I recently had a member on my site (Walter Ruckdeschel) post an in-depth review of 8 different stand mounted microphones that can be used for live gigs. I was so fascinated that I asked him if I could post his finding here for everyone to see. If I didn’t have my hands full teaching and trying mouthpieces I might be venturing down this mic review road myself. As of right now though, I’m happy to let Walt do all the work………. Thanks Walt!
(Walter Ruckdeschel is a physician by profession for the last 20 years. As a young man, he played violin cello and bass. Walt started playing the saxophone 25 years ago but had a long pause (job, family,etc……..). Over the last few years, he has picked up the saxophone again as well as investing some time and energy into recording and audio gear along the way………..)
I’ve written a little post concerning thoughts about microphones for live sax playing including a head-to-head audio-shootout. I‘ve invested some time and money to learn more about that issue in the recent years and hopefully acquired some profound knowledge I can share with others.
Most semipro or pro-level singers will own their personal vocal mic (if not some mics), that they will always bring to live concerts. They would never allow just any random mic to disturb their performance and do any harm to the sound of their beloved voice as their instrument (besides some hygienic aspects). So what about us sax players? Should we bring a mic with us when it comes to live performances? Or should we hope that the sound technician will offer us a nice collection of fine mics to choose from? But if so, which one might be good or bad? Often on bigger stages/events there should be hope for a really good audio tech who will do a good job for us concerning mic and sound. But nasty disappointments will happen, we could face some disgusting universal “instrument“ type of mic in front of us to share two hours of playing (and listening) with it.
While playing sax live with quite a few different bands over lots of years, the mic-thing has been an ongoing question for me. When you search the net for the most typical mic-choices for sax-players, You’ll find a lot of discussion and hints, but hardly any real direct audio comparisons. So most of the time, we have to make a decision by reading reviews rather than hearing sound clips….. (e.g. the very good mic-test done by Marc Mommaas, which you’ll find at recordinghacks.com, where Marc Mommaas finally ended with a Royer Labs high end ribbon mic as the best choice for him). We could also talk to other musicians and soundmen and see what advice they offer. After that, we would have to buy one or more mics to try, use them for a while, get a feel for them, listen while playing live and then record with them to see how they sound and compare. With time, a personal thought will build up and often after a while the curtain will open for the next trials.
While once again involved in some personal mic trials, I got the idea to do a direct mic-shootout, recorded simultaneous (which is of utmost importance to ensure the exactly identical playing) – primarily for myself to learn more about some of my mics. But before we get to discussing the results, the following preliminary considerations are important.
2) TYPE OF MICS FOR SAX PLAYING
2.1) General thoughts
You’ll in our days quite often see large diaphragm condenser microphones (there are lots of fine choices in rugged housings and different price regions like e.g. AKG 414/214, Neumann TLM 102/103, Audio Technica 4040/4050, Sennheiser MK4, Shure Beta 27, Mojave MA-201fet, and lots of other models by Blue Mics, Røde, SE Electronics etc.) or ribbon mics (among the very finest are the models made by Royer Labs) not only for studio recording, but as well on live stages, especially when it’s about acoustical music and maybe live recording is taking place. The reasons for this is obvious – to capture that velvety larger-than-live-sound as known from studio-recordings. That works, if it doesn’t get too loud on stage and everybody is handling these mics with love and care. With rising monitor sound levels on stage in “electrical” settings bleed and feedback issues will arise with these large diaphragm studio-type condenser mics. You would also be worried that your very expensive and tender ribbon mics would get abused in these rough live settings. And there are two other points to mention: 1) cost (if You will – and You definitely should – avoid these cheep asia-built mics and go for a mid- or upper-class mic, You’ll have to spent some money) and 2) in hard live-settings You’d have some troublesome thoughts about durability of these mics (You really would hate to see them being smashed down in the heat of any live performance).
The preferably used mics in many live settings still are rugged dynamic mics and for special issues (like drum overheads, flutes, small percussions, piano or sometimes vocals) small diaphragm condenser mics, all of them with a strong directional pickup pattern to minimize bleed and feedback issues (e.g. cardioid or hypercardioid) and rugged housings. The review today, will be on only micing sax for live sound reinforcement – not studio recording where some (quite) different aspects will come up. For some commercial gigs on larger stages, where moving around is an essential part of the show, clip-on mics with a wireless system are a big deal (like the dpa d:vote 4099 is a very fine mic). Such a system will get much more expensive compared to any good stand-mounted mic and there are still some good reasons why many players prefer to use stand-mounted mics: most of all the options which arise with varying distance to the mic – as the sax-players volume control. So I excluded clip-on mics in this review and we will only be dealing with wired and stand-mounted mics here.
2.2) The ideal sax mic for playing live
Most aspects in life won‘t match our imagination so compromises will have to be made in most cases. This is true when it comes to microphones also. If we could produce the ideal sax mic from our imagination it would:
– sound natural with an even and full frequency response
– minimize bleed and really avoid feedback
– not be prone to off-axis coloration
– be rugged to stay alive for a long time with live use (abuse)
– be small enough to go with us as a good friend in our sax case (!)
