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Shootout At Guitar-Cab Corral

Friday, December 12th, 2014 | by


Shootout At Guitar-Cab Corral:
A posse of dynamics takes on the formidable SM57.

Behold the humble dynamic mic, the coalminer of the microphone world: simple, rugged, hardworking, unpretentious; toiling away in the dark spaces while the rest of the neighborhood gets its party on. Long a favorite for miking unruly electric guitar amps on stage and in the studio, dynamics are known to eat high SPLs for breakfast and for producing a focused, even tone that adds impact to recordings. Simply put, they just work.

And none has worked harder than the Shure SM57Shure SM57. For almost 50 years the SM57 has held sway as the Swiss Army knife of dynamics. Introduced in 1965, its then-revolutionary end-address profile allowed it to get up close and personal with vocals, drums, and, of course, guitar amps. Many top producers and engineers still swear by it for taming the blare and/or muddle of electric guitar amplifiers. Can any other dynamic hold a candle to its rock solid guitar amp performance, day in, day out?

Over the course of five decades many other end-address dynamics have been rolled out, some designed to improve on the SM57’s “shortcomings.” And yet, the praises of the SM57-on-guitar-amp continue to be sung in professional and project studios worldwide.

Like most guitarists, I’m obsessed with tone. And that obsession doesn’t end when I drag my rig into the studio. I admit my trusty SM57 has served me well. Contrary to common sense, the damn thing really sounds good (though I like to pair it with a small diaphragm condenser). But I began to wonder: could there be a dynamic microphone out there that sounds even better?

In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I decided to put a selection of reputable dynamic mics to the test, capturing the acoustic perturbations of several popular guitar-and-amp combos.

Paul Tavenner of Big City Recording in Granada Hills, CA agreed to join the quest and lend the necessary technical assistance. Paul has recorded and/or mastered a couple thousand albums, so I knew he’d be a vital accomplice. He offered the use of his fine studio. We decided to run the gauntlet of mics on three common guitar-and-amp setups: clean rhythm, screaming lead, and clean jazz.

The testing of mics on electric guitar is delightfully conducive to the use of re-amped guitar tracks, allowing for an identical performance on each pass. Thus our humble survey began by tracking guitars directly to DAW, capturing the raw fretwork without any processing or alteration. These direct tracks could then be amplified in the studio where we would be free to test as many mics as we wished, without the need to placate a bored or irritable guitarist.

Milo Gonzales, guitarist for Insects vs. Robots, furnished the lead guitar track. He wiggled his digits on a 60s tribute Les Paul outfitted with P90s, plugging it straight into an Mbox2 and then into ProTools.

The clean rhythm and jazz tracks were recorded by yours truly through the Hi-Z input on a Presonus Audiobox USB and directly into Digital Performer. I played the rhythm part on an American Standard Strat.

The jazz bit was played on a 17'' archtop built by Canadian luthier Peter Hopkins. All the guitar DI’s were recorded at 24bit/48kHz.

The Signal Chain

Once in the studio, the pre-recorded guitar tracks were loaded up into DP8 and output through an Apogee Rosetta 800. The reamping was handled by a Radial JDI passive direct box with 45dB of padding to make it friendly to a Hi-Z guitar amp input. On the receiving end, the mic was piped through an API 3124, then digitized with an Apogee AD-16X and recorded back into DP8 at 24bit/48k with no plugs and 0dB gain.

Before each mic was tested, a 1kHz tone was played through the guitar amp and — by adjusting only the preamp input gain — Paul calibrated the system for the differing sensitivity of each mic. Dynamic mics have pretty low sensitivity — our subjects ranged from 1.12mV/Pa (SM7B) to 3.1mV/Pa (N/D 468) — but the API provided plenty of clean, quiet juice.

Two different guitar amps were used for the tests: A late model Koch Twintone II handled the double-duty of the clean rhythm and lead tests. The jazz tracks were played through my 2008 Evans JE200. The Koch is a Dutch-made combo packing 4 12AX7s in the preamp and 2 EL34s driving 50W into the custom 12-inch speaker. The Evans is a completely solid state rig with a digital power amp pushing 200W into a custom 12-inch speaker.

The Process

For each guitar-amp combo, the DI guitar track was first played back through the amp while I adjusted the volume and tone controls to achieve what was, to my ears, a desirable sound, including a touch of the amplifier’s on-board reverb — spring in the case of the Koch, digital on the Evans.

