PAR Session Trial: Large-Diaphragm Condensers, Part 2

Featuring Audio-Technica, Lauten Audio, sE Electronics, Shure & Sontronics
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It has been 10 installments and over two years since our first Session Trial was published. In Session Trial — PAR’s ongoing series of comparative gear evaluations — I’ve had the privilege of meticulously reviewing premium products side by side in actual recording sessions: everything from handcrafted ribbon microphones to small-diaphragm condenser pairs, from workhorse DI boxes to arguably the highest-quality channel strips commercially available.

Almost as if Session Trial has concluded its own Book One, we come full circle, back to our very first Session Trial category, Large-Diaphragm Condenser (LDC) microphones. However, this time our contenders are priced within a narrower range: all five can be purchased between $549 and $999 street. Additionally, these LDCs are more similar than the contenders in Part I; Part II features solid-state, dual-diaphragm and multi-pattern (at least cardioid, omni, figure-eight) models, each with an output pad and included shock mount.

The Contenders

These five LDCs are, in alphabetical order:

Audio-Technica AT4047MP

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  1. Audio-Technica AT4047MP — With a transformer-coupled output and a reportedly “early FET” (field-effect transistor) sound, the AT4047MP has an 80 Hz HPF (high pass filter), -10 dB pad and handles a whopping 155 dB without the pad.
    List price: $1,055.
  2. Lauten Audio Clarion FC-357 — Touted as providing a blend of classic and modern FET sonic characteristics, the Clarion FC-357 features a zinc-alloy body, transformer output, a -/+10 dB cut/boost switch, and flight case with wooden box, shock mount and pop filter accessories.
    List price: $799.
  3. sE Electronics SE4400A — Unique in this Session Trial for its feature-based flexibility — offering four polar patterns (hypercardioid is the bonus), two bass cuts at 60 Hz and 120 Hz, and two pads at -10 and -20 dB — the SE4400a came as a hand-matched pair kit, but we’ll try to ignore those additional useful features.
    List price: $999 each.
  4. Shure KSM44A — Characterized by a transformerless design, -15 dB pad, an 80 Hz HPF and a 115 Hz bass roll-off, the KSM44a comes with a flight case and, most notably, the low selfnoise of 4 dB in cardioid, which Shure attributes to its trademarked Prethos Advanced Preamplifier Technology.
    List price: $1,249.
  5. Sontronics Orpheus — Aesthetically striking with its large, spherical grille, the Orpheus is notable for an extended high-frequency response as well as a 10 dB cut or boost function. It comes in a wooden box and is the most affordable of our group.
    List price: $639.

[For this, our 11th Session Trial, we introduce another helpful component to our ongoing series of comparative gear evaluations: online audio clips of product performances as directly referenced in the text. We hope you find these both informative and further illustrative of the conclusions made by Rob, our Session Trial Contributor: https://soundcloud.com/pro-audio-review-magazine -- Ed.]

The Session

For this Session Trial, I employed the chops and opinions of The Wiggle Wagons (a band of western/country/rock transplants from California) to carefully audition the mics and use their favorites on a song for their new full-length album. We first established our baseline sound, did some test tracking with all five LDCs on drum room, picked our favorite mic, and then laid down the song with everybody playing together (no click) and kept the drums (first take, no punches). We then replaced each instrument and vocal track one by one, first test-recording each LDC and then laying keepers with our favorites (with no compression, EQ or signal processing of any kind, unless noted).

Lauten Audio Clarion FC-357

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On Drum Kit

Drummer Chris Slezak’s new Ludwig five-piece Keystone Series kit was miked with my usual array of AKG, Audio-Technica, Electro-Voice, Neumann, Sennheiser and Shure favorites (an array of dynamics, ribbons and condensers), but I substituted our test LDCs in place of my usual ribbon room mic(s). Frankly, I felt I was sure to miss the girth and depth of the ribbon mic for the room, but hoped to get some punch and texture (and not just cymbal wash) from our LDCs.

We went with an omni pattern on all of our test mics (even though this revealed some undesirable traits from my nearby glass), placed it about six feet in front of the kit, at tom height and aimed downward at the kick with no pads, no boosts and no filters, then amplified by the very clean AMS-Neve 4081 mic preamp.

We had a hard time reaching consensus, but ultimately chose the Shure KSM44A for our track (hear it on audio webclip #1). The guys thought it was the “biggest” and “punchiest” — we all liked the way it enhanced the snare sound when blended into the kit at about -6 dB (at 0 dB it became rude and “cymbal forward”). I liked it too, but found the top end to be a little dirty (which was A-OK), especially if compared to our number-two pick, the Lauten Clarion. The Clarion had the most clarity, fullness and smoothness of the whole lot — pulling up some kick drum that made it my number-one pick — even if the band found it a little mid-scooped for their taste in this application.

