OktavaMod MXL 603, MCA SP1 mods – The Tape Op Review

TapeOp Issue #70/March, 2009 | by

Ultimate MXL 603 Mod, MXL603 Premium Electronics Mod, and the Hidden ’84 Mod

Lately, I’ve been working on a project tentatively called The Greatest Small Diaphragm Mic Shootout of All Time, so I’ve been testing a veritable truckload of SD mics — Neumann, Gefell, Schoeps, Rode, Studio Projects, MXLs and everything in between. Naturally, I wanted to get an MK-012 (review from Tape Op #25) into the mix, so I gave OktavaMod owner Michael Joly a call to see if he’d send me one of his mods to use in the project. As it turns out, he had already worked on an MK-012 for a friend of mine in Austin, so I was able borrow his mic for the test. Still, Joly had something new he thought I should hear — a modification of the MXL 603 pencil mic. Yeah, right, I thought.

“Sure, great,” I said. He told me he’d send a Neumann KM184 along with the MXL mod so I could compare the two, since he thought the two sounded similar. Score! I had managed to forget about the KM184 in my SD shootout plans, so I could definitely use a sample of that mic. And if the MXL mod really did sound as good as a KM184 — a much maligned mic in my opinion (and I’ve got the sound files to prove it) — then maybe I’d include it in my small diaphragm mic project as well.

The chain I use for mic testing is as follows: the mic is plugged into a 15-foot Monster Studio Pro 1000 mic cable and fed to a Millennia HV-3b preamp, then to Lavry converters and finally to Pro Tools via a Digi 002. For each test, I play the same 30-second riff on a Collings C-10 acoustic guitar using a medium pick and recording in the same room. When the Joly mics arrived, I set up the KM184 first, and as I strummed the guitar I heard an old familiar sound in my headphones. For years I had used KM184s before I switched to vintage KM84s, and while I do prefer that certain mojo you get from coupled transformers, both mics can do a great job on acoustic guitar. Since I had just heard a test Joly had done on Gearslutz that compared the KM184 and his MXL mod (officially called the Ultimate MXL 603 Mod), I stole some of his methodology and jangled my car keys in front of the mic. Then I grabbed a shaker and shook it like an English nanny holding a baby — percussion test completed.

Truth is, I really only use small diaphragm mics for one thing — recording acoustic guitars. I don’t use them to record classical concerts or drum overheads, just acoustic guitars, mandolins, standup bass, and the occasional guitar amp. I guess I would record a shaker if some asked, but I prefer to use sound files instead. Also, my acoustic guitar tests tend to use more of a Gestalt approach, so rather than measure the distance scientifically and record from the same distance each time, I mic the guitar where it sounds best overall. That’s what I’d do in a session, so that’s what I do for a test. For most mics, that’s somewhere around the 12th or 15th fret and about eight to ten inches away.

The high end is sweet, clear and present, but never brittle.

When I finished the tests on the KM184, I switched out mics and tried the same three tests with the MXL mod, starting with acoustic guitar, then car keys, then shaker. It really did sound a lot like the Neumann. In fact, after re-listening to the sound files in preparation for this review, I think the mod sounds a little bit better than the KM184, especially on acoustic guitar. The high end is sweet, clear and present, but never brittle — just what you would expect from a high-dollar transformerless mic such as, for example, a Schoeps. There’s a solid low end that doesn’t turn into mush like it does in the original MXL 603s (yes, I had some stock MXL 603 sound files handy for comparison) and it doesn’t get overbearingly boomy either. While the low end in the MXL mod is very similar to the KM184, I prefer the highs in Joly’s mic overall. Oddly, in Joly’s “scientific” test online, I thought the KM184 sounded a tad better than the MXL mod, the opposite of my results. As to the car key and the shaker tests, the results were inconclusive. I prefer to use a large diaphragm mic when recording car keys anyway, and a spaz on a shaker is just a spaz on a shaker, regardless of mic quality.

So how does Joly turn water into wine exactly? Besides modifying the electronics, he also modifies the capsule and the vents just underneath the capsule. Joly describes his process in more detail at his website, but here’s the bottom line: you can buy a pair of MXL 603s on eBay for about $200, sometimes less if you’re patient. Then you can buy the mods for $189 per mic and have a pair of SD mics that are sonic siblings to the much more expensive Neumann KM184s for about $600. If that’s still too expensive, you can opt for the economy model and get the Premium Electronics Mod for $89. While I didn’t get a chance to test them myself, Joly promises that the harsh high end, phasey mids and overall graininess of the mics will be vastly improved. This mod also works on the CAD GXL1200 and the Nady CM 90.

But wait, there’s more! I nearly dropped the phone when Joly told me about the other modified mic he was going to send along with the Neumann and the MXL — the lowly MCA SP1 (reviewed in Tape Op #60). You remember the MCA SP1, the now-defunct Mr. Mic looking contraption that came in the same clear plastic packaging usually reserved for common household items such as flashlights and chicken knives, don’t you? Well, there’s a hidden ’84 in that mic, Joly says. Same thing goes with the Nady SCM-800, MXL 990, and the MXL 770. Wait a minute? Aren’t these large-diaphragm mics? Nope. According to Joly, the capsules inside these mics are actually small diaphragms doing their best to ape a KM84, so he came up with the Hidden ’84 Mod to get the most from these oddly-designed mics.

Years ago, I bought a $59 SP1 on a whim and found it absolutely unusable, so I gave it to a friend just starting out in home recording. It sounded nothing like the SP1 I had recently put in front of my Collings, and I was amazed by the sound, especially the rich midrange. Did it sound as good as a KM84? No, not really. Did it sound as good as the MXL mod? No, not at all, but it sounded way better than I ever thought an SP1 ever would. True, I wouldn’t recommend that you go out and buy an SP1 just so you can have it modified, but I’m sure a lot of us got stuck with one, two or a half dozen of these mics over the years, and if you still have them you might want to salvage your initial outlay by having Joly reinvent them. Like I said, I wouldn’t rush out to buy an SP1, but I plan to call up the friend I gave mine to and tell him about the upgrade possibility.

So will I buy these upgrades myself? Frankly, I don’t know. The mics I’m using these days are big league models — Schoeps, Gefell, Neumann. I wouldn’t expect something like an MXL mod to compete with those brands, but the truth is it gets damn close and it’s a financially friendly way to get better sound now. With the economy in the shape it’s in and no relief in sight, I might have to buy them eventually anyway, and probably sooner than later. ($69 to $199 direct; OktavaMod)

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