– be affordable (but of course we‘d like to pay a little or maybe much more for better results)
– withstand high sound pressure levels without distortion
– hopefully look cool especially when it‘s a larger mic
– be versatile
– hold it’s value so as to ensure our investment
3) TO COLOR OR NOT TO COLOR YOUR SOUND BY MIC
3.1) Mics will color any sound more ore less
Often the question will come up, “Should a mic color the sound of any audio source in a special way?” There are lots of good examples and reasons for this in distinct situations. (E.g. when it comes to kick-drum micing, where strong “built-in” EQ is a common feature of typical mics (e.g. AKG D-112): that helps to get a plug-and-play-approach in live situations without too much EQ-ing.) The Shure SM57 is used often on snare drums or guitar amps because this mic has some strong boost around 6kHz and bass roll-off below 200Hz, which helps these instruments find their place in the mix. But would you like to have your sax-sound somehow colored or driven a certain direction by the mic? Or would You prefer the most natural sounding mic (a mic without any “coloration” or “sound” of its own)?
3.2) To apply equalizing for the Sax or not
For the front speakers of any live sound reinforcement system there will often be EQ applied to most channels and instruments, e.g. for the sax some bass-rolloff (low cut) and maybe a little high frequency boost (besides hallroom and compression) to fit the things in the mix and match the sound to the concert room‘s audio properties. So if there is any EQ-option available, some people might think concerning mics: nothing what couldn‘t be fixed with a little EQ (think of all these fancy full-parametric built-in-EQs in the contemporary digital mixing consoles). So could or should any mic of good build-quality and sound just be adjusted for sax by EQ? Of course, the miced sax-sound can be strongly shaped by applying EQ, BUT: correcting unwanted sound-coloration generated by any mic (with sometimes very complex details in frequency response) will in most circumstances not be what you (or the sound tech) will want to do – and often you just won‘t get the sound you would like even by tweaking the EQ.
So for ensuring an easy plug-and-play-approach but also to avoid much (EQ) work: it‘s in many cases (and especially for Sax) much easier to start with a neutral sound without any special limitations and inhomogeneities at the mic-level – and maybe just add very small amounts of EQ to even improve what is already a good natural sound. (And don’t forget: on most smaller and mid-sized stages, you’ll get your monitor-sound without any special channel-EQ (maybe with a bass-rolloff and some frequency corrections to avoid feedback – to that aux-send/monitor channel in general but not for your special sax demands), so what You‘ll hear is mostly just what your mic will give you.
3.3) Your sound and (hopefully positive) biofeedback
All advanced sax-players work hard for (lots of) years to develop their own personal sound, trying to attain their perfect sound. On that way down that path, many players will try what seems to be a never ending line of mouthpieces, which in many cases will alter the individuals sound only in detail. When it comes to playing through a mic on any live stage, you’re prone to loose quite a lot of all that work, if that mic won’t cover your own well-developed sound as you hope for. On the contrary, sometimes, the mic used will alter the sound heard in a sometimes strong, unwanted and unpleasant (and in the worst moments……..really annoying) manner.
In many cases, the audience won’t notice the details of the sax channel’s frequency response as long as your playing is nice. But don’t forget that very important biofeedback-thing: moderate (and of course major) unexpected changes in sound and frequency response, as you hear them coming out of the monitors and front speakers, will disturb your unconscious and conscious feelings about playing, blowing and phrasing. In cases of major mic sound problems, you’ll just be really limited while playing and in the worst moments you‘ll loose the confidence and joy you need while playing(and here we definitely are not alone as sax-players, just talk to all that singers, guitar players etc.). Good sound is a major inspiration in the very moment of playing.
So you‘ll want to use a mic, that will give you a sound very close to what you developed in all those years of practicing and growing. I n the best case, the sound coming off the floor monitor speakers should sound like yourself playing in front of a very even surface like a mirror or window, where Your natural sax sound is reflected with all it’s harmonics and overtones in a naturally sounding way. But of course the mic should be 1) directional enough to minimize bleed and feedback issues (without having to stay glued to the mic to not loose your sound) and 2) rugged to have a long life when used a lot.
4) THE MIC-SHOOTOUT SETUP
First, all these mics (see below) were mounted in stands as near to each other as possible, pointing to a virtual spot where I would play the sax. To minimize off-axis issues with that setup, I stayed away from the mics about 50cm (which is not always the way you’d use your mic in louder live situations, but for this test the best way to do it – when playing more close to the mic, you‘d get the proximity effect = better low frequency response in most cases).
Signal flow was directly from the mics into my Presonus Studiolive 16.4.2 digital mixing console, where the gain settings were carefully balanced to ensure matching audio levels for all channels as possible. Directly after the (more than ok) on-board mic preamps and A/D-conversion signal flow was without any further processing via firewire into Cubase 6.5 (Mac OS). In Cubase there was a different track for each mic, after recording the audio files some tracks were normalized to correct for small gain differences. No EQ was applied to any sax-track.