We couldn’t decide between the well balanced but slightly dirty-sounding Audio-Technica AT4047MP and the downright snarly dirt of the Sontronics Orpheus, so they are tied for third. The sE SE4400a had a brash high-mid response in this app and a lean bottom end too, although I found myself appreciating its light weight and easy-tomaneuver shock mount (I just hoped its plastic mounting ring would hold up for the duration of the Session Trial, which it did).

On Bass Guitar

Bassist Kevin Taylor played an excellent, active Music Man 4-string (with its very defined, bell-like high mids) through my tube SWR rig with JBL E140 speaker. We did capture a DI signal for the final mix; we only monitored the LDCs for this evaluation. For mic amplification, we used my Manley TNT’s tube channel; the LDCs were positioned a foot off the amp, in cardioid this time, with no pads/boosts/filters.

The AT4047MP was really quite boomy and “peaky” on certain notes, and overall too muddy for our tastes. The SE4400a had a more extended bottom end, but too much power through its thick mids, with not enough detail in the higher register to pick up the octave notes and plucks.

sE Electronics SE4400A

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The Clarion was honestly clean and pleasantly fat, yet somehow didn’t move us, despite a lack of definable negatives. The KSM44A was nicely balanced and full-spectrum, but, like the Clarion, didn’t move us. The Orpheus impressed us all with liveliness, a good image and a well-defined top; the band unanimously wanted to use this mic, and I nearly concurred. I simply couldn’t get over how good my AEA R92 ribbon sounded on our scratch track, with its tempered, musical mids. The scratch performance was flawless to boot, so it became our keeper. I know, I’m not playing by the rules.

On Guitar Amps

We kept our LDCs in cardioid, used the pads and kept the HPFs off for this guitar testing. Once again, we used the Manley TNT — this time, with its solidstate “cool” side (without optional transformer coloration) — and close-miked the speakers just off the grille cloth and angled slightly inward, between center dome and outer edge.

Vocalist/guitarist Daniel Grigg was planning to double his rhythm guitars, first laying down a Gibson Les Paul goldtop (with P-90 soapbar pickups) through a groovy, old 1960-era Magnatone Troubadour amplifier, then again with a Fender Telecaster through a Peavey Classic 50 tweed combo. We started with the Les Paul/Magnatone, and ultimately we chose it paired with the AT4047MP for our keeper track (audio webclip #2), as Daniel liked it the most; it did offer a nice musical balance with just a touch of additional gritty character. The Lauten Clarion received our second pick, for nearly opposite reasons: its “pure amp” cleanliness and accuracy. The third pick, the SE4400a, added a little honk to the low-mids (on lower chords) that wasn’t ideal for our use, but I found the mic worked really well on higher single notes and snappy funk strumming.

Lead guitarist Bud Burke liked the SE4400a’s tone a lot; he wanted Daniel to use it and tweak its EQ into a useful mix notch, and Bud may just have had a point. The KSM44A had a nice, focused midrange with a slight “ringiness” up top that seemed to distract from the amp tone and was comparably thin on single notes. The Orpheus could not handle the cranked Magnatone (an amp with no master volume); the mic overloaded and noticeably distorted even with its -10 dB pad in, although a little less SPL out of the amp would’ve had us in the clear.

Next, we went for the double on the twangy Peavey rig and, again, chose the AT4047MP (webclip #3), this time through a True Precision 8 preamp (which added just the touch of “five o’clock shadow” of its own to that pointy Fender chin).

On Bud’s smokin’ countryfied/surf and slapback-laden solos, we used the Peavey rig and, again, found ourselves with too many options and too many valid opinions. We did actually agree that, especially on this application, we could use any of the five LDCs and be fine with the choice. Ultimately, we struggled to pinpoint the Orpheus as our first choice (webclip #4) for a certain attitude and bite up top that Daniel called “evil character,” a perfect fit for a track about the walkin’ dude, Old Scratch, entitled “The Man In Black” (and I don’t mean Johnny Cash). We liked the Clarion every bit as much for its smooth, accurate transient reproduction and polite nature (webclip #5). Unable to reach agreement, the only logical choice was to track both and guarantee smiles on mix day; so we did.

On Male Vocals

Daniel’s lead vocals varied from a smooth, husky baritone to a few moments with some rocky growl, so we tested all five LDCs with a Stedman pop filter, back from the mics about six inches (just a touch of proximity effect), in cardioid, with no pads/filters. We utilized the Manley TNT, its tube side engaged with built-in 80 Hz HPF. We evaluated without any compression or EQ, but patched in a Chandler Germanium compressor (using the medium germanium diode setting) once we chose our favorite, then went for keepers.

