If an engineer was forced to pick a “desert island” microphone, most would choose the ubiquitous Shure SM57. Considering all performance-based needs — ability to handle high SPL, durability, resistance to moisture, consistency in difficult environmental conditions, ease of use, lack of self-noise, and frequency response — then the wisdom of using such a cardioid dynamic transducer choice is clear. But are there other viable choices in the realm of “workhorse” dynamic microphones? Let’s consider some alternatives.
Here, in the sixth installment of the PAR Session Trial (our ongoing series of in-depth, comparative and “real world” pro audio gear evaluations), we employed six dynamic microphones purpose-built for use on instruments, ones that have been notably endorsed by PAR reviewers in the past — our industry-standard SM57 alongside the AKG D 40, Audio-Technica ATM650, Audix i5, Electro-Voice N/D478, and Heil PR 20 — to capture what dynamics can capture best: rock ‘n’ roll.
With Jason Cooper on drums; Asher Griffis on bass (with his wonderful Ampeg SVT rig); Andy Cauble on guitar (with his thick Les Paul/Mesa Boogie tone); and me too (with my thinner PRS/Mesa Boogie tone), we were prepared to throw some serious SPLs, smacking transients, and tube-y distortion at the mics via our crunchy brand of Southern Rock.
The band laid down six takes of the same 90-second song, each time with the six Session Trial contenders doing a rotation through six key microphone positions. Please note that this was no clinical test, but we got levels as close as we could in the form of a normal studio recording environment, consciously making “consistent performances” on each take a top priority. Then, each participating session musician listened to the tracks, both mixed and soloed, and helped me choose the ideal mics for our demo recording session.
Our six “workhorses” may look different, but they share a feature list nearly to the letter; they are all dynamic cardioid microphones (except for the hypercardioid A-T) with no pads, no filters, no switches, high SPL handling ability, and frequency response realistically up to around 15 kHz.
In true rock ‘n’ roll style, the mics were positioned close to the sources (not unlike common live sound techniques) and combined with the rest of a typical rock recording setup. This included a beyerdynamic M 201 hypercardioid dynamic on snare top (to compare with our SM57 and others); Shure Beta 91 condenser inside the kick (oft combined with a large-diaphragm dynamic); Sennheiser MD 421 dynamic on rack tom; Neumann’s new TLM 102 condensers on ride and hat; a Neumann TLM 103 condenser pair on overheads; Sansamp Bass Driver DI; and a SM57 on each guitar amp (again, for contrast).
Cooper’s 22-inch kick drum was sounding good and full, with an Evans EQ Pad dampener/pillow and four-inch hole in the resonant head. A Millennia Media HV-3R mic preamp was utilized for its neutrality (and hopefully its sonic familiarity among our readers). Each mic was positioned inside the drum, approximately a foot back from the beater, and approximately on axis with the beater.
Of the six, we all preferred the AKG D 40 because of its large sound with lots and lots of punch. There was nice crack to the top end, some slightly scooped mids that were flattering, and a tight bottom that definitely needed some low shelving boost EQ to get that modern, deep kick sound.
Meanwhile, we all also liked the Audix i5 for the same qualities: definition, punch, and a scooped midrange. Yet as nice as the i5 was, it wasn’t quite as powerful as the D 40.
The A-T ATM650 had a familiar sound that was quite usable, if a bit thin: Imagine an AKG D112 with lots more top end and some compression. The E-V N/D478 was quite mid-rangey with a sound that emphasized the shell of the drum, not unlike the SM57. The SM57 had good punch in comparison, but needed lots of low-boost EQ and was suitable for a punk rock-ish sound. The Heil PR-20 was also punchy but too thin.
It should be noted that all six mics handled kick drum SPL with no problems; all needed some EQ help to gain enough bottom end and none of these are “kick drum-specific” mics, like the AKG D-112, Shure Beta 52A or Audix D-6.
We ended up using a 13” x 4” brass piccolo (that actually has some decent bottom end) to get the cracking, exciting sound we needed. We also miked the drum with a beyerdynamic M 201, which is “flatter” than the traditional SM57 and generally good for higher-pitched drums such as this. Again the Millennia HV-3R was the preamp, a natural for this application.
