To Tell The Truth - EMusician

To Tell The Truth

Listen in as eight affordable small-diaphragm condenser mics take the stand–the mic stand, that is!
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When you need to record acoustic instruments, a pair ofsmall-diaphragm condenser mics is all but indispensable.Large-diaphragm condensers are usually favored for vocals (among otherthings), but when tonal accuracy is the goal, smaller-diaphragm micsare often the better choice, thanks to the presence boosting and othercoloration they typically provide. Not only do smaller-diaphragmdesigns generally offer a more linear frequency response, they alsotend to respond more quickly and accurately to transients-a key elementin conveying a sense of realism. For these reasons, small-diaphragmcondensers are often designated "instrument" microphones. (They arealso popular for 2-track live recording.)

Realism is also the motive behind having a matched pair of mics,which allows you to record in stereo. (For a discussion on matchedpairs, see the sidebar "Match, Anyone?") With certain mic-placementtechniques (for example, coincident or near-coincident), stereo mikingcan greatly augment the sense of realism by capturing the spatialcues-width, height, and depth-that our ears normally glean. Stereomiking can also be used simply to bolster the sound by picking updifferent frequency content from the source-for example, a spaced pairon an acoustic guitar, with one mic positioned near the 12th fret tocapture lows from the sound hole and highs from the strings, and theother aimed at the bo dy to pick up more woody warmth and midrange.

Clearly, for recordists looking to expand their microphone palette,a pair of small-diaphragm condenser mics are a smart buy. But thequestion is, as always, Which ones are the best choices? We found morethan 30 models currently available-a formidable array to choose from.But some of those mics were prohibitively expensive, and others, likethe venerable Shure SM81, are well-known elements (no pun intended)with which many engineers and recording musicians are already familiar.So we whittled our list down to a manageable number of models-eight-inthe hope of shedding some light on these unsung transducer heroes.

"If I Had My choose"

With so many mics to choose from, the selection process wasdifficult. Fortunately, our overall mission was clear from the start.First, we wanted to focus on affordable mics, but without limitingourselves to the cheapest available. So we set our maximum price at$600 (U.S. retail), reasoning that anything above that figure would bemore than most of our readers are willing or able to spend.Nevertheless, we decided to pass (at the manufacturer’s request,in some cases) on a few mics costing less than $300 each, on thegrounds that such units often are fraught with compromises inmaterials, workmanship, or both–and are probably put togetheroverseas by cheap labor, to boot.

Familiarity was another consideration, in the sense that we chose tofocus on newer or lesser-known mics, if only for the sake of faircoverage. That means we intentionally shied away from microphones madeby the big and familiar manufacturers, including AKG, Audio-Technica,Beyerdynamic, Electro-Voice, Sennheiser, Shure Brothers, and the rest.We also excluded mics that have already received coverage in EM (suchas the Neumann KM 184 and the Crown CM-700), with one notableexception–the Earthworks SR77. We included the SR77 for a coupleof reasons: one, because of its atypical design (it employs anexceptionally small diaphragm), and two, because it was our 2000Editors’ Choice for small-diaphragm condenser mic. Having given itthis award, we were curious to see how the SR77, which we knew fromexperience to be very accurate, would compare to the other mics.

EAst meets west

What began to emerge at this point in the selection process was akind of East-meets-West theme, which we found intriguing. There werethree "Eastern bloc" mics: the Microtech Gefell M300 (eastern Germany),and the Elation KM201 and Oktava MC012 (both from the former SovietUnion). And three mics qualified, more or less, for a "Made in USA"designation: the AM30, from GT Electronics (a division of AlesisCorporation), the Audix SCX-one, and the Earthworks SR77.

We expanded the East-West theme a bit with the addition of two othermics we were curious about–one West German, the MBHO MBNM 440 C-L,and the other British made, the Hebden Sound CM1050C. But the questionstill loomed in our minds: Would there be quantifiable sonicdifferences between mics made in the United States (as well as the twoother "free-market" nations) and those made in countries that untilrelatively recently were separated from the rest of the world–andits technology–by the Iron Curtain?

Common Ground

Like "large diaphragm," the descriptor "small diaphragm" gets tossedaround a lot but is rarely defined. Then again, maybe that’s thebeauty of it. Though typically used to refer to diaphragms a half-inchin diameter or smaller, the term’s inexactness allowed us somelatitude–in this case, to include the Microtech Gefell M300 andthe GT Electronics AM30, both of which employ a 3Ú4-inchdiaphragm. (The other mics have 1Ú2-inch diaphragms except for theEarthworks SR77, at 3Ú8 inch.)

More important than diaphragm size, of course, is the purpose of themicrophone. All of those tested here are intended primarily asinstrument mics, which is reflected in the fact that each one isfront-address (whereas large-diaphragm condensers typically areside-address). Also, most of these mics are relatively small andslender, facilitating easy positioning in tight spaces.

