PHASE NUMERO ONE
We were so ready to totally kick the Blue Ball (yes, we hear you snickering) to the curb, but then we realized that we hadn’t turned on the phantom power switch on our Digi-002 rack. Could you blame us? Blue says it’s the first phantom power dynamic mic ever, not that we could figure out what the point was. According to Blue, this gimmick . . . uh, we mean, feature, is good because “a phantom-powered proprietary active balancing circuit maintains a constant pure-resistive 50-Ohm load across the useable frequency spectrum yielding zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. . . .” The experts at Guitar Center had no idea, so we contacted Blue directly. Here’s what their rep, Brian McConnon, had to say. “The basic principal of the Ball ‘powered dynamic’ has to do with the mic’s outout stage. A typical dynamic mic gets its output voltage from an electromagnet, making it able to take high SPL, but giving up consistency in frequency response, phase coherence, output gain and noise level. The Ball is a dynamic mic until its active output stage, where it derives voltage from phantom power. This gives the user the best of both the dynamic and condenser worlds by maintaining high SPL while improving consistency and characteristics in frequeny response, phase coherence, output gain, and noise.
The mic is intended to be used anywhere a typical dynamic would be used, but also can be used for more subtle uses normally calling for a condenser, such as drum overheads, strings, or acoustic instruments. It could also be a better choice for the stage because of its rugged construction.
So we looked to see what our peers were saying. A bunch of people went on and on about how cool it looks. Sure, it reminds us of the Jedi lightsaber training ball, but if you’re buying mics ‘cause they LOOK cool then you should probably get into something else. Others were really into how cool it sounded when recording their guitar amps, which seems like what this thing would be made for.
Turns out that application yielded the least good results, at least if what you want is a beefy, heavy guitar sound. The Ball (suggested retail price $139, street price $99) might be good if you want a high, clear, thin sound like on a black metal album with bathroom production, but the meat is very lean, if you catch our drift.
What the Ball surprised us with was how well it recorded vocals. The results, in both harsh and melodic singing (as well as talking), were not too far off the results of our favorite mic of this month’s batch, the CAD E-300 2 condenser mic, which is like five times the (street) price. So if you just need to record single vocals, the Ball would be an inexpensive way to get a good result, and for those enamored with aesthetics, the Ball might make a good stage piece, especially since you can, like, palm the sucker and have your hand in permanent seething pose that all the most evil metallers hit.
To get a better idea of where we stood, we put the Ball up against a directional condenser microphone, the Marshall MXL 3000 (SRP $249, street price $69), in the amp recording event, which we ran through an Ampeg amp with an inexpensive Epiphone guitar with an upgraded pickup and a Death Metal distortion pedal. The Marshall was much less clear, but heavier and meatier. My guitarist liked this better, and for grind or punk or old school death, he’d be right.
But as far as we’re concerned, you can’t say much about an affordable dynamic mic without bringing up the Shure SM-57 (SRP $158, street price $89), the workhorse of bands both famous and unknown. And sure enough, the SM-57 blew both the Blue and Marshall away for amp recording, being both beefier, heavier, and clearer than either of them.
It really boils down to this though: if you don’t have a lot of cash or mics, but need a quintessentially versatile mic that’s also nigh bulletproof, stick with the SM-57. It’s at this point that we should mention that we also reviewed the stand made especially for the Blue Ball called The Ringer. While this also looked “cool,” making us feel like we were in a future/retro episode of Radioland Murders, the only thing that’s any good about it is the fact that it’s got a shockmount, which we’re not really sold on anyway. The problem that this mount exacerbates is making an already unwieldy mic even worse. For example, we couldn’t imagine trying to mic a drum kit in any way with the Ball. Neither the mic nor The Ringer comes with any attachment to adjust the Ball’s angle, meaning all you can do is 90 degrees from the stand arm (all the Ringer allows you to do is spin the Ball around). What’s more, the Ball’s bulky shape means that miking toms would probably mean you’d have to forgo playing cymbals at the same time and overdub them like the story goes about what they did on one of those very early Slayer albums.
