Mercenary Audio KM-69 – The Tape Op Review

TapeOp Issue #64/March, 2008 | by

When I was at the last AES conference, I ran into Fletcher of Mercenary Audio, and I saw something sticking out of his shirt pocket. He pulled it out proudly and showed it around. I said, “That’s got to be an 84” — meaning a copy or version of the famous Neumann KM 84 microphone. He said, “Yes, sort of.” I got very excited and asked him if I could have one! “Of course,” he said they were waiting for the badges and that this was going to be the first Mercenary Audio brand product.

It’s worth saying a little something about Mercenary Audio. They’re unique as an audio sales company because they are entirely peopled by audio engineers and musicians interested in audio equipment. They don’t have any salespeople who try to sell you anything. They are the only company I know of that refuse to accept “buyer regret.” If they sell you something, and you use it and find out that you aren’t happy, they aren’t happy either, and they want you to send it back. Their motto is “This Is Not A Problem”, and they mean it. They once sent me five large-diaphragm microphones when I was looking for a perfect microphone for my own voice, and I found it; one of the microphones made me sound like God! (The Soundelux E47, which is no longer made.) So I sent the other four back and purchased the one I was happy with. I just paid the shipping on the other four. Mercenary Audio also approach companies they like and ask them for modifications to improve certain products; this is how the Mercenary Edition line of equipment came about (e.g., Great River MP-2NV, Drawmer 1968, etc.).

Fletcher told me that he wanted a Neumann KM 84–type mic for himself, but he wanted it to be as if the R&D department of Neumann had kept improving it. But he “forgot” to approach an already established microphone manufacturer and had one manufactured for himself — $17,000 in development costs later. So rather than having to pay $17,000 for one microphone, he decided he better make more so he could sell them to offset the development costs.

Why would you buy a Mercenary Audio KM-69 when you could look for a Neumann KM 84? For one reason, they don’t make them anymore. Back in the day, the Neumann KM 84 was the flagship of the small-diaphragm cardioid condenser world, just like the Neumann U 47 was considered the finest large-diaphragm. The KM 84 had a warm but extremely realistic sound, and its frequency response was razor flat. It had the characteristic Neumann sparkle and depth combined with the realism of a ribbon microphone but with an extended high end that had no peaks or spikes in it. For things like acoustic guitar, undistorted electric guitars, hi-hats, cymbals, and overheads, nothing could beat it. It was also useful on stringed instruments like dulcimers or you name it.

Later, Neumann got purchased by Sennheiser, and they came out with the KM 184, which they claimed was the same microphone as the 84 except for a slight presence rise at about 9 kHz. Users soon found out that the microphone sounded nothing like its predecessor; it had a crackly and artificial anomaly from about 8 kHz up. This meant that the original KM 84 became highly sought after and went up in price. That’s in addition to all of them being 30, 40, or 50 years old, in various states of disrepair or gorgeousness. If you are lucky, you got a beautiful microphone; if not, you got an old microphone with filth all over it.

I didn’t have an original Neumann to test the borrowed KM-69 against, but a friend of mine did and loaned me his, which happened to be a very clean and good sounding one (serial number 63678). I put them to the test and here’s what I found.

First of all, the Mercenary Audio microphone is slightly larger than the Neumann. The KM-69 looks like a good Cuban cigar in silver. The KM 84 is that famous blue-gray battleship color — probably color left over from World War II. The KM-69 has a grill in front of the diaphragm whereas the Neumann has a little screen that you can look through and see round holes and just about make out the diaphragm. I can tell you that on looks I would pick the Mercenary over the Neumann, but looks don’t count in audio; the proof is in the hearing, and I tested both microphones at identical settings through the same preamp, in this case a Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5012.

I tried both microphones in identical positions and in several applications. First on a relatively clean electric guitar — an old Stratocaster through a 1965 black-face Fender Deluxe, one of the holy grails of guitar amplifiers. Then as a spot mic on the hi-hat — a standard application of the KM 84. I also tried them as overheads. And finally, acoustic guitar using a Martin dreadnought.