We then positioned the first mic to be tested (the SM57), checked the tone and level, and marked the mic’s location with string taped across the amplifier grille in an x-y configuration (see photo). In all cases the mic was positioned at 90°, and the distance from the grille was checked with a ruler. (See Center Cone Technique, below.)

Each setup was recorded with one mic per pass. After the the whole collection was run through, the process was repeated on the next guitar-amp setup.

The Mics

I wanted the test to include some old favorites as well as some contemporary dynamics. We tried to include at least one specimen from each of the major manufacturers (sadly the AKG D40 did not arrive in time). Included were a medley of large- and small-diaphragm configurations, all end-address, instrument-oriented designs. Some of them offer onboard rolloff options, but in all cases only the “flat” position was tested. The venerable SM57 served as our baseline.

Here’s the cast of characters:

Microphone Street Price Sensitivity
Audix i5Audix i5 $94 1.5 mV/Pa
beyerdynamic M 99beyerdynamic M 99 $499 3 mV/Pa
beyerdynamic I50dbeyerdynamic I50d $150 2.4 mV/Pa
Electro-Voice N/D468Electro-Voice N/D468 $149 3.1 mV/Pa
Electro-Voice RE320Electro-Voice RE320 $299 2.5 mV/Pa
Sennheiser Electronics Corporation e 906Sennheiser e 906 $160 2.2 mV/Pa
Sennheiser Electronics Corporation MD 421-IISennheiser MD 421-II $380 2 mV/Pa
Shure SM57Shure SM57 $99 1.9 mV/Pa
Shure SM7BShure SM7B $343 1.12 mV/Pa
Lewitt Audio MTP 440 DMLewitt Audio MTP 440 DM $99 2.5 mV/Pa

Audio Files

Listen blind to all 30 tracks — 10 microphones per style — using the embedded MP3 player widgets below. Or, to download the raw 24-bit WAV audio files, use this link but first remove the ‘X’ from the end.

Jump to: [ Jazz | Shred | Clean ]

Jazz

Mic 1


Mic 2


Mic 3


Mic 4


Mic 5


Mic 6


Mic 7


Mic 8


Mic 9


Mic 10



Shred

Mic 1


Mic 2


Mic 3


Mic 4


Mic 5


Mic 6


Mic 7


Mic 8


Mic 9


Mic 10



Clean

Mic 1


Mic 2


Mic 3


Mic 4


Mic 5


Mic 6


Mic 7


Mic 8


Mic 9


Mic 10


Listening Notes

To me the mics seem more characterized by their similarities than by their differences. All deliver a smooth and focused tone, with that punch-in-the-nose I'd expect from a good dynamic. I think any of these mics would work just fine in a mix, especially if some good EQ were on tap. In all three configurations the SM57 still sounds surprisingly good -- smooth and balanced with ample definition -- although I confess it would not be my top pick. Here's a brief summary of my own thoughts, for what they're worth.

On the jazz guitar I like the extra bite that the N/D468 delivers, presumably due to its neodymium element, and I plan on using it at my next session. The RE320 sounds the smoothest to me and most balanced overall, with nice top end definition. The larger diaphragm mics (RE320, SM7, M99) have lots of tubbiness, and they impart a smoothness that some might find suitable for the jazz idiom. [Unfortunately, time constraints prevented us from testing the switchable low-mid filter of the RE-320 and M-99, which would likely have favorably changed the sound of these mics. --Ed.]

The sonic differences in the clean rhythm tracks are quite subtle, and high quality monitors or headphones are needed to reveal them. My two favorites in the clean rhythm test are the 421 and the RE-320. I think the RE320 gives plenty of sound to work with, and I find the high mids to be somewhat more focused and supple.

Not surprisingly, the differences between these mics are most conspicuous on the distorted guitar track -- which of course contains gobs more high-frequency information. Honestly, I think all the mics sound good and I have a hard time choosing a favorite. It really depends on the context. I love the sound of the i5, though I wouldn't argue if you called it "hyped." The M99 and RE320 both sound HUGE and would be perfect for a titanic metal mix. Once again, I like the 421 which cuts like a hatchet without any brittleness whatsoever and it would probably be my first choice for a busy mix.

Conclusion

No doubt the trusty SM57 still holds its own in the electric guitar arena, and I for one shall always revere it as one of the most useful tools in the annals of music recording. But after giving these other dynamics a listen, I think it is pretty clear that there are many viable alternatives. Although the range of colors among dynamics may not be as pronounced as among say, large diaphragm condensers, it probably makes sense to have a few extra dynamics in the locker to try on any given guitar-amp setup. Given that the most expensive of the mics we tested is around $500 (for the Beyerdynamic M99), and that most of them sell for under $200, it seems such an approach would be within reach of even a modest project studio.


