In 1965, Intel CEO Gordon Moore famously predicted the speed with which computers would become more powerful and economical. The recent profusion of inexpensive, high-quality microphones might cause one to wonder if Moore’s Law has come to professional audio. Perhaps the progress in our corner of the technology market is not quite so dramatic, but it’s certainly true that your microphone dollar can stretch a great deal farther now than at any time in the past. As an example, renowned microphone manufacturer Audio-Technica has recently entered the budget end of the fray with the AT2020 ($169), a well-built large-diaphragm condenser microphone with a street price of around $100. By combining their overseas manufacturing capacity with their extensive microphone design experience, A-T has produced a budget mic with a big-ticket sound.
Product PointsApplications: Studio
Key Features: Cardioid pattern; condenser element; ships with standmount and carrying pouch
Contact: Audio-Technica at 330-686-2600, Web Site.
The AT2020 comes with a carrying case and a pivoting mic stand adaptor that makes it possible to mount it at nearly any angle. The pattern is fixed at cardioid, and 48V phantom power is required. The spec sheet puts up some impressive numbers, with a maximum SPL of 144 dB, self-noise of 20 dB, and extended frequency response from 20 Hz – 20 kHz. The response curve shows a bit of color (more on that later) with a slightly raised upper end and a modestly attenuated low end. The unit appears to be solidly constructed, and is backed up by A-T’s standard one-year warranty.
The first test was a jazz combo concert, the leadoff event in our school’s annual Jazz Weekend festival. In this situation I typically outfit the wind soloists with an AKG C535, a smaller diaphragm condenser mic that costs roughly three times as much as the AT2020. This promised to be a challenging contest, but given A-T’s reputation for quality, I had no qualms about sending it right into the ring. All of the mics this evening were going through the onboard preamps of a DDA QII mixer and on to the house system, with channel direct outs feeding a TASCAM MX2424 recorder. Our concert hall is a bit on the live side, so my only task is to balance the soloists against the rest of the group, rather than to make things much louder.
My first artist for the evening soloed on trombone, playing along with sax and the rhythm section. He began with mute in place, and I was concerned that the 2020’s accentuated high end would be too bright. Not to worry, though – the sound was clear and natural without being harsh. When the mute came out, the soloist’s sound was still clean with just enough edge to cut through. No EQ needed, none applied.
Then another group featuring two saxophonists took the stage. On the first player’s alto, the mic’s tonal quality helped his mellow sound to carry clearly above the group when he soloed, yet blend well when he was laying back. On the next chart, the second player soloed on soprano sax. At first, the 2020 worked well for him also, but as he opened up for solos, his more aggressive tone took on an unpleasant harshness through the mic. I was able to moderate this effect somewhat with some upper mid-range EQ, but it was clear that this was not the best choice of microphone for this sort of tone.
The final player of the evening was another trombonist, this one with a mellower tone than the first. He worked the mic fairly close, as is his habit, and it handily covered whatever he threw at it without a hint of distortion. The mic’s tone complemented the trombone’s more laid back sound in a way that allowed him to rise above the group when called for, yet blend in when needed.
The following night, the festival’s finale, I put the AT2020 on the guitarist. Getting just the right blend of rhythm guitar in a jazz band has always been a challenge. Often, either the sound is too bright, taking on a solo role even on the comps, or too soft, robbing the sound of the important harmonic contributions the player provides. The particular characteristics of the AT2020 solved this dilemma admirably, requiring no EQ to put the guitarist right where he needed to be in the mix.
I next moved to the mixdown session. My main source for the mixdown of the concert recordings is an overhead pair of Schoeps MK2/CMC6 spaced omnis. To this minimal setup I typically add just enough of the other mics to correct balances, make the solos heard, and anchor everything in place. The MX2424 tracks get loaded into Pro Tools, and it’s all software from there on out.
The first trombone soloist was again clear and natural sounding. If I had needed to mix the muted portion up higher than I did, it may have required some EQ to tone down the upper end, but as it was, it blended in nicely. The two saxophones worked just as they had in the live show, with the alto sitting clearly on top of the mix and the soprano requiring some plug-in assistance to not sound harsh and thin. The final trombonist’s tone was still mellow even though he was right up on the mic; his sound was clear without getting spitty, like close-miked brass can sometimes be.
I wanted to test the 2020 out on vocals, so I took it to our church’s worship band rehearsal. We set it up for a vocalist that would benefit from its brightness and set the band loose. Again, the slight edge that the 2020 gave to his voice not only helped him to stay on top of the band’s sound, but also gave his diction a boost. The cardioid pattern is wide enough to give the singer some room to move without causing any particular problems with feedback or ringing.
After the rehearsal, he mentioned that his favorite part about it was not having to stay so close. As a fairly active performer, he appreciated the freedom to move around a bit more. The FOH mixer found the 2020 to be easy to work with and to balance with the rest of the band. There were no problems at all with proximity effect, although if you did have a particularly “poppy” singer, the slight high-end boost on the 2020 would give you the freedom to put a foam filter on without sacrificing clarity.
The low noise and clear sound had me wishing I had two of the mics to try out in a stereo pattern, but I guess that will have to wait for another day.
The AT2020 is a lot of mic for the money. It blends the smooth sound typical of a large-diaphragm unit with a touch of extra brightness. Low noise and high SPL capacity round out a truly impressive package. This microphone will appeal to amateur and professional alike, and at a price that almost guarantees that you’ll get more than you pay for.