's and the T.H.E.'s.And the AT4051a stood out from the pack in terms of its rich mids andupper bass, big sound, and overall smoothness. Scheduling problemsprevented the Audio-Technica AT4051a pair from arriving at my studio intime for inclusion in the stereo drum test.
JOSEPHSON ENGINEERING SERIES FOUR C42
The only American-made microphone in this article comesfrom the small shop of designer David Josephson in Santa Cruz,California. Against the advertising budgets of the industry's Goliaths,this David doesn't have much of a chance. But a quick glance atJosephson's tech-savvy Web site testifies to the deep theoreticalknowledge of precision recording and measurement mics that enablesJosephson to stand tall alongside any of the international audiogiants. In fact, Josephson has made capsules for a number ofbetter-known mic companies — years ago Groove Tubes and Manleybecame the first to incorporate his designs into their productlines.
The nonmodular Series Four C42 ($480 each; matched pair with blackchrome finish in case, $1,060) is in the entry-level Josephson line.The matched stereo pair I received (serial numbers 2623 and 2624)arrived in what must be the smallest Pelican case made. This hardblack-plastic enclosure is 6 inches wide, 2 inches high, and 4.5 inchesdeep — and, yes, it holds both mics. It locks closed with asturdy latch and even has an air-pressure valve.
Describing his procedure for mic matching, Josephson says,“Every C42 microphone is tested for frequency response in ouranechoic chamber. C42MP matched pairs are selected for best curve fitover the audio range before the production serial numbers are assigned.Regular production C42s match each other very closely anyway, but weare sensitive to users' needs for precise stereo imaging and haveoffered curve-matched pairs for the past 15 years.”
The mic pair ships with two shockmounts. These resemble a standardstage-mic swivelmount except that the mic is held in a thick sleeveattached to the base by what looks like a massive rubber band. Nowindscreen or documentation was included.
Stackpole picked this pair as her personal favorite for drumrecording, summing it up as “tight and tonally well balanced,with good presence, sharp attack, and a sparkly high end.” Shepraised this mic's ability to focus and unify the sound of the kit sothat none of its components were washed out or too prominent. To her,this pair sounded rich, but also brighter than the Schoeps and Neumannpairs.
I, too, thought the C42s did something unique to the drum kit,adding immediacy by sharpening the direct transients and separatingforeground details from the reflected room ambience. Because of theC42s' superior resolution and high-end detail, I was actually able todiscern a flutter echo generated by the kick beater in the drum room.At times the Josephsons might have been too sizzly around 7 kHz, butthe sound was never too bright or thin. These drum tracks soundedcrystal clear when mixed in with the guide track at varying levels.
Although Kihlstedt and I both thought the C42 was a bit too brighton the violin, it did, once again, enhance the dimensionality andrealism of our live-room recording. The ambience on this track wassomehow cleaner and more dimensional, resulting in better stereoimaging and startling fidelity. Hughes interpreted this difference asan increased amount of reverberation on the cello and thought that itcomplemented her arco playing. She also commented at length on theviolin sound, in which she heard an enhanced sense of depth andclarity, as well as nuances of expression that the other mics didn'tpick up.
With its winning balance of woody tone, crisp highs, and transientdetail, the Josephson C42 helped my inexpensive guitar cut through theguide track mix at differing levels. But even though I had used theJosephson on commercial sessions with the same guitar and loved itstone, from this test position the close mic sounded boxy in the lowermidrange. At a distance, it came across as lively and seemed physicallycloser than the other distance mics because of its inherent sparkle andfinely etched resolution.
On headphone evaluation of the loudspeaker tests, the C42s soundedsmooth and clear, with a lively quality similar to the T.H.E. Theyexhibited a big sound with good overall balance through studiomonitors, delivering a bit more high end than the Audio-TechnicaAT4051a and comparably solid lows.
NEUMANN KM 184
Thefixed-cardioid KM 184 ($950 each; SKM stereo set, $1,950) is one of themost widely known small-diaphragm condensers in the recording industry.I wanted to include this popular model from German manufacturer Neumannnot only because of its considerable merits as a recording mic, butalso because I hoped to provide a well-known point of reference forreaders interpreting the results of my tests.
Although the KM 184 capsule is threaded, it is not removable, andthe Neumann 180 series is not part of a modular system. Nonetheless,this mic is supported by a full range of accessories andtop-of-the-line packaging. The SKM stereo microphone set sent for thisarticle contains two mics (serial numbers 59282 and 59283). Neumanndeems the specs and frequency-response curves of these units to beclose to each other because of their consecutive numbering, but thecompany did not specially match them for critical stereo use.
