PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in March 2000, contributed by then Senior Editor Bruce Richardson. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!
Ultimately this is a review about a microphone: the new, shockingly low-priced Marshall MXL2001P. But the review process on this microphone demands a look at some larger issues as well.
Large-diaphragm condenser microphones are everywhere these days, and for good reason. Due to the different response of a larger and heavier transducer, these mics capture a different “photo,” if you will, of the air around them. Large-diaphragm condensers flatter the natural range of vocals in a mix.
As more musicians begin to blur the lines between performer and producer, a huge market has opened up for microphone manufacturers. New manufacturers have stepped in to provide a wider array of products to more consumers… with less experience.
Welcome to the microphone market of the twenty-first century. At no time in history have so many musicians recorded their own music, and at no time have their been so many bewildering choices for these musicians to make. Engineers used to make these choices. Nowadays, for better or worse, musicians are self-producing more often than not. There has never been a time where more musicians bought their own microphones…not just stage mics, but complete studio arrays. Don’t think this has gone unnoticed on the supply side.
Quick History Lesson
At one time, microphones were divided very cleanly into pro or consumer. The pro mics were made by mostly the same people who make them now. Neumann, AKG, Sennheiser, and Electro-Voice (for example) were always big-volume producers of top grade mics with personality and purpose. The research done by these companies is the foundation upon which our industry rests. They were joined by the various esoteric options at the ultra-high end, where companies like Schoeps have made technologically advanced and specifically targeted mics. RCA, a huge contender, sadly ended their microphone R & D and ultimately their product, but not before making one of the largest contributions in shaping the pop vocal sound of a generation. The ripples are obviously still with us from all this development. Professional studio microphones are a product with a rich artistic and scientific heritage, and the work of brilliant men.
The consumer microphone market was subdivided. The upper tier was made up of factory seconds and generic OEM designs from these dedicated manufacturers we all know and love. Witness the vintage Radio Shack highballs by Shure and their recently discontinued PZMs by Crown. These mics were designed by companies with a pedigree, and consumers got a design that may have been a little rough around the edges, but was rooted in the same technology that was producing the leading mics of the day.
The second-tier was pure for-profit product, usually plastic, and disposable in every way save lo-fi special effects.
Back to the Future
It seems that $300 is the magic price point for entry level LD condensers, and there are plenty from which to choose. The Rode NT1, Oktava MK219, Equitek CAD 100, and a whole slew of other options exist there.
Well, now those players are joined by the Marshall Electronics MXL2001P, at a startling LIST price of $199. We are witnessing a market flood of these mics like nothing I have ever seen. Just search Ebay for “MXL” and see what you come up with. Matter of fact, search almost any mic brand and you’ll see that these dealers have even locked onto THOSE searches by including phrases like “Neumann-like” or “not AKG” in their ads. There are more 2001Ps on the Internet than wide-open beavers.
Skanky, huh? You have not heard the half of it. Everyone’s looking for a bargain, right? Well, what exactly IS a bargain in a $199 microphone?
I say that it is NOT the MXL 2001P.
The Subject at Hand
This mic, which sports the typical Neumannesque appearance, has a nice feeling heft thanks to its machined brass body. There is an XLR connector in the usual butt-end location. The microphone is sometimes packaged with a nifty little aluminum “flight case” with compartments for the microphone, its shockmount, and some extra compartments for other odds and ends you might wish to pack along.
You’ve probably already determined that I do not like this microphone. I don’t.
When we first received the mic for review, I was so surprised by the sound quality that I assumed it was broken. The sound was completely “scooped-out” – with a huge, muddy bottom end, a harsh, ringing top end, and little in between. The mic actually had a bimodal frequency response. I couldn’t believe it was supposed to sound as harsh as it sounded. Marshall Electronics couldn’t believe it either, so they asked us to hold the review while they shipped us another mic.
