Recording and Mastering Engineer

Microphone reviews

 

Here are some microphone and equipment reviews originally published on

www.recording-microphones.co.uk

For the last five years I have  been the main professional contributor to the above site (apart from the designer), and my microphone  and equipment reviews are both considered and informative being based, as they are, on extensive use of the items under review in real-life recording situations. If I think a product is special enough then I will use it for at least a  3-4 months on many varied sessions before even considering a review. I have learnt over the years that sometimes a piece of kit can sound amazing when you first push up the fader but several sessions down the line you realise it flatters to deceive and doesn’t have enough solidity to sustain the sound through to the final mix. Other times I’ve found that perhaps after initially not liking a particular item I begin to find out what it’s best at and 6 months later it’s a firm favourite.

I’ve had a great deal of very positive feedback, much of it from students studying Music Technology and other associated courses who say how useful it is to be able to reference a professional opinion based on usage.

The following reviews are in no particular order of significance and the opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the hosting site.

ADK TT Area 51 Valve Condenser  

About a year ago we were given some large diaphragm Tube Condenser mics to use and evaluate. One of them was the Advanced Audio CM47, about which there is plenty written elsewhere on this site, and another one was the ADK Area 51 TT Multi-Pattern mic which is featured on many of the recordings on the sessions page so I guess it’s time to offer some observations on it.

I think that probably the best test of the value of any mic is how often an engineer reaches for it before anything else and the fact is that there have been many times over the last few months when I’ve placed the TT in front of a guitar cab or a singer and been very happy with it whereas I’ve replaced the AA CM47 on quite a few occasions.

The differences between these two mics are these.

The CM47 is softer in the mid range, slightly sweeter at the top and slightly fuller in the low end which is great if that works on the sound source you’re recording and certainly has helped a lot of singers I’ve worked with but it is a distinctive “coloured” sound 

The ADK TT is, I think, generally a more accurate reproduction and sometimes this is better for me simply because it gives me more ammunition at the mix. As I’ve said in other reviews the acid test is how much of the sound remains when the mix is put together and things are competing for space in the frequency range. The TT is very solid in the mid range and this is an all-important area often overlooked particularly in the vocal register. It also responds extremely well to EQ when required and has enough gain for almost any application when used with a good pre-amp.

Noise has never been a problem although having said that…..

I lent it to a friend for a voice-over and he reported that the mic was giving out a constant low-mid hum with lots of noise content. This turned out to be a faulty valve and after a new tube was fitted I swear the mic was even quieter than before although there’s nothing to prove this theory. This has led us to get some alternative valves which we’ll try out and report on later.

The TT is great on distorted or overdriven guitar sounds and, when placed close to a loud cabinet smooths out any peakiness beautifully, likewise on bass cabs although it has’nt yet taken over from my Neuman u47 fet!

I’ve mainly used the mic in cardioid and only opened it up on a couple of occasions to record a group of people singing or hand-clapping which it did fine.

For me valve mics can become a bit vague and unfocussed when you get too far away from the source and they’re best when used close up. Similarly I’ve never had much success using valve mics on drums and percussion…they seem to sound a bit spongy somehow.

The TT is a well built, good looking microphone presented in a sturdy case with two different mounts (important when you want to get it right up against the speaker cloth) and an excellent steel pop shield. I’ve also used it on flute, violin and brass and it handles all of these well. As with all valve mics it’s a different beast when it’s been switched on for a few hours

Although more expensive than the AA CM47 I reckon I get more use out of the TT and it’s capable of recording a wider range of material. If I said it lacks character that’s not a criticism, sometimes you just want accuracy and it does this very well.

So. Would I buy one

Well, happily for me that’s not a decision I have to make but if I was in the market for a large diaphrgam tube condenser mic and had around £800 to spend then it would be a strong contender but as always…try before you buy wherever possible or buy on a “sale or return” basis.

 

AKG C414-B ULS

Fairview has three AKG 414 microphones, a pair of old silver ones and a later black ULS model and while I’m not quite sure what the ULS stands for, it does have a warmer, fuller sound. I’ve used them on everything at some time in the past 20 years but currently my favourite use is as a crossed pair at the back of the piano in the studio (a Colard upright) and if the piano’s tuned and it’s a good player then I think they give me the best sound from any of the mics we have here. Another thing I like them for are drum overheads but high up over the kit. I always use them in cardioid but they aren’t as focused as the Neumann KM84s which I use closer in. However I have recently taken to putting up an AKG 414 set to omni in the live room next to the drum room to create that sense of space and it works really well. At the mix I compress it quite heavily and it really adds something to the drum sound. I’ve used them a lot on acoustic guitars with a Neumann KM 84 close in and the 414 a couple of feet out to get the fullness of the body. They are a pretty distinctive looking mic and you used to see them all the time on The Whistle Test as drum overheads and tom mics. I personally don’t find them the brightest mic but they are still a classic, very well made, versatile studio microphone and can hold their own against just about anything in the studio.JS.