A jewelry-grade wooden presentation box with a metal latch holdsboth mics. A pair of foam windscreens and interchangeable SG 21/17swivel holders, which attach to a threaded metal base, are standardequipment for the set. Also included is a comprehensive manual, whichshows the KM 184's frequency response as basically flat in themidrange, with a low-end rolloff starting at 200 Hz and sloping gentlydown to -12 dB at 20 Hz at a distance of one meter. A broad presenceboost of about 2 dB extends from 7 kHz to above 10 kHz.
In her blind-test auditioning, Stackpole rated the KM 184 higherthan the T.H.E. on cymbal presence, but she gave it a lower rating thanthe Schoeps for smoothness in the high register. In her assessment, theNeumann performs with “decent low end, good midrange, and gooddefinition in the highs.”
In listening to the drum tracks, I also noted that the Neumanns— like the Schoeps pair — picked up lots of midrange andlows from the room, adding power and a desirable “bigness”to the drum sound. Whether soloed or mixed in with the guide track, theKM 184 pair conveyed a strong tonal balance, offered crisp highs thatwere never overbright, and accurately represented the kit and roomambience.
Both of the string players commented on the realism of the Neumannpair, declaring that “it sounds like us” and describing thesound as honest and familiar. The Neumanns tied the Audio-Technica pairin best representing what Kihlstedt and Hughes are used to hearingacoustically without being too clinical. We all enjoyed the Neumann'srichness and open, roomy fidelity, but there was some disagreement inthe control room about the mics' high-end character. Hughes thought theviolin's upper end needed more pizzazz. I preferred the Schoeps'streatment of the violin's upper range, and for my taste, the cello'sbow sound was too pronounced on the Neumann tracks.
As a close guitar mic, the KM 184 had a good, solid,middle-of-the-road tone, along the same lines as the AKG andAudio-Technica transducers but with enhanced realism and moresatisfying complexity on the midrange. Listening to this close-mictrack, I was reminded why the KM 184 is often a first-pick guitar micfor studio engineers working with all kinds of production styles. At adistance, it lost a bit of its characteristic warmth and tested morelike the brighter mics without ever crossing over into undesirablethinness.
The KM 184 tested similarly to the AKG condenser on the loudspeakermixes in terms of overall tonal balance and midrange detail. But onheadphones and monitors it always sounded a bit warmer and moresubstantial. High-end pickup was smooth and pleasant, with no evidenceof harshness on cymbals.
I decided to retest the KM 184 pair after hearing discrepancies inthe stereo matching the first time around. After carefully matching therecording and playback levels of both microphones using a standard 1kHz tone, I noticed that their channel meter readings did not behaveidentically with full-range mixes. When listening, I found one mic'streble response to be slightly brighter, with audible differencesaround 7 kHz (which is the upper range of hi-hat, acoustic guitar, andfemale vocals).
When I asked Stackpole to listen to the treble response of thesemics, she detected no difference, cheerfully declaring their stereomatching to be “close enough for rock 'n' roll.” She'sright about that, and in Neumann's defense I should reiterate that thecompany's policy is simply to provide pairs that are sequentiallynumbered and within specifications, but not matched by ear.
PEARL TL 66
Sweden's Pearl Mikrofonlaboratorium definitely takesthe blue ribbon in the Cutest Packaging category. The company's modularTL 66 ($500 each) arrives in a sturdy cardboard tube with removablebrown caps at both ends and old-world sepia-print paper wrapped aroundthe exterior. Inside, the microphone is suspended lengthwise within acentral foam ring. This doesn't seem like the best possible protectionfor a premium mic, especially since the mic body can slip up and down abit within the ring, potentially banging the soft plastic end caps. Butthis novel package will evidently survive international shipping and isat least crushproof and weatherproof enough for location use.
Although a shockmount and windscreen are available as options, thePearl TL 66 is the only mic I tested for this article that comes withno accessories. A photocopied sheet showing a universalfrequency-response chart for the cardioid and omnidirectional (TL 66k)models was included with one of the mics; the sheet also hadhandwritten test results showing sensitivity and self-noise ratings forthe mic model I received. According to the response chart, the TL 66has a pronounced low-end rolloff beginning at about 300 Hz and high-endpresence boosts at 5 and 10 kHz.
When she first brought up the unmarked faders for this pair of micson her drums, Stackpole made a face and exclaimed, “Where did thelows go?” I had to agree that, in contrast to the other mics, thePearls didn't do justice to the beefy tone of her kit's kick, toms, orsnare. Stackpole ultimately summarized the TL 66 as delivering plentyof crisp attack but not much punch, and she singled it out as her leastfavorite mic of the pack. That assessment is valid, though I would addthat this mic excels at clarity and could be used to add some zip tothe sound of a thuddy, dull kit or a timid drummer.
