Saxophone Microphone Review and Audio Shootout Part 2

Walter Ruckdeschel  wrote a great in-depth review of 8 different stand mounted microphones that can be used for live gigs a number of months ago.  I was so fascinated that I asked him if I could post his finding here for everyone to see.  Walt emailed me today and said that he had just completed part 2 of this comprehensive and detailed live mic review.  I am very interested in his findings and know that many of you are also so here is Part 2……

(Walter Ruckdeschel is a physician by profession.  As a young man, he played violin cello and bass. Walt started playing the saxophone 25 years ago.  Walt has also invested much time and energy into recording, live sound engineering and audio gear along the way………..)

For those who weant even more info and reviews on microphones, make sure you check out Marc Mommas’ mic reviews at recordinghacks.com.

Microphones medium

SUMMIT MEETING OF DYNAMIC MICROPHONES FOR THE SAXOPHONE

1) PREFACE
While searching for a stand-mounted microphone with a combination of ideal features for live-use with saxophone I recently  did a head-to-head-comparison part 1 shootout of some of my current mics. The line-up was: Shure SM58, SM57, Electro Voice RE320, Beyerdynamic M99 & M 201 TG, Sennheiser MD 421, Røde NT5 and as a sort of a “studio“-reference an AKG Perception Tube 820 large diaphragm condenser microphone. Besides important properties like ruggedness, quality of craftsmanship, size, mounting, frequency response and feedback rejection I compared the different mics with emphasis on reproducing the sound of a saxophone in the most natural way (hence avoiding too strong – if any – coloring of sound).  Part 1 Microphone Shootout

As could be anticipated, the Shure SM58 and even more the SM57 could not keep pace with the other (much more expensive) contenders concerning saxophone sound reproduction. The EV RE320 gave mixed results with its strong emphasis in the high frequencies (but otherwise good performance). The EV RE320 could be wanted for dark sounding instruments but it did not give a natural sax sound in my opinion. The Beyer M99 had a clearly more even frequency response without the RE320‘s top-end-hype, but with an uneven response in the high midrange and above, resulting in a colored and not natural sound. The famous Sennheiser MD421 showed strong coloration with a marked boost in a wide range of high mid to high frequencies, resulting in a “cut-through“ type of sound – what would help putting any (e.g. darker sounding) instrument in the front of a live mix, but was far from an unbiased reproduction of the saxophone’s natural sound. There is a long-lasting reputation of the MD 421 as one of the most legendary microphones of all times, and that mainly with use on guitar amps, toms, speech, but also brass and woodwinds. So it‘s obvious: the strong coloration provided by the MD 421 is one of the central aspects of its popularity and many users choose this microphone not despite, but due to its special and biased frequency response.

As an exception in this round, was the Røde NT5.  The Røde NT5 is a microphone that is not frequently used for live saxophone. It performed well and showed a quite even frequency response. This would be desirable for such small-condenser-mics with intended usage for drum overheads, choir and others (by the way: like the NT5, clip-on-microphones for sax also are mostly small-condenser-mics with focus on even frequency response as opposed to strong coloring seen with some dynamic microphones). In the end I found the NT5 to give a good reproduction of the sax sound (and surprisingly low feedback propensity), but without the feeling it would be a first or second choice regarding alternative options and preference of dynamic microphones for live use.

The Beyerdynamic M 201 TG delivered in my opinion the best combination of the most natural sound and some other strongly wanted properties like ruggedness, feedback rejection, (small) size and (affordable) price and is my permanent companion on any stage now.

While I was working on that first round of microphone comparison, I knew it would leave a lot of questions open. The biggest limitation of trying and comparing microphones for live use in a “studio“ setting is exactly that – because such a test should be done live: only then specific properties of some mics would emerge. Unfortunately,  such a head-to-head-live-on-stage comparison is impossible for me at the moment so I have to make the best of the studio comparison. In order to do that, I decided to reduce another limitation of my first shoot-out generated by the unsatisfactory representation of some of the most interesting microphones for live-use with saxophone. I was happy enough to have some nice guys around here (thank you all), who provided me with their mics for this test. Out of the contenders of my first round of mic-shootout (which of course has nothing to do with shooting any mic out) I allowed only a few mics to advance to stage 2 with distinct reasons:

Sennheiser MD 421: considering its outstanding and long lasting reputation and the chance of putting it head-to-head with the MD 441.

