TapeOp Issue #50/November, 2005 | by Craig Schumacher
Many years ago, back when my studio WaveLab was called 7n7, I was prowling around our musician’s mecca, The Chicago Store, with JD Foster, in search of odd things to augment the Green on Red record we were about to track. JD discovered an odd looking microphone that looked like a mini U 87. Measuring about 5'' tall and 1'' wide, this mic appeared like it was a professional recording mic and not some weird piece of crap dynamic. What made us scratch our heads was the rectangular diaphragm. We took it back to the studio but could not figure out the proper pin-outs since someone had removed the XLR connector. Frustrated by our combined lack of technical expertise, we returned the mic to the store believing it to be broken.
A few years later, while helping Howe Gelb set up a home recording rig, I noticed that he had that very same mic — except now it worked! As it turned out, the repair tech at The Chicago Store fixed the mic, and Howe had borrowed it. I vowed that the next time I found a funky looking mini studio mic like that, I would not let it get away.
Many things have changed at The Chicago Store over the years, the most notable being the passing away last year of Joe and Phil, the store owners and founders who both lived into their late eighties. Phil answered the phones, and Joe made the deals. Local lore has it that Joe once told Paul McCartney that the synthesizer he was looking to buy was “too good for you” and tried to steer him towards some other piece. Joe knew where everything was in the chaotic mess of a store, and whenever you dug out some dirty, dusty, old piece of gear and asked him the price, his comeback was always “How much you got?” That same trip many years back when we dug out the mystery mic was also when he uttered the famous line, “There’s a fine line between vintage and junk.”
So now, Joe’s son Mark is in charge and he and I have become good friends much to my wife’s chagrin. Mark now calls me whenever any unusual items come into the store, which was the case a while back when he called to say he had a box of microphones for me to check out. I immediately hustled the two blocks from the studio to the store, and sure enough, there was a cardboard box filled with old and odd microphones. The first thing I saw was one of those mini rectangular-capsule mics, just like that one from years ago. It turns out that a former studio in Tucson was an exclusive dealer for Milab, a Swedish manufacturer of high-end audio microphones. The mic I rediscovered was a Swedish mic, the Pearl DC 96. I bought that box of mics for $200 and rushed back to the studio to find out what worked and what did not. Not only did the DC 96 work, it sounded amazing. It was quite the score.
Now fast forward to last year’s TapeOpCon. One of our exhibitors was Independent Audio, who distribute many fine products (Coles, TL Audio, Cedar, and more), including Pearl Microphone Laboratory, now no longer sold by Milab. On display at their table was the full line of Pearl mics, and my eye was drawn right to that rectangular diaphragm that seems so curious yet sounds so good. I convinced the knowledgeable and congenial owner of Independent Audio, Fraser Jones, that it would be a great idea to let me take a PML mic back home with me to do this review, as I was already familiar with the original PML line. He agreed, and I flew home with a DT 40, which is their multi-pattern tube condenser.
As soon as I got home, I busted out the mic and set it up. The first thing that struck me was how well the shockmount was designed. The mic fits securely, and the elastic bands are robust, and the locking screw really clamps the mic in the mount. No worries about the mic falling out of this mount in any position. The other thing that is unique about the mount is that the swivel end comes off of the corner of the shockmount rather than in the middle. I found this was quite helpful in positioning the mic into tight places as it worked well with the boom coming in from any angle or height. The other plus is the robust and long cable for the power supply. Once we set up the power supply, the cable to the mic was long enough to reach all over the studio, which made moving it from application to application a breeze. The power supply also is solidly built and has the five-pattern selector switch on it as expected. The mic itself is not overly large — about the size of an SM58 — so it is fairly unobtrusive and definitely not intimidating when set up in front of the musician. Needless to say, we were stoked to try it.
The DT 40 quickly became the go-to mic of choice.
And try it we did. We tried everything we could think of that demanded critical acoustic sounds. Cello, piano, acoustic guitar, trumpet, percussion, vocals, Hammond organ, flute, and vibes all sounded incredible. The DT 40 quickly became the go-to mic of choice for the three months following TapeOpCon. It blew away every other mic we tried. Its detail on the piano was so good that it actually made our baby grand sound more like a concert grand. On cello, the mic smoothed out the low end woofs and tamed the bow on the strings so well that it made the hired-gun classical player ask what it was, as she had never heard her cello sound so natural. It handled tambourine without any splatter or crunch and exhibited almost ribbon-like characteristics. On acoustic guitar, it was so warm and natural that the playback just made you smile. As an engineer, you come off as a frickin’ genius when you use this mic, as it’s impossible to find something it sounds bad on. This mic is such a sleeper, it’s hard to fathom why they are not everywhere. Well, actually they are everywhere in Sweden, which I found out when I went there to mix a record this summer. The studio I mixed in had many PML mics, and the owner/engineer swears by them as well. One of the reasons is that the DT 40 has a frequency response of 20 Hz to 25 kHz, so when hooked up to like-minded preamps, you pick up every part of the audio coming at it. Something is going on here with that rectangular capsule, and it’s amazing. Add in that tube, and it’s like my little DC 96 has grown up to be a monster of a recording mic.
So, let me just say I love this mic, and I’m buying one as soon as I can. With Eastern European and Chinese mics getting all the attention lately, it’s no surprise that modest little PML of Sweden has been lost in the din. But no one — I repeat no one — is making anything this unique and has been doing so for so long. This is no upstart company who just started designing mics. This is a seriously designed and engineered professional microphone that deserves to be heard. So, if you are looking for something that will set your recordings apart and add to your sound, the PML line — and in particular the DT 40 — is one of the best investments you will ever make. Oh yeah, and did I mention that the diaphragm is a rectangle? ($3,900 MSRP; Pearl Microphone Lab)
Read more about the PML DT 40 tube condenser microphone.