Microphones need to be more than just microphones now.
The latest in the trend towards USB microphones that come with multiple on-board functions is the Audio-Technica AT2020USB+, a side-address cardioid condenser mic that carries its own A/D converter, mix control, and headphone jack with volume control. Beyond music recording, the additional features make it a natural for podcasts and VO work, as well as mobile recording.
The AT2020USB+ will be available this month for an MSRP of $279.00.
If you like the thought of a mic that does more than just capture sound, read on. Here are the full details from Audio-Technica:
Audio-Technica is debuting its AT2020USB+ Cardioid Condenser Microphone. Equipped with a USB output, this microphone is designed for digitally capturing music or any acoustic audio source employing users’ favorite recording software. The AT2020USB+ offers studio-quality articulation and intelligibility perfect for home studio recording, field recording, podcasting and voiceover use.
The AT2020USB+ features a built-in headphone jack with volume control that allows users to directly monitor their microphone signal in real time, and a built-in high-output internal headphone amplifier that delivers superior clarity. The microphone also offers mix control that can blend the microphone’s signal with pre-recorded audio (perfect for DJ/karaoke use). The unit’s cardioid pickup pattern delivers excellent off-axis rejection, while its A/D converter, with a 16-bit 44.1/48 kHz sampling rate, ensures extremely articulate sound reproduction.
The microphone is compatible with Windows 7, Vista, XP and 2000, and Mac OS X. It is powered from a USB Bus and includes a tripod desk stand, stand mount, USB cable and soft protective carrying pouch.
The AES Convention has always been a time for new product announcements, and this year was no different.
Although there were markedly fewer exhibitors this year than usual, almost all of the companies that did show up seemed to be announcing new tools, which ranged from the practical to the idealistic to the downright unexpected. Companies with nothing to announce, it seemed, just stayed home.
This convention was at its leanest on the software front, with many of the biggest players in that field sitting out. Absent were giants like Apple, Avid, and Steinberg, and this allowed smaller companies like SoundToys, Sonnox and iZotope to soak up the lion’s share of the exposure on the plugin end.
SoundToys announced their new full-fledged Radiator saturation plugin, and made clear that this quirky-yet-satisfying tone shaper and last year’s Devil Loc plugin mark the beginning of a whole new series of plugins that aim to recapture the sound of classic unique-and-boutique audio processors.
Meanwhile, Shadow Hills took a surprise leap into software, unveiling their own Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor Plugin, made in conjunction with brainworx for UAD.
But what little software that was on display did not focus solely on emulation and re-creation.
For their part, iZotope unleashed Trash 2, a forward-looking plugin devoted to “audio mangling, distortion, and experimentation.” Then, in a display of a 180-degrees of diversity, the company announced the decidedly more pragmatic and mild-mannered Insight – a multifunction loudness meter made to ease compliance with the new CALM Act, which regulates audio levels for broadcast.
Two Visions for the Future of Analog:
A Return to 20th Century Simplicity, or a full Embrace of 21st Century Digital Control
A few companies this year introduced dazzling new products with a vintage bent. Eric Valentine’s UnderToneAudio was chief among them. Their custom consoles and channel strips – developed with Larry Jasper of Quad Eight – are about as uncompromising as a pure analog circuit can get.
The same might also be said for UTA’s all-tube UnFairchild Compressor, which takes the smooth, thick tone of the original Fairchild and adds a little bit of muscle and few, significantly more useful, attack and release presets.
But for every vintage-minded developer like UTA or Tree Audio or Mara Machines, it seemed there were two manufacturers intent on bringing digital features to analog circuits. A couple of high-profile new hybrid consoles promised to combine the best of both analog and digital workflows.
Focusrite for one, joined forces with Audient to release the 2802 Console, a compact analog mixing desk and summing unit. It comes complete with insert points, motorized faders, and digitally-controlled analog VCA bus compressor.
All this means that the 2802 integrates easily with both analog rack gear and DAW-based, fast & easy recall. With a prestigious collaborator like Audient and a street price around $5,000 it wouldn’t be surprising if this tactile, recallable analog mixing board makes a major dent in the hybrid mixing market.
On the higher-end of this concept, SSL released the new Duality Pro-Station, an analog/digital hybrid that places the DAW front-and-center and includes SSL’s recently developed A-FADA automation system.
Simply put, the hybrid Duality Console is a full-scale analog desk designed for digital work flow. It can easily follow the automation written into a DAW, making complete and instant recall painless.
There’s even a new 500-series Pultec EQ (BetterMaker) that offers complete digital recall and a USB port built right into the front panel.
Two Competing Visions for the Future of Digital:
Turn off Your Screen, or Turn it into the Main Attraction
Two of the most unexpected announcements revolved around the unveiling of digital audio systems that represent a true break from the norm.
The makers of RADAR emphasize build quality, the sound of their AD converters, and the robust simplicity of the system’s analog-style workflow over the bells and whistles of the modern desktop DAW.
That final point is where RADAR is fundamentally unique. It is in essence, a reliable, straight-forward hard-disk recorder and has a lot more to do with the tape machines of yesteryear than the screen-based DAWS of today.
The platform does offer some editing ability, and even an optional touch-screen to access the menus. But don’t expect to mix on it or run any plugins. On the other hand, don’t expect to worry about version compatibility, software updates, virus checks, eye strain or the distractions of email and YouTube.
This straightforward recording system demands a conventional recording console, relies on inexpensive and easily swappable solid state drives, and promises rock-solid reliability without system crashes and pinwheels of death.
On the other end of the spectrum lies Steven Slate’s Raven control surface and interface.
This unprecedented mixing system occupied the busiest booth at the entire convention. Even as the events simmered down on the final day, crowds thronged this 46” touchscreen, and onlookers gently elbowed their way in for a closer look.
But despite its forward-looking concept, the crowds did not seem to view the Raven as a curiosity, but rather as a pragmatic and logical next step in the evolution of the DAW. The majority of the under-40 crowd it seemed, could see themselves working happily on a system like this one.
Slate, for all their focus on showmanship, clearly put some serious thought and effort into making the implementation of this idea was as well-realized and feature-rich as any mature technology.
As of showtime, a few bugs remained, but they did nothing to reduce the excitement surrounding this touch-control system and proprietary HUI-based mixer.