It should be noted that each of us commented on how “classic” the sound of the SM57 was, yet none of us picked it as our top pick. We all truly liked the SM57, but I think there was a certain bias inherent in each of us (whether positive or negative) about this trademark sound that colored our findings, as if our ears were searching for an alternative to counter the familiar. ‘Nuff said.
We were equally divided between the A-T ATM650 and the EV N/D478 for our top pick. The ATM650 was really tight and lively sounding, with good focus that would feed a splash of reverb nicely. The N/D478 was nicely balanced, yet it featured the midrange of the snare. We all were fond of the Audix i5 quite a bit, too, with its “smiley face” EQ curve that helped fill our slightly thin snare. The PR 20 sounded a little flat. We weren’t too fond of the D 40 on snare, either; its mid scoop was at the wrong place and hi-hat leakage was a bit unpleasant.
Cooper’s floor tom wasn’t big (14” x 16”), but it had a nice, focused sound with a good punch to its mids, aided again by the Millennia HV-3R preamp. Both he and I picked the D 40 hands down as our favorite, with a bigger “more accurate” sound that excelled on the tom much like it did on kick. Sometimes it can be hard to get the “top-to-bottom ratio” of a floor tom just right. The D 40 nailed it, with just the right mid-scoop to boot, with no EQ.
The PR 20 was also a favorite of ours on floor tom, with a deep and plump sound that sounded colored, but in a nice, musical way. I personally liked the ATM650 quite a bit, with its really tight punch. I didn’t like the i5, N/D478, or SM57 on floor tom that much; they all were a little too pronounced in the mids. Don’t get me wrong: All three would work in a pinch with a low shelving boost and a parametric to scoop the mids out.
Bass Guitar Cabinet
Asher’s all-tube SVT bass head amp was complemented by the SVT-410HLF cabinet with its extended low frequencies and pleasantly defined mids; it’s an easy cabinet to mic and get great sounds from, especially with a DI to complement it. As I typically do, I used a Manley TNT preamp — its tube side on the DI and solid-state side on the mic — reversed polarity on the DI, and compressed both signals with an Empirical Labs Fatso, which tamed peaks but was set for clarity and not its optional “gritty” color.
Opinions were flying all over the room as we embraced a number of distinctly different options here, especially considering we found some great sounds that just weren’t quite right for our particular project’s sound. The SM57 got top votes for a sound called “focused, tight, and defined” — a little bottom EQ made it just right. The D 40 received equally impassioned support for a sound that was more “balanced,” “wider,” and generally thicker through the lower registers.
Here, the PR 20 offered a nice musicality that was accurate and smooth. We all liked the i5, which was clean and altogether usable. We all found both the N/D478 and the ATM650 to be a bit “clacky,” pronouncing pick and fret noise in an unmusical way. Asher mentioned he might prefer them both if he were slapping and popping for a funky approach.
Against Andy’s dirty tones, grinding chords, and Gibson/Rectifier low-mid thickness, I countered with single notes with floating-bridge Paul Reed Smith clarity and a very little scoop to the mids; this contrast would make for good mic selection fodder, we thought. I went with a True Precision 8 preamp on all four mics (two mics per cabinet, always utilizing one SM57 per cabinet as a baseline), for consistency and that little touch of True Grit (sorry, couldn’t resist the allusion) and color.
Upon listening back, everybody loved the SM57 on Andy’s guitar. It’s simple: An SM57 on Andy’s cab gives you the sound of rock, over and done with. We all also liked the D 40, where its mid-scoop helped tighten up some of Andy’s loose low-mids. The i5 was appreciated in the same way, with a mid sculpt that was working well for us. Truth be told, we liked all the mics for various qualities on Andy’s rig: the smooth PR20, the aggressive N/D478, and the respectable ATM650 rounding out the lot.
My guitar rig was (predictably) quite different. My personal favorite was the ATM650 because of the way it made my upper harmonics sparkle; my “third octave bell-tone with echo” performance was more lively and ethereal with the ATM650. The guys also liked the D 40 on my guitar because its mid-scoop and smooth top end were flattering, especially on chords. Rather open-minded about guitar tones, I found desirable qualities on all the others, including a buttery smoothness from the PR 20, an edgy sculpting from the N/D478, and that classic SM57 sound that I still love and probably always will.