Electro Voice RE320: to take the chance of putting it head-to-head with the EV RE20, as there is lack of such a comparison for use with saxophone.

Beyerndynamic M201TG: my personal favorite of round 1. How would that quite tiny microphone perform compared to some of the most appreciated (and much more expensive) dynamic microphones of all times?

2) THE CONTENDERS
As in round 1,  I tested only stand-mounted mics. This time some of the finest choices in that field could be put together. But of course there are other options, which were not included (like e.g. the Beyerdynamic M88TG or the Electro Voice N/D 468). All microphones here share some important common features: “dynamic“ (moving coil) type of construction eliminating need for phantom power, famous and highly distinguished brands, rugged construction, high quality of manufacturing, built in Germany or in the U.S., directivity patterns to reduce feedback propensity, constructed to tolerate high sound pressure levels. Regardless off all these similarities,  there are distinct differences between the microphones.

2.1) Electro Voice RE20
This is by many people thought of as one of the very best dynamic mics ever and a well-known all-time-classic. The RE20 is a used often in broadcast settings in the U.S.  This microphone is a favorite for brass and sax instruments on live stages all over the world and will deliver fine results.  It will take high sound pressure levels (e.g. trumpets or guitar amps) without distortion. Very well built and rugged steel housing, quite flat frequency response with a little emphasis around 8-10kHz, cardioid pickup pattern, switchable low-cut filter and that special and unique “variable D“ technology to minimize off-axis-issues and the proximity effect. The low-cut was switched off for this review. The downside is it‘s medium-high price,  it‘s big size and it’s heavy weight. (You need a really solid stand). I am lucky to know a nice guy (and awesome saxophone player) who lent me his RE20 for this review – many thanks to E.K.!!

2.2) Electro Voice RE320
A few years ago,  Electro Voice released the RE320 as a  younger sister of the RE20 with a similar steel housing and that large diaphragm technology with Variable-D and cardiod directivity.  What is different (besides the stylish black color) compared to the RE20 is: the RE320 features a neodym magnet with higher output, a contour- instead of a high-pass-switch for easy-to-go kickdrum-micing (btw with great results) and a different frequency response with a more pronounced high-boost between 5 and 10kHz (while there is only a small boost in the RE20). The mic was switched to flat (contour off) for this review. The RE320′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 and demanding a really solid stand like the RE20.

2.3) Sennheiser MD 441
Another legendary mic in that “best microphones of all times“ class is the Sennheiser MD 441. It has a very flat and wide frequency response and is thought of as one of the very best dynamic mics ever built – nearly unchanged for a long time and a real classic design like the MD 421. The MD 441 could somehow be thought of as the MD 421‘s more linear sounding sister. There were (like it is with the MD 421) some slightly different versions over the years, the later ones (labeled “U“) with XLR- connector and 5-step-lowcut. The model tested here is a MD 441-U3, which is a unique version completely black and without lowcut (tailored to live/stage use). Opposed to the MD 421’s cardiod pickup-pattern the MD 441 provides a hypercardiod and with that more focused directivity. Another special feature is an option to switch from linear to bright (what will add 2-3dB at 4-13kHz while reducing lower frequencies), originally built in to compensate attenuation of high frequencies caused by wind shield use e.g. in reportage scenarios. When starting the review I had the MD 441 switched linear, but after a while I found the bright setting to be more compelling, and I assume most saxophone (and flute) players would choose that for live playing. All following audio and frequency data are labeled corresponding to the MD 441‘s setting. As a drawback this microphone is quite big and the older models proprietary mounting is a special and not always liked thing (the newer models come with a more sturdy and flexible black plastic mounting as opposed to the older translucent bracket). The MD 441‘s really high price when bought new is a serious limit for broader use, otherwise it should be among the very best choices available. This mic was a loan from a nice guy, great saxophone and outstanding flute player – many thanks to M.R.!!