To even begin to detail its surprisingly feature-rich implementation would require an article of its own. Suffice it to say that once perfected, the Raven is sure to become a viable new approach to studio control. And buyers are already lining up for it.
Microphones: A Quiet Revolution
Every year, the floor at AES is filled with lust-inducing high-end microphones that either faithfully recreate or aim improve on the classics. But often, there’s at least one standout that represents a clear break from the past. This year, there were two.
First was the Audio-Technica AT5040, a new flagship for the company which is meant to overtake the underrated, all-tube 4060 as the foremost ambassador of the line.
What makes the 5040 so remarkable is what’s under the hood. Instead of a single capsule, 4 matched diaphragms combine to offer an exceptionally large surface area and remarkably low self noise, without the transient smearing that would normally come from the added mass.
It’s a truly new vision for how capsules can be made, and what they can achieve, and brings together the best features of large and small diaphragm condensers.
Another set of microphones, the Sennheiser 9000 are a clear leap forward for live and broadcast engineers.
The 9000 series is likely to be overlooked by the studio press, as wireless units normally are, but they offer hidden implications for the studio world.
At its core, the 9000s are top-shelf wireless microphones with long-lasting rechargeable batteries and interchangeable capsules. But what makes them so groundbreaking, is that their digital capture is at a resolution of 24/96, and falls after an extremely short signal path built right inside the microphone.
After tens of millions of dollars in R&D over the course of a decade, the 9000 series represents a true raising of the bar in professional wireless. It is the first inarguably lossless wireless mic system, and its modular and expandable rackmount receiver means that buying channels in bulk can become increasingly tidy and cost-effective.
It may take some time for us to feel the true impact of these developments in the studio world, but the idea of an uncompromising wireless recording studio has just become radically more feasible. Within another 10 years, it might not seem so strange a concept at all.
500 Series Grows, Monitors Adapt
Two of the most consistent growth areas at this AES over the past couple years have been in the expansion of the 500 series units and the evolution of monitoring systems for DAW-based studios.
In addition to the previously mentioned BetterMaker, several vintage-inspired modules cropped up to got some serious attention: Daking revealed both a new 500 series compressor and EQ, Warm Audio released an API-inspired preamp, Moog introduced an analog delay, and Heritage Audio came out with an uncompromising re-creation of the Neve 1073.
Of course, all those new tones don’t matter much if you can’t hear them. Recognizing the need for superior monitoring options, high-end companies like Grace and Burl introduced practical systems for console-free rooms, while Lavry introduced their new Latency Killer — a “Zero-Latency Cue Mix System.”
Meanwhile, ADAM, one of the fastest growing high-end speaker companies took a step into the aspiring prosumer market with their new F Series. The price? Just half that of their affordable, high-performance A series. They, like so many growing companies, have discovered that the best way to expand market share is sometimes to open up to entirely new ones.
At AES this weekend, Audio-Technica launched their new flagship 50 Series of high-end studio microphones with the all-new AT5040 Cardioid Condenser mic.
In development over five years, the hand-built AT5040 side-address condenser was designed for realism and depth, presence and purity of sound.
Featuring a proprietary element design, the AT5040 employs four ultra-thin (2 micron) rectangular diaphragms that function together providing combined surface area unachievable in a standard round diaphragm.
Designed as a high-fidelity vocal microphone with smooth top end and controlled sibilance, the AT5040’s large-diaphragm characteristics and fast transient response also make it suitable for recording acoustic instruments such as piano, guitar, strings, and saxophone.
The AT5040 Cardioid Condenser Microphone, the first model of the new 50 Series, will be available January 2013 with a U.S. MSRP of $2,999.
Here’s what Audio-Technica had to say about the design process of this significant new product:
“The first of A-T’s design criteria for the AT5040 was purity of sound. To achieve this, A-T engineers developed a four-part rectangular element, the pinnacle of recent breakthroughs in sound-capture technology. Four exquisitely matched diaphragms function together (with outputs proprietarily summed) as a single high-performance element – effectively the largest element Audio-Technica has ever created. By using four diaphragms as a single capsule, the AT5040 achieves remarkably large surface area without the increased weight and decreased transient response that are the expected limitations of expansive size.
“Another key AT5040 design feature is advanced internal shock mounting that effectively decouples the capsule from the microphone body. For additional isolation, each AT5040 is also provided with Audio-Technica’s new AT8480 shock mount. Featuring a proprietary design, the AT8480 was engineered not only to isolate the microphone, but to rid the apparatus itself of any unwanted resonances and other audio aberrations that could be transmitted to the microphone. It also features a unique locking mechanism that holds the microphone securely in place.
“Every AT5040 is hand-assembled and inspected for 100% quality control and is housed in an elegant case of aluminum and brass with gray chrome plating for durability and low reflectivity. Discreet components have been selected for optimized capsule performance; in fact, every aspect of microphone has been carefully considered to minimize any effects on the audio signal. To protect the AT5040, each microphone comes in a custom-designed hard-shell carrying case, padded with die-cut foam compartments for the microphone and shock mount.”
Click for more details.
As digital recording has become the norm, many tools that engineers once took for granted have disappeared from recording studios. But it’s one of the ironies of the DAW-age that the embrace of computer recording has led directly to the comeback of one technology that’s even older than tape itself. Today, we’re talking about the triumphant return of the pressure-gradient ribbon microphone.
Below are my personal picks for the three contemporary classics against which all other ribbon microphones can be judged.
The Coles 4038 isn’t just one of the best ribbon microphones you can get for under $1,500 – it may also be one of the best microphones ever devised. In my book of vintage studio staples, the Coles 4038 would sit right up there alongside the most iconic designs from Neumann and AKG.
Unlike most of its condenser cousins, the Coles 4038 has remained completely unchanged for almost 40 years. The mic’s true legacy goes even further back than that, in fact, and buying a new one today is a whole lot like picking up an original off of the BBC’s private production line back in 1955.
The 4038′s smooth, natural, and textured sound makes it a beautiful performer on drums, strings, room and piano. It’s also a knockout on a good-sounding electric guitar amp, and it can even work well on vocalists who could use a little softening around the edges.
The top-end on this microphone rolls off sooner than many modern ears would expect, but that’s half of its charm. While the 4038 is not a natural choice for sounds that need to cut through a mix, it’s famous for taking EQ well, and a high-frequency boost in the right place can make the mic shimmer like satin does.
