Monday, October 17th, 2011 | by Marc Mommaas
As a Jazz musician, I spend a lot of time on the road being exposed to a great variety of concert halls, jazz clubs and outdoor jazz festivals. Each space presents a complex set of variables that a sound engineer has to deal with in order to translate the acoustic sound from the stage to the audience. How successful this endeavor is depends on the expertise of the engineer, his familiarity with the space, his ears and common sense, and his budget.
From experience I can tell you that in just two out of 10 concerts do live-sound engineers get it right. But four to five of the 10 concerts are an absolute disaster regarding the mix that the audience gets and the mix that the musicians get through the monitors.
Photo: Maurits Mulder
Now, part of being an experienced musician is that one plays strong and with a clear head no matter the circumstances; that is part of one’s road chops and it comes with the territory so to speak. But lately I dedicated some time to finding a microphone that works for me, with the purpose of taking at least one variable out of the live-sound equation.
There are a few practical criteria that limit the choice of microphones substantially. First there has to be the understanding that the stage is not a recording studio. There are other instruments, causing a certain amount of bleed. Therefore the sensitivity of a mic and its pickup pattern must to be taken into consideration. Also we have to anticipate sound engineers who have no business being behind the board. Therefore, forget about pre-amps and phantom power specifics. If you have a beautiful ribbon mic, the engineer can kill it with one wrong move on the board. (There are designs on the market that have built-in protections — I believe it is a dart with poison that shoots at the engineer.)
Then there is another detail: as a traveling musician, I can only bring one bag (my horn) as hand luggage and one carry-on (shoulder-bag with laptop, etc.). Therefore, ideally the microphone is small enough to fit in the case with the horn.
Now let’s get to the saxophone in relationship to the microphone. The sound of a saxophone comes out of all the tone holes in the horn, not only the bell. This means that the mic needs to cover, on average, 20 inches from the top to the bottom of the horn, with the sweet-spot being the center 15 inches.
Therefore, positioning the mic right in front and close to the bell is NOT the ideal spot for the mic. I know that there are horn players out there that like the mic close to the bell; this position gives more presence, more articulation, more clarity and a sense of power. But it will sound artificial. The extreme sense of articulation that you get with close micing will alter the way you phrase, and therefore will have an influence on your story-line when playing a solo. The exaggerated clarity will also give you the intent to alter your embouchure, compensating for this imbalance. Plus, with close micing you lose dynamic variation — soft will still sound very present, and you will pay in quality in the high and/or low register of your horn depending on how the mic is angled.
Then there is the option to have a clip-on mic mounted to the bell. But I prefer the mic to be on a boom stand, for two reasons. First, to avoid variability of sound pickup over the registers as described above, but second and maybe even more important, I need to be able to get away from the mic to create dynamic nuances.
Photo: Willy Schuyten
When I play live, the sax needs to be amplified to be heard, especially when the band has strong drummers and I am surrounded by guitar and bass amps. But that same volume would be too hot when I am trying to blend with other horns in a quieter piece. This range of dynamics is no problem when I have the ability to step away from the mic. Also, this way I can hopefully avoid the mix engineer’s impulse to mess with my volume — often resulting in him or her forgetting to put the volume back to its original position after a soft piece.
What would be ideal? A microphone that is durable, not too big, mounts on a boom stand, and is able to pick up the sound of the whole horn in the most natural way possible, without too much bleed from the rest of the band. Is it possible? Well, as I mentioned before, I am on a quest and Matt was so kind to lend me four microphones to get started with: the Audix D4, the Electro-Voice N/D 468, the Electro-Voice RE320, and the Beyerdynamic M99. I compared these with the Shure SM58, a dynamic microphone with a cardioid pattern which has been an industry standard for over 40 years.
Why not a Shure SM57, that supposedly is designed specifically for instruments? The 57 is my worst nightmare, the absolute bottom of the pit. I would rather play acoustically, with nobody hearing me (including myself) because of the drums wailing behind me, than have to deal with the Shure SM57. I am making a point of this because I can’t tell you how many times sound engineers have come to me with this mic telling me that this is the perfect mic for saxophone. I always make them switch to the SM58. The SM57 is nasal, too directional, has no highs, no lows, and flat, metallic mids. Okay, I think I have made my point. I know that there are horn players out there who love the ‘57, specifically the rockers. May the force be with them.
As you might have noticed, all these mics are dynamics, which I thought was a good point to start from. They are very durable and are not sensitive to feedback on stage, plus they tend to be compact in design. Here are my observations:
Very good pickup of low frequencies. The mid frequencies feel a bit on the flat side, with too little space in the sound, and the high frequencies are on the dull side. This is partly explained by the fact that this mic is very directional, which is great for the drums, but not ideal for the saxophone as described above.
