Whether you're recording vocals or live instruments, the first — and often most critical — step of your signal path is a microphone. Selecting the right microphone for the job can make your vocals shine, your guitars jam and your drums rock, so knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each mic in your collection will help you make that choice. If you aren't in the financial position to afford numerous microphones, then it's imperative that you select one or two good all-purpose mics that will help get the job done without breaking the bank. With the introduction of the Grand Pearl, Violet Design offers a unidirectional cardioid condenser mic that is not only intended for studio applications such as vocal and instrument recording, but is also primarily marketed as a handheld unit for stage vocals. With that kind of versatility, it may just be the perfect mic for the budget-conscious recordist.
The Grand Pearl arrived in a polished wooden box that also contained a mic clip and windscreen that fits over the mic's head grille, which is intended for live vocal use. The microphone feels very solid, and its stylish design distinguishes it from most units on the market. The spherical diaphragm capsule is separated from the body of the mic, and while it may look delicate, you can rest assured that the Grand Pearl is very well constructed and should handle the rigors of stage use (within reason, of course). The mic features large dual electrostatic gold sputtered diaphragms that provide fast transient response, minimal sound coloration and the ability to handle loud sound-pressure levels. The XLR connection is gold plated for optimum signal transfer, so be sure to use a high-quality cable when connecting the Grand Pearl to your rig. Remember, your recording will only be as good as the weakest link in your signal path.
PURPLE PEOPLE EATER
Because the Grand Pearl is specifically targeted toward stage and studio vocalists, it made sense to first try out the mic on vocals. Unfortunately, I wasn't doing any live performances around this time, but I happened to be doing some sessions with Kristy Thirsk, who sings with Delerium. It was a great opportunity to hear how the Grand Pearl performed on a professional vocalist. Kristy has a huge range, and it is often a struggle to capture her subtle, intimate performances and at the same time be prepared for her powerful full voice without having those dynamic pushes overload the mic or the recording. The Grand Pearl performed nicely in that respect, with the soft passages retaining all of her breathy nuances and having a sweet sibilant quality that wasn't harsh or over-pronounced. And the really loud moments came through without breaking up or overdriving too hard. She is really good at varying her proximity to the mic depending on how loud she is singing, which helps to maintain a good recording level no matter how dynamic the vocal performance.
Because the mic is unidirectional with a cardioid polar pattern, it offers excellent off-axis rejection to eliminate unwanted room noise and ambience, but it also requires that you aim it directly at your sound source. I tried using the Grand Pearl as a handheld, and when I was singing, I noticed that if I moved the mic where the diaphragm was no longer pointed at my mouth, the signal dropped drastically in strength. To maintain the most vibrant, detailed recordings, it was crucial to keep the mic close to my lips, usually with the windscreen pressed right up on my lower lip. (That's a good reference point for most uses, but of course, you want to pull back from the mic when singing loudly.) Many vocalists like to cup the grille of the microphone with their hand while they sing — which I definitely don't recommend as it muffles the sound — but that is kind of awkward because of the Grand Pearl's unique design. I suggest you coach any vocalists using this mic to steer clear of such a technique; your mic and your recording will benefit.
THE COLOR OF MUSIC
Next, I tried an acoustic guitar, which I recorded in a couple of different positions. First, I aimed the Grand Pearl directly at the guitar's sound hole, just forward from where my hand strums, which is generally how I prefer to record the Guild 6-string I use at my studio. The sound was nice and rich, with the pick strums cutting through well without overwhelming the depth of the lower register. Delicately picked notes sounded clear, and the overall definition was excellent. The Grand Pearl's manual recommends placing the mic facing the guitar's neck, where it joins to the body, about 4 to 5 inches away, so I gave that a try. The technique yielded a much brighter, punchier tone that had significantly less bass but was still very warm and even throughout the lower notes. I liked both results, so you'll probably want to experiment to find the ideal placement that best suits your instrument, song and playing style.
After hearing how good the Grand Pearl was on vocals and acoustic guitar, it was time to test it on one of my favorite instruments, electric guitar. I started out with a semihollowbody guitar on a clean setting and was immediately impressed with the warm, smooth tone and accuracy of the recording. This mic would be great for jazzy guitars! The sound of the mic only got better when I added some overdrive, and it handled a fairly strong signal with ease. The louder and more distorted the signal was going through the mic, the more smooth and creamy the sonic results became, which is pretty ideal for me. The overdriven sound was really punchy, and layering a couple of takes produced excellent results that really cut through the mix. I also tried out a few different effects on guitars, and I was very pleased by how vibrant and rich the sound of the chorus and phaser were and how detailed the taps were on an analog delay. Because of the limitations of my home studio, I usually do only close-miking with the mic pointed at an angle toward the center of the speaker cone. However, the manual recommends trying different mic placements, so I also tried running through all of the same settings and effects with the Grand Pearl a couple of feet away from the amp. The overall effect was that the guitar sounded a little less immediate, although there wasn't a lot of added ambience from the room. The tones were generally similar, but there was a bit less midrange and bass in the second set of recordings, and I must admit that I liked the overall results a bit better with the mic further away from the amp. Again, try experimenting with moving the Grand Pearl around on your own, and you may surprise yourself with the results.
I don't do a lot of drum recording at my home studio, so my percussion tests for this review were limited to handclaps and a shaker. The claps sounded dynamic and realistic, which is sometimes hard to achieve. They often sound just like some indistinct percussive pops rather than an actual handclap, so it was impressive to hear the detail of palms hitting together and the subtle differences of each unique clap. The shaker also sounded great — very crisp and accurate with excellent imaging as the shaker moved back and forth in front of the mic. I'm looking forward to experimenting with the Grand Pearl on congas and bongos the next time they're in the studio.
PEARLS OF WISDOM
Whether you're looking for a great microphone that offers a lot of versatility, or you just want to add a really solid mic to your collection, I definitely recommend checking out the Violet Design Grand Pearl. I really like the detail and transparency it offers, while adding nice warmth to just about everything I run through it. It is impressive to get such polished, accurate results from a microphone at this price point, so you may even consider getting a matched pair (available by special order) to try out on stereo recordings. As nice as this mic sounded on acoustic guitar, I would expect a stereo recording to be even more outstanding. The Grand Pearl is a microphone that you can use in a wide variety of applications and trust that the sound will rock no matter how and where you decide to use it.
GRAND PEARL > $749
Pros: Great sound. Versatile. Solid construction. Excellent value.
Cons: Somewhat narrow pickup range for live vocals.