One of the mics tested here, the Earthworks SR77, is an "electret"style condenser (that is, it has a fixed-charge, back-plate permanentlypolarized capacitor); all the others are "true" condensers. The more weresearched this distinction, the more we came to believe that itdidn’t matter for the purposes of this article. Of course, beingcondensers, all of these mics require standard 48V phantom power.

As for polar pattern, five of the mics are fixed-cardioid, while theothers are modular in design and come with a cardioid capsule. Wetested all of the mics in cardioid, which is the pattern most commonlyused for the applications on which we focused.

Road Tests

We requested a pair of each type of mic, which allowed us to stereomic all sources. We tested the units in four different musicalapplications: two in the studio and two in a concert venue.

In the studio, we used spaced pairs to record acoustic guitar andXY-coincident pairs as drum overheads. Local up-and-comer Shelley Doty(see Fig. 1), who was one of the two winners in the 1999 San FranciscoLilith Fair Talent Search Contest, brought in her Taylor 612-C for theacoustic-guitar tracks and played–ten or more times in a row, andwith remarkable consistency–an original Celtic-style compositiontitled "Young Dragons in Love." (The mics were positioned as a spacedpair in the manner described in the introduction to this article.)

For the second studio test, I played the drums, laying down a simplebeat with prescribed rides, rolls, and crashes. (I made a chart first,and played to a click track.) Fills at the end of each section movedslowly from snare to toms to kick drum, an approach that allowed us tolisten critically to each element of the kit. The mics were positionedin an XY-coincident pair about three feet above the kit.

We were fortunate to be able to record both grand piano (a Steinway)and choir at one of the premier jazz-performance spaces in the country,Yoshi’s Jazz House at Jack London Square in Oakland, California.The piano was played by EM author Peter Drescher, a veteran performerwho has worked with Joe Louis Walker and the Pickle Family Circus,among others. Drescher played one of his trademark pieces, DukeEllington’s "Don’t Get Around Much Anymore." Afterexperimenting with both XY and spaced-pair miking, we settled on thespaced pair, with one mic aimed at the bass strings (at the far end ofthe piano) and the other positioned to capture the treble register andhammers (see Fig. 2).

We also had the good fortune of working with members from theOakland Interfaith Gospel Choir–one of the finest such groups inthe country. Although the full choir of 65 people wasn’tavailable, Director Terrance Kelly kindly gathered six members of thechoir’s smaller (16-person) ensemble for the microphone tests.This group of four women and two men performed "Ding Dong Merrily onHigh," a piece that Kelly had chosen for its diverse range ofvoices–he doubled on falsetto soprano and bass–and its widedynamic range. For these recordings, I had "tech support" from localmusician, engineer, and bass player extraordinaire Mike Sugar, whohelped greatly with setting up and tearing down, keeping tabs on tracksand levels, and so on. We tried a few different miking arrangements andfound that we got the best results from an XY-coincident pairpositioned above the choir and aiming downward (see Fig. 3).

Direct Path

All performances were recorded direct to Alesis ADAT XT20s usingBLUE (Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics) Kiwi microphone cables,stock converters on the ADATs, and BASF preformatted ADAT Master Tape.I employed a variety of mic preamps, including a Focusrite Green forthe acoustic-guitar and gospel-choir tracks; an Earthworks Lab 102 forthe drum-overhead tracks; and for the piano tracks, Mackie’s newXDRs, which were stock on the 1202-VLZ Pro that the company kindly lentus for this review. For the recordings done at Yoshi’s, I patchedthe returns through the 1202 and monitored on NHTPro M-00 poweredmonitors and Sony MDR-7506 headphones (see Fig. 3).

I recorded the stereo tracks side by side, keeping the same orderfor each instrument, for a total of 16 tracks. Great pains were takento ensure near-equivalent levels from one pair of mics to the next (theoutputs varied considerably). In addition, I fine-tuned stray levelsfurther before critical playback.

For the listening phase, I simply brought up all 16 tracks (muted)at once, and then unmuted any stereo pair at a time for easy A/Bcomparisons. All listening tests were conducted on NHTPro A-20 monitorsand, in some instances, on Grado Labs SR325 headphones. Naturally, allmonitor channels were free of EQ and effects, and the tracks werepanned identically for each stereo pair.

The Panel

Six people, including me, listened to and compared the final tracks.Reasoning that the musicians who played the instruments should be in onthe listening, I recruited Drescher to review the piano tracks, Dotythe guitar tracks, and Stev Schwartz, one of the singers from theOakland Interfaith Gospel Choir Ensemble, the choir tracks. For helpwith the drum tracks, I enlisted EM assistant editor Rick Weldon, whois a versatile musician as well as an accomplished engineer andproducer.

I also thought it sensible to ask a complete outsider–someonewho had not been involved in the recordings and who knew nothing aboutthe various mics–to come in and listen to all of the tracks. Thatdaunting task went to a local musician and producer named Keith Nelsonwhom I have worked with on and off for the past year and whose ears Ihave grown to trust. Nelson not only sings and plays bass, guitar,drums, and keyboards, but he’s also a fastidious and demandingproducer–all traits that made him ideal for this job.

