Microphones for instrument recording are often quite personalized choices, yet there are some brands, makes and models that always work well to capture the sound of a piano; acoustic guitar and other stringed instruments; drums, percussion, cymbals and overheads; and woodwinds and brass of many types.
To list a few obvious choices, you can’t go wrong with any “U” mic from Neumann when it comes to condenser and tube microphones; Electro-Voice RE20, Sennheiser MD 421 and Shure SM57/SM58 or Beta Series dynamic microphones; and AKG’s C414 multipattern condenser. These are generally considered superb instrument microphones and good ingredients in any flavorful microphone cabinet. In other words, hand me a Neumann U87 or two, along with a couple of SM57/ 58s, and I can be happy.
Here we share other transducers that excel on a number of specific instruments in the studio. Much of this information is gleaned from engineering friends and colleagues, in alphabetical order by manufacturer. Some are mainly new and exciting, while a few are simply my personal favorites.
AEA NUVO N22
Engineers and Pro Audio Review collaborators Russ Long and Rich Tozzoli have evaluated and loved the AEA N22, a phantom-powered ribbon microphone well suited for instrument applications due to its slight upper midrange emphasis and trim bottom end, helping especially stringed instruments project through a thick mix. From drum room to specific instruments calling for a ribbon microphone, the AEA is a modern ribbon that exists for evergreen reasons. That said, most every AEA owner I’ve known hasn’t stopped with just one AEA microphone.
New from AKG is the C314 dual-diaphragm condenser microphone, birthed via C414 DNA. It features a dual-diaphragm capsule with four selectable polar patterns; each of the diaphragms is matched with the intention of creating optimal polar pattern accuracy. The mic also has the C414 microphone’s XLS gold-plated membrane, and an overload LED Detection Display, which indicates overly high sound pressure levels.
AKG D12 VR
Way back in 1953, AKG produced its first dynamic microphone, the D12, with a notable low-end emphasis making it appealing on drums, bass guitar and various other instruments. It was followed by a series of offspring such as the high-SPL handling D112, and most recently, the D12VR. The latter offers four tonal options and uses phantom power uniquely.
Rob Tavaglione, in his review of the D12VR, explained its settings as such: “First it can be used as a straight dynamic mic, capable of high SPL handling and hot output. However, when 48V phantom power is applied, it drops the output by 10 dB and applies an active EQ circuit with three different settings. Mode 1 (green LED) has a bottom end boost and scooped mids; Mode 2 (red LED) has scooped mids only; and Mode 3 (blue LED) adds a high-frequency boost centered at 6 kHz to the bottom boost and scooped mids.” As such, the D12 VR could be the most versatile “kick drum mic” on the market today.
Audio-Technica’s hand-built AT5045 is a “stick-design,” large-diaphragm electret side-address condenser instrument microphone with a cardioid polar pattern. Available separately or as stereo pairs (AT5045P), the mics feature fast transient response, low noise and the ability to handle high sound pressure levels (149 dB SPL). The AT5045 employs a large, rectangular element, created with the intent to improve transient response and increase response bandwidth. It was designed for use primarily as an instrument microphone on overheads, percussion, acoustic guitar, strings and other acoustic instruments in professional studio applications.
Newly built for drum and percussion capture, A-T’s ATM230 hypercardioid dynamic instrument microphone features a proprietary high-SPL handing capsule, and is best for tom, snare and other percussion instrument applications. Other features include a rare earth magnet (reportedly for improved output and transient response), low-profile design for easier placement, and an all-metal build. Accessories in the ATM230 package include the AT8665 drum mount and a soft protective pouch. The mic is available individually or in the ATM230PK pack of three.
Over a span of several years working with Rob Tavaglione, we coordinated nearly a dozen subjective “real world” multi-product shootouts, which we called “session trials,” one being focused on ribbon microphones.
This time working with Tavaglione, plus Lynn Fuston and Frank Wells, we auditioned a half-dozen dynamic instrument microphones, one being the ubiquitous SM57 and another being the Audix i5. This dark horse from Audix has turned out to be one of my favorite dynamic mics. Best of all, it’s super affordable and works well in the studio and live on most every source. “Though very different-sounding, both the Shure SM57 and Audix i5 received many top votes,” tells Tavaglione of our collective findings. “While we really liked the straight-ahead ‘mids-up’ clarity of the SM57 on snare, bass guitar, and guitar…we enjoyed the i5 on snare and kick, too; its bigger bottom and carved mids made for less need to EQ.”
This small-diaphragm cardioid condenser from Blue, borne from the company’s well-known Bottle B1 capsule, features a most-handy and unique pivoting capsule segment, allowing for 180 degrees of detailed adjustment. From drum overheads to acoustic guitar to swapping with traditionally dynamic mic-captured toms, the Hummingbird sounds great on instruments in general. That, and the added convenience and accuracy of using pivoting capsules, gives the Hummingbird the edge in many recording situations for discriminating recordists at all levels.
Cascade Fat Head II
It’s been years since Russ Long introduced me to the Cascade brand, offering affordable but quite impressive ribbon microphones with many custom options. According to Cascade, manufacturing costs are reduced via imported components, yet all products are designed, assembled and tuned the microphones in the United States. The Fat Head II operates as an active or passive ribbon microphone at the flick of a switch, allowing more flexibility. Best of all? The mic is available for $399 street.
