Gefell M296 Review
Originally published here: http://recording.org/reviews-24.html; rescued from Internet obscurity 2009-01-11.
It’s hard to start any conversation about Microtech-Gefell microphones without referencing their heritage and relation to Neumann. To make a long story short, Georg Neumann started the Neumann Company in 1928 in Berlin. During World War II, Neumann decided to move the company to a safer and more conducive environment – Gefell. After the war, members of Neumann returned to Berlin, recreated Neumann / Berlin and worked closely with Neumann / Gefell. Once the Berlin Wall was erected, the two companies were no longer able to work so closely together. When the Wall came down, part of Neumanns operations returned to Gefell with the remaining portion in Berlin being sold to Sennheiser.
Gefell now makes some of the world’s premier measurement microphones as well as the original capsules found in Neumann microphones from generations past (including the legendary M7 capsule used in such famous vintage mics as the U47, U48, and M49). Currently, Gefell is the only microphone manufacturer producing a solid nickel diaphragm for recording purposes. Most other companies use either PVC or Mylar coated in gold.
The level of detail in Microtech-Gefell microphones far exceeds that of many microphones currently on the market and is evident in the fit and finish of all of their products. All of their microphones are handmade in their factory in Gefell, Germany and individually inspected prior to leaving the factory. Many of their microphones are tested for a minimum of three months prior to shipping.
The mic in question here, the M296, is a fine example of the quality of workmanship and attention to detail that exemplify Gefell’s line of recording microphones. Considered by some to be a small-diaphragm condenser and by others as a large-diaphragm condenser and still by others a medium diaphragm condenser, this is one serious microphone. List price on this microphone is $1620 with a “street” price of only a couple hundred less.
The M296 is part of a range of microphones by Gefell containing 19mm solid nickel diaphragms, thus the confusion over diaphragm size. The range includes the M294, a cardioid version, the M295, a cardioid mic with gentle low-frequency roll-off designed to counter proximity effects, and the M296, an omni directional microphone designed to provide flat frequency response from below 20 Hz to beyond 20 kHz.
The M296 is actually certified as a test and measurement microphone and is the standard recording omni microphone in the range, consisting of a 19mm diaphragm with a thickness of .8 microns. Yes, you read that right; there is a decimal in front of the 8. This is the thinnest diaphragm that I am aware of in a recording microphone. The diaphragm in the M296 is actually based on Gefell’s highly-acclaimed test and measurement systems.
I knew this mic would be something special the moment I pulled it out of its well-constructed wooden box. The build quality is far beyond your average microphone. It weighs twice as much as one would expect and the brushed-nickel finish is superb. One significant disappointment was the lack of any microphone clip. Of course, Gefell offers numerous stand-mounting options but all start at over $100 which seems a bit much considering the initial price of admission. The great news is that the AT 8405 mic clip ($10 retail) fits it like it was made for the M296. The M296’s specifications are as impressive as its build quality. Self-noise is a quiet 14dB and with a respectable sensitivity of 15mV/Pa. The mic comes standard with a selectable 10dB pad and 15dB per octave roll-off at 60Hz. Along with the nickel diaphragm, the mic employs a ceramic capsule housing, which is relatively impervious to changes due to temperature, and a built-in, very effective shock mount system.
Gefell considers orchestral recording to be the ultimate challenge for any microphone so that’s exactly the application that I chose to put these microphones through on their maiden voyage. The orchestra in question was the Alexandria Symphony, who has the good fortune of playing in one of the finer concert halls in the mid-Atlantic region. My usual rig for orchestral recording is usually 4 Schoeps CMC6 ext / MK2h microphones across the front of the stage and Audix M1290 microphones as spot microphones where needed. For this particular concert, I used the M296’s as my main/outrigger left and right microphones and kept a Schoeps in the center of the orchestra. For spots, I chose a few more Schoeps omni microphones. All microphones were fed into a True Systems Precision 8 preamp via a custom-built Monster Cable microphone snake, which then fed RAMSA converters directly into a Sequoia workstation, captured at 24 bits and 96 kHz.
The depth and breadth of the soundstage was simply astonishing.
Being able to effectively work along side such classic microphones as the Schoeps and hold one’s own is a respectable rite of passage and one that the Gefell mics passed with aplomb. The depth and breadth of the soundstage from this pair of mics was simply astonishing. Frequency response virtually mind boggling. Simply put, these mics picked up music that lesser mics would have simply not been able to handle. The complex scorings of Beethoven with dense strings and delicate winds were easily captured by these mics. The string basses’ pizzicatos and bowings were presented with such a depth that it feels as though they are present in the room while you are listening.
