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How to choose a microphone - featuring the Rode NT1-A and Sennheiser Mk4 LDC Microphones. Andi Picker helpsyou select a perfect all-rounder.
First things first, although this feature includes two microphones, don’t expect a “shootout” format and don’t expect a “winner”. I’m using the opportunity to look at the similarities and differences between a couple of different products from different manufacturers with a view to considering how to choose a mic, not which of the two comes-out on top.
Both of these mics are Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC) microphones. In reality most microphones can do most things to some extent, but different types of microphone do have their own niche uses; dynamic mics are very popular on guitar cabs and close miked drum components, Small Diaphragm Condensers (SDCs) are often used for acoustic instruments, ribbon mics are popular for guitar cabs and brass etc. LDCs are probably the most common vocal microphones in studio use, are popular for guitar cabs - giving a more “complete” sound than most dynamics and can be pretty good on just about anything else you can think-of - so long as you put the mic in the right place. All told, a decent LDC will work for most things you might want to record in a studio.
The crucial microphone question is “what do I want to do with this mic?” Do you want it for a specific job or do you want one that will handle lots of different tasks well? Let’s take a quick look at why this matters before we start on the review units.
Say you record drums from a software kit, DI your bass and guitar, and the only thing you need to record live is vocals. In this case, it may make sense to find a microphone that suits the singer. Take a look at the response curves of a dozen different microphones and you’ll see more similarities than differences, but listen to them and they may sound very different. Put one mic in front of your singer, or your acoustic guitar, or your cab and it may give you “THE SOUND” that you’re chasing. Right there! There could be a slight boost of just the right frequency to electrify that vocal, or a dip in just the right place to clear the mud, or whatever. No EQ needed - brilliant. Of course, if the next singer has a bit of a nasal honk at just the frequency that your mic boosts then you’ve got problems. And there is the secret to choosing a mic.
If you want a mic for a specific job, then try lots of mics and pick the one that you can afford that works on your source. If you want a mic to do lots of different jobs, then pick one that avoids extreme “sound sculpting”. Small differences on paper can make big differences in use, so you really do have to try and see (and hear, obviously). You cannot choose a “character” mic for a specific source from a forum or a review, you can however get a pretty good idea about general-use mics.
Right then, let’s take a look at the “useful for everything” category.
Spot the similarities? Whilst the actual specs vary a little, both mics are quiet (I’ve got to mention that the specs for the Rode are very, very quiet by the way), will work with high sound pressure levels, are amply sensitive, and have superficially similar frequency response curve shapes (the Rode has an additional little bump at about 120Hz) . Both microphones are robust enough, quiet enough, sensitive enough and neutral enough to be used on just about anything you might want to record. Neither has pad, filter nor pattern selection options and both require phantom power.
The Rode NT1-A comes in a kit with an elasticated shock-mount (isolates the mic from thuds and rumbles that vibrate up the mic stand), a pop shield to stop plosives (like “B” and “P” sounds), a lead (you can figure that one out) and a soft case, and you also get a 10 year warranty and a booklet and DVD of hints and tips on using your mic. The microphone itself is a fairly traditional looking unit of just over 300g with a satin finish on a fairly narrow body and has a dual-layer basket protecting the capsule, and I noticed that the earth pin on the XLR socket on the base is elongated to make sure that the earth connection makes first and breaks last which helps to protect the mic electronics against static.
Sennheiser’s Mk4 microphone comes with a flexible stand mount (a shock-mount is available separately) and a soft cover. It’s wider and shorter than the Rode and weighs-in at just under 500g. The styling is very contemporary with a satin finish and matt black basket and highlights. Warranty is 2 years.
I must admit that I loved the Sennheiser the moment I opened the box, it has a wonderfully classy look and heft to it. I put both mics in front of a couple of singers and asked them to choose purely on appearance and feel, one chose the Sennheiser, the other loved the Rode - clearly beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
Anyway, eventually we got them plugged in and made some test recordings. Subjectively, the specs bear out for both mics and nothing that I threw at them bothered either in the slightest. Noise, distortion, headroom, sensitivity are all plenty good enough that I never even thought about them once I started recording.
First-up was a spoken word piece. The results here were noticeably different - the Rode has a slight boost just above the 100Hz mark and in this case it brought-out a slight muddiness in my voice. Recorded spoken word tends to be quite telling both because we’re used to hearing people speak anyway, and we do tend to have a certain expectation based on “presenters” voices on TV and radio - the latter often shaped by careful microphone choice. On this occasion I preferred the Sennheiser for its subjectively clearer sound, though a dab of EQ in the lower mids restored clarity to the Rode sound.
Next-up I used both mics to record myself singing. I’m really not a singer at all and the process is quite painful - the results more so. My singing voice is quite “middly” and to improve clarity I applied quite a high low cut filter (that neutralised that 100Hz bump) and I couldn’t tell the difference between the mics. In fact I comped (made a “composite” version of) the vocal track using parts from both mics which I absolutely wouldn’t have expected to be able to do.
Both worked well on acoustic guitar, with the Rode a little warmer, the Sennheiser a little clearer. Finally, I put both mics in front of a guitar cab. Generally I like the sound of dynamic mics for this application, but in this case the Rode sounded fantastic from about 6” off the grill and a little off centre. The Sennheiser in its initial position was just not as exciting, but moving it a little closer boosted the proximity effect and a re-position to point it more directly at the cone added the required bite.
An odd thing often strikes people when they buy their first “good” mic – disappointment. Many top level mics have fairly neutral characters, they don’t make things exciting (that’s your job), they just add a slight flavour to lots of different sources and respond well to good mic techniques, and that’s rarely what we expect. The NT1-A and the Mk4 are slightly different beasts. The Rode is at the good end of what I think of as the “budget” mic market. Actually, scrap that, the Rode is at the very good end of the budget market. To my ears it’s slightly euphoric, but cleans-up very well. The Sennheiser is pitched at a slightly higher price point, and I think it oozes quality above its station, both in terms of physical presence and sound. The Mk4 sound strikes me as being slightly “Hi-Fi-real”, and responds very well to position and EQ on just about anything. Either may be better for you out-of-the-box, but in the time that I lived with them both mics did everything asked of them, and there was no area where an inch or so of movement or a dB or so of EQ didn’t make them fit. Both recommended.