TapeOp Issue #62/November, 2007 | by Craig Schumacher
In a little over two years, with the success of the MA-200 (see Tape Op #55), Mojave Audio has shown what a company can do with a combination of good design, affordable manufacturing, and quality control. Mojave’s second product is the MA-100 small-diaphragm tube condenser. It comes with two screw-on capsules — omni and cardioid — as well as the mic body, power supply, shockmount, windscreen, and connecting cables, all of which fit neatly into slots cut into the rubberized foam of the included aluminum briefcase.
The MA-100 utilizes the same JAN 5840 pentode tube — triode wired for a unity-gain buffer stage — as the Royer R-122V (see review this issue), which is no surprise, as David Royer’s condenser mic designs make up Mojave’s line. By utilizing a tube circuit in the buffer stage, the MA-100 is capable of handling sources with high SPL and big transients like snare drum and acoustic guitar with ease. It also mellows the mic a bit and helps reduce the obnoxious frequencies that can make things sound “brittle”. This makes the MA-100 a great mic for any drum application (the guys at Mojave even recommend using it as an affordable substitute for a Neumann U-47fet on kick, in combination with a large-diaphragm dynamic), and it’s especially great on hi-hats. My go-to hi-hat mic for years was the AKG C-460, and lately, we have also been using the Josephson C42, which is definitely nicer sounding than the AKG — if you can consider a close mic’ed hi-hat nice sounding. I mean let’s face it, mic’ing a hi-hat is in many cases useless because the hi-hat sounds just fine when it bleeds onto your snare and overhead tracks. But occasionally, we get a drummer who has good technique, and the hi-hat part is essential to the song’s groove. In this situation, the hi-hat close mic is mixed into the overall drum kit for better definition of the part. We found that as a close mic, the MA-100 reduces the “bite” of the hi-hat’s tone and is much easier to mix into the drum kit later. We did not have to cut the top end as radically as we usually do with other small-diaphragm condensers, and yet there was still plenty of the articulation we needed to hear the stick tip on the cymbal.
Since we had such success with the hat, we next put the mic up on an acoustic guitar overdub. The part we needed to record was a duplicate strum of the electric rhythm part that went down with the basic. We wanted the acoustic guitar part to add the percussiveness missing from the more midrange and slightly distorted electric sound. We chose to use our trusty F-hole no-name guitar with its very distinctive sound due to limited sustain. This guitar adds a nice whack and thump to the track, and we usually mic it with a Royer R-121. The MA-100 worked perfectly. It had just enough top end to get the pick strike we wanted and still maintained the midrange thickness of the guitar body. By facing the mic at the lower F-hole and then angling it towards the strumming hand, we found a nice sweet spot that had a full sound but was not boomy.
Next we tried a stereo pair of MA-100s on the piano. Having just been floored by the Royer R-122Vs on this piano a few weeks earlier, we were a bit skeptical that we would get that huge sound again with any mics we had. The MA-100s ended up being very nice on the piano. While obviously not the same as those figure-8 ribbons, the MA-100s captured the piano very well. They got all the sound of the piano without feeling overly hyped or dull and boring and were surprisingly big sounding.
Since the mics are bare bones — no roll off or pads — we were concerned that they would distort on really large transients, so we decided to try it on one of the most difficult instruments to record — the tambourine. Most large-diaphragm condenser mics will make an audible crunch when the tambo is struck as the attack transient will max out the mic’s electronics. Since the tambourine part is oftentimes done quickly by musicians who are not really tambourine players (get Standing in the Shadow of Motown for how the tambourine is meant to be played), having the time to accurately record the instrument can be a challenge. Ribbons are great as they will not crunch, but they do require finding just the right angle for the best sound. Usually, we place the ribbon mic about head high facing straight forward about 2 feet away. We then ask the musician to start at a right angle to the mic, start playing, and slowly orbit the mic stand towards the point where they will be facing the mic. It is very obvious when you have found the correct relationship, and it is not when you are straight on. It’s usually at about 15–20 degrees off axis. With the MA-100, we set up the mic to be a few feet above the arc of the playing as more of an overhead and got a great sound right away. It was further enhanced when we switched to the omni capsule and we got some nice room acoustics to go along with the direct sound. There was no messy splatter — just good crisp tambourine that was a breeze to mix.
Finally, we tried the MA-100s on the drum kit. This is where the MA-100s really shined. Having a condenser as opposed to a dynamic on the rack tom captures much more of the overall drum sound and the Mojaves really gave us a really strong tom sound that held up well all session long. With the cardioid capsule, we got lots of full sound, and the bleed was no greater than what an MD-421 picks up. But more importantly, we heard all of the detail of the fills. It was especially great on capturing a driving floor tom beat we used; it captured the low end faithfully without becoming blurry. On snare drum, the MA-100 really excelled as it brought out the crack of the stick while keeping the resonant ring of the shell under control. It became obvious that the quick response of the small diaphragm coupled with the tube’s ability to handle the SPLs is a winning combination in a drum microphone. It certainly made the drummer happy as his drums did sound much more expansive and fuller sounding.
The two MA-100s we had for review were not technically a matched stereo pair, but they were close enough to use in stereo configurations. Mojave is working on selling matched stereo pairs that will use a dual-outlet power supply, so if you are looking for an affordable pair of great stereo small-diaphragm mics, you may want to wait for that release. At around $795 each, the MA-100 is an affordable, great-sounding, solid microphone that will greatly enhance all your recording needs. It is the biggest sounding small-diaphragm condenser I’ve had the pleasure to listen to. I can’t wait to hear what Mojave comes up with next! ($795 street; Mojave Audio)
Read more about the MA-100 small-diaphragm tube condenser.