PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in February 2001, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!
The market for low-cost large diaphragm condenser microphones has become a little… well, clogged in the last couple of years. Some early, decent entries have been overtaken by a flood of me-too competitors in sub-$400 price range. The current crop is a hodgepodge of average-to-crappy mics that are designed to appeal primarily to home recordists who have little studio experience and even less experience auditioning and selecting microphones. Faced with a potentially big-ticket purchase, most of these consumers take what seems like a safe route: buy cheap.
When established studios buy expensive mics from a reputable dealer, they always have several options to help in the purchasing decision. First off, many dealers will allow the studio to rent the mic for a few days to audition it in their studio. Or, the studio might be able to get a selection of mics on loan. Reputable engineers sometimes get loan product direct from the manufacturer, just to try out for fun. And, if the unit just doesn’t work out, most reputable mic dealers will take returns in a reasonable timeframe.
When home recordists and small-time studio operators purchase low-cost mics from chain music outlets, it’s a whole different story. Understandably, these outlets refuse to accept returns: many of the customers would simply purchase the mic for a day to record vocals on their demo, then return it for a full refund. Or, customers would purchase an expensive, delicate microphone and close-mic a kick drum or bass amp with it, and return the ruined microphone for a refund. The result is that for most customers, a brief audition with a pair of headphones in a little booth is usually the only source of information they have about their next microphone purchase.
Armed with this information, manufacturers of mics targeted at the home market have adopted an approach to make sure you buy their mic: make it sound BIG. More bottom. Heavy proximity effect. An exaggerated, crisp, even harsh top end. Some of the large diaphragm condensers on the market have a ridiculous frequency response – but they sell!
See, with these scooped-out mics, when you clamp the headphones on your head and say “Testing, 1-2-3” the effect is just THUNDEROUS. Then, just for fun, you hit the button in front of that $2000 Neumann mic and say “Testing, 1-2-3” and it seems so… plain-Jane. You buy the $300 condenser, sure that you have made a wise purchase. It’s only later, as you wonder why your mixes are so muddy, why the vocal sibilants are so harsh, why the guitars aren’t cutting through, that you start to suspect that maybe there was something to that Neumann after all.
Happily, not all mic companies have chosen to sell out. In particular, two have stood out to me as offering great studio mics at a reasonable price: Shure, and Audio-Technica. For the last few years, the 40 series mics from Audio Technica has been steadily growing in popularity. This is a line of mics that has earned its place in mic history and which are great for all kinds of applications including male and female vocals, guitar amplifiers, bass instruments, percussion, drum overheads, stringed instruments, and more. More recently, in the last year, Shure has introduced two large diaphragm condensers, the KSM32 and more recently the KSM44.
After spending only a few days with the KSM44 I couldn’t help but compare it to my studio’s matched pair of AT 4050/CM5’s. The resemblances went deeper than just the obvious similarities in their features. It seemed like when I tried out the 4050 on a sound, then switched to the KSM44, I was getting the same sound. Whenever I auditioned one after the other I was left scratching my head looking for the difference.
I could be called a mic freak. I love to learn each mic’s nuances so that when I have a miking decision I know exactly which mic to reach for and where to put it. As I got more and more experience with the KSM44, I was at a loss to differentiate it from my 4050s. I knew a direct comparison and study was in order.
Both the Audio-Technica 4050/CM5 and the Shure KSM44 use dual 1” gold-sputtered diaphragms and offer switchable cardioid, figure-8, and omni polar patterns. Both offer a pad, -10 dB on the 4050 and –15 dB on the KSM44. Where the 4050 offers a single 12 dB/oct 80 Hz bass cut switch, the KSM44 offers two bass cuts: a sharp 18 dB/oct cutoff at 80 Hz, and a gentle 6 dB/oct rolloff at 115 Hz.
Spec sheets for the two mics indicate similar frequency response for both mics, and somewhat better distortion and noise characteristics for the KSM44. Both mics offer a reasonably flat frequency response from 20 Hz to 20 KHz. While the KSM44 offers a greater signal-to-noise ratio than the 4050 (87 dB versus 77 dB for the 4050) the 4050 specs a slightly higher dynamic range of 132 dB versus the KSM44’s 125 dB. This is due to the 4050s superior maximum input level of 149 dB SPL (159 dB with the pad) versus the KSM44’s 132 dB SPL (149 dB with the pad).
Both mics include a four-point shockmount and case. However, the 4050’s shockmount is fairly simplistic: the mic “sits” in the shockmount with nothing to secure it in place. A good jolt is sufficient to send the mic crashing to the ground. In three years of use neither of my 4050s has ever fallen out of the shockmount, but on the other hand, I’m also pretty careful when I move them. By contrast, the KSM44 tightly locks into its shockmount using a screw-type base, and cannot fall out in any position. I really like the KSM44’s shockmount.
Similarly, the 4050 ships in a simple, padded vinyl case. The case is only large enough for the mic itself: the shockmount has to ride elsewhere. This is sufficient as a studio storage container but inappropriate for travel or touring unless the mic box is shipped in a larger gear case. The KSM44 arrived in a lovely reinforced hard aluminum flight case with compartments for the shockmount and other accessories, and the mic itself was gloved in a pretty red mic bag. I’m not one for the typical “Barbie Lunchbox” flight cases, but this is a damn nice road case.
As mentioned before, the mics sounded surprisingly similar in indirect comparison. Both can be characterized as accurate, clean-sounding mics with dead-on midrange reproduction, tight bass, and a slight treble boost. Both mics are reasonably distortionless – if you’re looking for the warm, rich sound of a valve mic, look elsewhere. These mics are almost clinical – cleaner and more neutral than the tube based large diaphragm condensers, but not as sterile as a small diaphragm condenser.