Only I knew which mics were which during the listening tests; theother folks did their listening "blind," referring to the mics only bynumber (one, two, three, and so forth). I revealed the identities ofthe mics only after all comments were in.

People have biases, naturally, and in a subjective listening testsuch as this one, it’s helpful to know those biases up front.Interestingly, each of the listeners expressed a preference for warmtones and lots of bass–a predilection that definitely affectedjudgment, and must be taken into account. Drescher, who was less thanthrilled from the start with the brightness of the Steinway werecorded, said, "I prefer warmer-sounding pianos, and generally I likebig, round tones and lots of bass." Nelson expressed a similar bias: "Ilike big bass sounds, and I tend to prefer pretty sounds over accurateones." (Nelson’s other comments also indicated an affinity forbright, crystalline highs.) Said Doty, "For this particular guitar,which tends to be somewhat midrangy due to its small body and mapleback and sides, I prefer a mic that flatters the sound by adding someextra warmth and bass." Regarding the drum tracks, Weldon said, "Icould always add highs and make the drums sound brighter if I wanted,so I usually wouldn’t choose a mic that already does that."

The Bigger Picture

From the get-go, everybody agreed that the differences between thesame-instrument tracks were, with the occasional exception, subtle. Infact, at first they sounded so similar that several of the listenersexpressed dismay, wondering if they would really be up to the task ofdistinguishing between the minute variations in tone–not tomention the other difficult part: putting those distinctions intomeaningful language! But after 10 to 20 minutes of acclimation time(the recorded performances were 2 to 4 minutes long), the listeners gottheir bearings and settled into critical listening mode. Beyond that,it took another 30 to 60 minutes of careful listening–perinstrument–for the listeners to render considered judgments.

Everyone agreed, too, that all of the mics sounded good. As Nelsonput it, "I’m sure if I went into a session and got handed any oneof these mics, I’d be happy." Which is not to say that thereweren’t qualitative differences between the tracks, or that we hadno difficulty deciding which mics we liked most or least for a givenapplication (although there was the occasional toss-up). Rather, theopinions expressed by the listeners were remarkably consistent. For themost part, though, the sonic differences between the "best" and "worst"tracks were slight. I believe that if you were to put up any one ofthese mics by itself without also hearing the others, you would almostcertainly be favorably impressed by its sound.

I urge you to keep this point–as well as the particular biasesof our listening group–in mind while reading the comments. Takenout of context, many of the descriptions that follow would seem undulyharsh. Largely, that’s because the distinctions are made incomparison: that is, once one sound is perceived as "warm," those lesswarm suddenly seem "cold." So the harshness comes in part from thedualistic nature of our language. English doesn’t have the wordsto describe all the gradations of sound, so for this test we werepretty much stuck with a handful of antonyms (bright and dark, warm andcold, clear and muddy) and a smattering of modifiers (slightly, ever soslightly, a tad, a bit).

On top of all that, there’s the whole problem of trying todescribe sound with words. As someone once put it, "Writing about musicis like dancing about architecture." With these thoughts in mind, youmay now proceed.

Audix SCX-one

Typical of small-diaphragm condensers both in shape and size, theSCX-one ($598) is distinguished by Audix’s clear attention toprecise construction. From the gold-plated capsule screen and XLR pinsto the precision brass machining, flawless black-matte finish, and finesilk-screening, every detail bespeaks quality craftsmanship.

The SCX-one employs a transformerless design and is a modular systemwith interchangeable capsules that screw into place atop aspring-loaded, gold-plated contact. The SCX-c cardioid cap is stock,and three other caps are available: the SCX-hc hypercardioid ($299);the SCX-o omnidirectional ($299); and the SCX-op "omni presence"($299), which provides a presence boost for maintaining high-frequencyresponse when distant-miking. Another available option is an insertable10 dB pad ($89).

The microphone comes in a sturdy, foam-fitted, hard-plastic casecomplete with a clip and spaces for two extra caps. The clip is simplein design, slides readily onto the SCX-one, and holds the microphonefast in any position. Matched pairs of SCX-ones can bespecial-ordered.

Testify. The SCX-one is overall a warm-sounding mic with "cautious"highs and a lean low-end response. Its tendency to emphasize midrangefrequencies and downplay lows can, depending on the source, result inan alternately rich and thick or boxy and muddled sound. Also, itsometimes sounds slightly flat or "removed" from the source. In ourtests, the SCX-one did best on acoustic guitar, for which it produced awarm, woody tone. "Definitely woody," confirmed Doty. "Not bad at all,"said Nelson.

On grand piano, the SCX-one sounded warm but slightly muddy, withmild bass and a slightly dull dynamic response. Drescher described thesound as "flat, with not much presence or depth." Nelson called it"midrangy with not much top or bass, and slightly fuzzy orunclear."

