Monday, September 17th, 2012 | by Adam Sullivan
In putting together a new set of mic trials that I felt would be most educational to myself as well as you, Dear Reader, the first question I had to ask was “what microphone types are least fully represented in my personal studio arsenal?” That genre was, without a doubt: tube-driven small diaphragm condensers. After all, at the end of the day, I’m a consumer too! And this genre was the hole in my collection. So being in the market as it were, what would I need to know if I only had the scratch to pick up a single pair of tube SDCs? What are the general benefits of such a circuit? Which ones sound best on the widest array of sources? Which ones have particular and unique sonic benefits? And as they escalate in price, do sonic benefits escalate dramatically as well, or is it a matter of diminishing returns? So here I am: ready to explore.
A wide net was cast, and happily I was able to gather up quite the venerable collection of current market offerings (and one oddball) ranging in cost from “crazy cheap” all the way up to “pretty damn expensive.” It was a heady feeling having nearly 9 grand worth of mics sitting in my live room. Here’s the list in order of street price…
Sterling Audio ST44
Avantone Pro CV-28
Chameleon Labs TS-1 Mk II
Mojave Audio MA-100
Lauten Audio ST-221 Torch
Telefunken Elektroakustik Ela M 260
|Capsules:||Cardioid||Omni Cardioid, Hyper||Omni, Cardioid, LDC||Omni, Cardioid||Omni, Cardioid||Omni Cardioid, Hyper|
|N/A||N/A||N/A||MA-100 SP||Torch Stereo||260 Stereo|
The signal chain for all testing was simple and clean, with the mics going into my rather neutral-sounding Aries Apollo console for basic gain and levels, and then straight into my RME ADI-2 converters to Pro Tools 10 in 32-bit float, 48kHz. To keep things simple and avoid an orgy of variables, I chose to stick with cardioid capsules (nearly all of these mics came with interchangeable capsules in cardioid, hypercardioid, and omni) and a single stereo pattern (as applicable) for each test. Likewise, I limited myself to sources commonly known to benefit from the small diaphragm condenser sound, such as acoustic stringed instruments and drum overheads. Sorry: you’ll have to wait a while for my review of tube SDCs on caged ferrets.
- Setup: Mounts, Cases, Usability
- Session 1: Woodwinds and Brass
- Session 2: Strings
- Session 3: Acoustic Guitar and Drums
- Audio Samples
- Frequency Graphs
Unpacking and Setup
So I’m gonna force myself here to go against my natural tendencies and not write a massive tome about setting up all these mics, equal in length to the review of audio actually passing through them. But hey, let’s face it: this s$%t is important. It doesn’t matter how wonderful your microphone is if you can’t find a decent way to point it at your sound source and make sure it stays there. It can be a serious deal-breaker when you have a paying client in and time is money. The seemingly simple task of setting up eleven mics (and a couple solid state mics for comparison) plus all their external power supplies and three cables per mic ended up being a huge project unto itself. As such, certain idiosyncrasies inherent to the designs of the various mic mounts etc began to aggregate as sources of pleasure or irritation.
The quality of the carrying cases, clips or mounts, stereo bars (included with the Lautens and Telefunkens, which were packaged as stereo pairs) and cables seemed in general to reflect the pricing of the mics themselves. Case in point, the aforementioned Lautens and Telefunkens sport downright sumptuous trappings such as bamboo mic boxes, vintage suitcase-like outer carrying cases, battle-proof cables and so forth. Whereas, by comparison, the Chameleon and Mojave offerings sport more stripped-down but still extremely sturdy, practical, and easy-to-use support gear. On down to the Sterling which in accordance with its rock-bottom price point came in a cardboard box with foam insert.
The Avantones superficially appeared to buck this trend, being truly affordable for this class of microphone yet sporting massive suspension mounts (large enough to hold most large diaphragm condensers), a sexy carrying case and anodized finish, plus long, sturdy mic cables. Unfortunately those suspension mounts ended up being a bit hard to wrangle: they came out of the case having collapsed themselves, and each took me quite some time to put back together due to some rather shallow notches for the elastic. Also one absolutely must be in possession of a flathead screwdriver to get the mics in and out of the mounts’ central barrel or they won’t at all stay put. The beefiness of the shockmounts also posed a slight challenge for getting a tight X-Y configuration. Avantone might consider the inclusion of some basic mic clips in their kit, as most of the other manufacturers in this group have, just to help folks get up-and-running a bit more quickly in a session.