The first mic was actually marked MXL2001, and shipped in a low-cost aluminum “lunchbox” flight case along with a shockmount. The second one was marked MXL2001P, and came in a cardboard box with a non-shockmount type clip, a vinyl zipper pouch, and a packet of silica gel. This helps explain the price drop from the original $299 list of the MXL2001 to the $199 list of the MXL2001P.
Well, guess what? It didn’t sound any better. I kept it patched up for literally three months, tracking it alongside whatever mic I’d actually choose for a given situation. It never won once, even though I gave it opportunity against almost every mic I could get my hands on. I used it one time as a special effect when I needed a really super-intense high end and I didn’t want to use EQ. I wasn’t going for a natural sound, and for this purpose it worked.
Now, in all fairness, you might not see it or hear it the way I do. But I listen to a lot of microphones, from the best Neumanns to the most modest dynamics, and I spent three months listening to not one, but two different MXL2001s. I’ll list the pros and cons as I see them, and let you draw your own conclusions. Maybe you’ll think I’m all washed up, but folks, I can only call ’em like I see ’em. Fasten your seat belts.
Beef #1: The Shockmount and Mic Clip
As with most microphones of this type, you’ll want to isolate the unit from its stand to diminish low frequency transfers from foot stomping, etc. Large diaphragm condensers love low frequencies. It’s one of their strengths.
The MXL2001 offered a shockmount as part of its $300 price, but with the cheaper MXL2001P configuration the shockmount is an option. This now-optional shockmount allows you to slip the mic in from the top, and then clamp down on it by moving a bent-wire lever. Imagine an oil filter wrench, and you get the picture. However, it has a major flaw: once you’ve closed the clamp, the long clamp-lever tends to fall on the outer circumference of the mount. In other words, you get to twiddle with it every time you’ve got to move the mic.
Second, the arms that hold the rubberband-like suspension cords do a very poor job of actually keeping the rubberbands in place. Moving or jiggling the mic stand can knock the bands loose, sending the mic crashing to the floor. Not once, but twice in as many days, I saved the first test unit from floor-rash by catching it with my free hand as I moved the stand from place to place. Not good.
The MXL2001P tops the shockmount by shipping with a simple bottom-mount stand clip. The bottom-mounting scheme means the clip must support more weight since the entire mic now cantilevers from its endpoint. Strike two: this is a wimpy clip. It doesn’t have enough substance to support the heavy case without some serious tightening. I stripped it out by the end of the first day. For the rest of the evaluation, I used gaff tape to secure positioning.
Beef #2: Rolloff Switch
The MXL2001 provided a rolloff switch to attenuate low frequencies. However, to reach the switch, one had to literally remove the mic from the shockmount and unscrew the bottom shell to access the mic’s circuit board. Not only was this a complete pain in the ass, but the exercise tended to dislodge the rubberbands from the shockmount and add to the frustration factor, not to mention opening you up to the potential for dropping the thing every time you wanted to access the switch.
Not to worry on the MXL2001P. There’s only a blank spot on the curcuit board where the switch used to reside, hence no control over the microphone’s considerable proximity effect at the appropriate point in the chain. Hey, at least you don’t have to take it apart now. I hope your preamp’s low cut filter is clean.
Beef #3: Frequency Response
This is the dealbreaker. I can live with unusual designs, if the sound is good. While one might expect some scoop and sizzle from a mic of this type, and while this might even be highly desirable in certain situations, I was completely unprepared for the bizarre, hyperactive sound of these mics.
When I got the MXL2001, I recorded some trumpet, flugelhorn, and percussion tracks on day one, with disastrous results. The trumpet tracks were unlistenable, and percussion toys such as shakers and triangles took on that scratchy, harsh quality that makes them sound distorted in the mix. Only the flugel tracks were acceptable, and only because I miked them up closely and perpendicular to the airstream. While this is a perfectly lovely trick (it gives more of the sound that the player perceives, rather than the point-blank listener perspective), it should not be the ONLY way to get an acceptable sound. With the mic placed 18″ from the bell in the standard straight-on configuration, the MXL2001P made even the mellow flugel sound harsh and edgy.