I suspected that my string players would be favorably impressed bythe exciting high-end clarity of the Pearl TL 66 sound. Initially theywere pleased with the mic's handling of high harmonics, and I thoughtthat the sound was very natural on restrained passages. But it becameclear as the piece progressed toward its robust ending that this micpair favored the high end too much, sounding harsh on passages that hadvigorous bowing. Hughes also noted that her cello sounded muffled inthe pizzicato passages, and that compared with the other mics' stringtracks, the room sound on this track lacked depth.
When my guitar was mixed in with the guide track, the TL 66 helpedit to cut through well and hold its own even at a lower level. Forenhanced high-end zip in a bright pop mix, it is certainly the mic tobeat. But alone outside the mix, the TL 66 underrepresented the bottomend of the guitar up close and sounded a bit small at a distance.
The Pearl's pickup of recorded mixes in the loudspeaker test was, asthe frequency-response chart led me to expect, lean in the bass rangeand sometimes harsh or unpleasant in its handling of high-endinformation. Its distinctive frequency curve gives the Pearl aninstantly recognizable sound that was always easy to pick out from therest of the mics under blind testing conditions.
Cosmetically, this mic had a problem that the other models didn't.After routine handling for just the tests described here, the blackpaint around the rim of both mics' XLR connectors began to chipaway.
SCHOEPS U.S. STEREO SET
The deluxe entry comes from Schoeps, like Neumann ahighly regarded German microphone manufacturer. The Schoeps CMC64 STstereo set ($2,165 per mic pair; mics not available individually) isdesigned around the Collette modular series CMC 6 body and MK 4cardioid capsule. According to product manager Scott Boland of ReddingAudio (Schoeps's U.S. distributor), the U.S. Stereo Set is a specialpackaging of the standard Colette series created for the Americanmarket to simplify ordering modular mic parts and save users somemoney. The wooden case is a free bonus for U.S. customers only.
The pair I received was sequentially numbered (capsule number 81229on body number 22813, and capsule number 81230 on body number 22814)and came with a pair of windscreens and two compact suspensionshockmounts. Though these mounts are made of plastic, they really dothe job, and on location recordings their small size and light weightare actually a plus.
All of these parts are nestled in dense, precision-cut foam inside agorgeous hinged wooden case. Like the boxes used by Neumann, T.H.E.,and a few other manufacturers, this top-quality latching wooden caselooks as though it will protect its contents and last for decades. Youmight even wonder if it's too nice to take out on a rainy night or tothe local dive for a live jam session!
Regarding Schoeps's program for matching mics, Boland said,“There are special testing procedures for matched pair capsules,which come in all U.S. Stereo Sets. Schoeps feels that their tolerancesare extremely low, and even though there is not a desperate need forexact capsule matching, the company likes to offer it. A matched pairof capsules comes with a special certificate, included with the U.S.Stereo Set. They measure every capsule and match the frequency responseand sensitivity. The CMC 6 bodies are discrete Class-A amplifiers thatinclude some handmade and matched components, and we guarantee that thebodies will have sequential serial numbers in the U.S. sets.”
No documentation accompanied the Schoeps Stereo Set shipped to me.Apparently Redding Audio keeps the matching certificates for reviewunits on file so that they don't get lost. According to a frequencychart on the manufacturer's Web site, the MK 4 capsule's response isruler flat from 150 Hz to 20 kHz and only 2 dB down at 70 Hz. Acomplete range of single-pattern and specialty modular capsules isavailable for the CMC 6 body.
Drummer Stackpole characterized the Schoeps pair as having a smooth,somewhat dark sound, with a beefy low end and nice definition. She alsopraised this condenser for its openness and accurate portrayal ofcymbals and hi-hat, blended with a solid representation of room tone.My take on this model is that it is probably too flat and dark forgeneral use on rock drum overheads, where a condenser mic with apresence peak is often standard. But I did like the punchy low end ofthe MK 4 capsule and could imagine it being a real winner forapplications in which a natural drum sound is more important thanhigh-end sizzle. (Redding Audio's Boland points out that users who wanta little more high end can opt for the CMC64V ST stereo set, whichcomes with the MK 4V capsules that have a rise of approximately 2.5 dBat 10 kHz.)