 

AKG D112E DSCF0918

Fairview has two of the original AKG D12 mics and more recently bought the egg shaped D112 really just for the kick drum. I think if you listen the sound of the kick drum on records has changed over the years from being a bit soft and paddy in the 70s to more punchy and “clicky” and AKG have just gone with this and produced a mic with a lift at the bottom and a one at the top to give some more attack. You do get favourite mics and I suppose it’s my first choice for the kick drum though I have recently used one of the old D12s to good effect. I have used both mics on bass guitars and any large brass instruments like a trombone or a tuba. I know that originally the AKG D12 was a very popular vocal mic in radio stations in the US and I once actually recorded a girl singing with the D12 in sheer desperation when all else had failed. She had such an awful voice that all the decent condenser mics just highlighted the fact. I can’t remember what happened in the end it was such an awful session that I’ve erased it from my memory!

Interestingly we pulled out our old D12 recently in a comparison test against some new Heil mics and we were so impressed with the D12 that it’s come out of retirement! JS.

Beyer M201

Fairview have had the Beyer for years and though I’ve tried it in most things, it gets used all the time on either the snare or hats. Its a good alternative to the Shure SM57 and you can try it on anything that you might use an SM57 on such as a guitar cab. Its size makes it great for getting into a busy kit and the tight pattern is good for minimising bleed from the hats and generally it’s a good all round mic for the price. JS

 

Audix D6

The Audix D6 one of the large range of Audix mics designed and made in Oregon in the USA and it’s an attractive looking large diaphragm dynamic mic wiith a cardioid pick-up pattern and a frequency response of 30 Hz-15 kHz, making it an ideal choice for kick drum, bass cabs, and other instruments requiring low frequency reproduction. It is lightweight, compact and easy to position and looks the business as a kick mic able to handle sound pressure levels in excess of 144 dB with a VLM™ (Very Low Mass) diaphragm. The D6 has a one-piece body precision machined from solid aluminum, finished off with a black anodized finish and will be just as at home on the road as in the studio.

 
 

Recording

I’m really an AKG man when it comes to kick drums and we have a D112 and a couple of old D12s in the studio and I pretty well use them all the time. If I’m out I might try a RE20 but I’m not a fan really and to me they always make the kick drum sound kind of “bottley”. Its hard to describe but I can spot them a mile off. I did a live recording for the Bogus Brothers at the Barbican in York and the in-house engineer had a RE20 for the kick. I’d taken along a D112 which I really wanted to use on the kick, so we set it up and got a level but as soon as the show started I knew immediately that the bugger had swapped it back to the Re20. I guess it says that we all have our favourites. This Audix is the first new dedicated kick mic I’ve tried for a while though I have used other mics as one-offs when live recording like the 421 or even a 58. When I get a new mic I very rarely look at the response curves as I just like to trust my own ears but I did with this and it really made me smile. Its got a big lump of boost at the bottom, a cut in the middle and a nice presence lift at the top which is of course what every engineer ends up doing by eq on a kick drum. But then it goes on to say that it’s good for any instrument requiring precise low frequency reproduction…..Hardly!
It’s really imprecise but it does exactly what you want and the first time I used it I put it alongside the D112 which I put through my TL audio pre-amp then I eq’d it with a bit of low boost a bit of mid cut and a touch of presence lift until it sounded Ok and then I switched to The Audix. It was there straight away without any Eq at all sounding just like the eq’d D112!.
It’s a really recognisable and a current sound like the Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy, very clipped and precise. It does say in the blurb that you can get great sounds every time without having to do anything and it’s true. For straight out of the box, no messing it’s a joy to use. The Audix looks and feels well made, it’s an attractive mic and it can clearly take high sound pressure levels but it’s around half as sensitive as the D112 which means that you need to give it more gain. However there’s plenty there and loads of headroom so it’s never really a problem. If it’s used with any decent preamp, noise isn’t a problem and infact I think it’s a bit of a disservice to just call it a kick mic. I’ve used it to record acoustic guitar which it did brilliantly but when you look at the frequency curve you can see why as its getting rid of all that boxy middle and adding a bit of sparkle. Ok there’s a lot of low end but you can always roll the bottom off on an acoustic guitar so it sounded really good.
I have tried it on all sorts of things and it’s not a mic to use for everything or you’ll end up with a recording with no mid range at all! But for the price it’s a great mic and surprisingly versatile. I suspect that the tom mics that Audix do have a similar response and I’d really like to try those out on other perc like congas
It’s the first Audix Ive tried and I quite like it. JS.

