The other day, I took a ribbon microphone made in Salt Lake City, UT by a pro audio manufacturer born and raised in Russia to a downtown Austin, TX recording studio owned and operated by a musician from Oklahoma for a mic shootout recorded by an engineer from Connecticut, so that I - a writer/musician from California now living in Texas - could write a review to send to my editor in Boston, MA for a magazine that is published out of Portland, OR and Sacramento, CA. Does anybody wonder why I love writing for Tape Op?
But I'm getting ahead of myself. When Dr. Mark Fouxman (pronounced "fooks-man") asked me if I wanted to review his new ribbon mic, I was in. I'd already reviewed his mod of the pedestrian AKG C 1000S [Tape Op #75] and had enjoyed the results, so when the MF65 mic came via FedEx, I was excited to try it out. I plugged in the mic, got out my Collings C10 acoustic, and gave the mic a listen. Amazing. Like heaven. One of the best acoustic guitar sounds I'd ever heard, and then I thought, man, I'm not that guy am I? Am I the guy who loves the last thing he's heard? I've tested more than 70 small- diaphragm mics in my studio on acoustic guitar and at least 20 large-diaphragm mics of all stripes - condensers, ribbons, tubes, and dynamics. But this new ribbon mic with the figure-8 design - was this really the best? I decided I needed some extra ears to either validate my findings or disabuse me of my delusions. Besides, Fouxman told me I should really test the mic on brass, and the last time I worked with a horn player, I still lived in California.
Tight on time with a deadline looming, I reached out to David Percefull, owner, producer, and musician at Yellow Dog Studios in the SoCo district of Austin, TX. He told me he could get me some time on a Saturday afternoon and could provide trumpet player Michael Rey from The Vendetta Big Band to record the brass. Percefull even offered to play the electric guitar riffs if I wanted to put the mic up to a cabinet, and got engineer Matt Meli to set up the session in Studio One where we could use the API 1608 console to the Avid Pro Tools rig for the shootout.
For the first test, Rey aimed his Austin Winds Stage 470LT trumpet at five different ribbon mics - an AEA R84 [Tape Op #38], a Coles 4038 [#15], a Beyer M 160 [#60], a Cascade Fat Head [#55] modified by AMI's Oliver Archut, and the MF65. In the interest of time, we yanked the M 160 and Fat Head from the trumpet test, deciding to save that analysis for the guitar cab. We asked Rey to play something loud and strident to hear how each mic mellowed out the edge of the brass. All three did a great job, but Rey preferred the R84, while Meli and I were both impressed with the mellowness and natural sound of the MF65. If time had allowed - that is, if it had been a real session - I would have experimented with the placement, as I think the trumpet was too close and caught the proximity effect from the MF65, giving it a darker sound. When Rey switched to the mutes, everything changed. To a man, we agreed that the MF65 clearly stood out from the other two.
On to the electric guitar test. Percefull plugged his Gibson ES-335 into a '65 Fender Deluxe Reverb amp and let 'er rip, first with clean tones then distorted. For this test, we used the MF65, the M 160, and the Fat Head mod. All three worked on the amp, but the clarity and midrange tone of the MF65 gave it that something extra. Percefull definitely preferred the MF65, but to Meli, the Fat Head gave the amp an earthy grittiness he liked - a mix of the two sounds might have been interesting. But it was time to move on to acoustic guitar. For this test, I played a vintage '66 Martin D-28, and we put up the R84 and the 4038 next to the MF65. No contest. What I heard at home was the same thing I heard in the studio - great tone and amazing detail. You could hear every string separately, even on strums, and the difference from the other two mics was not subtle. Because I played "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" by Lennon/McCartney, I recorded some vocals to the guitar parts, using the same mic I used for each acoustic take for the vocals - Coles with Coles, AEA with AEA, and MF65 with MF65.
If I were recording Van Morrison or Kelly Clarkson, I wouldn't hesitate to use the MF65 on their vocals, but not on my voice. My usual selection is a Shure SM7 [Tape Op #36]. My vocal mic selection is based on what it filters out, not what it keeps in. The MF65 brought out a nasal quality in my vocals, because my vocals, in fact, are nasally. I preferred my voice on the R84, although Meli proved that if you took the MF65 and carved out 2.5 kHz on the EQ, you pretty much got the same sound. Speaking of EQ, that's one thing this mic can boast that most ribbon models can't - high end. The specs at the Samar website mark it as "25 kHz and beyond," and you can hear the detail in the highs but without the harshness you sometimes get from cheaper condenser mics.
And now a word or two about the one test we didn't try, but a test that should be taken - using a stereo pair on a full orchestra (or on either side of a concert piano... or drum overheads). Because of the panoply of tones and the natural sound captured by the Samar MF65, two mics on an orchestra into, say, a Gordon preamp and Lavry Blue converters might be the ultimate application for this microphone. That said, the sound of this mic on acoustic guitar might be worth the price of admission alone for those who can afford the best.