Final verdict: two years after its release, there may be a reason why The Blue Ball is still the world’s only phantom-powered dynamic microphone.
SCREECHING, EVER SCREECHING
Alright, so it might have been a little silly to record a guitar amp with a condenser microphone, so we hooked up the Marshall MXL 3000 for some vocal and acoustic guitar tests. We put it up against the CAD E-300 2 and the Neumann BCM 104: all condenser microphones.
Here’s what we got.
Our grind growler’s lows sounded almost brighter than his screams on the CAD, and the buzzing room fan and humming bass amp that we forgot to turn off were not at all picked up, meaning that the mic did a great job in recording only that which was intended to be recorded. The Neumann came through better on the higher pitched stuff, while the CAD sounded more like it was right up against your ear. But we guess it depends on what you want. To nitpick, we also noticed that there was a bit of distortion on the CAD, even though the level didn’t peak, but we have a feeling this was because of the recording medium. Meanwhile, the Neumann was out-of-control sensitive for loud stuff, making it extremely impractical to record anything with power, unless you risk breaking the thing to turn on the decibel-limiting switch (see below).
For the acoustic guitar event, the standings were reversed, with the Marshall and the CAD being about equal, and the Neumann being good, but noticeably inferior. Where the Marshall was heavier, it was also more boomy, while the CAD was brighter but thinner.
Despite these comments, the quality of the recordings of these three microphones done through Pro Tools 6.4 on a Macintosh laptop that we heard through our Yorkville YSM1p speakers were not all that dramatically different. Essentially, it boiled down to a question of price and features. Sure, the Neumann might have been ever so slightly better than the CAD, which was a bit better than the very reasonably priced Marshall, but is the Neumann (SRP $1,079.99, street $829) really worth two times the price of the CAD (SRP $699, street price $499)? We say, definitely no.
Remember those movies in which the heroes had to gently remove the plutonium core from the doomsday warhead or else all the world would explode? Neumann did its best to re-create that tension for you on a personal level. And while the whole world might not come to an end, you’ll be pretty flaming pissed if you damage the fragile innards of your thousand dollar Neumann after you pull out the little the screw to remove the protective casing and take out the core just so you can enable the -14db switch. This is the only way to do this. Someone tell Neumann that planned obsolescence is supposed to only appear coincidental.
In contrast, the CAD E-300 2 has its decibel-reducing switch conveniently right on the front of the microphone. It also has switches that toggle uni-, bi-, and omni-directional recording, and a power switch, none of which the Neumann has. The CAD also comes with a shock mount and a good protective case (the Neumann does not). All this for the same practical recording quality, and at half the price. We’re psyched for when we’ll have backup singers for Rubicon, and for when we record drums, to use the CAD as an overall room recorder, even farther behind our twin AKG C-1000 overheads.
Now, if you’re some sort of mic geek, you’re shaking your head, saying, “yeah, but the Neumann is meant for BROADCASTING, not for screaming, growling, or doing alarm clock vocals in general.” Point taken, and one of the BCM 104’s vaunted features, the replaceable screen (for hygiene purposes), is proof of what race this horse is running in. But vocals are vocals: whether they’re excruciating or sublime, you still want to hear all the facets of their sound, and two times the price is still two times the price.
Oh, by the way, just to stir up some more trouble, we checked to see how our aforementioned AKG C-1000s (SRP $318. Street price $199, or two for $298) fared against the other condenser mics we’re reviewing. Just for the hell of it. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if everything performed according to price? You’d know what you were paying for. Well, the C-1000 was in the same ballpark as the CAD and Neumann (who were superior). So again, if you don’t have a bunch of money and need versatility, pick up a couple C-1000s (or Marshall MXLs, as they’re even more reasonably priced, but not quite as good or versatile). If you need a highly versatile mic with the intention of recording vocals, the CAD E-300 2 is highly recommended. And don’t forget to get a pop shield.