When many condensers or ribbons would overload and go “splat,” these workhorse dynamics took the abuse and churned out impactful transient response and distortion-free reproduction that even sounded good when monitored loudly. What made these contenders winners in the studio translates very easily to success in live sound reinforcement, too.
Overall, the AKG D 40 got the most top votes with its big, robust sound that is ridiculously punchy and clean. I am so in love with the sound of this mic on floor tom that I’m going to buy a couple for some floor-tom options beyond my trusted Sennheiser MD 421s.
Though very different-sounding, both the Shure SM57 and Audix i5 received many top votes, tying them for second in this evaluation. We really liked the straight-ahead, “mids-up” clarity of the SM57 on snare, bass guitar, and Andy’s guitar tone (the latter of which is where the 57’s presence boost was a perfect fit). We enjoyed the i5 on snare and kick, too; its bigger bottom and carved mids made for less need to EQ.
The Audio-Technica ATM650 was a little different — with its hyper-cardioid polar pattern — and it proved to be a little less versatile than the others, too. However, it was really nice on snare with a defined, crispy “thwack” and very good at grabbing those upper harmonics on guitar cabinet. I was also fond of its sturdy construction and seemingly “drummer proof” windscreen basket.
At times, the Heil PR 20 seemed like the odd man out, with a large windscreen and a physical design that seems best suited for handheld vocals. Despite this, the PR 20 sounded notably smooth and pleasant on bass guitar and floor tom. Its big, plump bass response was full of color, best suiting it for filling up the bottom of smaller drums and instruments, especially with some proximity effect, to taste.
The Electro-Voice N/D478 had the leanest bottom end of the group and, consequently, offered the most forward midrange; these are qualities that were just right on snare. The N/D478 had no undesirable qualities and was quite good everywhere, but floor tom; paired with an EQ, it could get the job done on any of the above tests.
And that’s the beauty of this Session Trial. For right around $99, you can have any of these straight-forward dynamic microphones close to the source, handling the SPL, grit, and grime of your next rock session — and they’ll all survive, ready for the next one!
Rob Tavaglione has owned and operated Catalyst Recording in Charlotte, NC since 1995.
Workhorse Dynamic Microphones
Take Two: A Snare Drum Comparison
by Strother Bullins
To complement Rob Tavaglione’s findings for this Session Trial, the PAR editorial staff thought it would be an interesting second step to focus on the aural variances from each microphone using the exact same musical performance, measured as practically as possible using common tools (voltmeter, SPL meter, and 1 kHz test tone generator).
So, volunteering to construct this evaluation in my own studio, I arranged our half-dozen contenders in an arc around a 14- inch Gretsch birch snare drum, opposite of the player (me). The snares underneath the drum ran parallel to the mic lineup. All windscreens were removed to determine the position of each mic’s diaphragm; all were placed precisely over the top rim of the snare. (See the photo for the full thousand words.)
The signal chain was as follows: each microphone went to a channel of the Aphex Model 188 8-channel remote mic pre (which offers a LED reading of gain per channel in 1 dB increments), then DB-25 output to TRS input on the Alesis HD24 harddisk recorder (where each mic was brought to -15 dBFS input on its first six channels). Initial amp gain was determined via a 1 kHz test tone at 105 dB, provided by replacing the snare with a amplified speaker, its center at precisely the same position as the center of the drum head. The mics — right to left (player’s perspective), one through six — were as follows: Heil PR 20 (#1 @ 39 dB of gain from mic preamp); Audix i5 (#2 @ 43 dB); AKG D 40 (#3 @ 38 dB); Electro-Voice N/D478 (#4 @ 36 dB); Audio- Technica ATM650 (#5 @ 41 dB); and Shure SM57 (#6 @ 44 dB).
Next, I checked the closeness of the mic amps’ outputs to the HD24 with a voltmeter. Translated to dBu, the steady state tone was within 1 dB across the six channels used, finer adjustment not being possible with the Aphex’s 1 dB gain steps. With the snare returned as the source, the peak levels of the captured tracks varied just over 5 dB, the Audix being the hottest and the E-V N/D478 having the lowest output, indicating the differences in mic performance with a dynamic source.
