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This article was originally published in issue #36
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A lot of the gear that we think-of as studio-standard today was originally borrowed decades ago from military and broadcast designs and bent to suit the needs of recording engineers. It may not have been perfect for its new purpose, but often the flaws kind-of-worked-out well enough, and we’ve all become so used to the sound that designers now try to build it in to new products. When someone introduces something that doesn’t follow the established pattern it can sometimes take a moment to figure out just what to do with it.
There are a number of “standard” go-to dynamic mics for use on guitars, and they tend to have a more-or-less similar sound; cardioid pick-up pattern, low-end controlled by proximity effect, top-end a bit limited, some sort of upper-mid frequency bump that can sound a bit edgy on its own but that fits well into a mix, and typically a slightly slow response because of the mass of the diaphragm/coil assembly, that smooths out the sound just a little. If you want something much different, then you use a different type of mic, perhaps a condenser or a ribbon. Or perhaps try a Heil PR 30.
So far as I can make out, Bob Heil’s first love is radio and broadcast and a lot of his company’s products come from a slightly different design ethos to a lot of the music gear that we’re used to. Perhaps because of this, the PR 30 is different enough that when you open the box it has a label telling you which way you need to point it!
The PR 30 is a large diaphragm (1.5”) end-address dynamic mic with a cardioid pickup pattern and humbucking voice-coils. The capsule is shock mounted and the basket has two layers to reduce the popping sound on plosives (those “P” and “B” sounds that kick out major blasts of air). Frequency response is quoted as 40Hz to 18 kHz, the chart shows a bit of bump at around 4kHz, and the capsule/enclosure is designed to give minimal off-axis colouration. There are no switches or options, and if you stick one of these on a boom-arm in a broadcast studio it would make perfect sense - but where the PR 30 really shines for me is as a guitar cab mic.
Do an online search and you’ll find a small part of the recording community that absolutely raves about the PR 30, and a fair number of folks who don’t get it. It’s certainly different; it doesn’t have that SM57/e906/i5 sort of snarl, and at first it can sound a bit bland, as though it’s really not doing anything very exciting. What it actually does do is to capture a very clear and slightly flattering image of what it’s put in front of, almost more like a condenser mic crossed with a ribbon mic. The top end is certainly smooth, but there’s enough of it to catch you out if you’re not used to hearing it, and the first few times I used mine I thought it made my cab sound a bit harsh and fizzy, until I figured that the cab actually did sound a bit harsh and fizzy. Change the speakers, adjust the amp or move the mic and you’ll be rewarded with all of the nuances of what you’re doing, and a beautifully detailed sound. The proximity effect is unusually well controlled (or weak, depending on how you think about it) and the PR 30 will handle up to 146 dB SPL, so you can throw it right against a grill cloth without it getting woofy or crackly.
Of course, you can use any mic on any source, and I’ve used mine for sung and spoken vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica, as well as on the top-end of drums kits (it’s an excellent snare mic where you can fit it in - it’s physically quite big), but mine earns its place in the mic locker because of what it does on electric guitars.
In use it’s not quite as lively as a good condenser, it’s not quite as chewy as a lot of dynamics, it’s not as dark as some ribbons (though many modern ribbon designs have similarly extended top-ends). It’s not going to give the ‘help’ that some more ‘character’ mics do, but it offers a subtle blend of characteristics in a simple and robust package that can produce stunning results in the hands of an engineer who knows how to use it (and who has a good sounding source to point it at). There’s a slight spring in the sound that’s incredibly hard to add after recording, perhaps it’s a bit of selective mic-compression on loud sources, but whatever it does, it has its own flavour of mojo working for it, and some of us like that a lot. To sum-up, I'd say the PR 30 combines many of the good characteristics of a condenser and ribbon mic in a robust and flexible dynamic.