Warmth is a term that came up again and again as I listenedto the Schoeps tracks with the string players. Like the Audio-Technicapair, the Schoeps mics elicited a unanimous positive response from mylisteners; this mic pair sounded dramatically different from all theother presence-enhancing condensers, but everyone in the control roompraised the Schoeps sound on analog tape. Violinist Kihlstedt notedthat her instrument had a full-bodied “old school” soundwith nice shimmer and presence, even though her mic sometimes“airbrushed the high end out a little too much.” Hughesalso commented on the rich, vintage sound of the duo and her arcoplaying in particular, but added that she preferred the sharper tone ofthe AKG on plucked lines.
For me, the sweetness of the Schoeps track was a little bit of audioheaven. These silky tones actually soothed my ears at the end of a longday of testing.
As a close mic on acoustic guitar, the MK 4 capsule had anunmistakably round tone with significant retro or vintage appeal. Inthe close position, it exhibited a slightly boomy low end, but thehighs were mellow, and the Schoeps sound was much like that of theAKGs, both on its own and mixed in with the guide track. I preferredthe Schoeps to the other models as a distant guitar mic because of theway it kept its smooth, detailed tone from afar.
The Schoeps CMC 6/MK 4 was predictably the flattest-sounding andmost unhyped mic in the loudspeaker test. As such it was easy todistinguish, even in blind tests. By not adding or detracting much fromthe sound source, the Schoeps set achieves a sought-after, thoughelusive, degree of accuracy.
The cardioid version of T.H.E.'s relatively new modular microphonedesign mates a KA-04 preamp body with the KR-2C cardioid half-inchcapsule (the KA-04/KR-2C combination is priced at $750). So far, everycapsule made by T.H.E. in its Argentinean facility is designed to beused with the KA-04 body, including a broad selection oflarge-diaphragm, side-address, and measurement capsules. The roster ofinterchangeable small-diaphragm capsules includes the KR-1D(omnidirectional diffuse field), KR-1F (omnidirectional free field),KR-2W (wide or subcardioid), and KR-3H (hypercardioid).
For this article, T.H.E. submitted a stereo demonstration set withmost of the aforementioned capsules and two KA-04 bodies. Thecomponents are housed in a charming American-made hinged cedar box.Custom mic sets in these latching cedar boxes are made to order byT.H.E.'s U.S. representative, H. Taylor Johnson (the T in T.H.E.).
T.H.E. provides a uniquely simple all-metal swivelmount, which holdsthe cylindrical mic preamp in a clamping sleeve. To insert or releasethe mic, two tabs at the top of the mount (neatly engraved with theT.H.E. logo) must be pressed together, widening the sleeve so that themic body can be slipped in or out. This clever design is also used byRussian mic manufacturer Oktava for its popular MC012 microphone.
No windscreens or individual documentation accompanied these mics.According to the company's product brochure, all the small-diaphragmcapsules are available as matched pairs for stereo recording, at noadditional cost. Taylor Johnson informed me during the writing of thisarticle that he matches these mics personally, by ear. Sometime in 2004the company's matching duties will be split between identical T.H.E.testing facilities in the United States and Argentina. No serialnumbers were visible on the demo capsules, but the preamps wereengraved with individual ID markings (2NJ/2N2.)
Like the Josephson Series Four C42, the T.H.E. pair delivered a veryclear, high-resolution rock drum sound without being overbright orharsh. Stackpole called it “tight and focused, direct and punchybut not a lot of room sound.” She described this pair asconveying a nice low end, but missing some of the fundamental tone ofthe cymbals and ambience, making the overall sound more defined butless roomy than the Schoeps and Neumann pairs.
This mic pair was on par with the Josephsons in its ability toconvey a drum sound that is not only accurate, but also pleasing to theear and more or less ready to mix without additional high-end EQ.Despite the relatively distant mic placement, these two pairs alwayssounded timbrally balanced and three-dimensional.
For her opening pizzicato lines, cellist Hughes instantly liked thesound of this mic. Kihlstedt described the T.H.E. timbre as “amore modern sound” with a narrowly focused EQ that she thoughtworked better for her violin than for the cello. Further into theaudition, both classically trained string players decided that fortheir tastes, the timbre of these mics was a bit too clear andclinical, accentuating bow sound too much and lacking in the cello'slow range. Because my preferences run toward warm string sounds, Iagreed: this sound has more promise for pop studio work than foraudiophile concert-hall recording.
At both positions this mic was my “bold and bright”favorite for guitar. Up close it represented the acoustic guitar moreaccurately than the other contenders, and it also invigorated the soundof my rather average axe with an exciting, top-dollar sheen. From adistance, it kept its sharp definition without washing out or soundingthin. Like the Josephson C42, the T.H.E. mic cut through the guidetrack well at varying levels with its woody tone, crisp highs, andtransient detail.
