The small-diaphragm condenser category is, like all mic types, a crowded one; and these days, finding something special or unique is probably not going to happen. What's interesting in this category is something that sounds good and doesn't break the bank, which is what the Lauten Audio LA120 SDC mic set does with aplomb.

I've used the best of the best of SDCs over the years, from vintage Neumann KM 84s, to modern KM 184s, to a mint-condition sequentially-numbered pair of vintage Telefunken Ela M 260s, on down to $79 this-n-that. Expensive to cheap — SDCs drive me nuts, because when they're right, they're great, and when they're not right, they really are lame. If they lack dimension, they're incredibly boring mics, but if they've got too much presence, they grow tiresome fast. I can't speculate as to why SDCs are like this more than other mic types, but they seem to have a very narrow margin of success.

The LA120 falls square within that margin. It's not hyped at all, and it sounds a lot like the source in a pleasingly neutral but 3D way. Neutral and natural is a great place to start for a mic often used on acoustic sources, and we can just EQ to taste if we need more or less of some frequency. From the LA120, I get none of the grating highs or fussy mids which can make other SDCs harsh, and none of that bland $79 sonic ennui either. Very nice, balanced sound usable across a wide range of instruments.

The soundstage presentation with a pair of these mics isn't huge, but SDCs never are. What I like about an SDC is that the relatively smaller soundstage presentation means stereo pairs are really usable. Whatever the placement of that stereo pair, once panned, a good pair of SDCs fill up the soundstage expansively while still leaving some room for the rest of the instruments in a mix. Two LA120s make stereo mic'ing in multi-instrument contexts easy, and there's an elegance to the sound within a fuller mix.

Everything I tracked with the LA120s just came out of the speakers in a really usable, natural way — especially Mom's old Steinway which now lives at The Snow Farm. Here's an instrument I've been playing since I was three years old. When I heard it back out of the speakers, without any EQ or compression, I thought: "Okay, this is just right." Six inches off the soundboard near the back bridges, check phase at Middle C, and done. Very easy mics to place.

The LA120 mic set comes with two of everything — mic bodies, swappable omni and cardioid capsules, nice mic clips, foam windscreens — with everything housed together within a nice wooden box. Three-position high and low roll-off switches are very handy. I can't find any reason why these mics, which are only $350 a pair, wouldn't wind up in a lot of mic collections quite quickly.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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