It feels to me that there is more depth in the sound of a hypercardioid microphone, or even better, a figure-eight microphone. Sound doesn’t stop where it hits the mic. Therefore a figure-eight pattern will also pick up the sound of the horn on the back end of the mic. This could possibly result in a more acoustic depiction of the sound, much as when you are in a room where the sound bounces off multiple surfaces. The sound can breathe more; it has more space to blossom, so to speak. The space is as important for the sound as the instrument.
The question is if a figure-eight microphone would pick up too much sound from the audience. I have the feeling that the sound of the horn will still dominate over any audience noise, just because the horn is so much closer to the mic.
On a general note, I hear a difference between space and depth. I think the Audix has a nice depth quality, specifically in the lower frequencies. But for the saxophone there is not enough space around the sound.
Learning already, so here we go:
- plus: small, durable, robust and inexpensive. Very nice pickup of the low frequencies.
- minus: not that great for the mid and high frequencies of the saxophone; too directional.
This microphone has two EQ settings: a “voice” mode with a flat frequency response, and a mode with a cut in the low mids. I tried them both.
I am not unfamiliar with the RE series. I have worked with the standard RE20, and liked it. I did find it a bit on the dull side, but overall it was a good experience and it has a nice feel of space in the sound.
The RE320 has a warm quality, has a nice sense of space in the sound (more then the other three probably because of the unique design, this one is significantly bigger then the other three), and has a relatively high output. The problem again is that the microphone is too directional. Plus, the sound is rather harsh for the saxophone. The high frequencies sound particularly unpleasant. I can see how this mic can be the perfect mic for voice in a radio booth, and it would probably work very well for trombone where the sound output of the instrument is more concentrated, but for the saxophone the RE320 is far from ideal.
What I learned is that a Cardioid pattern does not automatically mean less space in the sound. Although my general experience is that the figure eight pattern or the hyper- and supercardioid patterns give more depth to the sounds than does Cardioid, I was proven wrong with this mic.
- plus: warm, nice sense of space in the sound, not to expensive and nice design.
- minus: too big to carry in your instrument case, has a general harshness to the sound particularly in the mid and high frequencies. Not impressed with the pickup of the high frequencies.
beyerdynamic M 99
I was very excited about having the Beyerdynamic M99 in the mix. This particular dynamic microphone has a large diaphram, moving-coil capsule and a hypercardioid pattern. I was hoping this would open up the sound a bit. The Beyerdynamic M99 has three EQ positions: a linear frequency pattern (flat), one with a dip in the mid frequencies, and one with a gradual boost in the mid-high to high frequencies. The sound definitely had an open quality to it, but it was not as pleasant as I anticipated. There was a metallic edge to the sound, and I could not get a balanced sound over the whole register of the horn, no matter how I positioned the microphone.
- plus: open sound, nice design.
- minus: metallic edge; too directional for the saxophone.
Electrovoice N/D 468
Electro-Voice N/D 468
I was very curious about this microphone. The N/D 468 is made with voice and instruments in mind, has a supercardioid pattern and a pivoting head design, which could possibly be ideal for saxophone. What I noticed first was the output of this mic. There was significantly more volume coming out of this mic then the other three. The tone was warm but not too dense, and had less variation over the whole register then the other three mics. From the four microphones tested this one was the most fun to play through. The pivoting head made it very easy to fine-tune the position of the mic in order to find the sweet spot.
Its frequency-response graph shows a significant boost in the mid-high to high frequencies, which I was a little concerned about, but I was proven wrong with this mic. The warmth stayed over the whole register and there was less of an edge than with the other mics. One last positive note is that it is not a large microphone; it will fit in the sax case, and the design looks very durable.
One minor point is that the sound is not as natural as I would like it to be. It has a specific character that is very dominant. But I am learning that this is the nature of the beast with the dynamic microphone. Overall the EV N/D 468 is definitely an upgrade from the Shure SM58.
- plus: small and beautiful design, warm and pleasant sound over the whole register, pivoting head, not expensive and durable.
- minus: not as natural sounding as I would like it to be.
This was a great learning experience for me. I learned that there is an amazing difference between the four mics, and it always surprises me how much influence the character of the microphone has over the horn’s tone. The dynamic microphone is attractive due to its durability, but might not deliver the natural sound that one would like to hear. There is a nasal quality to all of them; plus they in various degrees tend to be too directional for the saxophone.
The Cardioid pattern will give you an indication in directionality and openness of the sound but it is not set in stone as shown by the RE 320. Also, you cannot take the frequency response graphs of each mic too literally, as proven by the N/D 468.
The N/D 468 is my favorite mic of these four, but it has its limits, due to its moving-coil design. I am beginning to think that a dynamic mic is not the way to go. For now, the SM58 gets replaced by the N/D 468, but the quest continues.
Marc Mommaas is a jazz saxophonist and instructor based in New York City. He teaches and tours extensively. Learn more at Marc’s website, www.mommaas.com.
Be sure to see the two subsequent installments in Marc’s quest: