+++++   small budget microphone shootout   +++++

By Erwin Timmerman

Because of the ongoing "what's the best $200 condenser mic" questions I thought it would maybe be nice to record the same with all my mics and post that here, so people would at least have a bit of an idea how the different mics sound.

The mics used are:

Oktava MC012 small diaphragm condenser, cardioid capsule, new, from the Sound Room*, $188
LOMO M1 head for Oktava body, large diaphragm condenser, new, Sound Room, $350
AKG C3000, large diaphragm condenser, bought new 2 years ago, still in mint condition, $200
Sennheiser MD421-U4 and MD421-N, large diaphragm dynamic, both bought used for about $200
Behringer XM2000S, cheap dynamic, bought new one year ago, still in mint condition, $30

I hope to add more mics as my mic locker grows, or as I can borrow them from people.

The object recorded is a Takamine EN20 acoustic guitar. The chain was
Mics -> Behringer MX802A (it is my only multi channel mic pre) -> Pulsar card

There was no EQ used (the knobs were in the middle, there's no "bypass"), and I used the stereo input of the Pulsar card. This meant I could only record 2 mics, put away the guitar and mount the next set. Because the fact that difference in playing and positioning makes more difference than the whole mics being tested (well, up to a certain point) I only changed one mic with every take, so that it is possible to hear the difference within the same take. The mics were as close together as possible, about 1-2" apart, side by side, at  a 90 degree angle 15" away from where the neck meets the body from the guitar, aimed at the sound hole. The fact they were near eachother could have altered the sound a bit, but since all tested patterns are cardioid it shouldn't be too much.

One note on the MD421's: The MD421-U4 should sound the same as the 421N, as the only difference according to a Sennheiser catalog is the connector (U4 has XLR, N has a European connector, though mine are built to fit XLR). I aquired the two mics (used) from different sources, and there is a difference in sound. This might be caused because of the diferent history the mics had. This has to be taken into account when buying *any* mic used, that it might not sound exactly the same as you expected. As for these 2 mics, the 421-U4 doesn't sound as expected. When you would buy an MD421-U4 used, it will probably sound as my 421N sample. So do not NOT buy an U4, or go after an U4 because of this sample.

I have encoded the files into 160 kbps MP3's. This is the best way to ruin subtle differences in sound, but wav's are just too large for this purpose. And to my ears there is still enough difference to be heard to at least get an idea.

OK, here are the files (they are about 250k each):

Take 1: Oktava 012 cardioid, LOMO M1 head
Take 2: Oktava 012 cardioid, Sennheiser MD421N
Take 3: Sennheiser MD421N, Sennheiser MD421U4
Take 4: Sennheiser MD421N, Behringer XM2000S
Take 5: Oktava 012 cardioid, AKG C3000

If you are downloading through a modem, 2.5 megs total is a bit much. In that case I would suggest downloading
Take 1 completely only if you wonder about which to buy: LOMO or Oktava. Otherwise you can omit it altogether, because the Oktava has a quite similar recording in Take 5. Take 5 completely (take 5 will show you why a lot of people bash the C3000), take 3 shows the bottom end of the 421N well, take 4 shows the top end a bit better. But if you want to compare it to the behringer and are not interested in the difference between the N and the (probably out-of-spec) U4, download complete take 4 and skip take 3. Finally the Oktava samples of take 1 and 2 show clearly how much difference a little different mic position (putting the guitar away standing up, sitting down, and picking the guitar up again) and finger-picking makes, thus showing the necessity for all these takes. Yet IMHO take 2 is the least interesting, so only download that one when you have a fast connection, or when you're really curious :-)

Last but not least: when $200 is way over your budget, then Radio Shack makes some nice really inexpensive condenser mics. They are a bit noisy but don't sound *that* bad. Chris Gieseke uses them and he has made a web page with sound snippets of recordings he made with these. You might want to check that one out too.

Have fun!

When you have any comments, please mail me.

Erwin Timmerman

*Oktava as yet does not seem to be very consistent in the quality of their mics. The CEO of the Sound Room checks all the mics he receives personally, and sends the ones he doesn't like back. So when you get them from him you are sure you get them sounding exactly as they were intended. You can get them from Guitar Center as well, but be sure to audition them really well before buying one, and buy the exact one you liked. If you even want to get one in the first place, that is :-)

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