Still, don’t let the 4038′s balanced, gauzy timbre fool you: In the right scenario, this microphone rocks as hard as anything.
Royer SF Series
The Royer R-121 is about as far as a ribbon mic can get from the Coles 4038. On horns or electric guitars, it’s got balls, body, and bite all at once, and it’ll make your Shure SM57 sound razor-blade thin by comparison.
The R-121 may also be one of the best-marketed ribbon mics of the modern era, and it’s secured its place in the audio zeitgeist no matter what I have to say about.
Although I like the 121, I don’t believe it’s the magic bullet it’s been made out to be. I reserve that designation for another series of Royer ribbon mics that I believe stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the world.
Royer’s mono SF-1 microphone is now discontinued, but when it came out it was probably the best ribbon mic to hit the market since the Coles 4038. It even outperforms that old classic in some ways: the SF series handles hotter SPLs without breaking up, it rolls off less significantly in the high-frequencies, and it can sound slightly more controlled in the bottom end. All this comes in what’s a remarkably small package compared to the Coles.
At the moment, the SF is only available in fixed-stereo configurations, where it excels as both a room and a remote-recording microphone, especially for classical and jazz. In fact, if you can get one stereo SF-12 or SF-24 in a good-sounding space with a great ensemble, you might not even need another mic.
Although it was never marketed as well as the rest of their line, the mono SF-1 can be extremely useful, and it’s still one of my favorites for horns and clean guitar – especially on jazz recordings. Luckily for you, enough opinionated loudmouths like me have complained that Royer has finally decided to release a mono version of the SF series once again. Look out for the phantom-powered SF-2 later this year.
Beyerdynamic M 160
If you’ve never recorded drums with a pair of Beyer M 160s, you just haven’t lived. It’s remarkable that any microphone can deliver so much muscle, especially as an XY pair out in the room.
The M 160 also works surprisingly well in an overhead configuration, or even as a close mic on snare. This hypercardiod ribbon mic has an uncanny ability to highlight both the crack and the mass of a snare drum, while providing a welcome softening effect on cymbals that can help tame the grating edge of an over-eager bronze-basher.
I’m not a huge fan of the M 160 on guitars, but plenty of people are. (Just ask Eddie Kramer and Jimi Hendrix). In addition to drums and rooms, the 160 can be great on trumpets, trombones, and as the center of a Mid-Side stereo setup.
For a ribbon mic with all the quality and a little less attitude, the Beyer M 130 is a great sleeper ribbon. It’s more neutral than the 160, can be fantastic on strings and horns and it makes a beautiful “side” mic in an MS stereo pair.
Like the Coles, these Beyer mics haven’t changed much over the years. They also remain one of the most affordable of the pedigreed ribbon breeds.
Runner Up: AEA R44 and A440
Wes Dooley knows a thing or two about ribbon mics. He made his name as both the U.S. distributor for Coles and as one of the most-trusted ribbon mic repairmen in America. His own company, AEA, now makes ribbon mics based on the long-discontinued classics from RCA.
The famously pill-shaped RCA 77 is hard to replicate as microphones of that model are notorious for sounding so dissimilar to one another, especially with age. Where Dooley has done astonishingly well is with his modern remakes of the boxy-looking RCA 44. His R44 and A440 microphones are a startling approximation of the originals – maybe even an improvement – and a welcome addition to any studio’s color wheel.
Any microphone roundup that aims for digestibility is sure to leave out more mics than it can include. Rest assured that there are now fantastic ribbon microphones available at every price point, from companies like Cascade, Samar, Audio-Technica and Golden Age Audio, just to name a few favorites.
But before exploring the growing field of ribbon mics both good and bad, it’s good sense to get familiar with the contemporary classics profiled here. No matter what new ribbon mics come out, it’s likely that these models will remain the ones to beat.
For an exhaustive overview of a full field of modern ribbon mics, see our friends at RecordingHacks.com and their nearly overwhelming “$60,000 Ribbon Mic Shootout”.
Last week, we covered some of the best large diaphragm condenser mics around at an entry-level price of $300. This time, we’ll move up a bracket to review some of the most useful condensers available from $500 to $1,500 new.
Keep in mind that this list is no way conclusive. It only promises to offer a proven handful of options that I’ve used time and again, and which have consistently performed as some of the best in their class.
Also remember that this list focuses only on new condenser mics, and does not include ribbons, dynamics, or a whole array of used and vintage microphones that can be equally good options.
With that out of the way, here’s the roundup:
The Workhorse LDCs
AT4050 ($700 street)
As we mentioned last week, Audio-Technica was among the first companies to make condenser mics ubiquitous with their AT4033. They would ultimately take what they learned from the success of that mic and apply it to the slightly more expensive, significantly more well-rounded AT4050.
This is a mic that repeatedly fails to sound bad. It may never have the shimmer of a C12, the body of a U47, or velvety response of a U67, but it was never intended to. The 4050 was designed as an affordable, transparent, swiss-army knife and at that, it succeeds without question.
It’s a workhorse of a microphone that’s become a staple at pragmatic studios, where it’s routinely used on percussion, voice and acoustic instruments. It now occupies a niche once monopolized by the AKG C-414, and although it’s a mic may not always dazzle, it will never disappoint.
AT4047 ($700 street)
Eventually, Audio-Technica decided to build a condenser mic that would offer a little more character and attitude than the decidedly neutral AT4050.
The resulting AT4047 is a design that’s loosely based around Neumann’s classic FET 47. This mic has a bit more midrange “push” than the 4050, and I like mine on kick drums, bass amps and guitar cabs. It also suits plenty of male vocals, especially when a little body and edge are called for.
C-414 ($800-$950 street)
There may be more distinct versions of the AKG C-414 than any other major microphone in history.
For those of you who are confused by all the models, I recommend the audio history of the C414 I wrote for Trust Me, I’m a Scientist. And for those of you who are in the market for a new mic, just know that there are currently two versions of the 414 available: the relatively flat XLS and the intentionally brighter XL-II.
I’m still a fan of my vintage versions of this mic, but the newest models are well-built, and address some issues I had with the original pattern switches. Their self noise has also been brought down significantly.
To my ear, these new versions sound a little leaner and tighter than some of the originals, but this might be well suited to modern tastes. It’s also worth remembering that the differences can sound slight to some ears.