In the loudspeaker test over headphones, this mic was again similarto the Josephson and to the Audio-Technica with its clear timbre. Butthe T.H.E. had a different high-end emphasis that seemed a little toostrong in the range of 2 to 4 kHz. When heard over studio monitors, theKR-2C capsule at times rivaled the full lows of the Neumann, but italways brought out an airier high end by comparison, and itoccasionally exaggerated cymbal sounds in the mixes.
As I did with with the Neumann KM 184 and for similar reasons, Itested the T.H.E. pair a second time for stereo matching, again withStackpole's assistance. In this trial, Stackpole and I both found thatthe two mics in the stereo demo set provided by T.H.E. did not soundidentically matched. Specifically, one mic had a midrange bump around750 Hz. One effect of this bump was to make the acoustic guitar in themix sound slightly more honky and nasal. Applying a 1.5 dB cut to thatmic's channel with mixing board EQ eliminated most, but not all, of thediscrepancy to my ear. Stackpole characterized the difference as“very subtle.”
Rich ManPoor ManIf I Werea Rich Man
I'd be happy to have any of thesemic pairs residing permanently in the Guerrilla Recording vault, andI'm sure I could find uses for all of them. Keeping economic realitiesin mind, I've assembled a table of my Rich Man and Poor Man picks fromthis lineup, broken down by recommended usage of these mics.
Locationstereo recording with a matched pairSchoepsJosephsonPop studio use, stereopairAKGAudio-TechnicaPop studiouse, single micNeumannT.H.E. orJosephsonString ensembleinstrumentsSchoeps orNeumannAudio-TechnicaSampling/Foley/soundeffectsAKG orT.H.E.Pearl orJosephsonFlatresponseSchoepsAudio-TechnicaAll-purposemodular system and best range of accessoriesSchoepsT.H.E.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
The first comment Hughes made after a brief listen to our string-duotracks was, “They all sound so different!” That spontaneousresponse neatly sums up what may be the most complex and persistentissue I faced in preparing this article. Here are seven premium micsdesigned for critical recording, each carefully made and tested by someof the most respected names in the business. Each manufacturer does itsjob well and adheres to high technical standards.
And yet none of these mics, considered singly or in pairs, soundedthe same in any of the tests I ran. As noted, some were similar inbroad ranges of their tonality or in the way they picked up room soundand other nuances in stereo applications. As thorough as these testsmay appear to be, they really just hint at how a given mic will performover time in a specific recording environment. That is why I've done mybest to keep my own comments broad and subjective.
When it comes to evaluating and choosing one favorite from a fieldof similar mics, stylistic factors may be just as important as thesonic qualities I've focused on here. For example, guitar or cellorecorded by the relatively flat response of the Schoeps mics may beperfect for a mellow folk or classical recording. But for a salsa ormodern-rock session, those same instruments and players may well soundbest with a brighter mic such as the Pearl or T.H.E.
Likewise, factors such as recording format and media, preferred micpreamps, use of compression and reverb, and room acoustics candramatically affect the suitability of a particular mic for yourrecording setup. And when you add in the all-important element ofpersonal taste to this complex equation, terms like best orfavorite become meaningless.
Nonetheless, being the opinionated reviewer that I am, I can'tresist a purely personal assessment of these microphones. As far asbasic timbre goes, I can confidently define the poles of this spectrum.On one end is the reliably bright Pearl TL 66, and at the otherextreme, the always smooth Schoeps CMC 6/MK 4. I would rank the NeumannKM 184 next to the Schoeps for its consistent and ample low-end warmth.That leaves four other mics, each with its own flavor of presenceboosting and bass-to-treble balance, in the middle of the spectrum.
My take on these entries is that the Josephson Series Four C42 andT.H.E. KA-04/KR-2C gravitated toward the bright and excited end of thespectrum. However, they almost always delivered pleasing tonality andimpressive depth.
The AKG C 480 B/CK 61-ULS was less predictable and more difficult tocategorize. More than once it demonstrated a basically flat responseand closely resembled the mics at the warmer end of the spectrum. Atother times, typically with distant placement, it had more bite anddownplayed lower mids and bass.
The solidly centrist Audio-Technica AT4051a sounded consistentlyfull and balanced in every test, never disturbing my sensibilities withtoo much treble or bass emphasis. This mic's dependable accuracy andrelatively modest price makes it easy to recommend for almost any jobaround the studio.
Myles Boisenis the senior mic wrangler, janitor, andgroup therapist at Guerrilla Recording and the Headless BuddhaMastering Lab in Oakland, California.