Archive for October, 2011

The quest for the ultimate saxophone mic for live performance!

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

As a Jazz musician you spend a lot of time on the road being exposed to a great variety of concert halls, Jazz clubs and outdoor Jazz festivals. Each space presents a complex of variables that a sound-engineer has to deal with in order to translate the acoustic sound on stage to the audience through amplification. How successful this endeavor is depends on the expertise of the engineer, his familiarity with the space, his ears and common sense, and the budget he is working with in order to get the right equipment for the situation. From experience I can tell you that in 2 out of 10 concerts sound-engineers get it right. But 4 to 5 of the 10 concerts are an absolute disaster regarding the mix that the audience get in the room and the mix that the musicians get over their monitor (if a monitor is needed). Now, part of being an experienced musician is that you play strong and with a clear head no matter the circumstances, that is part of your road chops and it comes with the territory so to speak. But lately I dedicated some time to find a microphone that works for me with the purpose to take at least one variable out of the equation that can be messed with, the microphone.

There are a few practical criteria’s that limit the choice of microphones substantially. First there has to be the understanding that you are not in a recording studio. You deal with instruments around you causing a certain amount of bleed. Therefore sensitivity of a mic including the Cardioid pattern needs to be taken into consideration. Also we have to anticipate sound engineers whom have no business being behind the board. Therefore, forget about pre-amps and phantom power specifics. If you have a beautiful ribbon mic the engineer can kill it with one wrong move on the board (although there are designs in the market that have build in protections, I believe it is a dart with poison that shoots at the engineer). Then there is another detail. As a traveling musician you deal with planes. You can only bring one bag (your horn) as hand luggage and one carry-on if you are lucky (shoulder-bag with your labtop etc.). Therefore, ideally the mic is small enough to fit in the case of your horn.

Now lets get to the saxophone in relationship to the microphone. Positioning the mic right in front and close to the bell is NOT the ideal spot for the mic for a very simple reason, the sound of a saxophone comes out of all the tone holes in the horn, not only the bell. This means that the mic needs to cover on average 20 inches from the top to the bottom of the horn, with the sweet-spot being 15 inches around the center. I know that there are horn players out there that like the mic close to the bell, it gives you more presence, more articulation, more clarity and a sense of power. But it will sound amplified and you will pay in quality in the high and/or low register of your horn depending on how you angle the mic. I am looking for the most natural sound, and I would like the high register to sound as balanced as the mid and low part of the horn. Then there is the option to have a clip-on on the bell. I prefer the mic to be on a boom stand for two reasons. First, to avoid variability of sound pickup over the registers as described above, but second and maybe even more important, I need the possibility to be able to get away from the mic for dynamic nuances. When playing live the mic needs to be amped up to get through specifically when you play with strong drummers and when surrounded by guitar and bass amps, but that same volume could be to hot when trying to blend with other horns in a subtle piece. This issue is no problem when you have the ability to step away from the mic. Blending in becomes much easier to control plus this way you hopefully avoid the engineers impulse to mess with your volume through the concert often resulting in him or her forgetting to putting the volume back to its original position after a soft piece.

What would be ideal? A microphone that is durable, not to big, on a boom stand, and able to pick up the sound of the whole horn in the most natural way possible without too much bleed from the rest of the band. Is it possible? Well, as I mentioned before, I am on a quest and recordinghacks was so kind to lend me four microphones to get started with; The Audix5, the Electrovoice N/D 468, the Electrovoice RE320 and the Beyerdynamic M99. I compared it with the Shure 58, a dynamic microphone with a cardioid pattern which has been an industry standard for over 40 years. Why not a Shure 57 that supposedly is designed specifically for instruments? The 57 is my worst nightmare, the absolute bottom of the pit. I rather play acoustic with nobody hearing me including myself because of the drums whaling behind me, then having to deal with the shure 57. I am making a point of this because I can’t tell you how many times sound engineers have come to me with this mic telling me that this is the perfect mic for saxophone. I always make them switch to the 58. The 57 is nasal, to directional, no high, no low, and a flat metallic mid. Oke, I think I made my point. I know that there are horn players out there that love the 57, specifically the rockers. May the force be with them.