However your tastes run, the 414 has been a studio staple since it was first introduced, and it’s still a natural choice on drum overheads, stringed acoustic instruments, horns, pianos, amps, and just about anything you can throw at it. I tend to like the brighter “II” versions on acoustic guitars and voice.
Sputnik ($700-800 street)
The Sputnik is a funny-looking, affordable tube microphone that’s much better than I expected. According to its product literature, it was designed to sound like a hybrid of two of the most classic mics in history, and aims to deliver the upper midrange bump of the U47 and the high-end lift of a C12.
This can be a recipe for disaster in most inexpensive mics, but somehow the Sputnik pulls it off. It has a sound that’s forward and clear with just a bit of attitude and tube grit. It may not a great choice on already bright-sounding instruments, but the Sputnik can add life to dull-sounding tracks without taking them into the realm of irritation.
The Sputnik is a good character condenser for a mic locker in need of some zest on the cheap. It sounds more balanced than many affordable, bright condenser mics and there a closeout deals on this now-discontinued model at several dealers.
C 451 B ($580 Street)
For some reason, people seem to have forgotten all about the AKG C 451 B. It’s a small-diaphragm design that hasn’t changed too much over the years. At one time it was one of the best bets in small diaphragm condenser mics. Today, it still delivers a sound that’s pretty, clean, and crisp, and still does well on acoustic stringed instruments and in all sorts of tight places. The price hasn’t risen too much over the years, either.
MK-012 ($380+ street)
The Oktava MK-012 has become one of the most popular small diaphragm condensers of the past ten years, thanks in part to rave reviews in Tape Op Magazine and online. These mics are affordable, versatile and a great deal when purchased in pairs.
To my ears, the sound of the MK012s is a bit more broad and “throaty” than some of the other popular SDCs on the market. I like them on hi-hats, toms, and on sensitive acoustic instruments that don’t agree with brighter-sounding condensers.
KM-184 ($850 street)
Neumann makes a few mics for under $1,500, but the one I think deserves serious consideration at most studios is the KM-184.
Detractors say that this mic isn’t as silky or smooth as the original KM84. That’s true, and by design, the KM-184 offers a bit more presence than the originals. This seems to be a general trend across microphone brands, and some engineers argue that using a slightly brighter mic saves them from applying the equalizers they’d reach for otherwise.
Despite the changes over the years, the KM-184 remains a well-balanced mic that can be great on acoustic guitars, string instruments, snare drums and others. If you can find an original at a good price – then yes – those are definitely nice too.
The “Blue Collar Boutiques”
195 ($1,000 street)
The Bock Audio 195 is a big, clean-sounding mic with a special “fat” switch designed to deliver extra heft. It’s a good deal on a good FET condenser from one of the best makers of high-end boutique microphones in the world.
MA-200 ($1000 street)
Want a bright, airy, affordable microphone that sounds really good? The MA-200 has one tube, one polar pattern and one sound that works especially well on voice. This mic has quite a bit of lift in the high band, but it never sounds sizzly, spitty or harsh.
The MA-200′s silky, enhanced top-end is what I often want a mic to sound like when I’m done EQing it. It’s not always the right mic, but when it is, it can be the perfect mic. Try it on voice, overheads and acoustic guitar.
22 251 and 2247 ($1,300 street)
Peluso makes excellent re-interpretations of the classic Neumann U47, AKG C12, and others for a fraction of the price. Models start at a list price of around $1,500 and go up from there. In a similar vein, Lawson and Telefunken are also worth a look, although both companies tend toward at a higher price-point.
That’s it from us from now. Stay tuned for future roundups featuring favorite dynamics and ribbons. And as the economy continues to improve, don’t be surprised to see us run features on some of the most coveted condensers around.
In the meantime, feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section below.
I started working as an audio engineer just as the home studio market began to blossom into what it is today.
This means that throughout my career, I’ve been as much of a counselor as a craftsperson, because so many of my clients spend nearly as much time recording at home as they do working with me in conventional studios.
I get calls every week for help with everything from key commands to console routing, but out of all the advice I’m asked for, the number one question might be: “I’m just starting to record at home. I have X dollars to spend and want a Y-style microphone. Which one should I buy?”
Category #1: The $300 Condenser
One of the most common requests from musicians just beginning to self record is for a recommendation of an entry level large-diaphragm condenser, at price of about $300.
I’m not sure why this is such a popular request, and my first instinct is usually to ask why they’re so sure they want an LDC, and why at that price.
For about the same amount, some of the best dynamic mics ever made are viable choices for many voices and instruments. And for just a bit more, there are a slew of small and large diaphragm condensers that would be a welcome addition to any commercial studio.
But that’s a topic for a whole separate article. The question of the $300 condenser comes up a lot, and it deserves a straight answer. It’s true that a home recordist with an inexpensive dynamic mic, an affordable condenser, and a halfway decent interface can cover a lot of ground – given patience, taste, some kickass music and maybe just a little bit of help now and then.
Here are few of the low-priced condensers I’ve encountered several times without developing the urge to throw them out a window.
Audio-Technica 4040 ($300 Street)
In the early 90s, Audio-Technica helped revolutionize the microphone market forever by introducing the AT4033. At the time, it was one of a small handful of reliable LDC microphones available for under $1,000.
Since then, the company has improved its designs, releasing now-classic affordable workhorse LDCs like the AT4050 [enter to win one here!], 4060 and 4047. Like many other manufacturers, they’ve gotten better at making mics cheaper too, and have had some great success with the AT4040.
While the 4040 resembles a single-pattern version of the more expensive 4050, it has a sound of its own. On paper, the 4040 has a bit more of an upper midrange “push” than the 4050,with a soft peak around 6-7 kHz and then another, slight high-frequency lift around 10 kHz.
In practice, the 4040 sounds just a little bit “tighter” and “leaner” than the 4050 to my ears. At best, the 4040 leaves out some of the boxiness of the 4050 – At worst, it misses out on some of its big brother’s body and realism. But at half the price, it’s a great design from a reliable manufacturer, and one of the better bets in its price bracket.
For $300, the 4040 is a remarkably neutral and well-balanced microphone. Like the 4050, it’s the kind of workhorse that’s unlikely to disappoint on most sources – Even if it sometimes fails to dazzle.