As drum overheads, the pair of SCX-ones produced a slightly coveredsound, with decent imaging and sufficient attack but not much tone fromthe toms and kick drum. Nelson described the result as "kind oflifeless." Weldon remarked that there was "plenty of attack but notmuch tone."

On the choir, the SCX-ones didn’t capture a sense of theperformance space as well as some of the other mics, and gave less lowend overall. The highs were "more forgiving than with some of thebrighter mics," noted Schwartz, "which helped hide our mistakes."Nelson called the sound "boxy, with a dull top end and slightly muddy,overbearing mids."

Earthworks SR77

Over nine inches long and resembling an alien surgical probe morethan a conventional mic, the Earthworks SR77 ($599) is definitely theodd man out in the looks department. But it’s a handsome unitnonetheless. Machined from a solid piece of aluminum and finished inmatte black, the mic’s distinctive shape cuts an impressive figurein the studio or on stage.

The SR77 ships in a unique clear acrylic tube that offers excellentprotection, thanks both to the ruggedness of the tube itself and to thescrew-on base that provides a plastic lock-down nut for the mic. TheSR77 comes with a windscreen; a high-quality nylon clip (a knockoff ofthe Beyerdynamic MKV 9) is included in a separate acrylic tube. Amatched pair of SR77s ($1,300) in a gorgeous solid-cherry box linedwith red velveteen is also available.

Testify. For the most part, the SR77 maintained its reputation forcapturing realistic, uncolored sound with exceptional dynamic response.However, compared to some of the other mics’ tracks, the realismwas not always flattering to the source. Also, because this mic isdesigned to be flat at six inches, with the bass rolling off atdistances greater than that–the frequency-response chart shows 100Hz down by about 5.5 dB at a miking distance of three feet–theSR77 generally fared better on the close-miking applications (guitarand piano) than on the more distant-miked sources (drums andchoir).

On acoustic guitar, the SR77 pair produced accurate-sounding trackswith sparkling highs and mild lows and low mids. Listeners disagreedabout the character of the highs, with Nelson describing the top end as"really sweet" and Doty calling it "a bit boxy." As compared to theother mics, the SR77’s cardioid pattern seemed fairly open, ingeneral capturing more ambient sound. The SR77 was also the noisiestmic of the bunch, to an extent that could be problematic if the trackswere heavily compressed.

For the piano, Drescher described the sound as having "goodpresence–you can really hear the surrounding area," but he thoughtthe tracks were "kind of light on the bass." Nelson was impressed bythe "nice, clean highs" but also felt that "there weren’t quiteenough lows." Overall, he judged the tracks "clear and accurate butuninspiring."

As drum overheads, the SR77s captured a clear, bright sound withgood imaging but not much low end. Weldon noted the lack of lows anddescribed the highs as "a bit too sizzly for my tastes."

The openness of the SR77s was readily apparent with the choir, forwhich the mics captured lots of room sound and a realistic sense of theperformance space with superior imaging. The overall sound was smoothbut, again, weak in the lows. Schwartz thought that the spaciousquality made the choir "seem distant," but he remarked favorably on theimaging. Tonally, he liked how the SR77s "took some of the edge off thesopranos and made the tenors sound warm." But he felt shortchanged bythe weak bass response, which "didn’t capture the resonance of ourvoices." Nelson declared the sound "a bit midrangy anduninspired–you can hear everybody, but there’s no richness orexcitement."

Elation KM201

Made in Moscow by a private company that spun off from the veneratedNikfi research laboratory, the Elation KM201 ($399) is a standard-sizesmall-diaphragm mic with a somewhat rough, unlacquered, matte-bronzefinish and a capsule assembly that flares smoothly from the mic body. Ahand-built unit with a modular design, the stock KM201 has a cardioidcapsule, although hypercardioid ($175) and omnidirectional ($175) headsare also available.

The KM201 is imported by Russian Transducer Technologies (RTT) atThe Sound Room–"specialists in Russian microphones"–whichrepackages the mics in lovely cedar boxes (the kind you find in giftshops in the Ozarks). In the boxes I received, the foam was sloppilycut, requiring removal of the head from the body before the two pieceswould fit into the box. According to RTT, however, the boxes will befitted with new laser-cut foam by the time this article is inprint.

A hardmount clip is included with each KM201. The clip looks kind ofchintzy and has plastic rather than metal threads. Yet it works well,snapping easily onto the mic and holding it extremely secure: even themost vigorous shaking failed to dislodge the mic–thanks in part,it would seem, to the KM201’s rough finish. Once you do remove it,though, a blackish residue from the clip remains on the mic. (Accordingto RTT, this is easily removed with a pencil eraser.)

Testify. The KM201 has a full, rich, balanced sound that wasflattering in all our applications. On acoustic guitar, the mic paircaptured a tight, natural sound with good dynamic response. AlthoughDoty detected a slight midrange emphasis, she found it complementary tothe tracks. The KM201 proved to be my favorite on the acoustic guitar,was Doty’s second-favorite, and was Nelson’s third–animpressive showing.