2.4) Sennheiser MD 421 II
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 build quality with a very rugged construction. It has 5-step bass-rolloff-switch as a nice feature to attenuate the proximity-effect when used for speech/vocals in close distance. The switch was off for this review. The mic 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: cardiod directivity pattern, 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 – and that‘s exactly what it sounds like. I was allowed to borrow this microphone from a friend and great drummer – many thanks to E.R.!!

2.5) Beyerdynamic M 201 TG
A pencil-style microphone with a very even frequency response between 100Hz and 6-7kHz and an only a slight boost (maximum 4dB) in the top region (10kHz). Very compact (but a little bigger compared to most other pencil-style mics), rugged all-metal-construction, perfect manufacturing, small enough to fit in virtually any sax case and not too expensive. Over the years there was a change concerning design, and the current model (M 201 TG for “touring gear“) features an even more rugged housing compared to its predecessor 201 N/C. For audio technicians it is a well-known all round dynamic mic with very good results on a wide range of instruments like snare drum, overheads, percussion, piano, string instruments, woodwinds, amps and quite a number of other applications. This small microphone will excel in cramped conditions and when a decent setup is wanted. Some audio technicians would choose a Beyer 201 to use for virtually any audio source when only one type of microphone would be allowed. While I liked the M 201 TG most in my first shootout, I was eager to see (and hear), how this little microphone would perform in a round of the most serious contenders…………

3) 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 20-25cm (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 “glued“ to the mic, you would 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 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.

4) FREQUENCY RESPONSE SHOWN 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 sometimes strong differences mostly concerning high midrange and high frequencies. Pink noise was given on a KH120 active monitor speaker (with an of course not absolutely even, but close to that frequency response) in front of the mics in 50cm 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 these pictures helps to understand the different sonic characteristics of all these mics. Of course some minor coloring caused by the speaker system is included here, but in exactly the same fashion for all microphones.

spectral analysis medium

Spectrum Analysis

Some of my personal thoughts to that:

EV RE20 shows a quite even frequency response all over the  midrange (for a natural sax sound,  this is important) with a little drop at 4-5kHz and a moderate emphasis at 8-10kHz – the mic data sheets shows an only subtle emphasis here with +1-2dB. So the RE20 should sound very even and natural with just a little “hifi“ type of brightening up.

EV RE320 is quite similar until 4kHz, but there is a much earlier starting, wider and stronger (+4-5dB as stated in the data sheet) high frequency boost, which should result in a more biting sound and will change important frequency regions of any saxophone‘s sound.

MD 441 switched to “neutral“ is just that: very close to a perfectly even frequency response up to 10kHz with a little lack of response 10-13kHz, but the strongest low end response of all mics here. When switched to “bright“ a significant (+2-3dB as stated in the data sheet) and even boost at 4-13kHz comes up with a small attenuation of low frequency response.

MD 421 has a strong (maximum +6-8dB as stated in the data sheet) boost at 4-5 and again at 7-8kHz. So it should give the most biting sound of all microphones here.

M 201 TG shows – very similar to the MD 441 – a quite even response up to 7kHz, while giving a little more midrange-focus at 2-4,5kHz, followed by a very subtle high frequency boost at 9-15kHz (+2dB as stated in the data sheet). The MD 441 switched to “bright“ won‘t give a similar response with a high frequency boost starting much earlier at 4kHz.

When looking to these frequency data and searching for a microphone with a natural reproduction of the saxophone‘s sound, the MD 441 switched to “neutral“ should give the most uncolored and natural sound. The RE20 and the M 201 TG both should give a very natural sound without any significant coloring in the sensitive high mid to high range 4-6,4kHz, while the RE20 will add some clear high frequency emphasis resulting in a brighter sound. The M 201 TG with it‘s slightly stronger midrange and much smaller and higher high frequency boost should sound “warmer“ and less bright – but still a little brighter compared to the MD 441 in neutral setting. Both the RE20 and the M 201 TG should – compared to the MD 441 switched to neutral – allow for just a little better assertiveness and definition on any live stage. The MD 441 switched to “bright“ will expand that moderate high frequency emphasis downwards to the (very) high midrange. The RE320 will give even more bite with its stronger boost in a very similar and wide frequency range, while the MD 421 with its marked and early starting boost will result in the most marked bite of all mics reviewed here and a strongly colored “cut-through“ type of sound. So with just thinking about this data, I would expect the RE20, the M 201 TG and the MD 441 switched to “bright“ to be my favorite mics for live saxophone……..

