A few months ago, Blue Rock studios in Wimberley, Texas hosted a shootout of several microphones geared toward lead vocals. The high-dollar microphones were judged by such local luminaries as David Hough from Austin City Limits, Tristan Rhodes from Rupert Neve Designs, Mike Castoro from Wunder Audio, and Andy Murphy from the University of Texas, among others. Microphones included the Wunder CM7, Gefell UM 92.1S, Mojave MA-200, Rupert Neve's SE Electronics RNR1 ribbon mic, Peluso 22 47 LE, Neumann M 149, Soundelux U95, Brauner Phantom, and one or two more that escape my memory right now. There was just a truckload of mics in the shootout, and a truckload of engineers in the control room listening.
That's how it's done, you know. If you want to find out which mic sounds best on which vocalist for which song, you stage a shootout. That said, after listening to female vocalist Kelly Mickwee and male vocalist Kevin Welch, opinions were vast and varied with no consensus at the end of the day. Too many cooks in that Blue Rock kitchen, I guess. For the most part, the Wunder and the Peluso stood out on both the male and female vocals auditioned, yet some of us really liked the old-timey sound of the Neve ribbon mic, while others liked the presence peak of the Mojave. Everyone did agree on one thing, though; ideally, you'd want to own three or four of the mics featured that night so you'd have a lot of colors to choose from when matching a certain singer to a certain sound. Thing is, if you were to buy four of those mics showcased that night you would have to be prepared to spend four or five large even if you bought the least expensive models. If only there was a more convenient and budget friendly way to get the tonal varieties from different microphones.
Well, now there is a way. ADK's new high-end division, 3 Zigma Audio, has taken the best-of-the-shootouts idea and combined it into one microphone set -the 3 Zigma CHI modular mic system. It features four large-diaphragm capsules based on vintage designs as well as two small-diaphragm mics based on a blend between the Schoeps and KM 84 sound. The large diaphragms include the C-LOL-12, C-LOL-67, C-LOL-47, and C-LOL-251; and I'll leave it to your knowledge of microphone history to guess the vintage mic that served as each model's inspiration. All the capsules, whether lipsticks or lollipops, employ the same microphone body or head amp, making the system very convenient and easy to use. Also, they're all FET mics, so no power supplies or tubes are necessary. Four head amps with matching shockmounts are included, so it's possible to use four mics at once in the Master Tool-Kit configuration. You can buy lesser sets that include four SD mics and two LD capsules, two SD capsules, and one LD cap; and you can buy the head amps and capsules separately as well.
Usually when I test a mic I compare it to mics I already own such as the Gefell UM 70, Sanken CU-41 or AKG C 414-TL II. But since I had an entire system of mics to hear, I decided to do a shootout between the capsules included in the Tool-Kit on a verse and chorus of a song I know quite well. I also decided to restrict the test to the two things I record the most -acoustic guitar and vocals. My focus was on the four LD caps, since I had already tested the SD mics on acoustic guitar extensively in my way-too-big SDC mic shootout (Tape Op #72). I like the detail of the SD mics quite a bit, so I decided to use two tracks for the lead acoustic part, one with the hypercardioid cap and the other with the cardioid. I skipped the included omni cap, which comes in two types, diffuse-field and free-field. One thing I learned the last time I used these SD mics is that the self-noise stats are amazingly low, only 13 dBA in the cardioid version. (15 dBA or below is considered quite good.) Since the Tool-Kit comes with two sets of SD caps, they'd be perfect for recording church choirs, live symphonies, or any application where a low noise floor is essential.
But back to the meat of the matter. I was curious to try the LD capsules on acoustic guitar as well as vocals, so I used each one -47, 67, 251, and 12 -on a strummed track with my Martin D-18 and then once again using a picked arpeggio track with my Collings C-10. Finally, I added four vocals, one lead vox and three harmonies. Since the entire part was only 30 seconds long, I was able to pull this off in a three-hour afternoon. Here's what I found out.
I really enjoyed the sound of both guitars on the 47 capsule. It gave the acoustics a mellow, woody sound with great midrange in both guitars and enough high end to add sheen but not enough to blind you with brightness. The 67 sounded good on guitar too, and while some might prefer the sparkly strains of the 67's high end, I still favored the mellower 47 by a sliver. The 251 was surprisingly good, since I really didn't know what to expect from that having never heard the vintage model of the same number. It gave the guitars a clear high end that shined brightly but was never strident. That said, it was still higher on the treble side than I usually prefer on guitar. Unfortunately, the 12 capsule missed the mark for me. To my ears, it seemed harsh -almost brittle.
On lead vocals, my baritone liked the 67 capsule quite a bit, giving a nice presence boost to the high mids while preserving a solid bottom in the low mids, and I didn't hear the harshness I can sometimes get in the 2-5 kHz range if the mic is overly bright. The 47 also sounded fine on my voice, but the 67 sounded a little better. The 251 once again surprised me; there was more high end than the other capsules, but if I were singing an up-tempo or pop-oriented song, I might choose this one over the 67. Unfortunately, the 12 again failed to impress and for the same reason -too harsh.
Finally, I listened to the background vocals, all three collectively. This is where the 251 really worked, giving them a high gloss and contrasting well with the mellow but sparkly sound of the 67 on lead vox. My final mix was 47 on guitars, 67 on lead vox, and 251 on background vocals. No compression, no EQ, and all through a Millennia HV-3 and Lavry Blue converters. Nice, clean and natural.
The only capsule that didn't work for me was the 12, but who knows? It might be the one I would prefer on a female vocalist or another male vocalist with a different timbre from mine. Three out of four ain't bad, and the other three LD capsules gave me different colors for each instrument. (I look at background vocals as one voice.) Still, this setup won't appeal to everyone. Nobody's going to convince the vintage guys to give up their tube mics, especially on vocal applications, and some people won't want to put all their eggs in one company's basket for one reason or another. Further, some of us (yeah, I'm one of those) are just obsessive-compulsive personalities who are willing to buy six or seven UM 70 capsules to find two that are perfect and then shoot them out between the five or six MV 692 head amps they bought as well. Of course, you need to wash your hands thoroughly before performing each test, at least for 30 seconds but no longer than a minute -yeah definitely no longer than a minute, yeah definitely.
I think 3 Zigma Audio is really on to something. Although other companies such as BLUE and Korby have also developed modular mic series, it's been at a much higher price point; here's a way to get a wide variety of microphones and do it for about $3500 and in one simple purchase. Or looking at it another way, here's an opportunity to buy and collect new mic colors as funds allow. For $379 (or so) you can get the head amp, and for another $299 you can buy an SD capsule, which gets you in the game for about $700. For another $379 you can buy an LD capsule and use it on the same head amp. Now you've
got an LD and an SD for mono applications for less than $1100. That's not a bad deal. Is it a good enough deal for me to part with my Gefell UM 70 and MV 692 combos? What? You mean the two sonically pristine mics that took me five years to collect? Don't even bring that subject up again -just don't. ($3495; hybridmic.adkmic.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.