The KM201 also won Drescher’s approval on the grand piano (hechose it as his third-favorite). In describing the sound, he cited its"warmth and fullness," "good bass," and "smooth highs that were neverharsh or tinny." Nelson, too, chose the KM201 as his third-favorite onthe piano. He described the tracks as "accurate sounding" but notparticularly "lively or exciting–they could have richer bass formy tastes."

As drum overheads, the KM201 pair captured a full, round sound withplenty of lows and an overall realistic and complementary tone. Imagingand dynamic response were also exceptional. Weldon picked this mic ashis favorite on the drums, describing the sound as the "most all-aroundbalanced and natural, especially on the cymbals...you can hear the bodyof the rack toms, and the attack is not overemphasized." Nelson alsodescribed the tracks as "realistic, with nicely balanced mids andlows," but again he thought the overall effect "a bit uninspiring,"noting that "the top end is somewhat dull–the cymbals aren’tas clear and ringing as I like."

For the choral group, Schwartz chose the KM201 as hissecond-favorite of the lot. "This one really sounds good!" he said,describing the sound as "really balanced–you can hear everyoneequally well, yet the overall sound is smooth and doesn’t come atyou too sharp or brittle." He did note, however, what seemed to him a"slight bit of compression–but it works." Both Nelson and I chosethe KM201 as our third-favorite mic in this application. We wereequally impressed by its balanced tone, smooth highs, good imaging, andrealistic sense of space.

GT ELECTRONICS AM30

The largest and heftiest of the mics we tested–it’s overseven inches long, more than an inch in diameter, and weighsthree-quarters of a pound–the GT Electronics AM30 ($499) is ahandsome unit with a black-matte body topped by a stainless-steelscreen assembly that screws off to reveal the stock C1 cardioid capsulemounted above a spring-loaded, gold-plated contact. The capsule in turnscrews off to accommodate the interchangeable C2 (supercardioid) and C3(omnidirectional) capsules, optionally available for $129 each.

The AM30 employs Class A FET (Field Effect Transistor) preampcircuitry and provides both a 15 dB pad and an 80 Hz roll-off filter.The steel switches for the pad and filter, located beneath the screenassembly, are easily accessed and have a sturdy, reliable feel.

The AM30 comes in a rugged, lockable, foam-fitted hard-shell casecomplete with a satin drawstring bag (for the mic) and a key for thelock. A hardmount clip is included, and an optional shock-mount (whichI also tested) is available for $49.95. Both the clip and shock-mountare perfectly fitted to the mic, and each provides a handy wing-nutrelease for easy swivel positioning. I especially liked theshock-mount, a hardy steel-tube design with beefy elastics forsuspending the mic. It is as quick and easy to use as the clip, andboth accessories hold the mic securely at any angle.

Testify. The AM30 has a bright, sparkly, very detailed sound that isquick to impress. However, the mic’s surfeit of highs and leanmidrange response sometimes result in a thin, edgy sound. The acousticguitar tracks sounded bright and "in your face," with cutting highs,slightly scooped mids, and mild bass. Doty described the result as"bright and thin." Nelson called it "nice and clear on top, but a bitthin overall" and suggested that the mic would be more appropriate for"fingerpicking and Spanish-style guitar" rather than "solo chordalstuff."

On the grand piano, the AM30 was again bright, with excellentclarity and good dynamic response. Drescher described the sound as"stingy on bass, with a tinny, kind of crackly high end." Nelsonthought the tracks had "mostly highs and upper mids, with not muchfullness or bottom."

As drum overheads, the AM30s captured excellent attack from thedrums and cymbals, making for a lively sound. But overall the drumtracks were a bit brittle and lacking in warmth for my tastes–andthat was with wood-tipped sticks on dark, hand-hammered cymbals. Weldondescribed the sound as "okay, with lots of highs," but noted that he"couldn’t hear into the drums" as well as he could with some ofthe other mics.

On the choir, the AM30s produced a big, bright sound with amazingclarity: we could hear every detail, including lip smacks and therustle of robes. Schwartz commented that this mic "stuck out more thanthe others" and that "there was no mistaking what each singer wasdoing, as if each one had a separate mic...you can really zero in oneach vocal part." This, he thought, would make the AM30 well suited"for a bunch of individual stars," adding, however, that "for a grouplike the Statler Brothers, where you want more of a blend, the AM30swould not be my first choice." Nelson described the tracks as sounding"very clear and precise but lacking a bit in warmth and low end."

Hebden Sound CM1050C

Hebden Sound is a new microphone company that picked up where theoriginal company, Calrec, left off. (The resurrected Calrec does notmanufacture microphones.) Undertaking maintenance and repair of theoriginal Calrec microphone range, as well as continuing to manufacturethe mics, Hebden Sound offers seven microphone models–allessentially variations on the same model–including both modularand fixed-pattern designs.