5) FREQUENCY SPECTRUM OF THE SAXOPHONE
When talking about the frequency response of any microphone – especially concerning really low or high frequencies – some interest in the frequency spectrum delivered by the audio source/instrument should come up. There are some suggestions and resources available (e.g. on the internet) on that issue.

I won‘t reproduce them here, as I decided for a more straightforward approach: I put some audio-clips with baritone, tenor and alto saxophone in my spectrum analyzer software (Presonus Virtual Studio live) and these are the results:

sax spectrum medium

Two of my thoughts here:
1) the Baritone sax starting at around 65Hz could lack fullness with some microphones with a”low cut“ frequency response as e.g. Shure’s SM57 and SM58. Tenor and Alto Sax won’t need such deep frequency power.

2) with some minor differences between the different saxophones and of course type of playing there are high frequencies (harmonics) present up to more than 13kHz: detailed high frequency reproduction until far above 10kHz is urgently needed for any mic for saxophone.

6) LOW FREQUENCY RESPONSE – Baritone Sax special issue
The low frequency reproduction will be of special interest for baritone saxophone playing. So I added a special little analysis here. There was simply a low Bb (68Hz) on baritone recorded with all mics simultaneously and the audio-files put in some frequency analysis software (Steinberg Wavelab Elements).

low frequency response medium

The results:  two of the five microphones had a clearly stronger reproduction of the basic frequency of 68Hz: RE20 and MD 441 (btw while switched to bright). The weakest low frequency reproduction was seen with the RE320 with a significant 5dB attenuation at the fundamental frequency. The MD 421 and M 201 TG both gave more low frequency reproduction, but didn‘t reach the RE20 and MD 441. These measurements were consistent with the subjective listening experience when playing through an active speaker cabinet. On a loud stage with maybe activated low cut filter in the mixing desk possibly that won‘t be of real importance. But: when the full and natural sound of a baritone saxophone would be wanted and e.g. live recording would take place with a direct-out (usually pre-eq directly after the mic-preamp), this could really matter and the clearly fuller sound of the RE20 and MD 441 could be superior for Baritone saxophone.

7) AUDIO FILES
In Round 1 Sax Dry  of the shootout I played some mostly unrelated short phrases with Tenor and Baritone Sax, recorded at the same time with all mics placed very close to each other as written. Since the MD441 will sound really different when switched to “bright“, I decided to record two rounds – “sax dry 1“ with the MD441 normal, “sax dry 2“ with the MD441 switched to “bright“. Don’t let the absence of flowing sax playing disturb you – that’s not the point here. 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 high quality headphones. That’s how you’ll get the best listening conditions to compare the (sometimes big!) differences in detail.
In another part I played – again simultaneously recorded as above – Tenor and Baritone Sax on a rhythm changes tune (labeled “RC”) and Alto Sax on a more funky tune to listen to the differences between these mics in a “band“ type context of playing. For these playback-recordings, some tube-type compression and reverb was applied (of course in exactly the same way) to all Sax-tracks – as it would happen in real life (but again no EQ). (The M201TG in the “funky alto sax“ contest sounds a little dull to my ears and maybe I generated some off-axis problems while playing too close to the mics here.)

(*all clips by Walt Ruckdeschel)

