I use small-diaphragm condenser microphones everywhere—as room microphones, as overheads for drums, next to a dynamic to add that special snap, crackle and pop to a snare drum, and to capture a string quartet by way of one of the many stereo array techniques. sE Electronics has built a solid reputation for beautifully crafted products that can excel in most situations. Its newest small-diaphragm condenser is the sE5, which the company positions between its standard sE1a and the high-end RN17 that it designed in collaboration with Rupert Neve. Each microphone is designed and built in-house, and the capsules are all handmade.
The fixed-cardioid sE5 boasts a silky top, accurate transient handling, low noise floor and max SPL of 150 dB with only 0.5% THD. Throughout my testing, I found that the sE5’s fixed pattern was not a limitation. It was perfect for work in all applications in which I tried it, sounding clear and open.
The shock-mount that comes with the single sE5 was easy to set up and use; I did not come across any issues with rumble finding its way into my takes. The stereo pair comes with a hard case and stereo array bracket. The sE5 is also finished in black, an oft-requested change from sE’s user base wanting a dark body color for live use.
Make a Joyful Noise
For my tests, I ran the sE5s through a modified 8-channel Altec preamp, circa 1979, into Magix Sequoia by way of Apogee A/D converters. All monitoring is done through Mytek D/A converters into Neumann K&H Series monitors.
I first used the microphones as drum overheads. Mounting the sE5s into the supplied shock-mount was simple and it felt secure. However, hanging these mics over a drum kit presented problems when I tried to use the mic’s selection switches because the shock-mount blocks the switches. Sliding the mic forward lets you get to them, but when the mic is held in place, this can be a challenge to work with.
That said, these microphones are a joy to hear. The high-end bump in response, centered at 10k, gives the sE5 a modern sound, exactly what I look for in an overhead—a mic that is clean, clear, tight, quick and responsive. The sE5s sound bright without exhibiting harshness, and full, but not muddy or woofy. The mic’s transient response was realistic and clear. Compared to a set of AT4050s, the sE5s sounded more focused and even across the bottom end. The high-end bump also seemed to be located in a more desirable range. sE5s sounded more natural and open, and contained none of the brittleness of a set of AKG C 414 B-ULS mics set to cardioid. I also tested and compared Shure SM81s and KSM27s, and again the sE5 excelled.
Next, I used the mics as a pair to capture the room while tracking electric guitars. I loved the open and natural stereo field the sE5s captured. Using the highpass filter coupled with the microphone’s frequency response gave me perfect results without further need for EQ. While mounting the pair in the stereo bar, I found myself wishing sE had put markings on the bar to help with angling the microphones. It was easy enough to eyeball them to 90 degrees and then open the angle up slightly to achieve the desired 110 degrees I wanted for an ORTF array.
During my time with the sE5s, I used them on a number of sources, from mandolin to bullhorn. For the bullhorn, which we feed from a headphone amp, I placed an sE5 about 18 inches straight out from the bell; with the horn being overdriven and the amp breaking down, we get the perfect blend of drive and EQ curve. The sE5 was then fed into my Warm Audio TB12 preamp that I drove hard, adding more color. From there I went into an old blackface Ashly SC50, then into Sequoia. The sE5 handled the bullhorn without issue.
Next, I close-miked my trusty solid flamed maple Guild guitar. I am normally a die-hard fan of using large-diaphragm condenser microphones on acoustic guitar, but the sE5 was right at home in the mix. Using my ADK S51tc or the AT4050 would be a better choice for me if the acoustic was the main or only instrument, but the sE5 worked for a song with lots of instruments, as its frequency response will help it cut through a little more, and its handling of transients would help the acoustic sit in a mix where part of the acoustic’s job is to be a percussion instrument.
Finally, I set up a single sE5 on a boom microphone to capture the audio shotgun-style for the video interview portion of a Web show. The sE5 was positioned approximately 2.5 feet away from the subject’s mouth, and its output volume and tone were good—good enough that the sE5 was used on the final take. I realize the mic was not really designed for this, but not only did it work, it sounded more natural than the shotgun microphone I have used in the past.
What’s the Verdict?
In a world with so many microphone choices, and a crowded small-diaphragm market, it has become impossible to try them all. There are many things that as a studio owner I need to consider when making buying decisions. Sound of course is Number One, but in today’s climate, price does become a factor.
If you are doing live classical recordings at 192 kHz with only a stereo pair and demand absolute flatness in your mic’s frequency response, these may not be what you are looking for. But if you are producing rock, pop or country records with real drum kits and instruments in a room, or simply want a great-sounding stereo pair, the sE5 needs to be on your must-hear list. Both the frequency and transient response of the sE5 are stellar, and the detail that this microphone captures is outstanding. I am a huge fan and now own a pair.
Tim Dolbear is a producer/engineer at Eclectica Studio in Austin, Texas.
Place your favorite microphone in a room with any instrument or voice. Does the microphone capture the room as you hear it? How is the frequency response? How well does the microphone focus in on the sound source verses the room?