Both the 4050 and the KSM44 offer a nice, robust proximity effect in cardioid mode – a usable bass boost compared to the hyped up mud served up by the low-cost vocal mics du jour. Both mics also offer an accurate omni mode suitable for all kinds of omni recording from choirs to drum overheads to orchestral recording.
Although the KSM44 has lower noise specs, in real world use the difference is imperceptibly slight. Perhaps the differences would be more noticeable in an extremely quiet environment miking extremely quiet instruments, but in my studio I was unable to hear the difference in noise when miking instruments as quiet as a meditation bell at similar gain levels. Likewise, though the 4050 offers superior performance at high SPLs, which should make it more suited for loud sources like guitar amps and kick drums, the KSM44’s 15 dB pad allows it to be used on loud sources up to 149 dB SPL. Believe me, there’s nothing I record that can’t be turned down to 149 dB SPL. However, the 4050 could prove to be more durable when routinely used with loud sources.
In practical use I have spent a lot of time with the 4050, and less with the KSM44, but both of these mics are great on all kinds of applications – even applications where you might not reach for a large diaphragm condenser mic. For example, they sound great as drum overheads and on kick drums, on guitar amps, on bass amps and upright bass, on tympani and other percussion, on strings, choirs, brass ensembles, and solo horns. They aren’t always the best mics on acoustic guitar, but can sound good on mandolins and dobros. In omni mode they are perfect for room / ambient miking. And while they aren’t my preference for recording growling male rock vocals, they are both excellent for cleaner male vocals and all kinds of female vocals from rock to classical a capella work.
I didn’t realize exactly how similar these mics sounded until I put them through a side-by-side analysis. I connected the mics to a matched preamp and recorded several sound sources with them. On A/B listening tests, the sound was almost identical in every respect. In fact, at one point I had to re-do a couple of tests because I became convinced that I had screwed up and recorded two tracks of the same mic! Only after hours of exhausting listening could I really discern any differences in the sound.
Proximity: the Audio-Technica has a slightly beefier proximity effect. The boost is slightly shifted to the bass frequencies compared to the Shure. The KSM44’s proximity effect is a little warmer, slightly shifted to the midbass, resulting in a thicker, less bassy tone. The KSM44’s proximity effect comes off as a little smaller and warmer, while the 4050’s comes across as slightly larger and heavier. Slightly.
Treble boost: in cardioid mode, the KSM44’s treble rise seems to add presence rather than brilliance. The result is a more forward sound, a slight rise around 6 KHz. The 4050’s treble boost is a little sparklier, out in the neighborhood of 10 KHz. On vocals, the 4050 has the edge in sounding breathier, but the KSM44 cuts through just a little better. Just a little.
Omni mode: the KSM44 has a little more treble in omni mode. Where the 4050 sounds relatively flat, the KSM44 maintains the treble boost, only shifted out towards 10 KHz. This would suggest that the 4050 would probably produce a more accurate, yet less glossy recording. Probably.
Transients: the 4050 seems a little more responsive to transients. The attack of hi hats and bell-type percussion seems to have perhaps the slightest bit more definition when using the 4050 versus the KSM44. Perhaps.
Having made these comparisons and having drawn these distinctions, be aware that these are minute differences discernable only after hours of A/B comparisons. These mics are almost sonic clones of each other. This is not an exaggeration. Trying to hear the differences was grueling. I can say for sure that if asked to tell the mics apart, without the benefit of an A/B comparison, I would be at a loss.
I wanted to offer MP3s of the A/B comparison, but the MP3 format simply can’t capture the differences. Believe me – I could post the samples, but they’d be real head-scratchers. Instead I took some screen shots of an FFT analysis of some vocal material used as part of the test. The frequency response curves seem to validate my conclusions and should surprise you by their similarities. Note that these are the response curves for human speech – they are NOT the response curves of the microphones.
The Bottom Line
Anyone who reads my rants knows that I have thoroughly enjoyed my AT 4050s for years. They are just great mics. So, since the KSM44s sound virtually identical, of course I give them two thumbs up.
The KSM44 does come with a slightly higher price tag. Street prices typically run about $599 for a 4050 and $699 for a KSM44. However, the KSM44 does offer some extra value compared to the 4050. The roadworthy case, killer shockmount, additional bass rolloff pattern, and (let’s face it) beautiful construction could certainly justify an additional $100. Of course, the price-conscious studio owner who is just looking for the sound might choose to save the additional $100, and still have essentially the same sound.
Now for the inevitable question: how do these mics compare to the new (insert your favorite no-name large diaphragm bargain here). Well, folks, I haven’t heard all of the inexpensive large diaphragm condensers out there, but of the ones I have heard, there’s no comparison. That scooped-out hyperactive sound might sound good when you’re wearing headphones in a music outlet, but when it comes to getting the mix right, it’s going to be nothing but trouble unless you use it very, very sparingly. On the other hand, a neutral, accurate mic like an AT 4050 or KSM44 is an investment that will pay off time and again in solid, well recorded tracks that will sit well in the mix.
If someone told me that I was going to record an album, and I could use as many mics as I wanted but they all had to be the same mic, my first choice would probably be a Neumann U87. Not knowing what they’re going to throw at me, a U87 is a safe bet on most any instrument or voice. Now, if I had to choose a mic in the sub-$1000 category, it would be either the 4050 or the KSM44. You really could record an entire album with nothing but some 4050s or KSM44s and have it sound great.
Let’s just hope you don’t have to.