As you might have noticed, all these mics are dynamic which I thought was a good point to start from. They are very durable and are not sensitive to feedback on stage plus they tend to be compact in design. Here are my observations:

Audix5
-Dynamic with a Hypercardioid pattern.
Very good pick up of the low frequencies. The mid frequencies feel a bit on the flat side with little space in the sound and the high frequencies are on the dull side. This is partly explained by the fact that this mic is very directional which is great for the drums, but not ideal for the saxophone as described above. The hypercardioid pattern is a good thing, it gives a little depth to the sound and after trying these four mics plus a few others with a figure eight pattern I learned that bleed from the audience is not as much of an issue as I originally anticipated on. Also I was very surprised that there was little bleed from the drums behind me. Learning already, so here we go:
plus: small, durable, robust and inexpensive. Very nice pickup of the low frequencies.
minus: not that great for the mid and high frequencies of the saxophone and to directional.

Electrovoice RE320
-Dynamic with a Cardioid pattern
This microphone has a few different settings, the voice mode with a flat frequency response and a mode with a boost in the higher frequencies. I tried them both for the saxophone.
I am not unfamiliar with the RE series. I have worked with the standard RE20 and liked it. I did find it a bit on the dull side but overall it was a good experience and it has a nice feel of space in the sound.
The RE320 has a warm quality, has a nice sense of space in the sound (more then the other three probably because of the unique design, this one is significantly bigger then the other three), and has a relatively high output. The problem again is that the microphone is to directional. Plus, the sound is rather harsh for the saxophone. The high frequencies sound particularly unpleasant. I can see how this mic can be the perfect mic for voice in a radio booth and it would probably work very well for trombone where the sound output of the instrument is more concentrated, but for the saxophone the RE320 is far from ideal.
What I learned is that a Cardioid pattern does not automatically mean less space in sound. Although my general experience is that the figure eight pattern or the hyper- and supercardioid patterns give more depth to the sounds then the regular Cardioid, I was proven wrong with this mic.
plus: warm, nice sense of space in the sound, not to expensive and nice design.
minus: to big to carry in your instrument case, has a general harshness to the sound particularly in the mid and high frequencies. Not impressed with the pickup of the high frequencies.

Beyerdynamic M99
-Dynamic with a Hypercardioid pattern.
I was very excited about having the Beyerdynamic M99 in the mix. This particular dynamic microphone has a large diaphram, a moving coil and a hypercardioid pattern. I was hoping this would open up the sound a bit. The Beyerdynamic M99 has three positions, a linear frequency pattern (flat), one with a dip in the mid frequencies and one with a gradual boost in the mid-high to high frequencies. The sound definitely had a open quality to it, but it was not as pleasant as I anticipated on. There was a metallic edge to the sound, and I could not get a balanced sound over the whole register of the horn, no matter how I positioned the microphone.
plus: open sound, nice design.
minus: metallic edge and to directional for the saxophone.

Electrovoice N/D 468
-Dynamic with a Supercardioid pattern.
I was very curious about this microphone. The N/D 468 is made with voice and instruments in mind, has a supercardioid pattern and a pivoting head design, which could possibly be ideal for saxophone. What I noticed first was the output of this mic. There was significantly more volume coming out of this mic then the other three. The tone was warm but not too dense, and had less variation over the whole register then the other three mics. From the four microphones tested this one was the most fun to play through. The pivoting head made it very easy to fine tune the position of the mic in order to find the sweet spot.
On the frequency response graphics it showed that there is a significant boost in the mid-high to high frequencies which I was a little concerned about, but I was proven wrong with this mic. The warmth stayed over the whole register and there was less of an edge then the other mics. One last positive note is that it is not a large microphone, it will fit in your case and the design looks very durable. One minor point is that the sound is not as natural as I would like it to be, it has a specific character that is very dominant. But I am learning that this is the nature of the beast with the dynamic microphone. Overall the EV N/D 468 is definitely an upgrade from the Shure 58.
plus: small and beautiful design, warm and pleasant sound over the whole register, pivoting head, not expensive and durable.
minus: not as natural sounding as I would like it to be.

Conclusion
This was a great learning experience for me. I learned that there is an amazing difference between the four mics, and it always surprises me how much influence the character of the microphone has over your tone. The dynamic microphone is attractive due to its durability but you will not get that natural sound that you would like to hear. There is a nasal quality that I do not seem to be able to get ride of with any dynamic microphone plus they in various degrees tend to be to directional for the saxophone. The cardioid patterns will give you an indication in directionality and openness of the sound but it is not set in stone as shown by the RE 320. Also, you cannot take the frequency response graphics of each mic to literally as proven by the N/D 468. The N/D 468 is my favorite mic over these three, but it has its limits which comes with the dynamic technology. I am starting to think that dynamic is not the way to go, the shure gets replaced by the N/D 468 but the quest continuous.