At this point, steady 2 and 4 snare hits at 120 BPM (with varying single strokes and flams) were recorded in six sets, via all mics at 16-bit/44.1 kHz. After recording, the files were transferred to my MacBook Pro via the Alesis FirePort 1394 FireWire interface, then distributed to our blind test participants — PAR’s technical editor Lynn Fuston and editorial director Frank Wells — via YouSendIt, the web-based digital content delivery service. I also participated via these files, just renumbered, finding out which were which well after writing my own thoughts. Read on for what we discovered.
Strother Bullins is the reviews and features editor for PAR.
LYNN FUSTON’S COMMENTS:
“All the tracks were loaded into Pro Tools and adjusted so that the peak values were identical. After listening through all six sets of drum hits, I decided to use the fifth set. Monitoring was via Mytek 8x96 DAC to ADAM A-7 monitors at approximately 86 dB SPL. Below are my blind evaluations.”
Mic 1 (Heil PR 20): “Natural-sounding, forward, but lacking in low-end punch. Since the ear uses the first thing it hears as the benchmark for comparing to subsequent sounds, I also did the test backwards from Mic 6 to 1 to undo that bias. For instance, if the first mic is very bright the next mic might seem dull even though it’s really not. After repeated listening, my conclusions stayed the same regardless of sequence. This mic would be my fourth choice.”
Mic 2 (Audix i5): “This one seemed very natural as well with a lot more body. It accented the 5-7K range, yielding a nice sound on the snares without being scratchy. This mic brought out the musical third an octave up from the fundamental tuning of the snare, which gives it a bright sound but it might clash musically in the arrangement because of where it sits in the upper midrange.”
Mic 3 (AKG D 40): “This one seemed the fullest of them all while highlighting the 3-4K range, an octave lower than Mic 2’s 5-7K peak. The difference in voicing was very pronounced. While Mic 3 seemed fuller in the lows, it was an aural illusion with my impression being heavily influenced by the 3-4 dB differences in the upper midrange compared to 2. Mic 2 actually has more in the 250-500 range than Mic 3 but the brighter upper midrange masks that low end.”
Mic 4 (E-V N/D478): “This one sounds like it’s in a completely different place, a different proximity to the drum, almost like it’s 4-6 inches farther away than all the others, though I can’t imagine that Strother did that. There is more room sound in the signal. Though the midrange is roughly the same, the low end in the 150-250 range is a full 10 dB less than all the others, completely gutting the fundamental of the snare sound. It sounds to me like the sonically suggested increased distance from the drum eliminates whatever boost the proximity effect would yield.”
Mic 5 (A-T ATM650): “The first word that came to mind was ‘snap.’ This mic accents the ring of snare head with a nice presence, but it sounds a bit pinched. It doesn’t have the meat that Mics 2 or 3 did but I think it would be usable. It would be my third choice.”
Mic 6 (Shure SM57): “This mic yields a much darker, drier sound. It has nice definition on the top but not much ring from the snares. This mic accents the octave up from the fundamental. It would be my fifth choice.”
“Overall, I would pick either Mic 2 or Mic 3 out of the mic locker with the choice depending on the musical style and the arrangement and the snare drum itself. While Mic 2 sounds more processed, pre-EQ-ed, there was a naturalness that kept me coming back to Mic 3. The best thing about listening to mics in a blind comparison is when you find out which mics are which and maybe realize that there’s a mic out there that you really like but didn’t know about. In this test, I’m familiar with only two of the six mics.” [After finding out which mic was which, Fuston was shocked that the SM57, his main snare mic for the past 10 years, was his next to least favorite. His two favorites here were ones he has never used before —Ed.]
FRANK WELLS’ COMMENTS:
“On my first run through, just lining ‘em up and going track to track, Mic 1 (Heil PR 20) sounded full range. The resonant ring of the drum was obvious, perhaps a tad towards overbearing. There didn’t appear to be a lot of detail from the snare wires on kit bottom.
“Mic 2 (Audix i5) was deeper, thicker than Mic 1, the resonant overtones a bit more intrusive on the primary sound. I heard lots of presence from the snare wires without a lot of detail. The stick clicks between snare hits had a touch more snap.
“Mic 3 (AKG D 40) sounded duller than the first two, the stick clicks thicker as well, again with presence in the snare wires without a lot of detail.