The Center Cone Technique

Honestly, I didn't believe it myself. When Big City Recording owner/engineer Paul Tavenner told me he'd gotten the best results recording guitar amplifiers with dynamic mics by placing the mic capsule dead center on the speaker cone and almost touching the grille, I thought he'd lost his freakin' mind. "That just gives you the sound of the speaker's center cone, strident and nasal, without any color," I snorted. I insisted that I'd always gotten the most natural sound by offsetting the mic a few inches from center, and 2–5 inches back. Paul calmly humored me and explained why his technique works. When the sound is played back through monitors, he assured me, they project the sound of the amp the way we're used to hearing it in the audience -- becoming, in essence, the guitar amp's acoustic drivers and adding just enough color to create a convincing image.

Of course I didn't believe him. Until we tested it out. Sure enough, played back through the control room monitors, my jazz rig sounded pretty much exactly the way it sounds on the bandstand, with all the warmth and definition I have worked so hard attain. My offset mic placements sounded dull and flaccid by comparison. Paul later admitted that he, too, had always held the off-center approach as gospel, but that a number of serious guitarists he had recorded, particularly Michael Landau, had opened his ears to the superior impact and gravitas afforded by the center-cone technique. It may sound nuts if you, like me, have always adhered to an off-center approach, but I encourage you to give it a try.

matthew mcglynn

Thanks go to Phil Lewis and Paul Tavenner for making this review possible.

Thanks also to Sennheiser for the evaluation loan of the e906.

The other microphones in this review are the personal property of Phil, Paul, or myself.



Guitarist, composer, and engineer Phil Lewis was born in New Jersey and educated at Berklee College, the Institute of Audio Research, and UCLA. Over thirty+ years he has worked with a wide variety of artists ranging from funk drummer Gerry Brown and Latin jazz trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez to arranger Lalo Schifrin and Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier. Since the late 1990s he has focused his energy on producing what has been referred to by some as "melodic jazz" – a style that emphasizes melody and emotion over musical pyrotechnics.

Posted in Microphones, Shootouts | 27 Comments »




27 Responses to “Shootout At Guitar-Cab Corral”

  1. Aenn

    December 13th, 2014 at 4:46 am

    It’s a pity the AKG D-40 didn’t make it to the test, perhaps you could include it later? It’s a very underestimated microphone, and a personal favourite. IMHO it’s far superior on drums to the SM57, which has a dull, “conformist” sound.

    It also works nicely on a guitar cab, though really it must be paired with a small condenser (NT5 here) for a cleanest/most detailed sound (the same, or worse, is true of the SM57).

    Another solution is building an impedance booster as described in http://www.recordingmag.com/resources/resourceDetail/330.html

    That immediately fixes any treble definition issues the SM57 (or another low-impedance dynamic) might have, bringing it close to condenser quality in terms of treble resolution.

    The MD-421-II would benefit from it too.

    To give you an idea of the D-40, here’s a D-40/NT5 mix:

    http://www.solarstudios.net/SG/Villstep-Full.flac

  2. Aenn

    December 13th, 2014 at 5:03 am

    Also, the wave files aren’t 48/24, they’re 44/16.

  3. Big Dave

    December 13th, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Kudos for applying the scientific method! This is the way mics should be tested! Consistent levels + the same source = repeatable results = trustworthy results. Thank you for taking the time to share this.

    I was able to pick the ND468 out in all three sections, and the SM57 out in the first and second, and the SM7 in the second. In every one I liked the MD421 the most, followed either by the SM7 or the ND468. I have been told the MD421 is like an SM7 “plus a little more excitement” and that may be why I like it. The SM7 is a go-to mic for me.

    The whole point of using the SM57 on a guitar cab is the way the mid frequency bump and top end compression brings out the overtones on heavy overdrive. Overdrive like you would hear in classic rock, not necessarily distortion or fuzz. I would have never use it on an amp where I was trying to capture an accurate picture of a detailed jazz box. I like the detail in Tuck Andress’ sound, but not necessarily the biting treble. Your results have probably changed my mind, I really liked them. The clucky clean stuff all sounded pretty good. The distorted pieces sounded so flubby that it was hard to tell if the honk was from the dynamic mic, or just from the flubby tone.

