As a radio station primarily interested in close-mic'ed, live-in-the-studio recording (and also a radio station on a budget), WMBR relies heavily on inexpensive, durable dynamic microphones. While the venerable Shure SM57/SM58 (and lately the Shure Beta 57A/58A) are the workhorses of our setup, we're always on the lookout for affordable mics with distinctive character to complement them. Our mic collection, for one reason or another, includes only one Audio-Technica mic (the discontinued ATM25, which we consider one of the best tom mics around), so we were intrigued by the ATM650 and AE6100, two new affordable ($99 and $169 street) hypercardioid dynamics from A-T. The ATM650 is billed as an all-purpose instrument mic (similar to the SM57), while the AE6100 is a handheld vocal mic and includes an integrated pop filter.
Our first test of both mics was highly unscientific; we just tried them in various live-band configurations to see how they sounded on different instruments and vocals. In this setup, the unanimous reaction to both mics was "huh, it sounds like a '57!" Both A-T mics share the distinct midrange presence of the SM57, which means they share that mic's ability to cut through a crowded mix when placed on a guitar amp or snare drum. On vocals, they're kind of a two-edged sword; the presence peak helps lower-voiced vocalists stand out in the mix, but it can also make vocals in the higher registers sound unpleasantly screechy. In a live room with lots of bleed, any difference in tone between the ATM650 and AE6100 wasn't immediately obvious; the AE6100 may have sounded a little bit more detailed, but it was hard to say. The hypercardioid pickup pattern (something we're not used to dealing with; all our current mics are either cardioid or supercardioid) is, as you'd expect, a blessing and a curse in our particular setup-both mics are very good at rejecting bleed from the left or right, but the rear pickup can make isolation difficult when, for example, a vocalist is in front of a guitar amp, drum kit, or reflective wall.
A review that just said "the AE6100 and ATM650 both sound like an SM57, QED" wouldn't be very useful, so we did some more rigorous testing and compared the AE6100 and ATM650 to each other, as well as to several of our favorite stock mics.
In a controlled environment, our reaction to the ATM650 was still, "huh, it sounds like a '57," but we did notice a few subtleties. It definitely shares a high-midrange presence with the SM57, and also (unfortunately) that mic's harshness and muddiness when pushed hard in that frequency range. A necessary design tradeoff in mics with a tight pickup pattern is increased proximity effect (variation
of the low-end response with distance from the mic), something that was readily apparent when we tested the ATM650 on a distant source; low-end was almost completely absent in this case, much more so than any of the cardioid or supercardioid mics we compared it to. The ATM650 is designed for close-mic'ing of instruments though, and that was where we discovered its secret weapon-beautiful proximity effect! On the SM57 (and pretty much all of our sub-$200 dynamics), proximity effect from a close-mic'ed source can, in extreme cases, wash out the lows and low-mids, producing an unpleasant overall muddiness. The bass boost from the proximity effect on the ATM650, in contrast, stays very nicely confined to the low end; the mic sounds richer, fuller, and more detailed than an SM57 on close-mic'ed sources, especially loud ones like guitar amps. Add the ATM650's negligible off-axis coloration, and you've got a mic ideally suited to guitar cabinets and to vocalists who can stay close to the element.
Listened to a little more closely, the AE6100 is definitely a better-sounding mic than the ATM650; its midrange detail is much improved and the high-mid presence peak isn't quite as exaggerated. While our Shure Beta 57A and 58A definitely sounded more detailed, the AE6100 easily outclassed the SM58, Audix OM-2, and most other inexpensive dynamic vocal mics in our arsenal. Like the ATM650, the tightly-patterned AE6100 is designed for close-mic'ing; don't expect to get much low-end response out of it at far distances. The warm, detailed low end we saw on the ATM650 with close-mic'ed sources also translates to the AE6100 though, and if anything, sounds even better here. Note that the AE6100 is designed to be a handheld vocal mic; when used as a stationary vocal mic, its dramatic proximity effect caused some strange things to happen with vocalists who have trouble staying a constant distance from the mic. On the upside, while it's advertised as a vocal mic, we found the AE6100 to be very versatile; it also sounds really good on guitar cabinets (which was actually where we liked it best) and snare drums. The proximity effect was something we were able to put to good use; we found that by moving the mic between 1" and 6" from the source, we were able to vary its character significantly, which can be very useful if you want to accentuate a certain sound in a guitar cabinet, for example. Again, the off-axis coloration was minimal, and the off-axis rejection of the AE6100 was even better than the ATM650's.
Both the ATM650 and AE6100 are high-quality mics for their price and complement our existing collection of dynamic microphones nicely. While they couldn't compete with some of our more expensive mics (the $400 EV RE20 blew them both out of the water, though to be fair, the RE20 is definitely not intended to be a handheld vocal mic), they more than held their own with any mic in their class that we tested them with. The hypercardioid pickup pattern (and resulting dramatic proximity effect) made them challenging to use in a live room sometimes, but when correctly positioned they controlled bleed extremely well and gave us a rich, full response on close-mic'ed sources. We expect both the ATM650 and AE6100 to see extensive future use in our studio; the ATM650 is an excellent, low-cost all-purpose instrument mic, and the AE6100 is a surprisingly versatile vocal mic that really shines on guitar cabinets and less hyperactive vocalists. (AE6100 $289 MSRP, ATM650 $169; www.audio-technica.com)
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