 Round 1 Sax Dry: (MD 441 on normal setting) *all clips by Walt Ruckdeschel

1. Electro Voice RE-20 Sax Dry

2. Electro Voice RE-320 Sax Dry

3. Sennheiser MD-421 Sax Dry

4. Sennheiser MD-441 Sax Dry (Normal)

5. BeyerDynamic M201TG Sax Dry

Round 2 Sax Dry: (MD 441 on “Bright” setting) *all clips by Walt Ruckdeschel

1. Electro Voice RE-20 Sax Dry 2

2. Electro Voice RE-320 Sax Dry 2

3. Sennheiser MD-421 Sax Dry 2

4. Sennheiser MD-441 Sax Dry 2 (Bright)

5. BeyerDynamic M201TG Sax Dry 2

Round 2 Funky Alto Sax: *all clips by Walt Ruckdeschel

1. Electro Voice RE-20 Funky Alto

2. Electro Voice RE-320 Funky Alto

3. Sennheiser MD-421 Funky Alto

4. Sennheiser MD-441 Funky Alto

5. BeyerDynamic M201TG Funky Alto

Round 3 Tenor Sax on Rhythm Changes: *all clips by Walt Ruckdeschel

1. Electro Voice RE-20 Tenor Sax on Rhythm Changes

2. Electro Voice RE-320 Tenor Sax on Rhythm Changes

3. Sennheiser MD-421 Tenor Sax on Rhythm Changes

4. Sennheiser MD-441 Tenor Sax on Rhythm Changes

5. BeyerDynamic M201TG Tenor Sax on Rhythm Changes

Round 4 Baritone Sax on Rhythm Changes: *all clips by Walt Ruckdeschel

1. Electro Voice RE20 Baritone Sax on Rhythm Changes

2. EV RE-320 Baritone Sax on Rhythm Changes

3. Sennheiser MD-421 Baritone Sax on Rhythm Changes

4. Sennheiser MD-441 Baritone Sax on Rhythm Changes

5. BeyerDynamic M201TG Baritone Sax on Rhythm Changes

*all clips by Walt Ruckdeschel

8) THE RESULTS – by listening to the recordings
Of course the following thoughts are my very personal thoughts –  You might have quite different impressions and thoughts (and that’s what it’s all about here: Please listen and build your own thoughts and opinions). As the criterion of utmost importance I concentrated on what I would rate as the most natural sound of the saxophone.

8.1) Electro Voice RE20
A full and detailed sound with a noticeable high range emphasis – but while delivering some “brightening up“ the core of sound stays neutral and the overall impression is a quite natural sound with some nice and airy brightness without annoying “cut“ or shrillness.

8.2) Electro Voice RE320
A detailed sound with a strong sparkling high end – a clearly noticeable and unnatural high-boost. Compared to the RE20, the RE320 has some lack of low frequency response and a more cutting high end and with that a clearly less natural sound. I had the word “metallic“ in my mind when thinking about it’s character of sound.

8.3) Sennheiser MD 441
In neutral setting, the sound is all about that – neutral. I think especially it’s fullness – while giving detailed mid and high range without any coloration or high range hype – is very nice. Compared to the M201TG, more the RE20 and even more the RE320 and MD421, there is no high frequency emphasis at all. Switched to “bright“ things change quite a bit with a little thinner and clearly brighter sound, but without getting in the “bite“ zone.

8.4) Sennheiser MD 421
Among all contenders, the MD421 was the least neutral sounding microphone, and from that point of view I didn’t like it overall. There were some aspects where I could imagine to produce fine results with some EQ. But if I had to choose only one of the mics reviewed here for recording saxophone – I wouldn’t use the MD421 considering the other much more neutral sounding mics. Of course that won’t cut down it’s well known applications for studio-recording (e.g. toms, guitar cabs) and live applications (e.g. toms, guitar cabs, trombone).

8.5) Beyerdynamic M 201 TG
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. And that’s what it sounds like – very natural, with a slightly emphasized high end but never becoming shrill or unnatural. There’s some lack of fullness/low frequencies compared to the RE20 and even more the MD441 switched neutral, but on the other side the M201TG is a little brighter as the MD441 switched neutral with a somewhat “airy“ sound and I like it’s high end more compared to the MD441 switched to “bright“.

9) SUBJECTIVE IMPRESSIONS – while playing through any mic!
The subjective feeling concerning the different microphones might be different when listening to a record as opposed to the very moment while playing and listening to oneself via headphones or an active speaker cabinet. So I played tenor and baritone sax 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:

9.1) Electro Voice RE20
Full, balanced, well defined sound with a moderate and pleasant high frequency emphasis. It gave me a very confident feeling of a natural, full and well defined sax sound with a nice “airy“ high end.