    But over all it was a great comparison and I think everyone should check out how you did this before doing their own comparison. If we could figure out how to do this with guitar pickups I would be much happier.

  4. Aaron Lyon

    December 13th, 2014 at 10:49 am

    As noted, especially with cleaner sounds, this group of mics sounds very similar. Which means I can choose one based on convenience. And the most convenient feature for me is the side-address orientation of the Sennheiser. We often play small, cramped stages, and the Sennheiser (I use the e609) eliminates the need for a mic stand, and keeps precious stage floor real estate open, because it drapes over the front of the guitar cabinet, hanging by its cable. Two thumbs up.

    I also tried the EV N/D for several gigs, but didn’t like it’s extra brightness, and it did not hang nicely by its cable like the Sennheiser does.

  5. Aaron Lyon

    December 13th, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Great review, BTW!

  6. matthew mcglynn

    December 13th, 2014 at 11:11 am

    @Aenn, sorry about that — my mistake. I zipped up the wrong set. I’ve just replaced the archive, so if you download again you’ll get the gain-matched 24/48 files.

  7. Aenn

    December 13th, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    44/16 is weak-sounding.

    And the longish comment about D-40 and impedance booster is still “in moderation”? Matthew, if you’re a moderator here, take a look at the article linked, it can save you some trouble with dynamic microphones.

  8. Aenn

    December 13th, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    My own technique, BTW, is dynamic staring at the cone+small condenser, AKG D-40 and Rode NT5, in fact. The D-40 is a mighty little microphone that’s often overlooked, it’s a pity you didn’t get it in the test.

  9. Aenn

    December 13th, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    Loved the N/D468, some of the best distorted and clean takes, good price, too. That’s the most expressive distorted take IMO. Clean has a healthy body and bite. It picks up a bit more hiss than others, but the SM57 actually has a rather high self-noise, as will the SM7 due to its low sensitivity.

    You could also try recording a baritone SG and a guitar (Strat?) loaded with heavier strings and tuned down to B or C, that’d be rather more realistic for metal (and give an added weight to clean). There is some sort of “heavy jazz” strings on sale out there too.

  10. bern

    December 13th, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Listen to the amp in the room with a finger in one ear and move around until the sound is great. Put a good mic there!

  11. bern

    December 13th, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Since all of the tracks sound about the same (yes), get an SM57, although I like the SM7B better. Now, just so you remember, all the Beatle’s guitar amps were tracked through Neumann U47s. That tells you something. And, the playing was great, and original, too.

  12. Scott

    December 14th, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Thanks for doing this shootout! Strangely enough, my favorite blind pick for each of styles ended up being the SM57. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, I guess. haha

  13. Andrew

    December 15th, 2014 at 3:16 am

    I think there are three issues be addressed in this article.

    1) “The reamping was handled by a Radial JDI passive direct box with 45dB of padding to make it friendly to a Hi-Z guitar amp input.” This makes no sense. The guitar amp has a high input impedance, so it’s friendly to pretty much any source and could be driven directly from the D/A converter. Getting a signal level the same as the original signal from the guitar is more important.

    2) Why adjust the volume of the guitar amp for different mics? Different mics have different senitivities, but altering the sound source’s volume is just adding another variable.

    3) Nearly all cardioid mics have some proximity effect and the optimum working distance is different for different mics. One mic might work best at 4 inches, another at two. Placing every mic in the test at the same distance means that most of them probably weren’t working at their optimum distance.

    In general I think people should get over the idea that there’s a best mic for anything.

  14. Rob O

    December 15th, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Cool comparison. Thanks for all the work!

    I’ve ordered a used EV 468, partially based on it being one of my favorites in every test.

    @Andrew: You are right the test isn’t perfect…but it never really could be. We weren’t all there in the room with the amp, hearing what we were trying to capture in the first place. For what it is worth, I blindly ID’d a few of them multiple times…I think the mics generally sound like themselves here.

  15. Jon Hollister

    January 2nd, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    I have to say I’m a little bit disappointed that the Telefunken M80 and M81 weren’t contenders in this test. I have found both mics to be invaluable additions to my arsenal, and their combination of winning tone, dependability, and versatility have earned them the top spot for dynamic mics in my mic locker.

    In fact, other than some Sennheiser e904s and a few other extraneous e-series Sennheiser dynamics, the Tfunks have replaced all the other dynamics I had, which I sold off as a result. From snare to guitar cabs, the M80 and 81 offer two different flavors of SM57- and Beta 56-slaying tone, with an excellent balance between lows, mids, and highs, and none of that peaky, spiky nastiness in the upper registers that plagues the SM57 and some of its other competitors.

