You knew it. You knew that with all the microphones on the market, there had to be at least one cheapo Chinese mic that stands head and shoulders above the rest. You were right! Interestingly, this mic is so overlooked that it is slated to be discontinued, although you can still find them for sale. The mic is called an MCA SP1, and it lists for $60, but you can find it for $40 if you shop around. Strange but true, the price is probably the biggest reason that the SP1 has been so completely overlooked. People think, "Hey, I'm not going to buy that cheap junk. I'm going to cough up the extra $20 and get a good mic." Well, the parent company of MCA is Marshall Electronics (who also have the MXL line of mics), so it does have a reasonable pedigree, and it comes with a three-year guarantee. The mic ships with a mic clip in a bare bones package-no box, shock mount, or even a bag. In fact, it comes in a blister pack, like batteries or a new pair of scissors.
The SP1 is a large-diaphragm, cardioid, FET condenser mic that requires phantom power. Yes, it looks like all the other Chinese mics of this description, but that is where the similarities end. It has a sound that is in a class by itself. Why? Because in this particular mic, they happened to join an exceptional capsule with an exceptional circuit. The capsule features a 20 mm diaphragm; that's not really "large" by my definition. It's closer to medium, in my opinion. The diaphragm sits inside a larger ring of thin metal, which makes it appear to be the size of a typical large diaphragm capsule. The ring probably has some sonic effect, at least on the polar pattern (which is quite tight) and the low-frequency response. The smaller size of the diaphragm is probably the reason that the midrange of this microphone is so incredibly smooth (think ribbon), yet it has the high and low-end extension of a condenser. The electronics are modeled on the highly respected Schoeps "long tailed pair"; a proven design that is the essence of simplicity and functionality (steal from the best...). If you're nervous about quality, you can buy one and have it customized by Jim Williams of Audio Upgrades (www.audioupgrades.com). For $125, he replaces the critical circuit components with select, boutique parts and modifies the DC-DC converter to increase the polarizing voltage. These changes yield higher output, extended low-frequency response, and greater overall reliability. But try this mic before you go the extra mile. It sounds so good that you might decide you'd rather buy three more than pay to have one hot-rodded. But beware; don't buy an SP2! You won't be happy. ($69.95 MSRP; www.mcamics.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.