Just slightly on the other side of affordable, the Mojaves came with no suspension mounts at all. Not at all a deal breaker for me (Telefunken also did not feel the need to include any), but these clips were quite loose and the mics were prone to slide out on their own when the mics found themselves positioned vertically during setup. Were it not for my cat-like reflexes I’d be writing this review from debtors’ prison now.
The Sterling, the Chameleons, and the Telefunkens all came with suspension mounts and/or clips that were practical, sturdy, and easy-to-use without being over or under-built for their task. It feels funny writing so much less about the tools that actually do their job, but I guess that’s the way of things.
Segment 2: DON’T DO THIS (or do).
To the subsequent dismay of some of the manufacturers represented here, my first practical application of all this firepower came in the form of close mic’ing the horn section of the stupendous Neil Buckley Octet, a “1950s West Coast Cool Jazz” band hailing from my very own southern Sonoma County, CA. Alto, tenor, and baritone sax, trumpet and trombone; all of them seasoned musicians and great guys. Most purveyors of this style of mics will be pretty quick to tell you (as I soon discovered) that the inherent strengths of an SDC favor stringed instruments and drum overheads… you know, the usual suspects. The assumed sensitivity of an SDC to delicate transients and high frequency material tend to rule them out for most engineers as a rational choice for close-mic’ing horns, with the more “level-headed” response characteristics of dynamics and ribbons usually ruling the day.
These folks are not wrong to warn against this application! By-the-book at least. But of course we’ve all developed off-beat faves by accident or on purpose that buck trends (I love a Sennheiser e609, facing away from the beater, on kick drum for example) and I theorized that the inherent compression characteristics of a tube circuit might mitigate some of the harsher tendencies of SDCs on this source. I was not disappointed, and frankly found that ALL of these mics excelled at this task. Make no mistake: though a couple of these mics didn’t “make the cut” in my final recordings of NBO, they were eliminated by a finite degree of preference. Any of them would have sounded great. And by comparison, no solid-state SDC that I own could have sounded that good, or even acceptable. Listen to the included final mix of NBO [linked below] and you’ll hear these close mics being brought up for solos… and sounding just lovely.
Setting up for live-in-the-room recording of such a juggernaut was an immersive task, so my first test of these microphones was by necessity more of a fast-paced sudden death trial as opposed to a slow, careful, and clinical trial of each mic. So be it: this day was a true real-world test of these mics where decisions must often be made quickly and there ain’t nothing wrong with that! For speed, each single mic (for this application) was set up in advance on its stand so as to be pointing in the same direction, angle, and height. We actually at this point found it easier for the musicians to move to a common chair for the mic trials rather than moving the mics all over the place. Each musician was asked to play for around one minute and repeat his passage for each mic.
One thing we quickly noticed was that all of these mics tended to sound best pointing directly at/into the bell, which was completely against my previous experiences with these mics’ solid state brethren. I began with a more pointing-at-the-side approach as was my habit with single horn overdubs…which you will hear in the included sound samples…and all the players (rightfully) found this sound less-than-ideal: not enough immediacy, too much valve noise. Were I to attempt this “full frontal” approach with a solid-state SDC, loud passages and transients would have often been unmanageable, but the inherent compression and saturation characteristics of tube SDCs made getting a good frontal sound from horns a snap. Go figure.
After capturing each sample I took a private moment (cramming eight horn players and their opinions into a small control room is like herding cats) to listen to each horn player’s passage through each mic and made some quick decisions. The “winners” all reflected what I tend to think of as a reductive method to recording any source: simply put, if your sound source has an ample supply of a particular frequency, don’t push that frequency over the top by using a mic that already has a bump in the same frequency. And the winnahs were…
Alto sax: Chameleon TS-1 MKII
Tenor Sax: Chameleon TS-1 MKII
Baritone Sax: Lauten ST-221 Torch
Trumpet: Sterling Audio ST-44
Trombone: Telefunken ELA-M 260
Already at this early point in my experiences, these mics were beginning to fall into three basic EQ profiles: “warm” (flat response or boosted bass), “present”/”punchy” (upper mids emphasis), and “sparkly” (high shelf). The Chameleons, Lautens and Sterling all tended towards a flatter response to my ears and tended to complement the brighter, harsher horns. The Lauten in particular seemed to bring out massive “balls” in the baritone sax that I found captivating. By comparison, the rather buttery sound of the trombone was complemented by the Telefunken, which seemed to add some much-needed high end “breath” and detail somewhere in the extreme upper frequencies to my ears.
The Mojaves, though extremely clear and detailed, seemed to have a lot going on right where I didn’t need it: I was hearing a lot of boost right around 5k where that trumpet in particular was already making itself heard loud and clear. Not a criticism per-se, but just wrong for the task at hand. It should be noted that the Mojave’s omni capsule lacks the 5k bump of the Cardioid capsule. See our subsequent review of the Mojave’s omni capsule for perhaps a more fair test of this lovely mic.
The Avantones were certainly nice-sounding and tended to also fall into the “warm” camp, but seemed to have a very slight lack-of-detail compared to the other mics, almost as if the mic was further away from the source than its peers. This may point at transient response or even something as simple as a lower output level having an artificially “unflattering” effect on my ears. But knowing nothing further on the science of the subject I’ll say only that this is a trend that was continually perceived by myself and the artists alike throughout these trials. Nonetheless this very relative lack of detail definitely falls into the category of hair splitting — whereas the jump in depth and realism when comparing my solid-state baseline test mics to the Avantones, or any of the tube mics, was radical.
Here is a mix of the Neil Buckley Octet, recorded at Great Magnet, using the tube mics indicated above:
Neil Buckley Octet
In the aftermath of the jazz odyssey, I was able to begin documenting these mics’ strengths and weaknesses in a somewhat more clinical fashion with the help of some extremely patient and willing participants. Enter the brother/sister duo of Elisa and Justin Colbert: skilled and conservatory-trained violinists both, with Elisa doing some great songwriting and occasional guitar and (electric) piano playing to boot.
Towards the goal of using a particular “winning” pair of tube SDCs on viola for one of Elisa’s compositions, we once again began experimenting with placement and trying out each mic pair (as applicable) on an identical musical passage. Justin played multiple excerpts from his chosen classical piece strung together to form about a solid minute of lows and highs, sustained notes and faster sequences. We ended up favoring the mics in an X-Y arrangement, pointing straight down at the margin between fretboard and soundboard from about 9 inches above the instrument. I used a tape measure to attempt to keep distance and position consistent, though in all honesty a good deal of that went out the window when justin started playing and body language took over. Such is life in the real world.
Listening to each mic in sequence, in this more controlled solo environment, an increasing measure of detail in transient response became evident to all of us seemingly in tandem with price point, though I was sure to “blind test” Elisa and Justin by shuffling results and holding back names to keep bias out of the picture. Slightly contrary to the above, the (less expensive) Sterling was perceived as marginally outperforming the Avantones, though it was more a matter of the Sterling conveying the woody “girth” of the instrument rather than outperforming in terms of detail. Listen to the sound samples to see if you can pick out this difference. The Mojaves and Chameleons sounded considerably more detailed than the previous two, and the Telefunkens and Lautens brought a truly “right there in the room with you” amount of detail and dimensionality.
Being a fan of the underdog, I’d almost kinda hoped I’d find a winner in the budget category here, but then again if you’re paying $2000 to $3000 for a pair of mics I suppose they goddamn better kick some serious ass, and our Lautens and Telefunkens did not disappoint. Which is not to say that the other mics didn’t sound great: they did, and would be a more than viable choice for any stringed instrument. Where the top dogs tended to excel though, price hypothetically being not an issue, was in their ability to reveal the subtlest of details: the bow slide over the string, fingers changing position, the subtle resonances, harmonics, and overtones of the instrument itself. Were this viola to be part of a busy, ensemble piece, none of this stuff might even register. But as a solo instrument in a sparser composition? You want that.
