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Stellar CM5 Review

Monday, April 9th, 2012 | by


The AKG Acoustics C 12AKG C 12 is one of the most revered microphones ever made. It not only captured sounds on many legendary recordings, its design also later gave birth to several other famous mics (e.g. Ela M 251, C414). Today these mics command a huge price tag because they are quite rare and very sought-after. Most of us would never be able to afford or justify the price for one of them, but we can seek to find that sound in other mics.

Stellar Sounds is not the first and certainly won’t be the last manufacturer to base a mic on the C12 design. Their new mic, the CM5, is described by its maker as a C12/ElaM 251 hybrid.

Like Stellar’s other tube condenser mics, the Stellar Sounds CM-5CM-5 comes in an aluminum hardcase which houses the mic (packed into a zipped pouch), its power supply unit, a rugged spider-style shockmount, power cable, foam windscreen, and a 7-pin cable. The power supply contains a 9-way polar pattern switch.

The CM5 itself has no switches or buttons. It features a brushed-silver brass body, like the CM4 and CM6. It is longer and slimmer than the CM6. It features an edge-terminated 1.07-inch diaphragm capsule, a Russian-sourced 6072a tube and a T14 dual bobbin style transformer.

The only thing more exciting than getting to test out a shiny, brand new mic is to get two of them! I took both CM5’s with me to a 4-day recording session at Supernatural Sound Studio in Redland, Oregon. There I was recording a singer/songwriter called Megan Boehlke and her band, who are based out of Vancouver, Washington. The CM5’s were going to be auditioned against some pretty serious mics from the mic locker at Supernatural.

Drums

Studio A, Supernatural Sound StudioOn day one of this session we were in Supernatural Sound Studio’s A Room, which is my favorite place in the world to record drums in. It’s spacious, scenic and has a big, warm, vibrant sound. There’s a 1950’s Camco kit (13×9 rack tom, 16×16 floor tom and 22×14 kick) that lives in the studio. The drummer brought his DW Collectors kit, but after some listening and tuning we decided to use the old Camco. For the shootout we used a 1970’s Ludwig Acrolite 14×5 snare drum. The cymbals for the shootout are 14-inch A. Zildjian New Beat hi-hats (hollow logo 70’s era), 18-inch Paiste 2002 Crash, 20-inch A. Zildjian Ride (hollow logo 70’s era) and a 14-inch A. Zildjian Paper-Thin crash.

Camco drums with 3 pairs of overheadsI set up 3 pairs of mics at the same time and positioned them as closely as their respective shockmounts would allow me to. I chose a spaced AB configuration. In addition to the CM5s, I hung a pair of Soundelux U95S (multipattern tube condenser), and a pair of Shure KSM32s (small-diaphragm FET condenser). Because the KSM32s are fixed-cardioid, I set the U95s and the CM5s to cardioid as well.

The signal path was the following:
 API Legacy 212L preamp →
  192 I/O →
   ProTools 8 HD @ 48k, 24-bit.

Drum Overhead Audio Samples

Shure KSM32 Shure KSM32
Soundelux U95S Soundelux U95
Stellar Sounds CM-5 Stellar CM-5

It is no surprise that the biggest contrast is between the KSM32s and the two pairs of tube mics. Both tube mics make the KSM32s sound harsh and sterile. I also noticed some frequencies poking out on the Shures that I didn’t hear on either of the tube mics. Both tube mics also pick up noticeably more low-end.

Camco drums at Supernatural SoundThe U95s are overall darker sounding. When listening and comparing I like to focus on one element of the kit at a time. The snare pops the most to me with the CM5s, while it seems to be more distant-sounding with the KSM32s. The U95s make the hihat sound meaty. the CM5s also do this, add some more sizzle and bring them out in the mix, while the KSM32s give them a thin sound. The Shures also make the ride cymbal sound thin, the U95s tame its overtones and the CM5s make it sound wide and bring out the “stick.” Being a drummer myself, I really like to hear the stick on my ride cymbal. Both tube mics make the toms sound bigger and deeper than the Shures, but I like the extra bite the CM5s give them, whereas they sound like everything else a bit “lo-fi” through the U95s.

For this particular session, the CM5s won the spot as the overhead mics for the tracking, but I also love the U95s. It ultimately depends on the session, music, the kit and the cymbals when it comes to picking overhead mics. For this session I was looking for bold, vibrant sounds. All the cymbals were pretty smooth sounding, and although the CM5s are on the bright side, they didn’t capture a cold or harsh cymbal sound like the KSM32s. To my ears, the CM5s have all the meat that the U95s offer, but with a shimmering top end. Not bad, considering that the pair of CM5s cost less than half of one U95S.

Acoustic Guitar

This project had two acoustic guitars on most tracks. I wanted to record Megan’s Martin guitar in mono, with a big, bold sound. So naturally I reached for the biggest mic… makes sense right?

We have two Blue Microphones BottleBlue Bottle mics at Supernatural, and that week we happened to have a box of all the Blue caps lying around. I did try them all out because I couldn’t let the opportunity pass, but for the shootout I selected the 3 most likely candidates to use on acoustic guitar for my intents and purposes: the B0, B6 and B7 caps.

I already hear some of you calling me crazy to compare a $399 mic to a $6000 mic with caps that cost as much as one and a half CM5s, but I was after the best sound. Each time I swapped out caps on the Bottle, I recorded both mics so you can hear the same performance for every pair.

