Zen of Recording
Shoot Out at the MXL Corral
When the fine folks at MXL Microphones (www.mxlmics.com) suggested they bring a selection of their mics down to my Kitsch & Sync Production studio, my immediate response was “Why don’t we do it at Studio West?”
As a part of their excellent TRAC (The Recording Arts Center, www.tracsd.com) program, Studio West hosts a series of “Record Nights” wherein bands and singer/songwriters are invited to be recorded at this world-class facility by students and graduates of their recording arts program. My feeling is that while these up-and-coming engineers and producers are working with a great selection of vintage and state-of-the-art microphones at Studio West, they’re going home to use less expensive and maybe even dubious-quality equipment. What better way to gain perspective on these differences and how to overcome them than by setting up some very affordable (as you’ll see) options in the very same “lab” environment they’ve been trained in?
Fortunately, MXL agreed and on March 12, product specialist Roy Harper arrived from L.A. armed with a cadre of condenser, dynamic, and ribbon microphones, many of which he helped design. By the time I arrived, staff engineers Hunter Levy and Henrique Landim had already set up several of these models. They used no EQ and only a tiny bit of limiting on the vocals, so that only the true character of the mics themselves was being evaluated.
Studio West’s Yamaha C7 Concert Grand was mic’d in a semi-unconventional manner, with a V67Q Stereo Condenser Mic ($219.95) placed just outside the piano, “peeking over the edge’ of it about two feet away and pointed toward the low hammers. A “Revelation” Variable Pattern Tube Condenser Microphone ($1,295.95) was set back about seven feet and elbow high. It was switched to an omni pickup pattern, to aid in capturing the sound of the piano in the room. The V67Q’s dual diaphragm capsule (essentially two mics in one) is set to a 90 degree X/Y configuration, giving users phase-perfect stereo recordings “right out of the can.” This was exemplified by a wide sound stage, with no “hole-in-the-middle effect,” amazing depth and silky highs that helped offset some of the piano’s darker characteristics. The Revelation was much more neutral by comparison. Its ruler-flat response gave a very “true,” almost clinical representation of the sound in the room and when mixed with the closer mics, was indeed… a revelation.
An R144 instrument recording ribbon mic ($99.99) was set in front of my electric guitar amp, about six inches away and aimed at the center of the speaker. It actually had a sound that was remarkably similar to a Shure SM57, but with more depth from the R144’s figure-eight pickup pattern collecting some room reflections. A couple of R144 prototypes utilized alternate output transformers and I must admit to falling in love with the sound of the R144L, whose Lundahl transformer gave it a richer, creamier character. Here’s hoping that model goes into production soon!
An acoustic guitar was mic’d with a 2003A condenser mic ($179.95), aimed toward the lower bout and parallel to the soundboard. This mic had a workman-like, good-for-any-job sound to it. An excellent place to start for those with low cash but high hopes. MXL’s new CR-89 Low Noise Condenser Microphone ($349.00) was also used to mic the acoustic guitar, at the 12th fret about 18 inches away. This was definitely a richer, rounder tone with a hi-fi halo that seemed to surround one’s ears with the guitar’s tone… a characteristic I found particularly appealing.
MXL’s flagship tube mic, Genesis ($595.00) was used on vocals and was an instant hit with all of us. Big, fat and juicy are just three of the first words exclaimed at first blush, with incredible and luscious not far behind. Its Mullard 12AT7 tube gave it all of the weight of a vintage Neumann U47 but added a high-end sheen and forward upper-mids that one looks for in a more modern microphone design. I tried to give it a significant beating by laying into some loud soul screams, but it took it all in stride. Hands down, my favorite of the bunch!
Drummers Bill Ray and his son Xairan set up his vintage Ludwig drum kit and after an impromptu (and much appreciated) tutorial on drum tuning, we set about mic’ing it using the MXL Studio Drum Kit ($595.00). This included the A-55 Kicker on the bass drum, which gave a fantastic low end that was tight and controlled, but with an excellent hi-mid peak that helped beater click to cut through a dense mix; again with no additional EQ. The 606 snare mic was another ear-opener, with a -20 dB pad and low-cut filter that helped keep it isolated from the rest of the kit. Its combination of crack and body really surprised and excited us and there was a general consensus that it smoked the standard SM57 in this role. Two rather odd-looking Drum Cubes are also included for toms and again, the results were pleasantly surprising. The punch and heft of their low end was beautifully complemented by their high-end presence, which gave enough “stick” to allow prominent mix placement without muddying things up. A pair of the company’s by now ubiquitous 603 condenser mic are also included for overheads and while they were just a tad ‘hashy’ for my tastes, did a more than serviceable job in that role. The Studio Drum Kit includes two shock mounts, three hard mounts and an aluminum flight case, making this the absolute best deal on a set of mics that I’ve ever come across!
Finally, Roy manned the Hammond B3 whilst we mic’d the Leslie cabinet with a pair of V67N Small Diaphragm Instrument Microphones ($149.95 each). These come with switchable cardioid or omni capsules and worked great at portraying the spinning speaker’s vibey room sound. I would definitely be interested in trying them on acoustic guitar and assorted hand percussion as well, as I’m sure they would prove to be studio work horses in that regard.
Over and over I kept hearing folks in the control room saying, “They sound great…and you definitely can’t beat that PRICE! All I can add to that is “Yes. I agree!”. Thanks again to Roy, MXL and the wonderful staff at Studio West. I know we were all very glad we attended.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer and songwriter: www.kaspro.com.