In the end we went with the Telefunken, but it was a tough call. The T-Funk still seemed to me a bit more hyped in the highs than all the other mics, to the point where it was almost a guilty pleasure and I began to wonder if all that detail I was picking up was just an overt high shelf “flattering” the source artificially. But as we listened to the instrument over the composition, it became clear that this was useable information. There was something about this mic that seemed to just be dealing with all those highs in a very even-handed fashion and never at the expense of “heft” in the other frequencies. My ears were telling me that there was some deft, transparent compression being dealt out by the tube vis-a-vis this mic’s gain staging. More on that later on.
As an aside, while we are talking about brightness and “flattering” sources, the Mojave once again sounded great overall but seemed to be giving me a lot of business in those upper mids that tended to make the viola “screech” a bit during certain passages. Again, though ruled out for the conventions of this review, the omni capsule choice on this mic would no doubt mitigate this issue and bring the mic’s performance into the same echelon as it’s more expensive brethren.
Here is a mix of Elisa and Justin’s track Mardell on piano, strings, and voice, using the Telefunken on viola and the Mojave on acoustic guitar:
Mardell, by Elisa and Justin Colbert
Acoustic Guitar and Drums
For my final set of experiments I called in session drummer extraordinaire and awesome dude Steve DuBois (Johnny Nitro and many other Bay Area blues heavies) plus his partner-in-crime in their spacey, textural rock band Dreamachine: brilliant guitarist and all-around smartass Jason Reed. The plan was to do some similar tests on acoustic guitar and drum overheads and then once again use our favored pair to record some loops and patterns on drums and guitar which Jason would later go to town on to create a final composition in Ableton. These guys are also both studio vets themselves and top-notch critical listeners.
Recording Steve was almost unfair for a test of a tube SDC’s inherent ability to handle sudden loud transients, as his playing is so even and “self-mixed” that he posed few challenges to the recording process. Nonetheless, with both acoustic guitar and drums we all began to more fully experience something unique to the realm of tube SDCs while listening to them compared to the “baseline” solid-state SDC sound samples I also captured: a seemingly enhanced stereo image with a wider perceived field and shimmering detail. The viola recordings had hinted at this, but the more full-range sources of acoustic guitar and drums made it quite official: ALL of these mics sounded rather “3-D” compared to their solid-state brethren. Being not particularly versed in the science of circuits, I can only theorize that once again this might have something to do with the compression and saturation characteristics of tubes, but one thing I can say emphatically is this: the effect I describe is absolutely analogous to the sonic imprint I’ve experienced numerous times in the mastering process when mixes get run through line level stereo tube gear such as a Pultec or LA-2A pairs, Manley Masive-Passives, or Summit TLA-100s. That “tube glow”! Even the far less pricey Sterling and Avantones were makin’ it happen, once again beating the tar out of my beloved Oktavas in nearly every trial.
Both acoustic guitar and drums ended up being done once again in X-Y configuration, with the mics pointing frontally at the 12th fret of the acoustic guitar, and “looking” diagonally across the crash cymbals from six feet above the drummer’s head for the kit. Again, ample tape measuring and gaffer’s tape marks were employed.
Steve, Jason and I were honestly thrilled with each pair (and the single Sterling) and although to a point we experienced the same blind-test effect of more expensive mics sounding “better,” we all agreed that it was honestly more a matter of how you expected the instrument to fit in the mix: do you need your drums to sound more present and in-your face? The Mojave is your guy. Do you want your drums to sound smooth and glossy? Telefunken all the way. Are you going to forego ribbon mics out in the room and want the overs to capture the heft of your kick, snare and toms? Get me some Lauten or Chameleon! We even surmised that our single, beefy-sounding Sterling in the center of the kit (or guitar) combined with the Telefunken or Mojaves in stereo was quite spectacular.
At this point, still amazed by the way the Telefunkens were elegantly handling sudden loud cymbal crashes and the like, I decided to release myself from “ears only” and look at the waveforms more closely. Sure enough, all the tube mics had far less jagged transient spikes that the solid staters, but the Telefunkens had by far the most pronounced version of this profile. Yet never in an insistent or “false” way to our ears. For Jason’s final Ableton mix, he went with the Telefunkens for drums, the Lautens for acoustic guitar.