In each and every case, I chose the Mercenary Audio KM-69 over the Neumann.

In each and every case, I chose the Mercenary Audio KM-69 over the Neumann — hands down — and here are my reasons. Aside from the fact that the KM-69 is hotter (perhaps by 5–7 dB), in each case the KM-69 had better articulation and detail, better off-axis response, and absolutely a significant improvement in the realism and sense of depth (even though all tests were mono so that I could switch back and forth to assess the different qualities).

On slightly-distorted electric guitar, either microphone would be a good choice. Both brought a warmth and sense of realism to the overall picture, but the Neumann had a smaller soundstage and was simply “smaller” (even at matched volumes). The Neumann was just flatter in the sense of lacking the incredibly rich detail that the KM-69 provided.

As a hi-hat microphone, the Neumann is world famous, but I preferred the KM-69 by a large margin — larger than my preference with the guitar amplifier. Each of the microphones was positioned identically, facing down towards the outer-third top of the hi-hat, but both microphones received bleed from the snare, cymbals, and other drums. This led to some interesting observations. The KM-69 had a much more realistic snare sound in the bleed — a much more usable off-axis response — and whereas the Neumann had a lovely and warm hi-hat sound, the bleed from the snare and other drums was awful. The snare drum lost all of its realism and became a kind of woofy poof and thud. If I were mixing I would definitely have to gate it out, whereas with the KM-69, I would find the bleed useful in bringing a more three-dimensional picture to the kit.

In recording the acoustic guitar, I aimed the mics between the 12th and 14th frets at about 6'' distance. Both microphones gave me a terrific response, but again the clear winner was the KM-69. It simply brought out far more detail throughout the entire frequency range and delivered what I would fantasize a perfect Neumann microphone should sound like. The Neumann itself delivered a usable sound, but compared to the Mercenary Audio microphone — I hate to say it — the Neumann sounded like a pretty good copy whereas the KM-69 delivered that startling detail and rich frequency response that I associate with stellar mics.

Finally, with some trepidation, I paired off the KM-69 against my Royer R-121 ribbon, which is my absolute favorite go-to mic for electric guitar and front-of-kit duties. I positioned the Royer in the exact same location that I had put the other two mics and gave it a go. The Royer delivered what I recognize as that highly-realistic soundscape which is so useful, especially in digital recording, where you don’t need falsified or extra top end to accommodate loss from repeated playback of tape, but the Royer didn’t deliver the spectacular articulation over the entire frequency range that the KM-69 did. I preferred the Royer to the Neumann, but it would be a toss-up between the Royer and the Mercenary Audio mic. It would depend on what else was going to be in the tracks, but I get a sense that I could quickly and easily get used to that incredible detail and full-range response that the KM-69 provides.

The Mercenary Audio KM-69 is absolutely bound for glory.

In summation, I would have to say that in the world of small-diaphragm cardioid condensers, the Mercenary Audio KM-69 is absolutely bound for glory. I can’t imagine an audio engineer picking another microphone for those applications in which it shines, and I would vastly prefer a brand-new, extraordinarily robust and well-made microphone to a 30-year-old microphone that I have to treat like some kind of fragile treasure. The KM-69 looks so sturdily-built that I had no squeamishness whatsoever handling it, whereas the Neumann I treated far more gingerly, especially with no front grill and the little screen and diaphragmatic components visible.

At a price of $950 direct, and coupled with Mercenary Audio’s unique double-warranty and customer care — and guarantee of audio satisfaction — the KM-69 is a steal. You get a $17,000 mic for $950. But don’t tell them that when you order one; tell them that when you order a pair so you can use them as overheads. It’ll put a well-deserved smile on their faces. ($1450 MSRP; Mercenary Audio)

Read more about the Mercenary KM-69 condenser microphone.

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