Howard Rabach

Bassist – Live Performance + Studio Sessions

Mic Shootout – Acoustic Guitars

July 1, 2016
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As I’ve been “in the thick of it” lately with recording projects, I thought it timely to try out some mics that haven’t seen enough play time in the studio.  Was able to get some truly tangible results.  For those that don’t geek out over microphone technology, you might want to nod off right about now.

For those left awake, here’s how it went:

The Contenders:

  • Earthworks SR40 (Cardioid -HD)
  • Blue Microphones Dragonfly (LDC)
  • Audio Technica AT4041 (SDC – cardioid) – pair
  • Shure Beta 181 (SDC – cardioid) -pair
  • HULK 990 (modded LDC from Michael Joly)

The Instrument:

  • Guild D-125 dreadnought guitar; solid mahogany body and neck, rosewood fingerboard; phosphor bronze .12 gauge strings

Test Set Up:

Microphone placement:

– heights all between 34″ and 36″ – about soundhole height from the floor

  • SR40 pointed at the neck/body seam (about 14th fret)
  • Dragonfly also pointed at the 14th fret
  • AT4041s were set up as an X-Y stereo pair; one pointed towards the lower bout, the other towards mid-neck
  • Beta 181s were set up similarly to the AT4041s, but about 0.5″ above them
  • The HULK 990 was set up directly underneath the Dragonfly, pointed towards the 14th fret.

All the mics were run through a Focusrite Saffire Pro40 interface, offering phantom power where needed.  All tracks recorded in Reaper 5.2 at 0 dB. For the first test, the preamp gains were all set to 6.  For the second test, some minor level adjustments were made (noted below).

For the first run through, I played three different pieces.  The first was played with a pick, and was heavily and percussively strummed.  The second was a more jangly-sounding picked piece.  The final selection was finger-picked.

Test #1:

All three takes for the first test were played where the guitar’s soundboard was at a distance of 12″ from the microphone diaphragms.

Test #2:

Same as above, but with the following two differences:

  1. Mics were at a distance of 18″ from the mics to the guitar’s soundboard.
  2. The mic preamps for the SR40 and the Beta 181s were dialed up to 7 – this made the comparison focused on sound quality rather than audio level.

Findings:

This was interesting overall, with a handful of surprises.  I created a small chart on a legal pad, checking off which mics sounded better for which style of playing, and at what distance.  I then listed to several passes of each takes, trying to determine which pairings of mics sounded best in my room with this particular guitar and setup.  Here’s what I found:

  • The Earthworks SR40 sounded most balanced at an 18″ distance.  Based on the sound quality, my hunch would be to have it focused slightly more towards the neck as there is a noticeable midrange bump.  Overall, it was articulate and VERY uncolored.
  • The Dragonfly was the most balanced of the two LDCs tested.  However, it really bloomed at a 12″ distance.  That said, in a larger space, with some natural reverb, it would make an excellent OH or room mic for a similar recording (I started to notice the room a lot more at 18″ – but that’s where it started to lose it’s overall “sparkle”)
  • The AT4041s were some of my favorites from this test, though the results were scattered in terms of where they really shined.  For heavy strumming AND finger picking, the closer 12″ distance made all the difference – really balanced attack, articulation, and yet still plenty of the meatiness of the guitar body shining through.  When plucked with a pick, the differences were interesting; at 12″ they were overall a tad more balanced, but with a rough edge around 2K or so.  At 18″they were ever so slightly mid-scooped sounding.  But paired with an LDC, like the Dragonfly or even the SR40, they round out nicely.
  • The Beta 181s have a lower output overall (which is why I bumped them up for the second test).  They are not quite as detailed and articulate as the 4041s; a 12″ distance best for strumming , fairing better at 18″ for picked guitar and finger-picking.  At that distance they balance nicely with just a hint of the room’s natural reverb.  I think these were fair better as piano or percussion overheads rather than for an acoustic guitar.
  • Finally, the HULK 990 was best at a 12″ distance.  However, I noticed that precise height measurement with this mic is most important – a little too level with the soundhole and the 990 becomes slightly “hollow” sounding; a slight tilt up fixes that easily.  It’s a very upper-mid forward sounding mic.  I think it’s supposed to emulate a particular Telefunken mic but I’m not sure.  Overall the tone is pleasing, but I think it’s happy spot is somewhere between 12″ and 18″ as neither really allowed the mic to shine. That said, others with whom I’ve spoken simply rave about it on acoustics, so I’ll need to experiment some more with that one.

As an aside, in some quick comparisons, I found the following combinations (simply by randomly soloing tracks together to see how they sounded) worked rather well, in no particular order:

  • The Dragonfly with the SR40 – clean and balanced, perhaps ever so slightly brighter, but in a very pleasing way.
  • The SR40 with the AT4041s – articulate, balanced, nuanced –  had I been a better player, I might have appreciated the results a bit more.
  • The SR40 with the Beta 181s – not as great as the pairing with the 4041s, but would be great for more classical or jazz box guitars.
  • The HULK 990 with the SR40 was interesting – but I need to play with the 990 a lot more before I make that a definitive pairing option.

And there you have it.  Hopefully for those mic geeks out there, this has been helpful.  And for the rest of you, I hope you enjoyed your nap.  Until next time, be well and rock on.

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