“Mic 4 (E-V N/D478) was softer and less full bodied, thinner snaps in the stick clicks. The resonance rings seemed a bit overbearing, and I thought I heard more of the drumhead with the snare wire presence pushed back.
“Mic 5 (A-T ATM650) was back to a full-bodied sound with less intrusion from the drum resonances, and a louder apparent volume than the previous couple of tracks.
“Finally, Mic 6 (Shure SM57) was again thicker, making me think dull. The stick clicks were clear and there was decent detail from the snare wires.
“I listened again around the tracks several times, beginning to adjust for level differences, and received Lynn’s helpful peak adjustment numbers, which dovetailed with my adjustments. I settled on Mic 5 as my preferred track: good snare wire detail and a full-bodied sound, and the stick clicks sounding very natural. Comparing 1 and 5, Mic 1 was clear and brighter; I could see myself preferring it depending upon the application, and it would likely stand out better in the average mix. Mic 2 had darkersounding stick clicks, and a touch of overall muddiness. Mic 3 was rounder in the mids, with less of the stick-to-head attack than with Mic 5 and less of the full-bodied sound. Mic 4 was open with a more obvious top end, natural-sounding and a touch warmer than Mic 5. Finally, Mic 6 was a touch duller than #5 and a touch muddied.
“Final score, Mic 5 wins as a subjective preference, while I lean towards Mic 1 and Mic 4.”
STROTHER BULLINS’ COMMENTS:
“I asked a third party to randomly re-number the file names (so that, for example, 1 would become 4) and write down the changes they made; thus, I also did blind listening with these six files, only finding out their true identities after writing my thoughts, documented below. Listening back in Apple Logic and monitoring via KRK VXT 8 powered monitors, clicking randomly back and forth through the files, I made the following observations.”
Mic 1 (Heil PR 20): “Possibly more ‘open,’ a bit ‘hollowed out’ in comparison to the others; a nice high-end response, if a bit rolled off compared to others. It’s overall realistic to the snare sound in the room; it seems to translate more ‘sing’ of the drum (which may not be desirable).”
Mic 2 (Audix i5): “Throaty and thick (similar to Mic 5 and comparable to Mic 6), slightly crispy, and it emphasizes the note of the shell more than the others. I would probably carve a bit in its low-mids with EQ in getting most common rock snare sounds.”
Mic 3 (AKG D 40): “It’s giving me a bit chesty/slightly honky translation of this particular snare, in direct comparison to others; its nicely forward, though. I would probably carve a bit of its chesty emphasis out of the track.”
Mic 4: (E-V N/D478) “Detailed on the top end; it’s open. It would work well on more intricate snare work, not necessarily rock’s 2 and 4; it’s quite lacking in lower frequencies, compared to others.”
Mic 5 (A-T ATM650): “This one is throaty and thick (similar to Mic 2 and comparable to Mic 6), a bit more ‘finished’ and forward- sounding than snare 2, and slightly crispier compared to the others (in a good way).”
Mic 6 (Shure SM57): “Impactful; slightly ‘bucket-y,’ and only slightly crispy, but overall desirable; it’s similar in ways to Mic 2 and Mic 5.”
“I find myself going back and forth mostly between 2, 5, and 6, most likely because they strike me as being similar; I’ve been trying to determine which I prefer. In the end, for a typical rock snare sound that I would personally choose; I’m pretty evenly torn between 5 and 6 for the sound, yet I may just choose 2 because it seemed to offer more frequency information than 5 and 6, if not as refined/ focused on what a rock snare typically is.”
“If I were to choose a mic matched with this snare, knowing that there would be more ghost notes, rolls, and overall detail involved in the snare track, I would likely choose Mic 4; 2, 5, and 6 may be a bit too power-oriented of a sound, resulting in less snare emphasis. However, 2, 5, and 6 would work well on just about any typical snare drum apps. Frequency-wise, 3 was on its own; not necessarily bad, but just different. Next to the others, I tended to lean away from it. Mic 1 sounded very realistic, and I found myself wondering what it would sound like with some compression applied to it; that may make it a bit less finished sounding. In the end, though — just judging ‘em all raw and naked — my favorite will have to be Mic 5.”