Rode NT-1000 ($300 Street)
20 years ago, Rode rose to become one of the first names in affordable large-diaphragm condensers right alongside Audio-Technica. They set their aim at a slightly lower price point and effectively dominated the entry-level condenser market for a decade. Their NT1A was a bestseller then, and with a street price under $250 it still remains one of the most popular mics in its class even now.
Rode’s designs sometimes catch flak for being overly bright, even harsh in the top end. There’s some truth to those claims – A few of the company’s most popular early designs including the NT2 and the NTK could sound airy and articulate at best or sizzly and thin at worst – But with the NT-1000, the company took a different tack.
The 1000 is easily one of the smoothest and roundest sounding of Rode’s less expensive designs, and compared to the rest of their line, it’s a real sleeper and unfortunately under-recognized as the solid all-around performer it is.
The NT1000 can be flattering without sounding hyped, and sound natural without being clinical. For $300, you could do a lot worse.
M-Audio Luna and Solaris ($300 Street)
In contrast to the fairly neutral AT4040 and the relatively smooth NT-1000, these M-Audio mics have a tone that’s more “forward” and maybe even a bit edgy.
I once mixed a record where the band completed many of their overdubs at home on a Solaris, and was surprised to find the tracks were pretty easy to work with. I found myself using tricks to take a little bit of the edge off here and there, but the tracks had attitude and presented few problems for that production. Of course, it didn’t hurt that their performances were great – That can have the effect of saving almost any tone.
The AKG C3000 series seems to get mixed reviews, which may be why this line can be such a steal on the used market. Like any of the mics on this list, the 3000 may not be perfect, but it can sound as good as anything in the right context. I once mixed a few tracks where the artist had used a C3000B as a primary mic, and found that while it was a little bland, the sound was well-balanced and never offensive in the top end.
The Sennheiser company is responsible for designing a few of the best dynamic microphones of all time: The MD-421, the 441 and the 409. Now, after distributing Neumann for more than 20 years, Sennheiser has jumped into the low-priced condenser market with the MK-4. It’s a mic designed for the project studio, and has a slight high frequency tilt from 3kHz all the way through 10kHz and above. I’ve yet to try a review unit of my own, but the mic seems to be getting high marks from consumers who have decided to take a stab on this new design.
Studio Projects, sE, MXL (various models)
Although I’ve never had a personal experience with any of these mics that made me think twice about them, there are other engineers I respect who have vouched for them. sE, and Studio Projects seem to have loyal followings, and some of MXL‘s designs have developed their own cults of mod-happy evangelists.
Choosing Your Mic
As always the best thing to do is to try some mics for yourself and to base your decisions on your own idiosyncratic tastes.
Any of the microphones we’ve covered today could be a good call for home recordists eager to pick up acoustic instruments or voices with a bit more detail on a tight budget. But before jumping to purchase any of these models, know that for recording voice, horns and amplified or percussive instruments, there are dynamic moving-coil microphones in the same price range that are among the best in their class. And for recording acoustic instruments and voice with great detail, an investment of just a couple hundred dollars more can begin to afford any one of an array of workhorse condenser mics that often see a lifetime in rotation at conventional studios.
Look for recommendations in both of these categories in a future issue.
HARLEM, MANHATTAN: You don’t have to imagine what’s like to be in the head of La Dispute. Everything about this intensely emotional rock band – their lyrics, their message, their music, and even the way it’s recorded – is about removing the mystery.
It’s all obvious from the moment that you hear the band’s singer, Jordan Dreyer, pushing it out in “a Departure,” the opening track from their arresting new album Wildlife. Don’t wait around for the raw energy of this Michigan five-piece to let up either, because the artfully charging guitars, rhythmic explorations, and intimate space of their post-hardcore screamo/progressive rock songs just keep on coming at you.
The recording team of producer Andrew Everding (Thursday) and engineer Joe Pedulla (Swizz Beatz, Thurday, Patent Pending) arrived at an early self-imposed challenge while working with this uniquely inspired group: no artificial reverb allowed. Whether it was plates or Lexicon PCMs, all ambience not imposed by the band’s actual surroundings was banished on Wildlife – instead, only the natural sound of the rooms at NYC’s Stadium Red and Chicago’s Drasik Studios were allowed to influence the sonic sense of space.
Like many feats of engineering, the “no reverb” rule came not by design but as a matter of natural course, starting at the initial sessions in Chicago. “We had miked the drums in the live room, and the room mics that were in there were set up for talkback,” Pedulla recalls. “Then the guitarist was in there to be next to his amp, and we started realizing, ‘This sounds cool.’ The parts needed this ambience, and sounded really good with that sound that you don’t get from close mics.
“So we started printing more and more room mics,” Pedulla continues, “and we realized early on the importance of that way of working. Collectively, we started printing everything by having a ribbon mic in the center of the room. Midway through the record, we made it official: Shoot for no digital reverb, and bash away in a way that you can’t do in a basement studio. Obviously, it’s a digital album to begin with, recorded entirely into Pro Tools, so we did what we could from there to remain in the natural era of recording. It was a fun science experiment for us to do.”
AMPED UP WITHOUT REVERB
After recording six of Wildlife’s 14 songs in Chicago (without vocals), the scene shifted to NYC, where the rest of the album was tracked in the spacious complex of Stadium Red uptown. As Everding, Pedulla, and La Dispute — Dreyer, drummer Brad Vanger Lugt, guitarists Chad Sterenburg and Kevin Whittemore, and bassist Adam Vass – progressed, they got an increasing feel for the appeal of the real reverb that they were cultivating.
“We were just trying to capture what it would be like for an audience member sitting and listening to a guitar in a room,” says Pedulla. “There was something natural about it — no one ever listens to a guitar with their ear right against the speaker. Whenever someone is in their bedroom or basement playing guitar there’s a natural ambience to it, so we wanted to put that down and get the big parts to sound really big, and really ambient.
“The singer, Jordan Dreyer, has this crazy dynamic range – a 20dB swing from how loud and quiet he gets. So there are some vocal parts with no resonance at all, where he’s speaking/singing softly, the room is not echoing, and he sounds close and in-your-face. Then the dynamic swing happens, and we would see how big it can get.”
At Stadium Red, where Pedulla frequently works, the team took full advantage of the versatile, 1,000 sq. ft. Studio A. “I love that room for its flexibility,” Pedulla says. “It’s got gobos and a throw rug to emulate the size of different rooms, and with the small (300 sq. ft.) drum room, leaving the door full or partially open makes a difference. You can really have everything sound intimate with close mics, or you can open your room mics and get the long throw on it.”
