Mike Jasper's Bigass Small Diaphragm Mic Shoot-out

(Part Two)

Austin, Texas likes to call itself "The Live Music Capital of the World," but knowing what I know now if I ever move again it'll be to a place that calls itself "The Live Audience Capital of the World." Still, there’s always a lot of action in the downtown clubs of Austin, whether it's college-student-infested Sixth Street or the gayborhood of the Warehouse District on Fourth, although I can't really say the same mojo exists in Austin's recording industry (Motto: "What's Recorded in Austin, Stays in Austin"). I'd be willing to bet if your CD selection includes Butch Hancock, Slaid Cleaves, Teri Hendrix, Jimmy LaFave and Charlie Sexton you probably live a few doors down from me. My point? Anything that draws attention to Austin's recording scene is a good thing, including this article.

I’ve been lucky enough to buy some great new and vintage equipment over the years, thanks to an inheritance from an uncle who left my brother and me a tidy little sum after his untimely death. "Did you get enough money to live on for the rest of your life?" a friend asked. "Maybe," I said. "But I've got to kill myself in five years." Look, I hate my-uncle-died-and-left-me-money guy just as much as you do, but at least when I became that guy I didn't go out and blow it on a Porsche. No, instead I blew it on Neumanns. At one point I owned five KM 84s, because I was looking to find two identical mics without paying an arm and a leg for a matched pair. After buying and selling nine of them I still couldn't find two that sounded the same, although I found three or four that were damn good. And while I preferred the sound of the KM 84s to the KM 184s, it still wasn't the Holy Grail of acoustic guitar mics I had hoped.

One day I finished recording an acoustic guitar part with my favorite mic for the job, a Neumann-Gefell UM 70/MV 692 large diaphragm mic and I thought to myself, do I even need a small diaphragm mic? A few weeks later, a classical guitarist recorded at my studio and he was very fast, lots of notes, lots of transients. So the answer turned out to be yes, I do need a small diaphragm mic. Which one? I thought, and the search thus began on a cold, fateful day in November 2008. I decided to buy, record and listen to as many small diaphragm mics as possible. After all, how many could there be? Thirty? Forty? (Note: I'm up to 84 not counting dynamics and I still have a list of 20 mics I'd like to hear some day, not counting tubes and ribbons.)

I realized early on that if I wanted to do this at a reasonable pace, I should probably play the guitar part myself on my Collings C10 and do the recording in my studio through a simple chain of Millennia HV-3 preamp to Lavry Blue converters to a Pro Tools session at 24-bit, 44.1hz. I played a 30-second part that started off picked and ended up strummed and always with the same Fender medium pick. To keep things simple, I kept the test mono so I'd only have to find one mic per model. The test went well all in all, but I would do some things differently if I had the chance to do it over. First, I'd make it 45 seconds and throw in some finger picking. Second, I'd use a click track to keep the tempo consistent. Finally, I’d use a damn guitar tuner from the beginning. Truth is I recorded about 16 mics before I realized that this project could turn into a magazine article for Tape Op.
Once I had the magazine hook, I started borrowing mics from other studios in the area. "It's for a Tape Op article," I'd say, which in the pro audio world sounds like, "It's for the Red Cross, lots of sick children, please help." The mics started pouring in. I'd drive many miles to borrow them and bring them back the same day, sometimes as far away as Dripping Springs, which is... far away. Then I told the powers-that-be at Tape Op what I was up to and got manufacturers on board. Companies were now sending me mics to test, and sometimes the mics were amazingly expensive such as Sennheiser, DPA, Sanken and Josephson. I was in the slop now, boy. I logged on to online pro audio forums and asked for suggestions of more mics to audition and the ideas kept rolling in. I decided against valve mics early on, since small diaphragm tube mics make me cry. They take up too much space and shipping power supplies is expensive. I also cut out ribbon mics, because I was sure I'd break them by accidentally turning on phantom power, and although I included dynamic mics originally I decided to pull the plug on those and focus on condensers alone.

Along with suggestions for mics came critiques of my testing methods. "Your room is treated with Auralex. Wouldn't a lively, wood-floored room be better?" Maybe, but I've recorded a lot of acoustic guitars in my studio and people seem to love the sound. "Shouldn't you record every mic at the same distance from the guitar?" No, I don't think so. Just as the acoustic guitar has a sweet spot, so does a microphone. In the real world, you're going to place the mic where it sounds best. "But it’s not fair to pit omnis against cardioids?" Hey, that's how I roll. If I could get a better acoustic sound using steroids I'd do it. "Will this test be meaningful?" Good question and I think I have a good answer: Gear shootouts are always meaningful to the person conducting the shootout. After all, I got to listen to 84 SDCs in five months.

For your convenience, I divided the mics into price categories based on the lowest prices of new models found on the Internet. If you can find a mic out there for less, you're on your own.