In one part (audio-files labeled “dry”-only sax) of the shootout I played some mostly unrelated short phrases with Tenor/darker hr-sound and Tenor/brighter metal-sound, Alto and Baritone Sax, recorded at the same time with all mics placed very close to each other as written. Don’t let the absence of flowing sax playing disturb you – that’s not the point here (and of course I’ve got to apologize for my amateur-level playing). For the very best comparison conditions, load the files to different tracks into any DAW, loop one single phrase and switch between the tracks. Be sure to use good speakers (e.g. studio monitors) or good headphones. That’s how you’ll get the best listening conditions to compare the differences (often big!) in detail.
In another part I loaded two playbacks and played – again simultaneously recorded as above – Tenor Sax with a darker hr-type of sound on a rhythm changes tune (labeled “RC”) and Alto Sax on a more funky tune to get a feeling of the differences between these mics in a “band“ type context of playing. For these playback-recordings, some tube-type compression and hallroom was applied (of course in exactly the same way) to all Sax-tracks – as it would happen in real life.
5) THE CONTENDERS
As said earlier, I tested only stand-mounted mics and in addition restricted the microphone selection to only models of highly appreciated manufacturers (otherwise 2.2j would be lost in the moment of buying the mic).
At first I have to apologize – some of the most interesting mics are not included in my small test because I do not have access to them at this moment. The famous Electro Voice RE-20, the Electro Voice N/D 468, the Shure SM-7B and the Sennheiser MD-441 are missing, and of course there are some other nice mics not even mentioned here. I excluded (because I don’t have one) some fine condenser vocal mics (like the Neumann KMS 104/105), which give a very detailed and fine vocal sound without too much of high-end-hype – and I don’t know how they would perform with sax.
I also excluded many of these instrumental-mics for “general use” (substitutes for Shure‘s SM57 like AKG D-40, Sennheiser E906 etc.), which in real life are mostly used only for snare drum, toms, percussion instruments as well as for guitar cabinets. Most of them are not a good choice for sax in my opinion. They give you a high-mid-hyped shrill and maybe thin (in other words annoying) sound with lack of detail and high end frequencies. There are of course positive exceptions – the here reviewed Beyerdynamic M201TG is among them. The (here not reviewed) Electro Voice N/D 468 and in the past, I remember trying the Beyerdynamic TG i50D with positive results on sax and trumpet.
When preparing this review, I threw my more than 25 years old AKG C-1000 (as a representative of the small-diaphragm condenser mics) in to the round. But it fell behind the better ones in the competition (while being clearly superior to the losers of the group) with lack of detail and missing transparent high end – maybe because it‘s age (I don‘t know), and would only be an acceptable choice for maybe softening a very bright “contemporary“ sax sound (but you‘d clearly prefer a natural sounding mic with full frequency response and good detail retrieval also in such a setting).
So my shootout is not a balanced, fair and comprehensive review but more a sample from real life and a look into my current mic cases. Here are the microphones I tested:
5.1) Shure SM58
Maybe the most-used live vocal mic in mankind. Rugged and not expensive, and available on nearly all live stages. Quite often, sax players will face a SM58 in front of them (think of some small jazz clubs where it’s the only mic at all - talking to the audience and playing will happen with that only mic). But is this a good choice for sax players? When looking at the specs of the mic: apart from a quite steep bass roll-off starting a little above 100Hz there is a marked, early starting boost of around +5dB at 3,5-6kHz – to help the human voice cut-through on loud stages (but you’ll hopefully never use that mic to record some soulful jazz vocals in a studio session). Some people might state: tenor sax is close to the human voice concerning sound and frequencies so shouldn’t that SM58 work fine for sax as for a live voice?
5.2) Shure SM57
Maybe the most used live “instrumental” mic in mankind. Not as rugged as I‘d like it (metal body but this somehow flimsy rotating head) and not expensive. It’s available on nearly all live stages. Most sax players could easily face a SM57 put in front of him by a stage tech. Is this a good choice for sax players? When looking at the specs of the mic: apart from a quite steep bass roll-off (starting at 200Hz even higher compared to the SM 58) there is a marked, uneven boost of +6dB at 5-8kHz. These characteristics helped the SM57 to become and stay the most used snare mic all over the world not only on live stages, but as well in many recording studios. But will that clearly colored frequency response help the sax-player to shine?
5.3) Beyerdynamic M 99
A large diaphragm dynamic mic with neodym-technology, two-way EQ-switches, extremely well built and rugged and not too expensive. As the RE-20 it’s a mic directed to broadcast-use for speakers, but with it‘s built-in EQ and high sound pressure level tolerance easy to use for kickdrum and a lot of different sound sources. It has quite a flat frequency response with a slight (4dB) boost from 5 to above 10kHz. It will give a rich sound with fine detail retrieval and for maybe 2 years I liked it a lot for sax, trumpet and especially flugelhorn when playing live and also for live recording (and live vocals in acoustic settings). One day it gave a very unpleasant sound with a muted trumpet directly held to the mic (as often done live) with some annoying high frequency peak (the trumpet player just couldn’t continue playing and switched to my mic). You won’t find the reason for that problem while looking to the frequency curve, you’ll have to listen.