The CM1050C ($369) is the fixed-cardioid model and is the leastexpensive of the Hebden Sound line. Slightly bigger than most of themics in this review, it has a plain, brass-tube body with a matte-blackfinish and a stainless-steel screen protecting the capsule. The CM1050Cemploys a transformer-based preamp (a transformerless version isavailable for the same price) and is one of the two mics in our testsample to use an aluminum-coated diaphragm rather than the usualgold-sputtered Mylar.

The mic comes in a nice foam-lined, soft-shell vinyl case that zipsshut. A high-quality nylon clip (the same knockoff of the BeyerdynamicMKV 9 that comes with the Earthworks SR77) is included; however,there’s no room for the clip in the mic case.

Testify. With its tight cardioid pattern, deep lows, scooped mids,and bright yet smooth highs, the CM1050C proved the mostdistinctive-sounding mic of the bunch. Opinions were divided, buteveryone was quickly able to pick this microphone out from the othersduring the blind listening tests. The CM1050C’s performance wasdistinctive, too: while it worked exceptionally well on some sources,it was barely passable on others. This unit was also the least hot ofthe eight mics, requiring up to 18 dB more gain to match most of theothers’ outputs.

The CM1050C performed most impressively on the grand piano, and wasboth Drescher’s and Nelson’s favorite in this application."This mic picked up more bass detail than any of the other mics," saidDrescher. "I could really feel the soundboard, making it clear that itwas a grand piano. And the highs were very articulate without beingharsh. Overall, a very smooth sound." In Nelson’s words, "Althoughthis mic doesn’t represent the midrange as well as some of theother mics, you don’t miss it because the overall sound is so big,lifelike, and pleasing. I feel like I’m sitting right next to thepiano! This mic can really handle the low notes and the bigchords."

Nelson was also impressed by how "live" the CM1050C sounded on theguitar tracks, and maintained that "this is the kind of mic I’dalways want around." However, in this application he felt that "themids were missing and the top end was a bit scratchy." Nor was Dotyenthusiastic about how the CM1050C portrayed her guitar. "It soundsnotched," she said, "with high highs and low lows but not much inbetween. It almost sounds more like a banjo than a guitar."

The CM1050C pair also sounded unbalanced as drum overheads, boostingthe highs and lows so much that they began to irritate after continuedlistening–the highs because they were so piercing and the lows dueto a strange resonance that sounded like a phase problem. "Where didthe mids go?" asked Weldon when the CM1050C tracks came up. "Everysound on the kit is represented by high and low content only." Nelson,who described the sound as "way too resonant, with sloppy, boomy lows,"added that "unless you really rolled off the bass, it would be hard touse these mics as drum overheads because the low frequencies are so outof control."

The CM1050Cs made a better show with the choir, where the rich bassthey delivered proved agreeable both to Nelson ("Way cool") and toSchwartz, who liked how the mics punched up the two male voices in themix. I found the bass a bit over the top, and somewhat processedsounding. But the bigger problem was the lack of midrange content andoverly soft, mellow tone. Tonal imbalances aside, though, Nelson feltstrongly that the voices "sounded real rather than recorded, likethey’re here in the room with us."

MBHO MBNM 440 C-L

Like most things German, the MBHO MBNM 440 C-L ($341) boastsfirst-rate workmanship and attention to detail. One of the smallestmics we tested, it has a short brass body with a matte-black finish; afine-mesh, stainless-steel screen protecting the capsule; andgold-plated XLR pins. One distinctive feature is that the mic providesautomatic current switching between 48 and 22 volts, allowing foroptional battery-powered operation.

The 440 C-L can be ordered in matched pairs, and the two I receivedcame together (with consecutive serial numbers) in ablack-vinyl-covered, foam-fitted hardboard box complete with two micclips–a quite handsome and compact little package that any concert"taper" would appreciate. The clips are small and simple, but they workgreat. They provide a wing-nut release for easy swivel positioning,hold the mics securely in any position, and snap on and off withease.

Testify. The MBNM 440 C-L is a very bright, present-sounding micwith lean lows and a tendency to minimize the sense of ambient space.Interestingly, it made all the sources in our tests seem closer thanthey did with the other mics. Also, like the Hebden Sound CM1050C, the440 C-L required considerably more gain than the other six mics(although not quite as much as with the CM1050C).

The 440 C-L’s tonal persuasion was most flattering to acousticguitar, where it captured a sparkly, jangly sound with decent dynamics."I like it a lot," said Doty. "Not bad," said Nelson. In my estimation,acoustic-guitar tracks captured by the 440 C-L would work best in abusy mix, of which too much low and low-mid content would only get inthe way. For solo acoustic, though, the sound was a bit thin.