Megan Boehlke on acoustic guitar, with Blue Bottle and Stellar CM5This time we were in the B Room. The signal chain was as follows:
 Quad Eight Preamp →
  Aurora Lynx 16 I/O →
   ProTools 8 HD @ 48k, 24-bit.

Acoustic Guitar Audio Samples

[All six samples were RMS-normalized to -19dB, then converted to 320kbps MP3. Download 16/44 WAV audio here.]

Blue Bottle + B0 Audio Sample
Stellar CM5 Audio Sample
Blue Bottle + B6 Audio Sample
Stellar CM5 Audio Sample
Blue Bottle + B7 Audio Sample
Stellar CM5 Audio Sample

It was a real treat to be able to compare all the Blue caps. Each one is very distinct! At the time when I had just tracked these, listening through the Adams A7s in the B Room I could barely distinguish the B0 and the CM5 track. On my own trusty and familiar monitors I do hear some differences though. The B0 sounds quite cleaned up and polished, but it has sucked out more body from the guitar than I would want. The CM5 has a very full sound with plenty of beef to work with, although it certainly would benefit from some EQ. I also thought the top-end on the B0 was a bit much.

The B6 to me sounds a bit dull and notably dry compared to both the CM5 and the B0. A quick glance at Blue’s website shows the B6 having a much tighter pattern (especially in the upper frequencies) than the B0, which could explain the drier sound.

The B7 has a darker sound with really nice mids, but doesn’t have the sparkle I wanted. I kept going back the the CM5 and loving it! The guitar tracks sounds the most compelling to me and the most like the sound I had in my head through the Stellar.

Vocals

On vocals I used the same mics/caps as the acoustic guitar shootout, but I threw in a staple mic: the Neumann TLM 103Neumann TLM 103.

[All nine samples were RMS-normalized to -20dB, then converted to 320kbps mono MP3.]

Blue Bottle + B0 Audio Sample
Stellar CM5 Audio Sample
TLM 103 Audio Sample
Blue Bottle + B6 Audio Sample
Stellar CM5 Audio Sample
TLM 103 Audio Sample
Blue Bottle + B7 Audio Sample
Stellar CM5 Audio Sample
TLM 103 Audio Sample

Blue Bottle, Neumann TLM103, and Stellar CM5Even on my own monitors, I can barely distinguish the TLM103 and the CM5. I do feel the CM5 has a little more life in it, but it is so slight that a tiny EQ adjustment could probably match the 103 to it. It seems like the TLM clipped a few times, I’m not sure if it was the mic itself or the preamp, because it didn’t peak in Protools.

The Bottle caps once again showed their diversity. I was instantly enamored with the B0 cap here. It literally sounds just the way I want to hear her voice. No EQ needed at all! The B6 is nice too, but not as sweet as the B0. The B7’s more mid-forward sound isn’t what I wanted for lead vocals, but I ended up using is for her vocal harmonies, because I don’t need them to ‘pop’ as much as her lead parts. In the end, I could have gone with any of the mics (probably not the B7 for leads though), but the B0 sounded perfect to me, so I tracked all her lead vocals with it. Megan was very pleased with its sound as well.

Conclusion

The CM5s are real workhorses! I would have never imagined that they would perform so well on such a variety of sources. The sound they deliver is consistently vibrant and full. I’m really impressed by how they pull off a brighter sound without ever sounding harsh or brittle.

I’m really sad to have to return them, because I immediately gravitate toward them for drum overheads, hand drums, bass cabs, acoustic guitars and many vocals. For $399, you get a whole lot of bang for your buck. If you’re like me, and you like a mic that’s versatile but doesn’t break the bank, I think the CM5 merits your attention!

Posted in Drums, Microphones, Reviews, Shootouts | 5 Comments »




5 Responses to “Stellar CM5 Review”

  1. Justin

    April 25th, 2012 at 8:07 am

    How would the CM5 hold up against a real C12? Also if you stacked a bunch of tracks with the CM5 would it exhibit the harsh and thin characteristics of other low cost mics out there? Thanks.

  2. matthew mcglynn

    April 25th, 2012 at 8:57 am

    @Justin, see Slau’s review of the Advanced Audio CM-12, which is, I think, more or less the same mic as the CM5. http://recordinghacks.com/2010/02/14/the-advanced-audio-cm12-mod/

    Slau concluded, “the Advanced Audio CM-12SE performs on par with a vintage AKG C 12.” That review links to a podcast with audio samples of a vintage C12.

  3. Justin

    April 26th, 2012 at 8:35 am

    @Matthew thanks so much! I really dig what you’ve created here. Kudos to you sir.

  4. PCollender

    August 9th, 2012 at 5:49 am

    Thanks for doing this shootout! The stellar mic seems like a good value, especially in the drums test. A couple of thoughts I had: 1. The first acoustic guitar recording (cm5 vs the B0) sounded like the position wasn’t very good for the cm5. In the other two cm5 ac guitar recordings there is more pick detail and a clearer sound overall. 2. The b0 and b6 capsules sound really impressive to me in that they seem very well designed to capture all the nuances of a performance. Pick attack, string noise, mouth sounds all come out really clearly with them in an appealing way. Wasn’t too impressed by how the b7 sounded here, though.

  5. Orange Blossom

    September 29th, 2012 at 12:33 am

    I purchased a pair of CM-5 a couple years back.
    I Cryo-treated the cables and electronics.

    All I can say is since then I have not used my Neumann.

    The CM-5 easily outperform my Neumann by far on acoustic guitars and vocals. I still prefer my Audix and EV mics for drums.

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