5.4) Electro Voice RE-320
It’s older brother (or is it a sister?) RE-20 is a very well known large diaphragm dynamic mic with a very well built and rugged steel housing, fine detail retrieval and full while quite linear frequency response (not to mention that special Variable-D technology to minimize proximity effect and off-axis issues). The RE-20 is a very often in broadcast settings used mic in the U.S., much liked for brass and sax on live stages all over the world and will deliver fine results with a lot of audio sources live and as well with studio-recording. A short time ago EV released the RE-320 with a similar steel housing and that large diaphragm technology with Variable-D. Both of them will take high sound pressure levels (e.g. trumpets or guitar amps) without distortion. What is different (besides the stylish black color) in the RE-320 is: a neodym magnet with higher output, a contour- instead of a high-pass-switch for easy-to-go kickdrum-micing and a different frequency response with a more pronounced high-boost between 5 and 10kHz (where there is only a small boost in the RE-20). The RE-320′s advantages are the higher output, the ease of use for kickdrum-micing and the lower price. And this really big and stylish mic looks cool (may-the-force-be-with-you) – while hardly fitting in any but really big sax-cases. But how in fact will it sound with sax (and will that pronounced high-boost do well for sax)?
5.5) Sennheiser MD-421
One of the highest rated dynamic mics ever with that special razor-look. A very first choice for many people on toms, but also for brass, guitar cabinets, speech and woodwinds. The mic itself is made in Germany and is of outstanding built-quality with a very rugged all-metal construction. It has 5-step bass-rolloff-switch as a nice feature. It is medium-big and as a clear downside has that strange proprietary stand mounting, that will wear off with the years and become unstable. The MD-421 won‘t fit any standard-type of stand mounting. When looking at the data-sheet: full bass response down to 80Hz, very even response from 100 to 1000Hz, followed by a marked and wide high-frequency boost slowly staring early at 1,5kHz with a more steep rising at 3-4kHz approaching a peak of +8dB around 4,5-5kHz, above that a smaller boost of 4-5dB until nearly 15kHz – looks like a strongly coloring and bright sounding mic. What will that do to our beloved Sax-sound?
5.6) Beyerdynamic M201TG
A pencil-style mic with a very even frequency response between 100Hz and 6-7kHz and a only a slight boost (maximum 4dB) in the top region (10kHz). – looks like no strong coloring and hopefully a naturally sounding mic. Very compact, rugged and well built, small enough to fit in virtually any sax case and not too expensive. For audio technicians it is a well-known all round dynamic mic with very good results on a wide range of (nearly all?) instruments like snare drum, overheads, percussion, piano, string instruments, woodwinds, amps and quite a number of other applications. Some audio techs would choose a Beyer 201 to use for virtually any audio source when only one type of mic would be allowed. But I‘m puzzled – never found any sax player using it live. After buying and trying one I think that‘s just because most of them don’t know about this mic and it‘s behavior with the sax. Will that quite even frequency response translate in a natural sax sound?
5.7) Røde NT5
A small diaphragm condenser mic. For many users, this is thought of as a very good midclass-choice (some high-end sisters like Neumann or Schoeps will go a step further concerning detail retrieval and even frequency response). Rugged (Røde will give 10 years of warranty), good detail retrieval, slightly hyped but not too harsh sounding high end. Good for drum overheads and lots of sound sources like percussion, piano, flute etc. – a versatile and affordable while professional mic and kind of an affordable prototype of that “pencil-style“ small condenser mics. I used this mic live in the past and it gave me a quite natural sax sound (without feedback problems).
5.8) AKG Perception Tube 820
A nice mid-class or upper mid-class large diaphragm tube type condenser mic (designed in Austria and built in China with Austrian quality-control) for studio use with a nice and full open sound and a very even frequency response from bottom until high midrange and just a slight boost in the top frequencies around and above 10 kHz (for this test used with pad to avoid the stronger tube type coloration of sound what will happen otherwise). Differences to high end tube studio mics would be found concerning detail retrieval. I included the mic just as my personal reference because it’s what I use at present for recording sax & vocals at my home-studio. When comparing all these mics the PC 820 will give a good reference of sound as a quite natural sounding mic with only a very small brightening-up at the top end.
