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This article was originally published in issue #23
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So you thought all studio mics were much of a muchness? Andi Picker meets the very affordable Sontronics STC-20 - and won't give it back.
I really wouldn’t want to start up a microphone company today. Pour heart, soul and savings into detailed design and prototyping and field testing, finalise a product, source components, produce, quality control, ship, market...and join the ranks of everyone else whose stickers yell “Proudly designed in USA/Germany/Britain manufactured in China”.
Just to make matters worse, a lot of manufacturers manage to produce perfectly adequate sounding mics that sell for next to nothing, and really good sounding mics for not much more.
And that brings me to the Sontronics STC-20 Pack, which ships the mic itself along with an elasticated shock mount, a pop filter that fits onto the mount, a five metre lead and a soft storage pouch. I’ll mention here that the filter material came loose in use but it only took 30 seconds to fix and that is the ONLY fault I found. Read on!
The microphone was designed in the UK by Sontronics’ founder Trevor Coley, and Trevor is a man with a bit of a vision. He likes a certain sound and he designs his mics to produce it. The sound is described as “... the Sontronics trademark “smooth high-frequency roll-off” “ and it’s honestly a bit of a double-edged sword. I’ll declare now that I gravitate towards this sound - I seem to be forever cutting high shelf to get rid of the fashionable “pop sparkle” that digital recordings so faithfully reproduce, but it does mean that the mic can sound a bit “unremarkable” at first. DON’T STOP READING HERE though, because “unremarkable” is exactly what some of the finest (and most expensive) mics that money can buy sound like. If you need a microphone for a particular voice or a specific source, then go audition a bunch of options, find one that glimmers the best features of that source and if you can afford it then buy it. But don’t be surprised if the quirks of that mic clash awfully with some other source. If you want a mic that you can use for everything, find a great sounding “unremarkable” mic.
The STC-20 is a simplified take on the STC-2 Large Diaphragm Condenser (let’s stick with LDC from now on), without the pad (it still has a quoted max 120dB SPL) or low-cut filter. The capsule is a Sontronics design - it’s not an “off the shelf” part, the body is heavy (and not “ringy”) and again is bespoke. The locking ring on the review mic had worked a bit loose so I had a look inside – it’s tidy with discrete components on a neat Sontronics marked circuit board. Specs? Sure, this mic has some, they’re not remotely best-in-class, but it’s certainly quiet enough and sensitive enough and robust enough. This is all very nice and good, but ultimately all quite irrelevant to me - because I simply loved the SOUND of this mic on spoken word, male and female sung vocals, acoustic guitar and as a distant mic on an electric guitar.
Now when you evaluate a microphone you generally want to put it in its best place for the source, and that’s the problem with reviewing mics. If it tends to be a bit bright, you just put it off axis, if it’s a bit thin sounding you just move it closer to boost the proximity, muddy - move it away, and so on. When you’ve been doing this for a while, you do it without even thinking about it. You just move the mic into the right place, and unless that’s “in another room under a duvet” you don’t even think in terms of problems. It’s relatively rare that a mic that registers as “bad” or even “poor” and I’ve recently been very pleasantly surprised by the quality of results I’ve had from even budget microphones.
In this case I also deliberately tried some real “lazy” miking - just sticking it on a stand and playing some acoustic guitar near it, or hanging it over the edge of a chair in front of a cab - and it still sounded good. It’s not just the smooth top end - there’s a slightly flattering size and solidity to the mids that is just right for my taste, and it seems to have an off-axis response that quite outclasses its price. Appreciation of sound is and must be subjective, so I readily admit that I’m biased and “your mileage may vary” as they say, but for me; I like the sound so I think the mic is good! Better than good. Perhaps that sticker should say “Simply Right”.
In summary? Loved it, want one!