To record the drums at Stadium Red, Pedulla first put a combination of close mics and boundary mics on the kit. Leaving the drum room’s sliding door open, he then miked the large live room purely to pick up the drums’ resonance. “We did a couple of different setups,” says the engineer. “We had a Royer 121 as our mono room mic, and a pair of AKG 414’s as the stereo-pair room mics, or two of the Audio Technica3060 tube condenser mics, which they don’t make anymore.
“There was another mono room mic from the ‘50’s or ‘60’s, the STC 4021 that I know as a ‘ball and basket.’ It’s a really cool, dark-sounding ribbon mic. Ribbon mics on rooms are king, and that’s what we used for our vocal room mic as well — there’s something about the way a ribbon mic chops off the top end, and makes it kind of smooth. Using a ribbon for the room on drums you don’t get too much of a cymbal bang, it’s not harsh, with a really solid top end and it gives you the mid range you need to capture that natural, resonating snare reverb.”
Dreyer’s close vocal mic was the Bock Audio 151 tube microphone, going into an Amek 9098 preamp, then tamed by an Empirical Labs Distressor. “We printed room mics on the vocals as well the whole album through, except for one song because of scheduling we had to record in Stadium Red’s C room,” Pedulla notes. “So for that, while I was mixing I took a Genelec 1031 speaker and placed it in the vocal booth in the exact spot that Jordan was standing. Then I placed the STC 4012 ribbon mic in the center of the live room and ‘reamped’ the vocals.”
When miking guitars, Pedulla looked to a Shure SM57 and a Royer 121 for close mikes, and a Neumann TLM 103 for the room. “There’s something cool about that, from 6’ to 25’ back from the amp. You can put it right in front of the amp and still get the ambience, or put it all the way at the end and really have it sounding big.”
Those listening even semi-carefully will hear some artificial wash on the guitar part for the song “a Poem.” “We used an analog spring reverb, the Sound Workshop 262 Stereo Spring Reverb, on one guitar part there on input,” concedes Pedulla. “The guitarist, Chad insisted on using it — he used it sort of as you would a pedal into his guitar amp. We were using it as an effect, by picking up and actually dropping the 2U box. Rest assured, this was accompanied by a room mic for more reverb.”
StadiumRed’s SSL G+also helped shape and tame the sound. “We had a 26” kick drum, and that went straight into the SSL,” Pedulla says. “Those drums were so big, and there was something about the kick that I hated at first, but Andrew and I reduced 15 dB at 120Hz – that solved the problem of the kick drum, getting rid of the low-mid garbage we didn’t need. The flexibility of that EQ and that one cut alone saved the drum kit – to me, cutting is just as important as boosting, if not more.”
MAKING IT WORK IN THE MIX
Knowing that Studio A and the SSL G+ were booked up, Pedulla executed the Wildlife mix in the box. “I really liked using HEAT in Pro Tools|HD on this album,” he notes. “For a raw-sounding rock band like La Dispute are, I really liked overcompressing at times and then hearing the harmonic character of the HEAT distortion. I summed through the SSL, with two faders up to unity gain – the SSL 2-buss compressor combined with HEAT was really important to the glue of the mix.”
While temptation ran rampant, Pedulla was able to keep his hands off any and all reverb – hardware or plugins. “It was always in the back of my mind, but I was on this mission to make the record happen without it,” states Pedulla. “Even if it was sounding weird, and the room mic wasn’t able to give me what I wanted to throw in the mix, I just did what I could to make it work. We agreed on it, that’s what it is, and we accepted that fact. Even if it was a little bizarre or not quite perfect, that’s what it was going to be, regardless of the character.”
BEAR-HUGGING THE LIMITATIONS
For Pedulla, Everding, and the brave souls of La Dispute, the self-imposed restrictions of Wildlife were well worth the pain. “You kind of get painted into a corner sometimes, and you need to know how to dig yourself out,” Pedulla says. “The limitations are fun. It’s the challenge of engineering. Some days you’ll say, ‘I have to focus on compression and making this sit well,’ realizing the dynamic and importance of it for the band.
“One of the big lessons I learned from this project is the importance of room mics, and that I shouldn’t neglect them when recording. Even if the fader is at -25 dB, there’s still a little ambience in there, so it can sit in the mix a bit better. And now I know there are some things you can do with room mics that you can’t do with digital reverb — that’s for damn sure!”
– David Weiss
OSSINING, NY: It was a beautiful day for a drive up to Bi-Coastal Music in Ossining to check out the new Audio-Technica (AT) AT4080 and AT4081 ribbon mics. We wanted to do a ribbon mic shoot-out and Bi-Coastal had a very nice array of ribbon mics for us to compare.
Both Tarik Solangi of Prime Time Sound (Mt. Vernon, NY) and musician/producer Ray DeTone were looking to add a ribbon mic to their locker, so they came by for a listen. Frank Portalatin and Doug Brown were there from Audio-Technica.
Audio-Technica has taken out 19 patents on this new ribbon technology. These mics are phantom powered, bi-directional and can withstand up to 150spl. When you look inside, the ribbon element is in a very sturdy housing and AT says you can store the mics horizontally (something that would ruin other ribbon elements). The outer housing of the 4080 is comparable in size to any medium size condenser mic while the 4081 is in a pencil style housing, excellent for tight miking applications.
Truth, be told I had already had a private screening at Quad NYC with Frank Portalatin and J-Styles of Blackstreet. (Frank wears a lot of hats: producer, writer, guitarist, etc.) I used the AT4080 on Styles’ vocal with an Avalon 737 channel strip. The sound was very surprising; it was clear and yet extremely present without having to use much compression at all. It did need a little nudge at 10K as the mic drops off around 8K.
I used the 4081 on Frank’s guitar in the control room. The first thing I noticed was that the 4081 is very sensitive and being figure-eight in its pattern, picked up a good deal of the room. As he was facing a small alcove, away from the control room speakers there was a good deal of low-end build up. I had him face back towards the speakers to avoid the low frequency build up in that alcove of the room.