Round 1-Sax Dry:
1. Shure SM58 Sax dry
2. Shure SM57 Sax dry
3. BeyerDynamic M 99 Sax dry
4. EV RE-320 Sax dry
5. Sennheiser MD-421 Sax dry
6. BeyerDynamic M201TG Sax dry
7. Rode NT5 Sax dry
8. AKG Perception Tube 820 Sax dry
Round 2-Funky Alto Sax:
1. Shure SM58 Funky Alto
2. Shure SM57 Funky Alto
3. BeyerDynamic M 99 Funky Alto
4. EV RE-320 Funky Alto
5. Sennheiser MD-421 Funky Alto
6. BeyerDynamic M201TG Funky Alto
7. Rode NT5 Funky Alto
8. AKG Perception Tube 820 Funky Alto
Round 2-Jazzy Tenor Sax Rhythm Changes:
1. Shure SM58 RC
2. Shure SM57 RC
3. BeyerDynamic M 99 RC
4. EV RE-320 RC
5. Sennheiser MD-421 RC
6. BeyerDynamic M201TG RC
7. Rode NT5 RC
8. AKG Perception Tube 820 RC
Round 3-Proximity Effect:
1. Shure SM58 Proximity Effect
2. Shure SM57 Proximity Effect
3. BeyerDynamic M 99 Proximity Effect
4. EV RE-320 Proximity Effect
5. Sennheiser MD-421 Proximity Effect
6. BeyerDynamic M201TG Proximity Effect
7. Rode NT5 Proximity Effect
8. AKG Perception Tube 820 Proximity Effect
I have just added the round of 8 clips concerning proximity-effect above:
The proximity-effect can really matter: putting the source of sound close to any mic will boost low frequencies – with some mics quite a lot (an effect often used by singers while “eating” their mics on stage). To minimize off-axis-issues while recording with all mics at the same time in the first rounds of the shootout I stayed with the sax more distant (50cm) as it would often be reality on any live stage. By doing that, a less full sound with all mics will be the result. To address that somewhat “unfair” aspect of the contest, I added the following little thing:
Here I recorded two short licks (one with Baritone Sax, one with Tenor Sax) played each two times – with 50 and 20cm distance to the mics. After recording both takes, I normalized the takes to correct for gain differences caused by distance. No EQ, no compression, no effects. This little add-on will allow you to get an idea of how the proximity-effect will alter the sound on these 8 mics (mainly concerning low frequency response). All mics show some proximity-effect, but there are differences: e.g. the Beyer M99 will gain more low frequency volume with proximity compared to the SM57…
6) THE RESULTS – by listening to the recordings
Of course the following thoughts are my very personal thoughts – and maybe not exactly yours. As the quality criterion of utmost importance I concentrated on what could be rated as the most natural sound of the saxophone. If I‘d like to get a bright sound: I would play bright and use a setup with a bright sound – but never primarily a bright sounding mic as I stated above with good reasons. There are of course differences between the mics dependent of the kind of sax sound and playing: with more aggressive/brighter playing some annoying aspects of e.g. the Shure SM57 and Sennheiser MD421 will come out much stronger, but otherwise with much softer/darker playing some otherwise unnatural sounding mics (SM57) will give more pleasant results while “brightening up“ the sax sound.
6.1) Shure SM58
The mid-high boost and missing low frequencies, as you’d expect from looking at its data-sheet before playing one single tone – is exactly what it will sound like. Thin and shrill. Not that bad as it’s sister SM-57, but otherwise among the losers of the whole shootout. With more near-distance-playing you‘ll of course get more low-end response as with most mics, but the unnatural sound otherwise won‘t leave at all. It’s pure availability, low price, rugged construction and modest size are by far not enough to tolerate it’s unpleasant audio properties for sax.
6.2) Shure SM57
Similar to the SM58: the mid-high boost and missing low frequencies, as you’d expect from looking at its data-sheet before playing one single tone – is exactly what it will sound like. Thin and annoying shrill. Even worse than it’s sister SM58 with an even more unnatural peak in very high mids and low highs: also a loser in the shootout. It’s pure availability, low price, somehow rugged construction and modest size are never enough to tolerate it’s unpleasant audio properties for sax. Maybe when simply staying alive and crying in competition with all these other crying instruments on a very loud stage with any rock-band is the task and there is REALLY no better mic available, you could play through an SM57. But not a second time I hope. And really never in any setting, where musical detail matters. But to be honest: what did we expect – saxophone is in no way near any snare drum or guitar cabinet, where this mic is used mostly.
6.3) Beyerdynamic M99
A detailed, in the low frequencies – compared to the RE-320 – clearly less full sound (but not as thin as SM58/57) with wide frequency response upwards. It does not have that quite pronounced high-end hype of the RE-320 nor that annoying high-midrange boost of the SM57, but some emphasis a little deeper in the transition zone highmid to high frequencies – perceived as a little “metallic” or “cold” unnatural response and harmonics (as Marc Mommaas stated in his great review). It‘s size is medium-large and therefore it‘s not the most wanted one to fit in your sax case – and clearly not concerning sound as there are much better options. So the M99 for me is maybe the strongest disappointment in this review and no more my preferred sax mic, while staying in the mic-case for flugelhorn, trombone and other things.
6.4) Electro Voice RE-320
A detailed, in the low frequencies full sound with a strong sparkling high end – a clearly noticeable and unnatural high-boost. The midrange response is even and without that annoying type of coloration as seen with the SM57/58 and the M99. This type of coloration could be thought of more as a kind of adding some high-range EQ. The unnatural boosted high end is a little like some (or even more) pixie dust scattered over the sound. This could be a good thing when a “dark” sounding sax player would meet a funk/pop setting live (or any other instrument where some brightening up by mic would be wanted like percussion or the string attack of a double bass), especially maybe for a cutting baritone sound (the reason I bought it). I would not like it with alto or soprano sax, and not with any medium to bright sounding tenor sound. It is big (while looking cool) – too big for your sax case (if it‘s not baritone) as mentioned before. A special mic and not naturally sounding, but a good choice for many audio sources while definitely not the best mic for sax in general.