9.2) Electro Voice RE320
Compared to the RE20: a clearly thinner sound with some lack of fullness while giving more (and lower starting) high frequency emphasis. I didn‘t like that with tenor sax, but with baritone it gave a nice cutting sound. But: in the end and overall I liked the RE20 more for its fullness, balanced sound and more pleasant character of high frequencies. I don‘t know how it would be on any loud stage. I recognized a little more tendency to high frequency feedback with the RE320 compared to the other mics.

9.3) Sennheiser MD 441
Switched to neutral, this mic was all about that: balanced, even response from a full bottom to the top. In a silent setting with only me playing sax I liked that a lot, but I think the “bright“ setting would give more definition in a live-setting especially on louder stages and many players would prefer that. Switched to bright, a little low frequency punch was lost and a wide range of high frequencies emphasized, while staying balanced. Compared to the RE20, I couldn‘t rate one of the two as a winner: both sounded great and gave a balanced, detailed and natural sax-sound with some differences concerning high range emphasis.

9.4) Sennheiser MD 421
As it was anticipated, the MD421 was the brightest sounding of all mics here. It gave clearly more bite than every other mic with a focus in the lower high frequencies, and it sounded clearly less full compared to the RE20 and MD441. In my silent “studio“ setting, I liked it clearly less compared to all other mics with tenor (especially with bright/contemporary style of playing) and also with baritone, but on a loud stage this could change and its strong cut-through properties might be wanted – but I would prefer the RE20, MD441 and M201TG for settings, where a more natural sax sound would be wanted. Compared to the RE320, the type of bite is a little different – the MD421 gives more emphasis starting in the high midrange into lower high frequencies with a really “biting“ sound, while the RE320 has a more neutral midrange and high midrange with a high range emphasis I would describe as “crisp“ or “sharp“. Both are bright sounding mics, comparing and rating them is a matter of taste.

9.5) Beyerdynamic M 201 TG
It gave a nice feeling of a natural sax sound, but there were some distinct differences compared to the RE20 and MD441: the M201TG has some less fullness and a little more midrange emphasis, resulting in a “warm“ – but a little thinner – type of sound, compared to the RE20 (and the MD441 switched to bright) with less high frequency emphasis. The MD441 switched to neutral gave a fuller, more “solid“ sound. I liked the M201TG here as I do when I use it live, but if I could choose I would prefer the RE20 and MD441.

10) LIMITATIONS OF MY SHOOTOUT

10.1) It‘s a test (only) in a “studio“-setting with microphones that will be used live in many (but not all) cases. Some details of performance and distinct differences will emerge in a different way only in a live-setting on any stage, and in that case even more aspects will matter: style of music, loudness‚ monitor system, individual saxophone-sound and personal taste.

10.2) 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.

10.3) I didn‘t show off-axis behavior. 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.

10.4) I didn‘t check feedback issues here under “stage“-conditions. 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 monitor speaker systems (don‘t bring your large diaphragm condenser mic to a rock stage for sax playing……). But: all the mics reviewed here should perform quite well concerning feedback issues. The MD441’s and M201TG tight pickup patterns could give extra advantages in some situations. And especially the MD441 has a high reputation concerning very low feedback propensity.

10.5) 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 and all mics tested here should give good or superior results.

So it‘s obvious: there are at least 5 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 live sax (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. A carefully considered pre-selection could facilitate that by far, save a lot of money and improve results.

11) FINAL VERDICT

Well before starting this review, there was no doubt about the superior quality and reputation of all the microphones tested here. So this review was more about looking for differences and special properties of the different contenders,  not an assessment of quality-aspects. Versatility is one of the major features of quality of all these microphones included here. All of them will perform fine in various situations and could be used for many different settings and instruments. But of course,  there are special characteristics and differences, which could result in preferential use of any microphone for distinct conditions: all of them are good, but some are even better for special purposes. And sometimes – or always – it will be a matter of personal taste…

My personal thoughts after finishing that comparison:

Sennheiser MD 421: unnatural high-mid- and high range heavy. The cutting sound of the MD421 will be well appreciated live for many instruments, and it holds it’s well-earned place in studios as a first choice for recording toms and guitar-amps – and on any live stage for placing lots of instruments in front of the mix, when a cutting type of sound is wanted. But reproducing a natural sound of the saxophone is by far not the mission here.  I would not want to play some acoustic/jazz type of gig using the MD421. I could imagine nice results not only live for darker instruments like trombone, but there are much better choices for recording saxophone in studio-settings.