    Was there a logic as to why the Tfunk options were not included in the shootout?

  16. Theodore

    January 15th, 2015 at 10:16 am

    A bit late to the party here… I have been using the ND468 for years, and one thing I like with it is that its presence peak is complementary to the SM57 so that if you have two guitar tracks, it seems you can get them to cooperate better if you mic one with the 468 and the other with the 57.

  17. M. Hartsock

    February 28th, 2015 at 10:09 pm

    I didn’t love the sound of the Lewitt MTP in these particular examples, but I use it quite often in my own endeavors, Granted, I usually put a bit more air between the mic and the cab: For that matter, and as an aside, I’m surprised how many people never venture outside mic’ing right on the grill when it comes to dynamic mics. And I second the notion that including Telefunken’s M80/M81’s would’ve been cool. And for the people belly aching about the consistency of science in the method, get over it. It’s not meant to be super scientific. It gives a basic understanding of the mic’s capabilities, even if it’s not perfectly scientific and only encompases one position/distance. If you’re seriously bent out of shape by this article, go record something and stop crapping on this blog, your input doesn’t add anything of value to this article.

  18. Andrew

    March 9th, 2015 at 9:57 am

    “And for the people belly aching about the consistency of science in the method, get over it. It’s not meant to be super scientific.”

    I think it was meant to be scientific, hence a “1kHz tone was played through the guitar amp and — by adjusting only the preamp input gain — Paul calibrated the system for the differing sensitivity of each mic”. What’s that about if not an attempt to be scientific?
    I don’t think a dissentling voice is crapping on the blog – it’s just an honest exercise of free speech. What is of no value is a bunch of people saying they use a Brand X mic and it sounds great to them.

  19. Ryan

    March 10th, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    ^^^ Thus proving the point that if given long enough, all internet communication reverts to bickering.

    I thought the test was very informative. It demonstrates that all of these mics are very similar in performance (particularly in the jazz and clean settings), and that ultimately your ears/brain, as always, end up being the most important tools in the kit. Great sounds *can* be had at a limited budget.

    Thank you for taking the time to do this kind of work, thankless though it may be.

  20. RonniePistons

    May 10th, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    The GLS ES-57 is a terrific SM57 clone that can be purchased for extremely cheap. Try it.

  21. matthew mcglynn

    May 10th, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    I’ve seen many “clones” of Shure gear, but *none* of them come anywhere close to the sound or reliability of the original. Shure is the only company I’ve seen that regularly pulls microphones out of inventory for destructive testing — dropping them on concrete floors, dosing them with humidity if not salt water, etc. At ~$99, the SM57 is hardly an expensive microphone, and it is likely to outlast your music career and be handed down to the next generation. The same cannot be said of Chinese-manufactured copies.

  22. Daniel

    August 4th, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    Hey,

    The “Identify the mics” button isn´t working on the “shred”…:-/
    Is it just me?

    The others are doing well…

  23. ignitron

    August 26th, 2015 at 5:22 am

    That’s right, shred identify button isn’t working.

  24. matthew mcglynn

    September 21st, 2015 at 10:07 am

    Sorry about that … all 3 buttons work now.

  25. Mike O'Malley

    October 24th, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks for doing this, and thanks for the very cool tip about center cone micing. I’d been going the opposite way, backing off, but I’m persuaded by my own trials that it works .

  26. lord koos

    October 27th, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    I had one of the GLS ES-57 knock-offs. It was well made but sounded little like my older SM57, on the top end it was similar but the low mids were thinner sounding, without the “meat” that you can get from an SM57 on a guitar cab. Perhaps for vocals the GLS mic is good but I did not buy it for that purpose.

  27. Phillip P

    October 31st, 2015 at 1:46 am

    As interesting as the test is, the proximity effect response of the microphones is so profoundly different that in several cases all I hear is ‘a microphone too close’ rather than a clear sense of the tonal differences between the mics. Such is the case with the Beyer M99. I don’t know that mics, but several of the beyer mics I am familiar with also exhibit greater relative proximity effect than similar mics by shure, et al. So the problem with such a comparison, is that some of the mics you just wouldn’t use in that close. Similarly I know from experience some of the mics that sound ok, up close, like I guess the 57, sound pretty poor with a bit of distance.

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