Shure KSM44A

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The AT4047MP was just fine here, with a lean bottom and musical mids, but was a little plain, or “vanilla,” as one band member said. The KSM44A was in a similar boat in that it too was reasonably balanced, had musical mids in a U87 kind of way, with a touch of emphasized sizzle up top, yet not providing the spice we sought. The Orpheus had that spice, alright, but it also was quite sibilant, just too overly crisp for my tastes (although some of the band disagreed and lovers of overtly emphasized vocals probably would, too). The runner-up, the SE4400a, translated a unique sound with strong low-mids and a super-smooth top that handled sibilance gracefully: a very classy and refined presentation that would be ideal for jazz, blues or many female vocals across the stylistic board. We finally chose the Lauten Clarion (webclip #6) for its aforementioned cleanness and smoothness, but I specifically liked its midrange fullness, unfettered dynamics and lack of unwanted high-frequency disturbance (with no audible sibilance, spittiness or clickiness).

Bud’s harmony vocals were below the melody with a laidback delivery, and the Orpheus was the perfect fit. Its abundant top end and forward mids helped define his low pitches and brought out the minute, gritty details of his slightly smoky delivery.

On Acoustic Instruments

Unfortunately, “The Man In Black” didn’t call for either piano or acoustic guitar (keyboardist Joseph Hamrick laid down a Hammond B3-type part via MIDI synth), so I was compelled to do a little pure acoustic testing on my own to check the more sensitive abilities of this Session Trial’s contenders. With my Taylor solid-top 6-string, I laid down a descending pattern, captured by all five mics simultaneously (in cardioid with no pads, boosts or filters) about one foot off the guitar, squeezed in very close together to try to get as close to coincident as possible, all mics aimed at the 17th fret (right at the body), each amplified by a channel of the True Systems Precision 8 preamp. After I ranked my tracks, I moved the mics around to different positions in the array and confirmed my judgments were accurate with each mic in the sweetest spot.

Without exaggeration or hype, I must say all five LDCs sounded pretty darn good, with no noise floor, sensitivity or midrange irregularities. The KSM44A’s self-noise was so quiet I could hardly tell that it was on.

Although the Clarion had the deepest bottom and best extension, the cleanest top end and the truest dynamics, it still got my number-two pick. My top pick, the SE4400a, sounded so big, punchy and flat from bottom through mids to top (webclip #8). I’d probably prefer the Clarion for classical work, but the sE seems to flatter without any noticeable hype or undue personality, just like a masterful makeup artist. My third pick, the AT4047MP, was quite smooth and pretty, with a nicely understated top end, musical low end and a touch of dynamic compression.

Both the KSM44A and the Orpheus were mid-forward, top-end heavy and a little overbearing for my taste. The KSM44A was slightly compressed, lean and sculpted up to 10-12 kHz where it gets a little rowdy up top. The Sontronics was more open and airy, but mighty slim through the middle, which might be just right for mixing in with a full ensemble.

Summary

Considering the fact that all five mics got the top slot at one job or another, considering that no one mic had a monopoly on voicing, or musicality or usefulness, I cannot rank the five overall. Yet allow me highlight some strengths.

The Audio-Technica AT4047MP is indeed sort of “old school” in its sonic signature and especially good at warming up things. It’s excellent on electric guitars, kind and gentle on acoustic sources, and, I imagine, it would be a good choice on female vocals, too.

Sontronics Orpheus

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Overall, the Lauten Clarion FC-357 was the most dynamic, cleanest and clearest of the group, making it my number-one choice for classical work, acoustic work and apps that demand transparency without coloration. Its solid build quality, impressive shock mount and accessories make it a fine value, too. That +10 dB switch did offer a little more high-end juice, as well as overall boost.

The sE Electronics SE4400A is probably the most versatile of the bunch with its C 414-like numerous pads, filters and patterns. Its versatility aside, the SE4400A also has voicing versatility: It somewhere between low-mid strong and perhaps slightly honky on some apps, while delightfully flat, musical and flattering on others. It may not be your “only LDC,” but it’s very good as one of your LDC flavor choices.

The Shure KSM44A surprised us all by its abundance of character. With some sculpting through its mids and bottom and some color way up high, it offers good mid articulation and cuts through a mix. Its dynamics taming, colorful mids and lean bottom will make it a wise choice for many male vocals.

The Sontronics Orpheus had the hottest output of the group, with the trickiest of sonic personalities. It is tight through the lows, a bit unpredictable through the high-mids, and always cutting up top. When its signature fits, it really works well, with lots of “magic” and excitement, but when it doesn’t fit, it’s way off. The Orpheus’s +10 dB boost made the mic even brighter, perhaps a bit too much.

Compared to our first group of LDCs in Part I two years ago, this group offers far more affordable prices. Yet Part II’s LDC collection did not slouch, just presented more bang for the buck, lots of utility and the sonic qualities to please all but the very most discriminating of seasoned audio engineers’ ears.

Gear used in PAR Session Trial: Large-Diaphragm Condensers, Part II: Soundcraft Ghost console; Blue Sky SAT8 and SUB212 monitoring; Digital Performer 7.2 DAW; AMS-Neve 4081, Manley TNT and True Systems Precision 8 microphone preamplifiers.

Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording in Charlotte, NC.