Sennheiser MD 441: balanced, full and natural sound – the most neutral of all mics here. Switched to “bright“ some wide and nice high range emphasis, what might be loved e.g. by flute-players. With the “bright“ switch it’s like two microphones in one package. Understandably it holds it’s well-earned place as a first choice when it comes to sax and flutes on any live-stage, but it might be used for lots of other purposes and recording as well (while of course there are lots of alternative options in studio settings). And there are musicians loving it’s unique retro-design…

Electro Voice RE20: balanced, full and natural sound with a nice sparkling high end. Compared to the MD441 neutral it’s clearly brighter (in a kind way), and I liked it’s high range more compared to the MD441 switched to “bright“ (a matter of taste of course). The RE20 has it all: full bottom, natural body of sound and a crisp but not too sharp high end. Understandably it holds it’s well earned place as a first choice when it comes to sax on any live-stage, but it might be used for lots of other purposes and recording as well (while of course there are lots of alternative options in studio settings).

ElectroVoice RE320: unnatural high-frequency boost, and with that delivering a sound far from neutral, but with strong “brightening-up“. This could be wanted for instruments like e.g. baritone saxophone or trombones. The EQ- switch allows plug-and-play kickdrum-micing with great results. Considering some alternative options, I wouldn’t rate the RE320 as a first choice for an every-day saxophone microphone. But it’s a great microphone for many purposes and among them some special saxophone-applications on live stages.

Beyerdynamic M 201 TG: my personal winner of part one of my shootout of stand mounted microphones for saxophone live could hold up quite well in this hard competition with much bigger and more expensive contenders. It delivers a natural, smooth and balanced sound with just a little amount of nice and airy high range emphasis. Compared to the RE20 and MD441 it sounds like it looks – thinner with some lack of low frequencies. The MD441 is clearly fuller when switched neutral, but a little more biting when switched to “bright“.

Not surprisingly, the M201TG won’t be number one on the winner’s podium in such a competition, but considering it’s fairly moderate price, smallness, ruggedness and great versatility – it keeps it’s place in my sax-case as my number one mic-to-go. When there would be the option to have a RE20 or MD441 in front of me, I would love to compare them side-by-side with the M201TG and probably prefer one of them on that stage.  When playing baritone sax in a funk/soul-band on a loud stage, I’d love to give the MD421 or RE320 a try.

12) LAST WORDS
After writing this review: when I would go shopping for only one microphone for playing saxophone live and size and weight won’t be the problem: I’d choose between the RE20 and the MD441. Considering the RE20’s much lower price when bought new and it’s very good plug-and-play (while the MD441 has these two different options of sound…) sound for sax, this would be my personal first choice among all the mics I reviewed in part one and two. Considering all these aforementioned points, I would – if I should – rate the RE20 as “the best“ dynamic microphone for saxophone so far. But a rating like “the best“ should be avoided, because all these mics here are great for different purposes, situations and musicians.

Considering the RE20’s size and weight, the M201TG stays in my sax-case… and the best thing to have would be a mic case with all the microphones tested here, and preferably more than one M201TG considering it’s versatility.
That’s it so far, and I‘m deeply grateful that I had the chance to get all these microphones simultaneously on my desk (again many thanks to some friends). I hope some points will be of use for somebody. And it would be terrific to add a stage 3 comparison concerning clip-on-microphones for saxophone playing sometimes in the future….

Walter

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Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site Neffmusic.com.

Comments

  1. Nice review.
    MD-421 – “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.”
    FYI: I’ve found that the 421 will fit into a cheap $15 On-Stage Stands MY410 clamp shock mount (normally used for condensers). The mic holds solidly rightside-up or upside-down. I’ll never use the clip mount again….