6.5) Sennheiser MD-421
I once played the Sennheiser MD-421 live with a loud band with good results on the tenor sax but I remember there was a noticeable high-mid to high-boost with a some harshness to the sound (giving me pain while blowing a beechler-type alto thing), what is far from natural for sax. So I wasn‘t sure how it would hold up in direct comparison to some alternative mics. And the results here confirm my aforementioned impressions. The sound is like you would anticipate when looking to the mic‘s data-sheet with it‘s strong boost of +8dB between 4000 and 6000Hz. That‘s really what it sounds like – a strong boost of high mids and low highs, what might be acceptable e.g. for a dark-sounding, softly played tenor sax and baritone sax. But: it will give a harsh and very unpleasant sound with more forced and brighter playing. And with the hyped area between 4 and 6kHz there is the feeling of a missing real high end. Now I understand my bad feeling while playing bright contemporary alto sax through a MD-421 on some stage in the past. The MD-421 is (surprisingly) opposed to it’s high reputation as one of the best dynamic mics ever – a big disappointment and clearly out of the race for sax for me now – strong unnatural coloration of sound with too early beginning and too strong boost in the transition zone high mids/low highs. The only thing would be; the MD421 would really help a Baritone sax to cut through on any loud stage. So, if you’re not mainly in that field of playing, you might leave it to the drummers for micing toms or guitar players for their amps…
6.6) Beyerdynamic M201TG
The data-sheet shows a wide and quite even frequency response with a only slight – and for a dynamic mic quite high (round and above 10kHz in the pixie-dust-region) – boost. Compared to that high-end-hype of the RE320 the M201TG may seem to sound boring in the first second, but: it sounds very natural, with only a slightly emphasized high end without becoming shrill or unnatural. The word “warm“ could be applied to that overall sound. There‘s a little lack of fullness/low frequencies compared to the RE-320 or the Røde NT5, which doesn‘t matter for tenor, alto or soprano sax live (and which could easily get fixed with a little EQ for baritone). And: what wouldn‘t be the point at all with playing close to the mic. While sounding open and with a slight tendency to the bright side of things, the sound is smooth and silky in the top end – and stays like that even when playing with a sharp/bright sounding setup and aggressive style of playing. Trying it on some rehearsals and live, I liked the results a lot and had the feeling it sounded really good – without any EQin at all (just applying a low cut filter for Tenor/Alto). There were never any feedback issues, bleed is low and the overall-use is just plug and play without sorrows. It will give a very natural, smooth, detailed and pleasant sound while playing softly, but it will follow you easily without any shrillness when screaming high notes will come up. And its extremly well built, very small and not too expensive. Remembering the above mentioned wish-list for an ideal sax-mic for live playing (2.2), the M201TG will get nearly all points on it‘s side – it‘s a natural and fine sounding, small, versatile, rugged and affordable – in other words outstanding mic.
6.7) Røde NT5
A clear hyped high end (a look in the date sheet shows only +2dB 6-10kHz, but for my ears it sounds brighter as anticipated), but not in a too unpleasant way with a more “hifi”-type of sound – and with an amazing full low end. The high mid frequencies are somehow a little “colder“ sounding compared to the Perception 820 and the Beyer M201. In this line-up, the NT5 is clearly on the better side of things (my place two behind the M201, when thinking of the AKG Perception 820 as a not competing reference) and a serious choice for live sax in my opinion concerning sound (while being quite versatile as a nice and balanced small-diaphragm condenser mic). Bleed and feedback issues should be considered (I hadn‘t any problem using it live in the past), maybe here the M 201 will give a (clearly?) better performance. And I liked the high-mid and high frequency response of Beyer‘s M201 clearly more for it‘s “warm“ and for me more “natural“ sound. And not to forget – the NT5 is a condenser mic, so phantom power is needed, while not with the M201.
6.8) AKG Perception Tube 820
For this review the sound of the Perception 820 should be taken as a nearly uncolored reference and won‘t be rated itself. Using this mic for recording-purposes in any studio-setting with some nice outboard preamp and compressor or channel strip will give very nice results not only for the saxophone of course, but especially with vocals, and lots of other sources like flutes etc..
7) SUBJECTIVE IMPRESSIONS – while playing through any mic
At some moment I realized that the subjective feeling concerning the different mics might be different if listening to a record as opposed to the very moment while playing and listening to myself e.g. via headphones. So I played Tenor (with a balanced HR-/straight-ahead-sound) and after that Baritone through each of the mics concentrating on the hereby generated feeling of sound, playing and hearing myself. There were some important different perceptions as follows:
7.1) Shure SM58
What I already stated above applies here too: a little thin, high-midrange-heavy, but not annoyingly shrill as the SM57. Overall a tolerable feeling, and maybe one could think of it as “ok” without knowing about better alternatives.
7.2) Shure SM57
Thoughts in the first few seconds: no please not this mic, it’s as nasty here as when listening to most of the records.
7.3) Beyerdynamic M99
Here an important difference comes up: round and detailed sound up to a high top end, which gives a really nice feeling while playing – as I had while using it for sax on some stages in the past. I liked it clearly more here compared to the RE-320. Maybe with bright and aggressive playing it won’t be that nice…
7.4) Electro Voice RE-320
That quite strong hyped high-end felt a little annoying here especially with Tenor and I at once had thoughts about applying EQ and cutting down those too crisp high frequencies a little…with a bright Alto sound this would be really unpleasant……….
