M-Audio is a company that is present and accounted for at virtually all parts of the recording process. Need an interface, pair of studio monitors, control surface, pocket-sized recorder, or perhaps some microphones? M-Audio has you covered. One could think that experience gleaned in one product area might very well translate to other product areas, bringing an entire product line's overall quality and performance levels up. In this review of the Pulsar II small-diaphragm condenser microphone, I will test that hypothesis.
The Pulsar II matched pair set retails for $399, though the street price is right around the $300 mark. What do you get for $300, other than two microphones? First off, a nicely finished wooden jeweler's box with die cut foam securing the contents inside, an ORTF microphone bar, foam windscreens, and a pair of microphone clips bearing way more than a passing resemblance those belonging to beyerdynamic MKV 9 microphones.
M-Audio claims that all Pulsar II matched pairs are within 1 dB of each other. The Pulsar II's self noise is rated at a low 15 dBA, which is rather good, especially for a small-diaphragm condenser microphone in this price range. From 20Hz to 20kHz, the included response chart seems to show a fairly flat response up until a moderate rise somewhere around 7kHz or so, and then a drop off up around the 14kHz mark. The microphone itself has a black painted brass body with a chrome grille and end-piece, and features a 6-micron, 3/4-inch diaphragm. The output of the microphone is biased into Class A, and the topology of the output stage is FET. There is a 10dB level cut pad along with a switchable high-pass filter (12dB per octave at 80Hz). The Pulsar II microphones are made in China, and they carry a one-year limited warranty.
First up for recording duties was a birch Premier jazz drum kit with a 20-inch kick, along with a 12-inch rack tom and a 14-inch floor tom. I've grown fairly accustomed to the wood-rimmed Ayotte Keplinger stainless-steel snare drum that I've been using for a while, but truth be told it's a bit too much for the rest of this kit to keep up with. With that in mind, I also called into use a 1970's Ludwig Superphonic, which better matched the character and acoustic output of the rest of the kit. Cymbals for this project were 1970's Zildjian A and K series models.
Before I had the chance to record a single bar, I ran into something about the Pulsar II that really irritated me: it readily slides around inside of its clip. If someone were to consider using these on a gig, they'd absolutely need to duct tape the mics to the clips. Also, the tension on the angle adjustment of clips was much too loose out of the box (so don't forget to bring some mic clip Viagra — a 2.5mm Allen wrench — to a gig with the Pulsar II). On the other hand, the included stereo bar is a nice extra, and one can position the microphones so that they will conform to the ORTF specification for microphone spacing. There is also a considerable range of adjustment possible, which is good if you choose to deviate from the ORTF spec.
I mounted the Pulsar IIs to large Atlas studio boom stand using the ORTF mounting bar and positioned them so that they were approximately one foot in front of the drum kit and three feet above the rack tom. Other than the bass drum (which was a bit low in the mix) the kit sounded surprisingly realistic, rendering the cymbals as more than just white noise (a common affliction among inexpensive mics) while providing an excellent representation of both the Ayotte and Ludwig snares. Toms sounded fairly robust, and the microphones did a more than credible job at tracking the transients.
Later, I pulled the stand away, positioning it about 12 feet in front of the drum kit to get an idea of how well the Pulsar IIs could resolve the ambiance and reverb tails of the room. Turns out they were pretty good! I didn't mistake the Pulsar IIs for a Neumann KM84/184 pair with a more "Schoeps-like" top end, (or even a 40 Series Audio-Technica small-diaphragm condenser), but I was nevertheless pleased with the overall ambiance and sense of space in this particular application for a microphone at this price point.
Project Studio, Live Sound
Matched pair of small-diaphragm condenser microphone, class A FET output, 10dB pad, high-pass filter, ORTF microphone bar.
$399 pair (list)
M-Audio USA | 626-633-9055 | www.m-audio.com Thanks to the on-board pad (which extends maximum SPL handling to 144dB), the microphone didn't ever seem to overload when I put it very close to the shell of the snare drums. While it wasn't ultimately a sound used on that particular song's mix, it was still quite respectable. I didn't care for the sound of the Pulsar nearly as much when used in the typical "angled towards the drum head" positioning, but that sort of arrangement doesn't typically work that well (for me, at any rate) with most non-dynamic microphones I've used.
The Pulsar IIs were at their best when placed directly above the ride and crash cymbals, providing a nice contrast between the sound of nylon-tipped sticks hitting the cymbal and the wash of the undertone. I did notice that the low note of the K Series 20-inch ride was a little attenuated in volume compared to other (more costly) microphones I've used in this application. The Pulsar II also sounded quite good when used to capture the high hat. The Pulsars sounded clean, bright, and detailed when miking a brass-jingled tambourine, and I had similar good results with triangle and afuche-cabasa. Once again, I appreciated that the M-Audio mics didn't exhibit "white noise" type tonality on those instruments.
Used in a stereo configuration on a Jean Larrivee jumbo cutaway acoustic guitar, the Pulsar IIs sounded a little bit recessed and hi-fi, as opposed to natural and warm. I found that the high-end sheen that was pleasing on drums, cymbals, and percussion wasn't quite as nice on acoustic guitar. On the other hand, while this kind of semi-cutting tonality wouldn't be my first choice when used by itself, it could provide some assistance to help a guitar cut through a dense mix.
The M-Audio mics were a very cool choice when placed right up against the twin speakers in a vintage 1987 Gallien-Krueger 250ML guitar amplifier. This amplifier (which could never be described as mellow or recessed) really came to life through the Pulsar IIs, and its over-the-top chorus virtually exploded out of my monitors.
The M-Audio Pulsar II microphones represent a good choice for those in the market for a low-cost matched pair of small-diaphragm condensers. Their low self-noise makes them a contender for ambient miking duties, and the "1 dB match" between mics is impressive at this price point. In my opinion, they neatly fill the price/performance gap between the current crop of low-end, small-diaphragm microphones and the "old-line" fully professional microphones at a price much closer to the entry-level stuff. Now if they could just re-engineer those microphone clips!