 

AEA R84 Ribbon Microphones

(September 2007)I’ve had the opportunity over the last 3 months or so to try these mics extensively during sessions at Fairview Studio with differing degrees of success. By success I mean recording a sound that has character and quality and which retains it’s tonal integrity throughout the recording and overdubbing processes, yet has enough in its frequency and spatial content to be manipulated at the mixing stage.
All too often an instrument which sounded great on its own with the just the basic backtrack can slowly disappear as more overdubs are added and when it comes to mixing you begin to wish for a bit more depth, tone and reality in the sound.

If part of the quality of a microphone is judged by its physical appearance then this is a big plus in favour of the AEAs. They never fail to impress clients when I whip off the cute little pyjama cases that come with them. The first question is usually “how old are they?”. Good looking mics!

These mics need a fair amount of gain at the pre-amp stage but I’ve had no problems using them with a Focusrite ISA 428 and a TLA Valve mic pre-amp. On loud sound sources such as drums there is also plenty of gain to be had from the studio Soundcraft 2400 desk mic amps. Having said that they are not the quietest mics for use on low level signals so care and judgement is needed at the recording stage.
If it’s accuracy of reproduction you’re after for a recording then it may be time to reach for something else, but if you are looking for some character and individuality in a sound then the AEAs can certainly bring something to the party. You only have to look at the frequency response curve in the accompanying paperwork to realise that the sound will be coloured. The question will always be “is that colouration worth having” and of course in some cases it is and in others it isn’t!

What I really like about these mics is the mid-range detail. They clearly have an accentuated low frequency response (from the specified 20hz through to around 1Khz) which can be quite “lumpy” if not treated carefully with some kind of attenuation, and the high end begins to roll off from around 2.5Khz but in a very smooth and controlled way. Fairview’s main monitors-JBL 4350s- are spec’d down to 30hz so you can actually hear all that bottom end and deal with it accordingly. Of course the low end boost is greatly affected by positioning and I’ve found that experimentation is the key. I think the advantages of using ribbon mics generally are probably that, given a good high-pass filter and the mics natural HF roll off, they leave that all-important mid-range exposed but with enough solidity to be EQ’d to sit comfortably into a mix. Of course there is more to this.

I would never judge a microphone by its published technical specification or indeed price tag but understanding its characteristics is valuable ammunition to anybody using it on a recording.
Given that these mics have a “figure of eight” pickup pattern with the negative (or generally rearward side) having a slightly increased HF response, then managing the recording environment becomes increasingly important. Obviously the distance from the sound source will determine the ratio of direct sound to reflected sound greatly, the advantage being that the reflected pickup is of good quality and in a nice sounding room can provide natural space which helps sit instruments or voices into a mix. So it’s back to experimentation.

I have recorded vocals with the R84s and positioned the singer about a foot in front of the mic and put up a screen with a blanket over it about 3-4 feet behind the mic to lessen the room “boxiness” effect.
Again careful use of a high-pass filter is needed but I tend to err on the side of caution working on the basis that I can filter out more low end at the mix if required. It’s much harder to put back in later!
I recently used them on all the guitar recordings of an album by Breathing Space. The guitarist didn’t vary his sound too much from song to song but I was able to find a distinct character for each overdub by repositioning the microphone relative to his amp. Also I recorded his Babitz acoustic guitar using an R84 and the real test is that throughout a 6 minute song that starts with solo acoustic guitar and builds to a climax which has drums, bass, double-tracked distorted guitars, Hammond organ, strings, four vocals and assorted sound f/x you can always hear the original acoustic guitar part in there without it being unnaturally loud in the mix. This track will appear on the site shortly. Also for vocal recording check out Anya Thomson’s session on this site.