Vocals were scheduled for day two, and I recorded some intimate male vocal tracks, a high energy female, and a deep, bassy voice-over. The intimate male vocals were acceptable, but again, the frequency response of this mic was not ideal for the application, and there was a peculiar combination of sibilance problems and lack of definition that defied any sort of fix on the back end. The female vocal was a disaster, shrill and unlistenable. Only the voice-over track fared well. The combination of limited bass response, along with the edgy high end, gave it an SM7 sort of quality, only not as good.
I passed the microphone on to our fearless leader, Rip Rowan, for a test with a guitar-saturated/male lead group. We thought that maybe the mic’s exaggerated sound might help the vocal to get on top of the mix. The top end is certainly bright enough to cut through a wall of guitars. It might cut through plate glass. Sadly, the brightness isn’t the sought-after airiness of a 414 or C12, but rather a harsh, ringing, grating brightness than will make you quickly reach for a different mic.
I kept trying the MXL2001P for months, hoping to find that magical application where it’s peculiar sound would be THE sound I needed. Over and over I used it, comparing it to all manner of microphones. Certainly, I thought, there would be something for which the MXL2001P was THE mic.
You guessed it. Not even close.
What can I say? I’ve read other reviews that compared this mic to a Neumann. All I can imagine is that these reviewers have never heard a Neumann. “Sir, I know Neumann. You are no Neumann”
Of course, this mic doesn’t cost as much as a Neumann, which might lead you to wonder if it’s “a good deal for the price?” The answer is: no. A bad sounding mic is a bad deal at any price.
Microphone choices are like musical choices. You go for a purity of intention and purpose. The intention and purpose of the MXL2001P is not making a good large-diaphragm condenser. Give me a break. It’s about dolling up a cheap mic to look like it’s something it’s not.
Otherwise, Marshall Electronics would have skipped the oh-so-lovely machined case and meaningless trappings that make it look like a decent mic, and put the money where it counts. IN THE ELECTRONICS.
These are skewed priorities, folks. Whatever forces decided to put this mic on the market have no interest in building quality microphones. Look at it. Listen to it. See it for what it is. It’s a “Looks-Like-A-Great-Mic” mic.
No, I’m not done. Here’s another clencher. Take one of these babies apart if you get a chance. You’ll notice that they are hand assembled, right down to the board. Every circuit and every signal path is hand soldered… with ashen gray cold-solder joints on both my review units, by the way.
Hmmmm. Cold-soldered electronics in a machined-brass case flooding the market from every angle. Sold by a company whose primary line of business is security and spy cameras. What does that tell you about the intention and purpose of this product? What theories might it inspire as to its origin, given the bizarre juxtaposition of quantity, pricing and hand assembly?
Somebody say it’s not so.
You will notice that as of late, the Marshall Electronics website now boasts quite the large collection of mic esoterica, each and every one reminiscent of a classic design, yet selling for a price that would belie such design.
I haven’t heard the other mics yet. My mind remains open. Show me a quality microphone from Marshall Electronics, and I will sing its praises from the highest rooftops. I want someone to prove me wrong, desperately. I want to believe that these mics are not being foisted into the market full of empty promise, while taking money out of the hands of the very microphone manufacturers that we should thank our creator for each and every morning.
And that’s what makes me angry. A dollar spent on an MXL2001P is a dollar that isn’t spent on a Neumann, an AKG, or even a Sennheiser, Rode, Audio-Technica, or Shure. My fear is that in the end, we’re going to wind up with a half-million crappy MXL2001Ps on the used gear market and a few great mic companies in bankruptcy.
Here’s my recommendation. Spend your money somewhere else. For $200, you can buy any number of dynamic mics that are of pedigreed design, and ultimately provide more bang for the buck. An SM57 sounds amazing on a snare drum. The MXL2001P sounds amazing on absolutely nothing at all.
Nothing from nothing leaves nothing…you gotta have something if you wanna be with me…