The Fat Head II has a symmetrical figure-8 response, making it great for stereo recording.
Cascade Microphones first came to my attention last year through an email newsletter ad that offered a Fat Head II ribbon mic at a price so low, I ordered two. However, when I was assigned this review, Cascade sent a brand-new pair, because some of the manufacturing details had changed since I ordered my first set.
The Fat Head II ($199) is bigger than it looks in the photo. The barrel (available in your choice of silver or black) is about one inch in diameter, and the lollipop screened capsule is about two inches around.
Considering the price, Cascade doesn't skimp on the packaging. The mics arrived in individual foam-lined briefcases, with a wooden box inside and a large shockmount mic clip. This is a step up from the original models, which came without the wooden box and included a slightly less-sturdy clip.
But there's a more important difference between the two versions that goes beyond the box: the earlier Fat Head IIs used an offset ribbon design that yielded a slightly different tone front to back. Some people appreciate this 2-tone option, but I prefer the current model, which provides a true symmetrical figure-8 response, making it better suited to stereo recording applications.
Out and About
The Fat Head II is appropriately named: it provides a warm, plump sound, with a smooth rolloff starting around 8 kHz that finishes around 15 kHz. In addition, the mic seems to thicken the upper bass frequencies, a coloration I often found myself EQ'ing out after the fact.
Typically, ribbon mics sound great on horns and guitar amps, and that's certainly true for the Fat Head II. A colleague and I tried the mics on sax, bass clarinet, acoustic guitar, an electric guitar amp, vocals, and drums. I also did some side-by-side simultaneous recordings comparing a Fat Head II and a new Shure SM57, because most EM readers would find an SM57 a familiar point of reference (see Web Clips 1 through 3).
For example, on a distorted electric guitar amp, with the mics on-axis at the center of the cone, the Fat Head II offered a thick, smooth sound that was less present and edgy than the SM57's. On a steel-string guitar where the SM57 highlighted my fingernail attack, the Fat Head II pleasingly smoothed the transients.
On some sources, such as acoustic and electric guitar, as well as my singing voice, I typically followed up a Fat Head II track with a good dose of EQ, a mild dip around 200 Hz and a somewhat stronger boost at 8 to 12 kHz. The Fat Head II recordings responded well to EQ: boosting the upper frequencies added detail without getting edgy or sibilant.
An important point to remember about directional mics (and those with a figure-8 pattern in particular) is that they are prone to the proximity effect, which increases bass response as the mic moves closer to the source. The combination of the Fat Head II's dark tonality and strong proximity effect can be a double whammy. Unless you're looking for a superfat sound, I'd avoid using a Fat Head II for extreme close-miking applications.
We also did a number of stereo recordings using a pair of Fat Head IIs in a Blumlein configuration. This cross-pair, coincident stereo technique requires the capsules to nearly touch but to be rotated 90 degrees from each other. (Cascade offers an optional stereo bar to simplify this setup.) We placed our crossed pair at the center of the bass clarinet quartet Edmund Wells, who set up in a squared circle. Supplemented with an assortment of condenser room mics, the Fat Head IIs provided a present, detailed recording without a hyped sound quality.
You can also take advantage of the mic's figure-8 null points. I set up a 90-degree crossed pair of Fat Head IIs in the horizontal axis to simultaneously record my vocal and a 12-string Guild acoustic. The two tracks had quite good isolation. What leakage remained was phase coherent between channels, as the capsules were physically aligned. That meant I could pan the guitar and vocal tracks to center without any undesirable coloration, but then process them individually, almost as if they had been tracked individually. This is a great way to cut a live guitar/vocal performance but still retain good flexibility during mixdown.
The Fat Head II has a distinctive tonal character that is readily amenable to EQ, although its output is not particularly hot. However, I found myself using it on loud instruments — drum overheads, horns, guitar amps — and I didn't find its output level to be much of an issue. Overall, the Fat Head II is a good value and well worth considering if you're in the market for an inexpensive, all-around ribbon mic.
Value (1 through 5): 3