Given that this microphone will appeal to the acoustic or orchestral recordists, it’s often suggested that omni microphones used to pick up an orchestra or ensemble will only perform as well as the room will allow. This is usually a golden rule that microphones simply can’t conquer. So, I decided to try this mic on a fantastic orchestra that was performing a fund-raising banquet and chose to do so in a banquet hall with 12 foot ceilings and while guests were being served meals. My usual inclination for this type of recording is to grab a pair of cardioids for the main pair using either X/Y or ORTF mic’ing. I would also normally spot mic the outer edges of the orchestra with similar directional mics and then place a few spots within the orchestra. Much of the recordings then are tweaked in post-processing to retrieve as much ambience as possible and to make the group sound cohesive again.
Well, I still did that on this go around, but only as a safety net. On this recording, I used a pair of Audix SCX-1 microphones as the main pair in X/Y configuration (I had to be too close to the orchestra to effectively pull off a good ORTF set-up.) I also set up the Gefell’s in a spaced A/B configuration with approximately 30 inches between the two mics with each mic being aimed approximately 30 degrees off center axis. As for the outriggers, I chose another pair of SCX-1’s as the flanks but also used a pair of Schoeps CMC 6/MK IIs’s as my preferred mics. For spot microphones, I used the Audix M1290 omnis between the woodwinds and back row of strings.
For recordings like this, I really often reach for the Audix mics simply because they are directional yet still pick up an amazing level of detail. While the recording with the Audix mics came out just fine and worthy of production, I was simply blown away by the recording using the omnis including the Gefell’s as the main pair. The usual “closed in” sound from a small room is definitely present, but it’s in such a way that it actually makes the recording sound perhaps more intimate yet not boxed in. The Gefell’s reached deep into the orchestra to pick up even the most subtle of sounds during both bombastic sections as well as quiet and delicate sections of music. In many cases, with the Gefell’s as the main pair, I simply didn’t need to pull the spot mics into play.
For the final test of these German beauties, I decided to try my luck with them on operatic vocals; specifically a VERY picky soprano soloist who has had her share of studio time and knows what she likes and doesn’t like. In this case, she was willing to be patient with me while I toyed around with various mics trying to find the sound she wanted. For this recording, I threw a lot of what I had at my disposal towards this talented young lady. My selections were: Neumann TLM 193, AT 4040, Studio Projects C1, Schoeps CMC 6 / MK 2 h, Gefell M296, and a heavily modified Oktava tube microphone.
The comparisons in many cases were shockingly easy. First up was her usual favorite, the Neumann TLM 193. This is a mic that, while I do like it, I haven’t actually ponied up the dough for it. This particular one was a loaner from a friend of mine in the area. She knew what to expect from this mic, so it gave me a good baseline to work with. Her voice through this mic was crystal clear with just enough breath sound as to not belie her operatic style. The bottom end occasionally got out of control due to proximity effect, but a few reminders for her to stand still and some strategically placed gaffer’s tape helped in this case. Next up was the Oktava. After replacing the tube and many of the electronics in this mic, it has become a favorite of mine for many male vocalists who lean towards the bright side. In this particular case, it didn’t work out very well. The mic simply had too dark of a character for her preferences.
Staying with directional mics, I placed the AT 4040 in front of her. She and I were both pleasantly surprised by the quality of this microphone for female voice (especially given its price.) However, it picked up too much of her breath noise even with a filter and was very susceptible to proximity effect so we ultimately scrapped it. The last of the directional mics was a C1 from Studio Projects. This mic was loaned to me by the same guy who loaned me the Neumann simply because he wanted me to try it on this shoot-out. None of us liked the sound of this mic for female vocal.
Now it was time to try out the non-directional microphones. My tendency when recording operatic voices is to lean towards a small diaphragm condenser with a healthy amount of distance between the performer and the mic. First up was the Schoeps. Again, this is the gold standard for operatic vocals as well as most any other orchestral application. After listening to the sound she got from this mic, she quickly declared that this would be her new mic of choice and would request it every time. The tone she got was simply beautiful – full, warm, rich with a nice soft and sparkly top end.
Last but not least was the mic in review here, the Gefell M296. Like all of the other times that I have used this mic now, I was again blown away. This was my personal favorite mic for her voice and for this application, but unfortunately the soprano didn’t see it that way. Her exact words were, “It sounds too real – it freaks me out.” Her sentiment was dead on. The mic was so accurate, it sounded as though the soprano was in fact hiding in my monitors and singing from inside them. This isn’t to say that the Schoeps glossed over anything, simply that the Gefell’s were so detailed it was actually unnerving the level of detailed that was presented.
The price of admission is high, but simply put, completely worth it.
As a recording engineer who specializes in recording orchestras and the like, it’s difficult not to fall into the snobbery of extremely high-end gear. Microphones must be particular, preamps are almost always esoteric and the digital chain must be insanely clean. Gefell has made it even more difficult with their M296 omni directional microphone. The price of admission is high, but simply put, completely worth it. This microphone belongs on any serious orchestral engineer’s short list. Given a choice, I would buy this mic over many famous Danish or German mics used for similar purposes. If you are looking for a high-quality pair of omni microphones, buy the M296 from Gefell, you will never regret this decision!
Added: June 15th 2005
Reviewer Jeremy Cucco