The 4081 sounded brighter than the 4080 because it doesn’t roll off until about 10K. It lacks the low bump and has a flatter response than the 4080 too. If I wanted a leaner, more modern sound on the source I would tend to choose this mic. If I wanted to warm something up and perhaps soften its brightness, then I would use the 4080.
At Bi-Coastal Music, we set up a Fender Deluxe with the two AT mics as well as a beyerdynamic M160, beyerdynamic M260, a Royer R-121, and a Coles 4038. Frank riffed on a Fender Stratocaster. The mics all went to Millennia mic pres.
The 4080 sounded fuller but less bright than the beyer M 160. It was closer to the 260 but showed more presence and felt more “up front.” The 121 was a little flatter in the lows around 200 than the 4080 with a similar top end.
The 4038 sounded somewhat more organic but less modern than the 4080. Though if you wanted a vintage sound, then the 4038 was your mic.
Again the 4081 had a flatter response in the lows and sounded a little smoother up to 10K. Very similar, I felt, to the 260.
Listen to the results:
beyer M 160:
beyer M 260:
With these new Audio-Technica ribbon mics, I would certainly use them to close mic amps or horns (if I wanted closed miked horns) and even try them on drums. Perhaps out in front of the kick even, where I usually would use a condenser.
At the end of the day, these mics stood solidly against the mics we compared them to and everyone felt they would make a fine addition to anyone’s mic locker. They are available through Dale Pro Audio.
I would like to thank Jason at Quad NYC and Hal at Bi-Coastal for their gracious hospitality. — Rick Slater
Rick Slater is a NYC-based producer/engineer who’s recorded and/or mixed with Chuck D, Robben Ford and James Chance, and worked in NYC studios such as Mediasound, Quad and Sony. Check him out at www.slatermix.com.
MIDTOWN MANHATTAN: A few weeks back, we stopped by Music Mix Mobile’s flagship M3 truck, which was parked outside the Waldorf Astoria for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions. Owners/engineers Joel Singer, Jay Vicari, John Harris and crew were running through rehearsals for the performances they’d be mixing for broadcast on Fuse that evening.
Paul Shaffer led the all-star Hall of Fame house band, backing performers like Phish covering Genesis, The Hollies with Maroon 5, The Stooges with Billie Joe Armstrong and more.
With Vicari at the Digidesign D-Control during rehearsals, Singer stepped into the truck’s machine room with us for a few minutes and brought us up to speed on the rapid growth of the Music Mix Mobile fleet!
“We have a West Coast truck now, multiple flight-packs and a few other tricks coming up shortly,” he explained. “After the show tonight, we drive M3 down to Baltimore and do two nights with Daughtry at the 1st Mariner Arena for a web broadcast. John (Harris) is going down to New Orleans with a flight-pack shortly, while we do Daughtry at the NCAA semi-finals half-time show in Indianapolis.
“Next week, we’re doing Black Eyed Peas out in LA — “The E.N.D. World Tour Live” for Regal Cinemas with the M3 West truck. Then, back in New York, we’re doing a 30 Rock taping at Silvercup.”
M3 West lives in LA and is almost identical to the flagship M3 truck. “It’s the same mixing image, it just does less tracking,” Singer describes. “M3 East will track 160+ where that truck will only track 104. But it’s an identical mixing core — D-Control, Genelec surround speakers, Waves packages, etc. And when we do the larger awards shows — the Grammys, the CMAs — which require a live mixing truck and an off-line mixing room, we use M3 East and M3 West.”
“These trucks were built very specifically for teleproduction — from the huge front end, pre-amps on the stage, fiber optics and MADI delivery. But, we get a lot of calls from people wanting to hire our talent-set on their project that can’t afford all the hardware that goes along with it. So, we have the flight pack systems — 96-channel and 48-channel D-Command systems.”
The flight-packs free up the trucks for the big productions, of which Singer and partners — Jay Vicari, John Harris and Mitch Maketansky — seem to be handling more and more.
M3’S ADVANCED WORKFLOW
Getting ready for the Rock Hall inductions on Monday afternoon, M3 was humming. Matthew Cohen and Chris Payne were on board from NYC’s Tekserve, Music Mix Mobile’s technology partner, helping to configure a new dimension of M3’s repertoire.
“We’re now capturing multi-streams of hard-disk video,” Singer describes. “We’ve added Aja Kona interfaces and Telestream Pipeline HD systems. We’ve been capturing video for our audio purposes all along, but tonight, for the first time, we’ll be able to have multiple streams of SDJ-HD video captured as DNX-HD, with the Pro Tools files and video that’s Avid compatible. We’re taking HD-SDI streams and record directly onto a firewire hard drive and there you go!
“It’s a new methodology we’re establishing,” he points out. “At the Grammys this year, we captured SDI-HD video and those files — embedded with 8 channels of AES, 5.1 and LT-RT mixes — were available immediately. We’re able to remix very efficiently and keep projects on time and on budget. Tomorrow morning, we’ll start remixing these Rock Hall sessions at our studio in Wayne, NJ, with the hard-disk video and audio files we’ve captured here tonight. We lose no time.”
Also integrated in time for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions were some new Audio Technica AT 4081 mics. “We’ve just started working with these AT ribbon mics and they’ve been phenomenal,” Singer notes. “We’re using them on this show for the first time, and they sound amazing. We also depend on our Waves Mercury bundles immensely, the processing is fantastic.”
Technologically, Music Mix Mobile’s New Jersey studio mirrors the M3 truck. “It’s a private studio with Digidesign D-Command, M&K 5.1 system, a high-speed line so that we can send files back and forth to clients,” Singer describes. And when M3 needs a Manhattan facility for editing and mixing, they head to Beat Street Productions in the Flat Iron district.
“We’ve forged an alliance with Joe Franco’s Beat Street Productions, which has worked out really well for us,” says Singer. “He’s got a great D-Control / Pro Tools room with Genelec 5.1 speakers, and he’s updated his Pro Tools system with more cards and more DSP, since we run Pro Tools HD6s everywhere, so that we can walk in there, boot up and get going immediately. We’ve mixed a Kanye West Storytellers and John Mayer at the Beacon Theater in there, among other things.”
Incorporating the right blend of talent, technology and hard-earned workflow expertise, Music Mix Mobile is poised to cover much of the major remote recording and tele-production business in 2010. In our conversation, Singer even alluded to another announcement yet-to-come this summer. “We far-exceeded our expectations and look forward to a very productive 2010.”
