Microphones are like potato chips: you can't have just one. But in today's economy, you may have to choose between a collection of inexpensive mics and one or two really good ones. For the latter course, the mic should be versatile enough to handle anything you throw at it. The sE4400a is a Class A, discrete FET, large-diaphragm, multipattern condenser that has versatility well covered. You can purchase it individually ($999) or in the configuration I tested, a hand-matched pair ($2,099).
If you''re looking for versatility, the sE4400a is a large-diaphragm condenser with four switchable polar patterns that''s suitable for recording vocals, guitar, percussion, and more.
The pair came in a steel-reinforced lunch-box-type flight case that holds the mics securely and has additional room for the included shockmounts. Right out of the box, you can feel the microphone's quality. Its sturdy chassis is coated in a nonmarking black-rubber finish designed to help it blend into the background in stage and film environments. Even the windscreen feels sturdy. The hand-tuned, gold-sputtered, twin-diaphragm 1-inch capsule works in omni, cardioid, hypercardioid, and figure-8 patterns.
The physical design (reminiscent of the AKG C 414's) has four switches on the mic's face — handy for when you're recording yourself. One switch engages a pad (-10 or -20 dB), and another engages bass cut (60 or 120 Hz). The remaining switches select the polar pattern. One switches between omni, cardioid/hypercardioid, and figure-8 modes, and when that one is in its middle position, the other switch toggles between cardioid and hypercardioid.
The mic's combination of good sensitivity and the ability to withstand high SPLs lets it handle a variety of sources, from vocals to drums and from acoustic instruments to amps. Frequency response is from 20 Hz to 20 kHz (±3 dB), though it varies by polar pattern around the upper and lower extremes. The cardioid pattern has a slight and smooth rise from the upper mids to the highs, which works nicely on vocals and guitars.
A SYSTEM TO THE SHOCK(MOUNTS)
I tested the mics both individually and as a pair, plugging them directly into an Apogee Ensemble interface, as well as a Trident-MTA Signature Two preamp connected to a TC Electronic Konnect|24D. Playback was mostly on Genelec 1030a monitors and a pair of Ultrasone Pro 900 headphones.
As a pair, the mics were easy to set up thanks to a cleverly designed shockmount cradle that lets the mic pivot to several different positions (you can mic closely and still use the shockmount) and a bracket that accommodates both mics at the same time. Each cradle — which can also be mounted on a conventional stand — sits in its own 4.75-inch-long slot in the bracket. A large thumbscrew lets you tighten or loosen the cradle and slide it within the bracket; my one complaint is that it can be hard to tighten completely.
Between sliding the inside bracket and pivoting the shockmount, you could use one stand to position the mics in any number of ways, at distances ranging from overlapping to about 26 inches apart. The mics don't even have to be on the same plane, which can be especially useful when you're using both mics, but not as a stereo pair. For example, when close-miking an acoustic 12-string, I pointed one at the fretboard and the other at the lower bout to capture that guitar's full range — not the most conventional method, but it worked well. The best part was that I could position the mics myself while sitting with the guitar, something that would have been impossible with a pair of mic stands.
Unlike vintage mics designed for the tape era, the sE4400a was specifically calibrated to work well with digital gear. I liked the detail in the top end, which was present but never harsh. Male vocals sounded warm yet articulate, with a solid midrange. The mic captured plenty of body on female vocals, and the track sounded rich and thick without that muffled tone some so-called warm mics deliver. Those same qualities were superb on flute.
For electric guitar, one slightly off-axis mic in cardioid worked especially well on an overdriven tube amp. Though some recordists prefer small-diaphragm condensers on acoustic guitar, the sE mics were responsive enough to capture plenty of attack, and they translated the instrument's body and overtones ably. Low-mid response was terrific on cello, both bowed and plucked. The pair also worked well as room mics, capturing a nice sense of space and direction.
With excellent sound, versatility, and rugged good looks, the sE4400a hits the target nicely. A matched pair definitely isn't cheap, but it's a worthwhile investment.
Value (1 through 5): 4