Saturday, January 29th, 2011 | by Ryan Canestro
I recently had the pleasure to review a pair of Audio-Technica AT4051b microphones. In the past, I have not been very pleased with many of the results that I have achieved using small-diaphragm condenser microphones. Mostly I would say that it is a matter of preference; I certainly understand their place and importance in modern recording. I assumed that I just had not met one that was to my liking. I am happy to report that the Audio-Technica 4051b has restored my faith in the SDC format and I have decided that it may be time to let go of those in the past that made me feel that way.
Straight out of the box, these microphones look and feel the part of professional audio gear. I really like the concept of interchangeable capsules. The simple black storage cases have an area where you can punch out the perforated foam to make room for the additional capsules should you decide to purchase them. The available capsule patterns are an omnidirectional (AT4049b-EL) and hypercardioid (AT4053b-EL). The body of the microphone has two switches that will allow you to choose between the 80 Hz hi-pass filter and 10 dB pad.
Common applications for SDC microphones include drum overheads, acoustic instruments and percussion. I decided to record several different acoustic and percussion instruments. I set up the Audio-Technica 4051b mics alongside my trusty pair of Shure KSM32 mics. These are the microphones that I primarily use for the same tasks your average engineer would likely use the SDCs on [and despite their appearance contain 19mm capsules, not significantly larger than the AT4051b capsules –Ed.]. I wanted to see how well they would do against what I generally use for the tasks at hand.
For the shootout I used a Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar, an old Harmony mandolin, a Franciscan classical style nylon string guitar, a shaker, and a tambourine. With each instrument I employed the microphones in XY, ORTF, and spaced pair configurations. Overkill? Probably.
All mics had their high pass filters engaged for all tests.
What I was surprised to find was how similar the Audio-Technica 4051b sounded to the Shure KSM32. Both microphones are very neutral and natural sounding. This finding is likely due to the fact that they are both high-quality, transformerless designs. The obvious differences were that the Audio-Technica 4051b mics had less lower mid presence and the lows were less prominent. I am certainly not saying that this is a bad thing. In many cases in medium to dense mixes, those are the first frequencies that I reach for to remove to make everything fit. That being said, lets take a listen to some examples.
Nylon-String Guitar (Spaced Pair)
Each recording configuration brought something different to the table. In the spaced pair, the differences between the microphones seemed less obvious and in the XY configuration they seemed more obvious. After conducting these tests, I did a couple acoustic guitar recording sessions where I used the Audio-Technica 4051b microphones as a spaced pair for the room (4 feet or so) and used a single Shure KSM32 about 10'' off of the guitar body. The combination of the three sources really gave the recording a solid overall tone, a real sense of space, and a feeling of depth.
Because it sounds like a dig, I almost hesitate to say it, but the AT4051b is a great shaker and tambourine mic. The way that it captured the top end with a shimmer and crispness and did not add any unnecessary weight to the mids makes it very usable for that application. I would not hesitate to use these mics for any acoustic micing tasks. I would have liked to have heard them as overheads, but after the way they performed with the percussive instruments, I know they would be solid performers in that application as well.
In conclusion, I have learned to love again. I may have been repeatedly abused and damaged by SDC microphones in the past, but I am now ready to move beyond that and restore my courage. No longer will I be afraid to reach for that smaller body of the SDC microphones in sessions where it is completely applicable. No longer will I blame an entire group because of a few bad apples. I have changed. I have grown!
Drum Overhead Test
Ryan didn’t have an opportunity to try the AT4051b’s as drum overheads, but I did. I used the mics in the “Recorderman” position (about which you can learn more, and hear in contrast to other drum overhead mic positions), recording the same passage three times: once with the AT4051b’s, once with a pair of vintage AKG C460B’s, and once with a pair of modded Oktava MK-012’s. Mic position, cables, and input channels were the same; input gain and performances were different. These samples were gain-matched in Pro Tools, and converted to 320 kbs MP3 via Peak LE.
The AT4051b has deeper, fuller bass than the C460B, and better cymbal definition than the MK-012 — which has a pinched quality in the high frequencies (the high-hat sounds unnatural to me) and a slightly veiled sound overall.
The image from the AKGs is smaller; the drums sound like they’re in front of the mics, rather than around the mics. The AKGs sound like a picture of the drums, rather than a live performance.
I love the sound of my Oktavas, but the AT4051b’s sound better. The Audio-Technica mics give me superior stick definition, greater low-frequency extension, and more overall clarity.
It is easy to see why the Audio-Technica 40-series mics enjoy such a great reputation. These mics are solid performers, at a very reasonable price (~$480 apiece; see AT4051b sale prices).
Special thanks to Audio-Technica for the generous long-term loan of these mics, which I promise will be shipped back Real Soon Now™!