New mics for every app were on display at Winter NAMM this year, including noteworthy new products by Audio-Technica, Mojave, Telefunken, Earthworks and more.
Audio-Technica introduced its first-ever ribbon microphones — the AT4080 and AT4081 Bidirectional Active Ribbons mics. The AT4080, whose footprint is that of a classic “suspension cradled” side-address condenser, is recommended for vocals, horns, strings, acoustic instruments, drum overheads, orchestras, ensembles and guitar cabinets. The AT4081, with an appearance more like that of a pencil condenser, is optimized for strings, saxophones and other horns, acoustic instruments, drum overheads, orchestras, ensembles and guitar cabinets; its low-profile stick design maximizes placement options.
According to Audio-Technica, both mics excel in recording studios as well as in live-sound settings. N50 rare-earth neodymium magnets provide high output levels, and the mics’ dual ribbon construction offers increased sensitivity and SPL handling capability. The bidirectional polar pattern of the mics makes them equally sensitive to sounds originating in front and back of the mic. Both feature extended frequency response for natural audio reproduction, and the AT4080 utilizes an acoustic baffle system and an extra-large output transformer, providing extended low-frequency response and dynamic range.
The AT4080 and AT4081 Bidirectional Active Ribbon Microphones are now available with respective MSRPs of $1,245 and $895.
Mojave Audio introduced its new MA-101fet condenser microphone. Mojave mics are designed by David Royer (yeah, that Royer), and the MA-101fet is reportedly “an ideal choice for recording acoustic instruments such as guitar, piano and wind instruments, as well as percussion and drum overheads. Though the pencil-condenser mic was also designed with “exceptionally high headroom,” making it a great choice for loud sources — i.e. guitar amps, snares, toms and even sound effects such as “gunshots, dragsters, and explosions.”
The MA-101fet features both omni and cardioid polar patterns by way of interchangeable capsules and with its 3-micron thick, .8-inch diameter gold sputtered diaphragm, this new microphone is a truly versatile recording instrument.
With a MSRP of $595, the Mojave Audio MA-101fet will become widely available in Q1, 2009.
Meanwhile, Blue Microphones exhibited its new live mics: the en•CORE 300 live stage vocal microphone and its en•CORE 100i live instrument microphone
The en•CORE 300 is built with Blue’s proprietary, custom-tuned condenser capsule, which is mounted on a rubber suspension system and coupled with a matched, phantom powered preamp circuit.
The reported result is: “vocal clarity and vibrancy with consistent tone and low noise, regardless of the cable length on stage.”
The en•CORE 300′s “Arched Airways” are comfortable to grip while maximizing air volume in the capsule chamber, reducing the harsh or unpleasant sound quality often resulting from gripping the microphone at different locations. Allowing more “open air” or volume that surrounds the top and bottom of the capsule reduces in-chamber resonances, is said to result in a more natural, present, and open sound.
The en•CORE 300 will be available in February 2010 for $199 MSRP at authorized Blue Microphone retailers.
Based on the en•CORE 100 dynamic vocal microphone, Blue’s new 100i is designed with a wider and flatter frequency response to capture a variety of instruments and tighter polar pattern to reduce off-axis noise.
The mic is built around Blue’s proprietary dynamic capsule with a custom-designed diaphragm and coil windings that are matched to a tuned acoustic circuit, custom-built transformer for low noise, and high-pass filter to reduce stage rumble. These matched components provide an accurate and consistent sound even at high volume levels on stage.
The en•CORE 100i will be available in February 2010 for $89 MSRP at authorized Blue Microphone retailers.
As previously reported, Telefunken Elektroakustik introduced its new AR-51 large diaphragm tube condenser microphone, the latest addition to Telefunken’s affordably priced R-F-T line of tube mics.
The AR-51 utilizes the same circuit design as the classic Telefunken ELA M 251E and employs new cost-efficient manufacturing methods to hit a sweet-spot price point (TBA) for customers ranging from major commercial studios to voiceover rooms and home project studios.
According to Telefunken, the new R-F-T AR-51 utilizes only premium components, including a vintage New Old Stock (NOS) tube that has been rigidly tested for noise and microphonics, as in the ELA M 251E. The AR-51 also features a globally-sourced power supply and capsule, both rigorously tested prior to installation.
Audio engineers at the Telefunken studios in South Windsor, CT, tested a wide range of applications for this new large diaphragm microphone, and found that the AR-51 is especially suitable for recording acoustic and electric guitars, piano, percussion, for drum overheads and close miked drums, as well as for both male and female vocals.
Neumann exhibited its new TLM-102 (TransformerLess Microphone) at NAMM, a large-diaphragm studio condenser microphone with broad applications and a price point friendly to the home recording, project studio and broadcast customer.
The TLM-102 features a newly developed large-diaphragm capsule (cardioid) with a maximum sound pressure level of 144 dB, which permits the recording of percussion, drums, amps and other very loud sound sources. According to Neumann, instruments that are not especially loud also benefit from the very fast transient response of the TLM 102.
However its most important applications are in the realm of vocals and speech: “a slight boost above 6 kHz provides for excellent presence of the voice in the overall mix. Up to 6 kHz the frequency response is extremely linear, ensuring minimal coloration and a clearly defined bass range. The capsule has an elastic suspension for the suppression of structure-borne noise. A pop screen integrated into the grille serves to suppress plosives in vocal and speech recording.”
The TLM-102 is going for $699 at retail: http://www.guitarcenter.com/Neumann-TLM-102-Condenser-Microphone-584192-i1500538.gc
And, Earthworks introduced its PM40T Touring PianoMic system. A collapsible mic rig featuring two omnidirectional 40kHz High Definition Microphones, the PM40T is made for the road, designed for quick and easy setup and to fit in an airline carry-on sized case.
According to Earthworks, with the new PM40T, musicians and audio engineers can achieve pristine sound quality regardless of whether the piano lid is up or down. With a frequency response ranging from 4 Hz to 40 kHz, the Earthworks omnidirectional mics reportedly deliver “extraordinary impulse response and extremely short diaphragm setting times.”
These microphones are also said to exhibit no proximity effect (change in LF levels), regardless of their distance from the piano strings or soundboard, resulting in a consistent piano sound across the entire range of the instrument.
For more information, visit www.EarthworksAudio.com.