Here is a mix of Jason Reed’s track Slanted, featuring Steve DuBois on drums, recorded at Great Magnet:
Slanted, by Jason Reed
You can listen blind to the audio from these sessions; click the button below to access the audio players:
Now that I’d decided to to take off my blinders, I decided to also look up the frequency response charts (and read some literature) for each mic and see if my experiences matched up to anything in the world of science [or, rather, marketing. Ahem. --Ed.]. I was pleased (with myself) to find that the Telefunkens exhibited a somewhat “scooped” profile with hefty peaks in the 200 Hz and 10,000 Hz neighborhoods, dropping down to baseline right around 2000 Hz. Hence those polished tones.
It should also be noted that Telefunken mics use N.O.S. Telefunken tubes. Beyond boosting the price a good bit, I would guess that this also has something considerable to contribute to the mic’s tone, as I myself own several pieces of gear with N.O.S. (or just plain old-ass old stock) tubes in ‘em, and they tend to exhibit some very velvety harmonic overtones. Which of course makes the D-I-Y’er in me wonder what would happen if I put one of those N.O.S. tubes in some of our more affordable contenders. Hmmm….
In addition to the previously mentioned 5k bump, the Mojave cardioid capsule also has some meat in the 100 Hz area.
The Sterling ST-44 is by and large the most neutral mic of the group, with a relatively flat trace from 50 Hz (it drops pretty radically below that) on up to about 10,000 Hz, where a soft bump happens. I would guess that the Avantones have a similar profile though the manufacturer does not publish frequency response charts for this model.
On paper, the Chameleons exhibit the most “anemic” curve, with lows beginning to drop off at around 200 Hz and a pronounced shelf beginning around 5000 Hz. But to my ears these mics always sounded very even and full: never hyped in the highs or lacking in the lows. Go figure. And I should note here that if tone alone is not enough reason to buy yourself a pair of the TS-1s, note that each mic kit comes with a large-diaphragm capsule head, identical in design to their venerable-but-discontinued TS-2, which also sounds great on damn near anything. It’s your ultimate 2-for-one special.
The odd man out was the Lauten Torch, which by its maker’s own admission (and intention) is a circuit built for the purpose of adding a little more midrange and low end “girth” than one tends to hear in a typical SDC design. The results (as well as the response chart) bear this out, giving me thunderous baritone sax, kick and snare with almost ribbon mic-esque authority, and an un-hyped and very “real” tonality to stringed instruments.
There are no “bad” choices here: even the Avantones, though marginally less immediate and detailed-sounding than their (more pricey) ilk, for many might represent a big step up from their solid state SDCs when used in stereo to give depth and life to one’s recordings.
The now-discontinued Sterling ST-44 was intended as a lower-cost reincarnation by Guitar Center of the previously discontinued Groove Tubes GT-44 circuit, and they show nearly identical frequency response on paper. It thus represented a great value in terms of being a great all-around-useful mic design for a third of the cost of its (still rather inexpensive) papa. A flat, full-range tube SDC that doesn’t cost much and can be used on anything? Let’s not make any more of those. To eBay we go…
The improvements in clarity, detail, and transient response between the middle-range contenders and the top shelf mics is relatively subtle considering that the jump from a Mojave to a Telefunken will double your cost-of-admission. But we all know the feeling of that extra 5% of awesomeness… once you hear it, being something that is hard to “un-hear,” many clearly consider it well worth the associated boutique pricing. What’s it worth to you?
Adam Sullivan runs Great Magnet Recording in Santa Rosa, CA.
This is the first of a 3-part series in our comprehensive review of small-diaphragm tube microphones:
- Massive Tube SDC Review (you are here)
- Omni Tube SDCs on Acoustic Guitar
- Tube Mic Drum Overhead Shootout
Adam and I would like to thank the teams at Mojave Audio, Telefunken Elektroakustik, Avantone Pro, Lauten Audio, and Chameleon Labs for the long-term loan of all these tube mics. (The ST44 is mine, purchased via Ebay after I learned that Sterling planned to discontinue the model.)
Large-scale reviews such as this would be impossible without the support of forward-thinking and generally wonderful folks like Dusty, Alan, Glen, Brian, and Jesse. Thank you all!