Not surprisingly, the 440 C-L captured bright, clear highs but notenough bass from the grand piano. Drescher liked "the high-endpresence, despite a bit of edginess"; however, he felt that the highs"broke up a bit on the hard hits." He also bemoaned the 440 C-L’sproviding "no sense of size–it makes the piano sound more like anupright than a grand." Nelson also appreciated the clarity of the highsbut felt that the sound wasn’t "warm or round enough" and that the"bottom end just isn’t happening."

The drum tracks followed suit: very bright, present, and closesounding, but lacking in lows and low mids and with not much sense ofthe ambient space. Weldon judged the highs "slightly harsh" anddescribed the toms as "clicky" and "papery" sounding. Nelson liked howthe mic presented the snare drum, but he found the overall sound "tootoppy and brittle." Some slight distortion, he thought, was evident onloud cymbal crashes.

On the choir tracks, the 440 C-L pair once again produced a bright,present sound with weak bass representation and not much sense of theperformance space. Schwartz considered the mics "more friendly to thesopranos–but they made us guys sound like we were coming through alittle radio." However, he did comment favorably on the clarity of thesound and on the good imaging. Nelson, too, praised the clarity ("I canhear everything!"), although he thought the overall sound was "lackingin warmth."

Microtech Gefell M300

The Microtech Gefell M300 ($495) looks very plain at first glance,yet a close inspection reveals the superior craftsmanship and aestheticsensibility that went into its making. The brass body is consummatelymachined and finished in a lustrous dark bronze, and the silk-screeningis impeccable. The M300 has a fixed-cardioid polar pattern, employs atransformerless circuit design, and comes with gold-plated XLRpins.

The mic ships in a very attractive foam-fitted hardwood box butdoesn’t come with a clip. (The manufacturer recommends theBeyerdynamic MKV 9.) I tested the M300 using the optional EA 20shock-mount ($130). Although pricey, the shock-mount is a fine piece ofengineering that worked beautifully.

Testify. The M300 garnered consistently high praise in all ourapplications. The mic has a full, well-balanced sound with slightlyboosted highs, mildly attenuated lows and low mids, and excellentdynamic response. These characteristics proved especially favorable onthe acoustic guitar, where the mic presented a clean, balanced, andcommanding sound that was distinctive for its depth and resonance: Icould hear what seemed to be the "hollowness" from the sound hole,which increased realism. Doty, who picked the M300 as her favorite onher guitar, described the sound as "very even and well defined" and"mildly compressed–but in a good way." Nelson found the soundslightly "less warm" than he would have liked, but he still chose themic as his second-favorite in this application.

The M300 was my favorite mic on the grand piano, from which itcaptured a full, realistic, and balanced sound with rich harmoniccontent. "All notes present and accounted for," I wrote in my notes.Drescher and Nelson liked the M300 on the piano, too, both selecting itas their second-favorite. Interestingly, Nelson described the sound as"a bit compressed," echoing Doty’s remark. Drescher wished onlyfor a bit more bass, so at his request I boosted 80 Hz shelving by 3 dBon the recorded tracks. "Now the sound is all there!" he exulted.

The M300s captured plenty of tone from the drums, and overall thesound was balanced and very agreeable. However, the slightly boostedhighs struck both Weldon and me as vaguely unrealistic sounding.Nelson, on the other hand, liked the highs, and also remarked on how"tight and controlled" the bottom end was, wishing only (again) for atad more "warmth" in the lows and low mids.

The M300 was my favorite on the choir, too. Although it made thesopranos seem slightly too forward, the overall sound was tight andwell defined, and the vocal blend was excellent. Also, the micscaptured a very realistic sense of the acoustic space. Schwartz, whochose the M300 as his third-favorite in this application, said, "Wow!That sounded like the real thing. The four women were a bit out front[in terms of relative volume], and we were in the back a bit, which isprobably how it was at Yoshi’s." Nelson cited "great tonaldefinition–it sounds like a group singing together and blendingwell, yet you can still hear each singer clearly." Nelson chose theM300 as his second-favorite on the choir and again remarked favorablyon its high-end clarity. However, in this application he thought themic sounded "a bit boxy."

Oktava MC012

Designed at the Nikfi research laboratory in 1963, the Oktava MC012($599.99 "manufacturer list price" at Guitar Center, but regularlypriced at $249) is easily recognized by its distinctive "flat-top"capsule assembly. It is a modular system that comes with three capsules(cardioid, hypercardioid, and omnidirectional), as well as aninsertable 10 dB pad; the preamplifier circuitry istransformerless.

The MC012 and its accessories all have a matte-bronze finish similarto the Elation KM201’s, only lacquered. The package, available atGuitar Center, comes in a foam-fitted hard-plastic box complete with anunusual pressure-clamp mic clip. The clip is sturdy and veryuser-friendly–you just squeeze the clamp arms, insert the mic, andlet go. It holds the MC012 snugly at any angle, and the mic is as easyto extract as it is to insert. Optional accessories for the MC012include a custom shock-mount (available from Oktava) and the M1large-diaphragm capsule ($349 from Russian Transducer Technologies/TheSound Room).