DPA d:vote 4099
The 4099 microphone is a lightweight, miniature supercardioid condenser truly designed for instrument usage with a functional range of instrument-specific mounts available; comprehensive stand mounts are available, too. As such, the d:vote 4099 range is among the most flexible instrument mic range available in the industry. True to the source, the d:vote 4099’s sound is simply accurate and expansive. The 4099 is designed with either of two different sensitivities; normal for the guitar, sax, and violin versions, which handle 142 dB before clipping, and a high-SPL version for trumpet, which handles 152 dB before clipping.
An acoustic piano can often be difficult to capture due to a number of factors: sonic characteristics of the piano itself, the acoustic environment, and the inevitable bleed of surrounding instruments. Often, it may be desirable to have the lid down, or to at least have the option. The PianoMic, a stereo omnidirectional rig featuring small-diaphragm Earthworks condensers, is a de facto “system” that goes a long way in simplifying the process of capturing piano.
In covering task-specific mic selection, microphone shootout guru Lynn Fuston described using the PianoMic as follows: “For acoustic grand piano, one supremely easy option is the Earthworks PianoMic System, which is a single unit that attaches inside the piano, right above the bridge, featuring two mics on a single bar. In addition to sounding good, it is virtually invisible and can be used with the lid up or down. I have used AKG 414s for years on acoustic piano and DPA 4041s are favorites as well, either as a spaced pair or on a stereo bar. [Those mics] both require the lid up.”
Electro-Voice ND Series
E-V’s new ND Series instrument mics include three dynamic models and one small-diaphragm condenser. The ND44 is a lightweight clip-on dynamic mic that is intended for tom-tom and snare drums. The mounting clip provides placement on drum rims, while a compact form factor and low-profile angling head allow for unobtrusive placement in other applications. It can also be deployed on guitar cabinets, stand-mounted or hung directly over the cabinet. The larger ND46 dynamic mic is designed for drums and general instrument miking, with a locking pivot mechanism for positioning.
A small-diaphragm condenser, the ND66’s filters, pads and locking pivoting head reportedly make it a great choice on drum overheads, hi-hats, close-miked drums, acoustic guitar, piano, etc. Completing the ND Series is the ND68 dynamic, intended for kick drum or on other bass instruments.
Electro-Voice’s venerable RE20 design has evolved and birthed the RE320, a high-SPL handling and relatively frequency-flat transducer. While it doesn’t have the highpass filter of its RE20 and RE27 ancestors, it does provide a unique selectable EQ filter voiced for kick drum miking, adding low-midrange frequency scoop. In direct comparison to the industry’s most popular dynamic microphones regularly used on instruments such as guitar cabinets, drums etc., the RE320 offers slightly emphasized top-end definition, the full bottom you’d expect, and more. As Tavaglione reported in using the RE320 anywhere between kick drum to major-market radio DJ vocal, the RE320 provides “a little more bottom than a RE20, with some scooping at 300 to 800 Hz and nearly the same top end.”
A favorite of many engineers, the Mojave Audio MA-100 is a small-diaphragm, vacuum tube condenser microphone with interchangeable cardioid and omnidirectional capsules. I first became aware of it following its full evaluation from Russ Long, who was already a fan of Mojave for obvious reasons: David Royer and company make truly great microphones.
From acoustic guitar to toms to piano, the MA-100 offers a certain sonic signature, as one would expect from a tube condenser. As Long describes of his MA-100 use on acoustic guitar: “An AKG C-28 (small diaphragm tube) has long been on the top of my list of favorite acoustic guitar mics, yet I miked up a Taylor 514-CE with the MA-100 and was blown away. The sound was amazing; it had everything good that the C-28 had, except it was quieter and had more top-end ‘sparkle.’”
Like Tavaglione’s previous session trial on dynamic microphones that featured a “control” product (the Shure SM57), this trial needed one, too; it was the Royer R-121. I wasn’t surprised when it emerged in this trial as the front-runner, too. As Tavaglione described his results, “The top pick overall was the R-121, which isn’t very flashy or fancy. It was the most consistent, handling transients with incredible grace, delivering deep and extended lows, and offering the most honesty in the top end across the various sources.” Stacked up against an impressive bunch of world-class ribbons, the R-121 will never disappoint. For those desiring an active ribbon, you can’t go wrong with a Royer R-122, either.
sE ELECtRONICS RNR1
Designed by Rupert Neve and Siwei Zou of sE Electronics, the RNR1 active ribbon mic was also a contender in the ribbon session trial; since its debut, it has become a favorite ribbon to many of its users. Tavaglione’s findings are in line with what I’ve heard from other users; its high-end detail makes ribbon microphone use even more flexible and competitive against condenser choices.
“The SE Electronics RNR1 almost stole the number one position [from Royer] with its superlative performance on electric guitar and vocals, plus the many benefits of active electronics,” says Tavaglione. “If one considers the high-end detail, transient handling and high output found in the RNR1 (and the use of those qualities in classical recording, bluegrass, and/or largely acoustic recording as well as Foley work), then the RNR1 would have likely been my top pick with more divergent testing.”
Strother Bullins is Technology Editor for NewBay Media’s AV/Pro Audio Group.