Bruce Bartlett and Steve Mills, former mic designers for Crown and Shure, now create their own designs under the Bartlett Microphones banner. Recently, I got a chance to try out two of their miniature microphones, the Spark Mic and the Fiddle Mic. The latter is made for violins of course, but the first mic amplifies all things acoustic — mandolins, banjos, and guitars included — so I jumped on that one right away. The mic comes with a clip to attach to the hole of an acoustic guitar and another roach-clip looking device to attach to mandolins and the like. Although the mic was created with live performance in mind, the Bartlett was put through its paces in the studio. (This is a review for Tape Op, after all.)
The best results came when I ignored the mic clip and taped the mic to the guitar, which gave me more placement options. Two positions stood out from all the rest. First, I got a nice, natural tone when the mic was taped high above the sound hole of the guitar and aimed toward the bridge. This worked the best when recording in mono. The mic also worked well when taped below the sound hole and aimed at the 15th fret. I got a nice midrange dip with that placement, and when I added an AKG C 460 B aimed at the lower bout, I got a strong pseudo-stereo sound without any phase issues whatsoever. While the mic will work fine by itself, I’d highly recommend using it in tandem with another small-diaphragm mic for any serious recording. It’s an easy way to get a dual-mono or stereo sound without having to worry about phase problems.
I also liked the organic sounds the mic picked up — pick noise, wood noise, the percussion of my hand hitting the guitar, and all that nice grit that lets the listener know, “Hey, it’s a real guitar, not a synthesizer.” This earthy sound won’t be for everyone, but it’s perfect for singer-songwriters or soloists looking for that certain aural authenticity. One thing’s for certain, it sounds a lot more credible and real than the LR Baggs Element in my Collings C-10. The Baggs works fine for live performances, but I wouldn’t use that quacky sound on any of my recordings.
Because the Bartlett mics were designed for the stage, I thought I’d give that a try and took it to an open-mic at 1st Down & Stassney, a sports bar with a singer-songwriters night (only in Austin, TX). There I ran into singer-songwriter Patty Finney, who offered to use my guitar in her set so I could hear how the mic sounded from my seat in the audience. I took her up on the offer and told the sound man I’d need phantom power and the XLR connection from the second mic onstage. He agreed to the hassle (thanks!) and we set her up with the Spark. There’s good news and bad news. The good news? It sounded great, which was especially noticeable when we switched her to the Baggs on the second and third song. The bad news? We had to switch her to the Baggs because we weren’t getting much volume but plenty of feedback. In fairness, Bartlett suggests that you run a DI to the monitors and use the Spark Mic through the mains so you can minimize the feedback. That’s a lot of juggling to ask from an open-mic soundman, but I’m sure in a gig situation with a real soundcheck and a DI in the monitor mix, you’d get enough volume for an acoustic set. Still, if you’re performing in a band, you’d want something with stronger rejection than the Spark, such as Bartlett’s Guitar Mic or Guitar Mic Pro.
Before I discuss the Fiddle Mic, I have to confess that before this test, I had not recorded a violin since 1977. So I started from scratch when Darcie Deaville, a singer-songwriter who also plays fiddle in the Austin Lounge Lizards, agreed to come into the studio and give it a go. She brought two violins — one in standard tuning and another in open tuning — and even used the Spark Mic to lay down an acoustic rhythm for her to play to the fiddle tracks.
The bottom line? She liked the Fiddle Mic quite a bit, which is pretty impressive since she usually uses either a Neumann U 47 or U 87 in the studio. We experimented with mic placement and both liked the position over the f-hole of the violin best for its natural sound as we recorded. But when we listened back, we preferred the position just behind the bridge — a more aggressive, in-the-face fiddle sound that seemed somewhat overbearing during the take but in-the-zone during the playback. In other words, it sounded better in the speakers than it did in the headphones.
After testing the Bartlett, we mic’ed her with a Sanken CU-41 to have something to hear in comparison. We got a nice sound out of the violin in standard tuning, and it was more or less a push between the Sanken and the Bartlett as to preference, but on the fiddle in open tuning, we definitely preferred the Bartlett sound. Possibly, a different placement of the Sanken on that second violin might have yielded better results, but it was much easier to change placement with the Bartlett — it connects to the violin via a foam pad under the tailpiece — and a huge hassle moving the mic boom around to place the Sanken.
Overall, I like both Bartlett mics, and if I needed to record a fiddle player in the studio for a real session, I’d probably buy the Fiddle Mic — not only for the sound but for the convenience. The Spark Mic wouldn’t be my first call on acoustic guitar in the studio, since I think if you record in mono you should really try a conventional SDC or LDC first. But it’s definitely a great choice as a second mic for a stereo or dual-mono setup, and at less than $200, it’s not likely the riskiest investment you’ll ever make in audio equipment.
(Each $189 direct including shipping; bartlettmics.com)
–Mike Jasper, www.thirdcoastaudio.com
by David Huber
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