7.5) Sennheiser MD-421
Same thing here as written above: nasty and unnatural high midrange with missing real high end. Ok with Baritone but annoying with Tenor, especially while playing a little more aggressively. Ok, it’s better than the SM57, but if on stage I had to choose between th MD421 or simply any SM58 – I’m not sure, maybe I’d prefer the SM58…but I would clearly prefer to play live with the RE-320 or even better the M99.
7.6) Beyerdynamic M201TG
Same thing here as when listening to records: I can just play and hear myself and there are no restrictions or unwanted colorations of sound coming up, and it stays like that with different style of playing and saxophones . These are exactly my experiences when playing live with it so far.
7.7) Røde NT5
Similar as above – transparent sound with fully covering the frequency spectrum of any Sax, but a little “colder” sound and for me just a little less pleasant feeling.
7.8) AKG Perception Tube 820
Really nice – as it should be. Detailed, full and natural sound with a somehow sparkling but not overly hyped top end. But it’s out of the competition of course…
8) Feedback Propensity
I added another issue here. Testing mics for live use not on any stage but in a silent “studio” type of environment is a major limitation of my review. The best sounding mic will be a no-go live when serious feedback problems come with it. To address that point I added a little test concerning feedback issues. An active speaker cabinet was placed a) in front of the mics in a 2m distance and b) in the typical floor-wedge-position on the floor a little behind and to the side of the mics (Yes I know, different directional patterns would imply different optimal positions of monitor speakers concerning angle to the mic, I didn’t address that here). Input gains of all mic-channels were carefully matched. The mic channel was activated and the master fader was pulled up with pink noise in the background until the first small spontaneous feedback would appear. That masterfader-level as an relative estimate of feedback propensity was noted.
Here the mics in order of ascending feedback propensity in position a) (“front” type of feedback):
SM58, SM57, M99 (-9dB)
And here the mics in order of ascending feedback propensity in position b) (“monitor/rear” type of feedback):
M201TG, M99 (-2dB)
MD421, SM58, SM57 (-6dB)
Maybe most surprisingly the NT5 didn’t do as bad as anticipated here. And the RE320 was bader compared to SM58/57 in that unrealistic “front” type of exposition, but had better feedback rejection in a (real-life) monitor-speaker-position. And the MD421 showed a superior behaviour in an (unrealistic) “front”-type of feedback-rejection, but with the test in wedge-monitor-position the backward rejection of feedback was superior with other mics. Of course there would be some more details that could be discussed: the type of feedback frequencies were different with different mics on so would be the options of reducing them by EQ (e.g. more deep-mid-feedbacks with the MD421 as compared to high-frequencies with the RE320).
But one point can be regarded as a clear result: the M201TG is (again) on the winner-side here with excellent feedback rejection regardless of the speaker-position.
9) Frequency response showed by audio-spectrum
I can’t show the data sheets of any mic here, these are available elsewhere. But I can give a visual impression of the strong differences mostly concerning high midrange and high frequencies. Pink noise was given on a KH120 active monitor speaker in front of the mics in 1m distance and recorded with all mics simultaneously. All audio-files were normalized to optimize gain matching. Spectrum analysis was generated by Presonus virtual studio live software and screenshots of every mic channel taken. Looking at that data (what isn‘t much different concerning contend compared to the mic‘s data sheets of course, but gives a nicer visual impression) helps understanding the different sonic characteristics of all these mics.
Some of my personal thoughts to that: the frequency-spectrum of both SM58/57 aren‘t that different, but sound clearly is – so there is nothing like hearing, when it‘s about sound…But I can better understand that somewhat unnatural sound of the otherwise nice M99 with it‘s clearly existing two peaks at 4/5 kHz and above 10kHz. The MD421 has a lot of high frequency response in the „air“-region 13-16kHz, what I didn‘t feel and hear while playing – maybe because of the strong emphasis in much lower regions. And when comparing e.g. the clearly uneven frequency response of the MD421 (with some different peaks and a hole near 6kHz) with the MD201‘s much more even spectrum it‘s easier to understand what I can hear. I think the point why the MD201 wins in my ears concerning sound is the very even response over the very most parts of the mid and high frequencies with a just small boost at the very top frequencies 13-16kHz (what will give the sound an „airy“ attitude, and that‘s for a dynamic mic surprisingly high situated and really nice).
10) MOST INTERESTING MISSING CONTENDERS
As I mentioned above, the strongest weakness of this review is the absence of some other mics of real interest. What could be expected from the most interesting contenders missing here?
10.1) Sennheiser MD-441:
I’m trying to get this one. Very flat and wide frequency response and thought of as one of the very best dynamic mics ever built – nearly unchanged in a long time and a real classic design. It’s really high price when bought new is a serious limit for broader use, otherwise it should be among the very best choices available. As a drawback it‘s quite big and it‘s proprietary mounting is a special and not always liked thing. It would be of great interest to hear how the MD441 would compare especially to the much cheaper and smaller Beyer M201TG.
10.2) Electro Voice RE-20:
This is by many people thought of as one of the very best dynamic mics ever. More flat frequency response compared to the RE-320, more expensive, lower output. I think especially for brighter sounding tenor and alto sax players this will beat the RE-320 hands down, for some darker sax sound or baritone the RE-320 could have its own charm. The RE-20 will be the clearly better option for brighter instruments like hard blown trumpet. Some audio technicians would like to have both of them in their case. The downside is it‘s price and it‘s pure size as the RE-320.