(April 2008) With all the interest in ribbon mics over the past couple of years we eventually got hold of a pair of AEA ribbons for the studio to complement our range of quality condensers and to see what all the fuss was about. I’ve used them now on a variety of different instruments, vocals and on different sessions and I have to say I have become a massive fan. I’m currently 7 weeks into an album session with the band Mostly Autumn www.mostlyautumn.com and this has given me the opportunity to experiment and compare the ribbons against our favourite studio mics.
Mostly Autumn’s music ranges from acoustic tracks with guitars, pipes, whistles, bodrahn and assorted percussion to songs featuring drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, Hammond C3, stacked vocals and the kitchen sink!. Recording all this stuff is easy but balancing and mixing it is somewhat trickier and you have to take special care when laying tracks not to get a build-up of frequencies in the same sonic area.
The AEA ribbon mics have been invaluable in this respect and you can accurately tune what high-end there is by tilting the mic in the vertical plane aginst the sound source. I’ve regularly put up an AEA ribbon, a Neumann U47 and a Neumann U87 to compare and many times chosen the AEA based on its perceived warmth and lack of “peakiness”.
On some instruments the ribbons are stunning and acoustic guitars, flute, Uilleann pipes and tin whistles all benefit from the beautiful smooth top end that the mics impart.
Pipes and whistles on the session were played by Troy Donockley, (Iona, Barbara Dickson, Maddy Prior) and whilst Troy is an excellent player I’ve always had problems dealing with the very bright, peaky sound of the instruments, trying to control certain frequencies without over-using compression. Positioned about two feet away from the pipes and directly in front of the seated player the sound was wonderfully smooth and rich. Running the mics through a Focusrite isa428 pre and and into a very old Audio Design compressor the sound was totally sorted. Against this setup the U87 sounded thin and reedy and the U47 was only a little better than that. No contest really.
The only other action I took was to drape a heavy blanket between two mic stands about three feet behind the microphone to deaden the back side slightly and eventually I took the Neumanns down after listening to the whistles in order to get Troy nearer to the ribbon mic.
With minimal compression and recorded direct to the Radar system with no eq at all these overdubs sound stunningly real and people who visit the session are being very complimentary about the monitor mixes they are hearing.
But before we get carried away and to illustrate the point we make about there being no “perfect” mic for everything let me tell you that I used an AEA ribbon on Mostly Autumn’s female singer Heather Findlay and it sounded fantastic. Loads of real mid-range body and just enough presence in exactly the right area. The same mic used on the male singer, Bryan Josh did him no favours at all and I ended up using a cheap Joe Meek condenser costing a tenth of the AEA and it sounded wonderful!.
If I have to try and sum up my experiences with the AEA ribbon mics based on extensive usage over the last year or so and my instinct right now is this.
If someone said “you can choose three mics to make an album with-what are they?” then an AEA ribbon would definitely be in there!
One of the others would probably be a ’57 and I’m not at all sure what the third would be but I’m working on it.

 

Lewitt LCT 640

Recording
A lot of mics have made their reputation by sculpting or enhancing certain frequencies to flatter certain ranges or instruments but Lewitt have gone down a different route with their concept of what a good mic should be and if there is a downside with any mic that is this clean and flat it’s that it really exposes some singers who need the help of a valve or ribbon mic to give them some support. However if it’s stunning clarity you’re after then the Lewitt delivers in spades

Over the past 6 months I’ve used it on everything in the studio from acoustic guitars, electric guitars, vocals and drums and there’s nothing it can’t handle. It’s been used on piano though unfortunately we only have one so I can’t say how it is on drum O/heads (though I have set it up in omni in the room and it’s great). On delicate or quiet sources it’s great as it is so quiet you never have any noise issues

The first time I used this mic I was totally amazed at how clean and transparent it was particularly after using valves and ribbons for the last 18 months. I suppose it’s like an 87 or a 414 but I can tell straight away that it’s quieter than an 87 and has loads more gain. If I had to describe it, it’s got what I might call a big “Cinematic” sound. It’s got a real depth on something like an acoustic guitar and a different feel to the valve mics and when you want something in 3D detail this is your mic and it’s great to have something like this in the studio.
In some ways it reminded me of the Soundfield which is obviously a stunning mic but I quickly realised that I couldn’t use it on mediocre singers as it was too honest and just highlighted all the problems that they had. The Lewitt LCT 640 isn’t as “real” as that but it borders on that feel in a way that none of the other mics we have do. We all know that some mics are sculptured and tweaked to flatter certain things but the Lewitt just sits there and says “OK this is actually how it is”.
.
It’s old school in that it’s flat, transparent and doesn’t seem to put any hype onto the sound. It doesn’t flatter like some cheaper mics which sound great in solo but suddenly disappear in the mix.
I don’t know what the UK price of this mic is but it’s an incredibly useful studio mic with lockable, silent switching between 5 patterns and various roll offs and if Keith (the studio manager) said I’ll buy you another U87 or a Lewitt LCT640, I’d choose the Lewitt every time. There’s a quote for you (laughs)

Ultimately, as with all mics, it comes down to a matter of taste and if that’s the sound you want then there’s nothing quite like it and you really should try a mic like this out. I also think that a pair in a location recording could be really classy with the choice of either an omni or cardiod setting to suite the occasion.

It’s so hard these days to get excited about a new mic but I think the Lewitt is a really brave move. It is manufactured in a factory somewhere in China but it really has an air of quality about it that helps it stand out in a crowded market place and and I really hope Lewitt get the success they deserve and bring us more microphones like this.

 

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