How does one accurately judge the merits of a mid-priced microphone? If told there was a versatile tube condenser available for $1,299 list ($599 street), novices may think, “That would be my most expensive mic — is it worthy?” Meanwhile, pros may say, “That’s a third of the price of my average tube mic — why would I need it?” The Sterling Audio ST69 is one of those rare birds that has something to offer both parties described above and may present more value for the dollar than most any other mic currently on the market.
The ST69 is a large-diaphragm (1-inch, 3-micron, Mylar), multi-pattern tube condenser microphone that comes as part of a complete kit including aluminum carrying case, shock mount, cable, and power supply. High-pass filter and -10 dB pad switches are found on the front of the mic with pattern selection on the rear (cardioid, figure-eight, and omni). The only switch on the power supply is for power, which initiates a slow powering up.
I immediately put a ST69 pair to a rigorous test on rock drum overheads. In addition to gauging sound quality, I was hoping to find if these shockmounts allowed enough flexibility to allow my favorite ORTF pattern from a stereo bar. The shockmounts not only prevented rumble, they didn’t sag by the end of session, allowing for “textbook-quality” placement.
My initial reaction was, “I can hear the tubes,” and these qualities were not provided by the preamp — an Earthworks 1024 — that I often employ for overheads. Unlike some tube-based mics that are exceedingly transparent, these mics had a slightly grainy, slightly compressed, and slightly processed sound that lent a classic quality to the kit. I was expecting that over-enunciated 8-10 kHz response that so many condensers translate during placement on drum overheads; instead, I grew fond of the ST69’s top-end smoothness and the midrange body of the cymbals. As a result, the soundstage was wide, animated, and lifelike, with a nice sense of depth.
Next I tried the ST69 pair for choir overdubs — one for the tenors, one for the sopranos, and both in cardioid. This app highlighted many good things about the ST69s; I got a nice blend with just the right amount of separation, pleasant bleed coming in off-axis (especially with a wedge monitor folding tracks back at the singers) and an overall frequency balance that was very nice, requiring very little EQ. The mic sounds even more flat in omni and very even front-to-back in figure-eight. However, in the church where I was recording, the setting limited me to cardioid.
As I selected vocal mics on a big power-pop project I was working on (loaded with male-female harmony), I gave a ST69 a shot at male lead vocal. Here, the desirable top-end smoothing and texturizing were not quite what I wanted, lending a sound that was wasn’t quite exciting enough, lacking a bit in precise detail; a little more “realism” was needed to help this lead vocalist convey his passion. However, I must note that AT69’s lack of sibilance and plosives was a nice surprise in this male vocal application. Thus, the other ST69 was a bulls-eye hit for female backup vocals; with often-doubled harmonies, I was avoiding sibilance problems or harshness, and I did want a velvety sound that would be inviting, comforting, and envelope my brasher lead vocals. The ST69 gave me exactly what I wanted in that app, with a slightly less-forward presentation that gave both my vocalists their own space, greatly aiding me in getting those crucial vocal blends.
I feared the ST69 wouldn’t have the bite I needed for electric guitar overdubs, but I stand corrected. Paired with an SM57, the ST69 proved to be a fine complement on guitar amp, providing ample high end, a bit of desirable and character-laden grit, and the power in the low-mids that the SM57 needed help in capturing. In fact, I found the ST69 to be versatile enough on electric guitar amp to use for rhythms, leads, clean, dirty — you name it, it was simply excellent.
I also tried the ST69 pair on acoustic sources like piano and acoustic guitar with mixed results. I didn’t think they had the transparency or open top-end needed for these apps, but it’s purely a matter of taste. If you’re the kind of engineer who prefers a tube mic pre and tube compressor on acoustic instruments, you may just love the slightly “finished” quality of subdued transients and tempered top that the ST69 delivers.
Sterling ST69 appears to be a winner. While it may not be a “must have” for seasoned pros with large microphone lockers, they must be considered for their delightful vocal handling, versatility, and expected durability for such a great price. Novices must consider these mics for their multi-pattern flexibility and the opportunity to own a mic that doesn’t have that rude and nasty high-end response that is too common in the realm of modern affordable condensers.
Rob Tavaglione has owned and operated Catalyst Recording in Charlotte NC since 1995.www.catalystrecording.com