10.3) Electro Voice N/D 468:
Marc Mommaas found it to be a good choice in the class of dynamic mics and better/more natural sounding than the EV RE-320 and Beyer M-99. So this should be a really interesting mic. But: the data sheet shows a more uneven mid- to high frequency response compared to the Beyerdynamic M 201 TG, so I don’t think it would outpace the M 201 concerning sound. But of course you never know without comparing head-to-head. I have to mention it’s special design (made for drum use to allow easy angle adjustment) with a moving head and exposed cable. This maybe isn‘t everybody‘s darling – while the M201TG looks and feels nearly indestructible. It‘s size is clearly above the M201TG and so it might not be that best friend to stay always with you in your sax case.
10.4) Shure SM 7B:
This mic should be thought of as sharing one class of mics with the RE-20, RE-320 and Beyer M-99. All of them are large diaphragm dynamic mics tailored to vocal/broadcast use, but also very good choices for a lot of different things at studio or live. Some famous vocal studio recordings (among them as it‘s stated vocal tracks of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder) were done with the SM 7B. The downside is its pure size (a no-go for your sax case) and that special mounting mechanism. Concerning sound this might be among the very best choices, but this has to be checked out before judging – I simply don’t know. Over all especially when looking at that big-size problem, I can‘t imagine this will outpace the M201TG overall.
11) LIMITATIONS OF MY SHOOTOUT
11.1) It‘s only me here playing some simple short licks. Some really good and outstanding sax-playing would give even better impressions to the distinct mic-differences.
11.2) I compared only a few mics. Sorry for that and see above.
11.3) I didn‘t show off-axis and close-distance behaviour. Moving round the mic in front of the sax (when doing intentional called “mic-work“, when done accidentally called “off-axis-issues“) will alter the sound – in a different way with different mics. Hard to examine with a simultaneous recording with fixed distance and angle as done here.
11.4) I didn‘t check feedback issues here. The best sounding mic will really let you down (and with that be useless for live applications) when it‘s prone to feedback even at low monitor sound levels. Feedback affinity will be of growing relevance with rising sound levels and powerful monitoring speaker systems (don‘t bring your large diaphragm condenser mic to a rock stage for sax playing). But: the M201TG was a great performer concerning that point in many live-experience until now (as were the EV-RE320 and the M99) and I think it holds easily a place at the top end.
11.5) I didn‘t check bleed propensity. The sound tech will hate you for using your special personal mic, when it‘s going to catch the drums and cymbals nearly as loud as the dedicated overhead mics do (especially when you‘ll do a step to the side talking to the piano player – leaving just a little air between your sax mic and the drum kit). So strong bleed might be a knock-out criterion for live use, when loud stages could be on the agenda. Dynamic mics are generally thought to be superior to condenser-type mics in that point. Again, mics like the M201TG, RE-320, RE-20, N/D468 and M99 should give good or superior results.
So it‘s obvious: there are at least 6 points, where the tested mics (and any other mic) could behave in a special – not always anticipated – way: there is really nothing, what could replace the ultimate measure when searching for “the best“ mic for sax live (as it is for all other scopes of mic-applications): take the mic and check it out yourself – at home AND in some different live settings. If you carefully considered pre-selection it will facilitate that by far, save a lot of money (I know what I‘m talking about) and clearly improve results.
12) FINAL VERDICT
So now arriving at the end of the review, I can share my personal rating when searching for a stand-mounted mic for playing sax live (and large-diaphragm-condenser mics and ribbon mics won‘t be the choice (look above) and I had to ignore the Sennheiser MD441, the EV RE-20, the EV N/D468 and the Shure SM7B) and I had to choose only among the mics reviewed here:
Shure SM57: the loser – unnatural high-midrange-heavy sound, very annoying when playing with a bright sax sound.
Shure SM58: a little less annoying compared to the SM57, but still bad.
Sennheiser MD421: unnatural high-midrange heavy, overall superior to the Shure SM57/58, but inferior to the Beyer M99. Annoying response with bright (e.g. Alto-) Sax playing, ok for Baritone.
Beyerdynamic M99: unnatural highmid-high transition but fine high frequency response and detail retrieval. With especially any darker sounding Tenor-sax clearly in the “ok”-zone, but not the best overall choice for sax at all.
ElectroVoice RE-320: unnatural high-frequency boost, but fine detail retrieval and a good option for Baritone and probably darker sounding Tenor players. Not suited for bright Tenor or Alto players in my opinion. Not a good overall Sax-mic.
Røde NT5: balanced and detailed sound with a full frequency response and a only slightly hyped top end. Good option for any Sax (and lots of other instruments).
Beyerdynamic M201TG: the clear winner of that review in many points – foremost in the most important category of sound: natural, smooth, balanced. And besides that: rugged, small, well built, not expensive.
That’s it for now and I hope there are some points of use for some of you. Maybe someday in the future I can try to give an update here about the mics that are missing. Feel free to ask or comment on this old but never ending issue.