Testify. Like its fellow Russian-made mic, the Elation KM201, theMC012 performed consistently well in all applications–in someinstances sounding nearly identical to the KM201. Overall, the soundwas smooth, warm, solid, and nicely balanced. The only noticeable hypewas in the low mids, which accounts for its consistently warm butsometimes muddled sound.

The MC012 was Nelson’s first, my second, and Doty’s thirdpick on acoustic guitar (although for me it was pretty much a toss-upbetween the Oktava, Microtech, and Elation units). Doty deemed thesound "pretty accurate" with a "woody" quality. I described it as "veryeven and solid, with sweetly boosted low mids." Nelson raved, sayingthe mic "leaned toward the bottom end a bit, for that warm sound Ilike, yet there are still plenty of all the highs and highmids–overall, a very unified sound."

The MC012 fared slightly less well on the grand piano. As Drescherput it, "There’s nothing seriously wrong, but it doesn’t makeme jump out of my seat. Sort of a flat sound with not much depth." Tomy ears, the dynamics were somehow off, resulting in kind of a softsound. Also, the surfeit of low mids caused some muddiness. Nelsonappreciated the smoothness of the highs but found the bass a bit "cold"and the overall sound "somewhat small, considering it’s a grandpiano."

The pair of MC012s worked very well as drum overheads, where theyprovided excellent imaging and a very full and balanced representationof the multifarious tones. Highs were smooth, accurate, and nongrating,and the mics picked up enough lows and low mids to make individual tommiking all but mic in the blind-listening tests because it was theleast neutral sounding. The GT Electronics AM30 also had a fairlyrecognizable sound, thanks to its bright, incisive highs and overall"in-your-face" quality. (I expect that the company’s new AM40,which uses the same capsules as the AM30 but has a tube rather thansolid-state design, sounds warmer than the AM30.) And the EarthworksSR77 was distinctive in its own way, if only for sounding relativelyuncolored and open.

Verdict, Schmerdict

Now, before you rush out with money in hand to purchase one of the"winning" mics, it would behoove you to put some things intoperspective. First, it bears repeating that the qualitativedistinctions expressed by our panel of listeners were made incomparison only–an approach that, while useful, has its pitfalls,some of which I discussed in the earlier section "The Bigger Picture."However, there are other drawbacks–for example, the fact thatadding a different mic to the proceedings would likely throw adifferent light on the results.

Another important point involves mic positioning. For the sake ofconsistency, once positionings were established for each of our testapplications, we used the same positionings for each mic pair. However,the best position for one mic is not always the best for another.

Yet another limitation is that we listened to the test tracks inisolation rather than in the real-world context of mixes. This is acrucial point to keep in mind. For example, guitar tracks that soundgreat on their own–full, rich, and warm, with lots of low-mid andbass content–may sound very different once you add, say, a drumset, bass, keyboards, strings, and vocals to the mix. Indeed, at thatpoint you may find yourself cutting bass and low mids like mad andcounting your blessings for those bright highs that, on their own,sounded "a bit harsh."

The same is true for drum overheads: if all you can afford (in termsof tracks) is two overhead mics and perhaps a third mic on the kick,you’ll be grateful if those overheads capture enough lows and lowmids to make the toms sound full and resonant. On the other hand, ifyou’re close-miking the snare drum and each tom, the low andlow-mid content from the overheads could screw you up more than ithelps–in which case you may be better off with mics that mildlyattenuate the lows and low mids. After all, on multimiked drums, themain function of the overhead mics is typically to capture the cymbalswhile adding some "air" and realism to the sound, not to represent thetonality and depth of the individual drums.

For these reasons (and still others), the notion of designating a"winning mic" seems specious at best. Rather than declare a winner,then, our goal here has been to describe, as much as possible, the"sonic predisposition" of each of these eight microphones, based how itcompares to similar mics and how it sounds in a few isolated, but forthe most part real-world, applications. From this, hopefully, you candeduce which applications each mic is best suited for. (Of course, itis up to you to determine which, if any, is appropriate for your ownapplications–and budget.)

truth or consequences

I began this review with the supposition that, in general, tonalaccuracy is one of the defining characteristics–if not the maingoal–of small-diaphragm "instrument" mics. But one thing I havelearned in conducting these tests is that accuracy is not always whatthe doctor ordered. Yes, there are times when "telling the truth" isdesirable; but coloration, too, has its place in the domain ofinstrument mics. Therefore, rather than discounting a given mic, orrating one as better than another, the wiser approach is to appreciateeach mic as a unique tool and a different color in the palette of soundpossibilities.

Brian Knaveis an associate editor atEM.Special thanks to Alex Butkus, Chris Buttner, Mark Cane, George Daly,Shelley Doty, Peter Drescher, Marshall Lamm, George Petersen, DanPettit, Natalie Stocker, Mike Sugar, EMTEC (BASF), Leo’s Audio,Mackie Designs, NHTPro, and Yoshi’s Jazz House.