I don't think I've ever started a mic review by introducing the accessories first. But given the innovative design of the shockmount included with the sE4400a, I can't help but get that out of the way so I can then move on to telling you what a great buy the mic itself is.
Most shockmounts surround the body of the mic by 360 degrees. Contrastingly, the sE4400a's ingenious shockmount has an "open" front that allows the mic to be positioned so it's practically touching the sound source -like the edge of a drum head or right up against a pop shield -without the spider arms or elastics getting in the way. Additionally, not only can the shockmount be tilted in the standard way, but the mic can be tilted inside the shockmount too. To accomplish the former, the shockmount tilt-mechanism is ratcheted, so there's zero chance of slippage once you've turned its wingnut. (Why don't more manufacturers do this?) To accomplish the latter, there's a
somewhat-fiddly wingnut that's partially blocked by the spider assembly, but thankfully, the rubbery washers inside the clutch assembly keep the mic at-angle with very little force required. If you need superfine control of angle, you can use the mic clutch after you've set the shockmount ratchet. Once configured, neither the shockmount nor the mic will ever slip. Moreover, if you really need to get the mic into a tight spot, you can turn the shockmount "upside down" so that most of the mic body is outside of the spider assembly, while still retaining the benefits of using a shockmount. The shockmount is truly an inventive and extremely valuable accessory because it allows you to position this mic, which is sized minimally (in a shape similar to an AKG C 414), where it would be impossible to use any other large-diaphragm condenser mic.
Furthermore, the mic itself has a non-slip texture that not only gives the mic a luxurious feel in your hand, but it also helps you keep the mic in your hand without fear of accidentally chucking the mic across the room during high-pressure setups. The rubbery coating is non-light-reflective and the rest of the mic is also black -perfect for stage or film work. And switches on the face of the mic give you a selection of three output levels, three low-frequency response curves, and four polar patterns. All this means that the physical design of this mic encourages you to try it on any sound source.
For example, the sE4400a is easy to position so its capsule is just peeking over the top of the rim of a snare drum. Speaking of the capsule, it's based on a retuned version of the capsule in the SE2200A (I wish SE Electronics were consistent with capitalization of their product names), which I consider one of the best values in microphones; I use it more often than mics in my closet that cost ten times as much. In direct comparison to the SE2200A (Tape Op #48), the sE4400a in cardioid mode brings out significantly more of the snare drum's punch whether up close, at medium distances, or placed far. I can hear much more resonance of the drum's body. There is perceivably less of the actual snare wires coming through, no matter how I angle the mic, but also less of the undesirable "spit". Hypercardioid and figure-8 modes are useful for rejecting high-hat bleed, but of course, polar-response selection also affects how much room and "floor" (reflection of the snare from the floor -or in my case, a clipboard lying flat on the rug below the snare) the mic captures.
For hi-hat and cymbal mic'ing, the SE2200A is way too icy for my tastes. The sE4400a, on the other hand, is much smoother, and more of the cymbal body comes through without the transients slicing holes in your ears! And in hypercardioid mode at distances of a few feet or more, the highs get smoother without loss of detail. Kick drum in cardioid is more focused with less room sound than the SE2200A, with deeper lows and less "thwack" in the midrange. If you need more room, you can switch to figure-8 or augment with another mic. Hypercardioid is my favorite for kick; although the extreme lows do drop in volume a wee bit, you can pull out the mic so it's facing the front of the whole kit to get a deep, focused kick sound, and then tweak the position of the mic until the rest of the kit bleeds just right.
On vocal, the SE2200A has more midrange (especially upper mids), so I find it cuts through the mix better. But the sE4400a has more "chest", especially for male vocals. Proximity effect is also smoother, and it doesn't jump in with sudden chestiness at 3" or less like the SE2200A can. Also, the sE4400a exhibits much less sibilance (but that also means it's a little less "exciting" -or should I say "dangerous" -than the SE2200A). Compared to the Neumann TLM 49 (Tape Op #61), on male vocals, the sE4400a seems to have more high-end hype and more chestiness at all distances. The TLM 49 has much smoother proximity effect and is therefore an easier mic for a vocalist to work. Compared to the Shure KSM32 (Tape Op #16), one of my go-to mics for vocals, especially when I want a buttery-smooth midrange, the sE4400a, with its slight high-end bump, draws out a bit more highs and breath, but without ever sounding shrill.
On acoustic guitar, the sE4400a is extremely smooth but still detailed (unsurprisingly, given its high-end response on other sources) and never too percussive or picky -a great first-choice mic here. Guitar amps and bass amps are rendered warm and big, with plenty of punch -without any boominess as with some large-diaphragm condensers, as long as the mic'ing distances are kept reasonable. Admittedly, I generally prefer close-mic'ing electric guitar with other mics that put more emphasis on the mids to help the instrument cut through the mix. But then again, the sE4400a in hypercardioid mode at medium distances of 8-12" is perfect for smoothing out the highs and giving the lows of other instruments breathing room.
As with other large-diaphragm condensers, omni mode is not truly omnidirectional; the frequency response does change as you rotate the mic. But when switched to omni, the sE4400a excels at bringing out the "air" at 10 kHz and above, without being icy in the 5-7 kHz range. Therefore, for drum overhead work or even as a drum room mic, the mic can help cymbals come to life without making them overly trashy. And as a room or booth mic for adding real depth to vocal recordings, omni is the way to go. By turning the mic, you can "EQ" the room.
The mic also sounds great on piano, violin, clarinet, toms, and even handclaps. And with its integrated pad switch, I have yet to overload its all-discrete Class A FET electronics. It's not always the most flattering mic, but it's never a bad choice.
I'm often asked by budding engineers (including many readers of Tape Op) to recommend a first, second, or even just a next mic to buy. Because recordists differ greatly both in their goals and in their style of producing music, it's difficult to respond to this query without knowing more about how the mic will be used. With that said, the sE4400a makes that question much easier to answer. For about $800 street, you get a great general-use mic that you can use in just about any situation, not only for its sound but also due to its design and its ingenious shockmount. Plus, it comes in a bomb-proof aluminum suitcase, and if you buy a matched pair together, you get a stereo mounting bar along with an appropriately-upsized case. It's virtually impossible to go wrong with it, and because of its fairly-neutral sonic character (with just a bit of high-frequency lift), you'll need to lay blame elsewhere if your recording goes awry. Even if you're a professional with countless mics at your disposal, the sE4400a is still a great mic to have for location work or for hurried sessions, when you won't have the luxury of setting up a bunch of mics to try out. Just mount up an sE4400a and hit record. ($999 MSRP, matched pair $2099; www.seelectronics.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.