  2. What? The MD-421 fits FINE on every mic stand I have tried mine on.

    “I could imagine nice results not only live for darker instruments like trombone, but there are much better choices for recording saxophone in studio-settings.” Strange, the mic is all over the place. Look at the Saturday Night Live band with Lenny Pickett from the 90s. That is a 421 there. Sounds AWESOME.

    So…..like the last time this “test” or “review” was done, I wonder about the validity of it…..

  3. Hi Tim,
    that’s a great and really useful hint. thank You very much!
    Walter

  4. Hi Ericdano,
    of course the MD421’s clamp fits on any mic stand – everybody knows that and that’s not a point of discussion. But it’s proprietary stand mounting isn’t everybody’s darling: it tends to wear down with time (e.g. I had to fix the MD421 with some tape to avoid falling off the mounting), and the mic won’t fit in any “standard” type of microphone clamp. The original replacement part is around € 44,- in europe, but in any case of emergency some tape will be needed….
    And I know You like the MD421 a lot and that’s what many people do with good reasons.
    But that doesn’t change all the aspects – especially concerning frequency response – I tried to demonstrate here.
    And of course You haven’t to think of my work as reliable – the very best way for people seriously interested would be to take a bunch of microphones to some live gigs and studio sessions and compare them themselves.
    And real awesomeness of any record or live performance is mainly a result of: what’s going on in front of any microphone. Any mic will only be an – of course important – tool, and there will always be some different fine choices.
    Walter

  5. Thanks so much for the thoughtful and thorough mic review. I have been using an RE-20 for many years on my Mark IV tenor, Martin soprano, and more recently, on vocals. Mic placement is absolutely key: I find the best response with the mic placed about 6″ from the bell, pointed slightly up towards the body. An inch or two off from that axis results in a lot of high frequency loss.

    All of the sax parts on my site I recorded with my RE-20 straight into a Digi 003 interface with no other outboard gear. No EQ was or compression was used. The vocals on the first track, “Beautiful Tears” were also recorded in that manner.

    Sincerely,
    Hal McMillen
    Music: halmcmillen.com
    email: hal@halmcmillen.com

  6. Hi Hal, thank Your for Your comment! Just listened to Your recordings (sounding great), and that brings up the question: how would the RE20 (with a really good preamp maybe) compare directly to some much-valued mics like (among many others of course) Neumann U47/U87, AKG 414/C12VR, Brauner Panthera, Coles or Royer Labs ribbon mics or lots of more affordable mid-class “studio”-mics when it comes to sax recording in a studio-setting – a good question particularly for sax-players with a tight budget and a need for one all-purpose-mic live on stage and at (home-) studio…

  7. I would recommend anyone interested in this subject to check Mark Mommaas’ great 3 part mic shootout: http://recordinghacks.com/2011/10/17/the-quest-for-the-ultimate-live-sax-microphone/

    (Spoiler: winner is the Royer R122 ribbon mic)

  8. Hi Vic,
    thank Your for that hint – yes absolutely! Marc Mommaa’s review is an outstanding contribution as I pointed out in part one and nobody interested in this subject should miss it.

  9. Avatar Owen Thomas says

    This was really useful in helping me choose a mic for recording in a small, treated home studio, in which I was having a couple issues when using my vocal condensor mic: (a) too much proximity effect; but (b) too much room sound if I backed off the mic.

    The RE20 addressed both these issues phenomenally well: no annoying proximity boost and, ironically, less room sound even if I did back of the mic by about a foot. Win win.

  10. I have been using M201TGs for saxophone ‘spot’ / solo mics in a big band I both play in and have been recording live. I found the 201 to have a good frequency response for both tenor and alto (though I didn’t have anything to compare it to in my specific situation). Basically I say that because it didn’t need much EQ to sound good. But, I found it to need a bit more preamp gain in my situation. More importantly for me the M201TG is very directional and I could control leakage very nicely in a live performance situation which might be an advantage over a couple of the other mics. For me, I think I’m going to continue to mic my sax section with M201TGs on alto and tenor (I wanted to add it also sounds very good on flute) and an RE20 on bari, and if I stumble on an MD441 for the right price I might pick it up. Thanks very much for the excellent comparison!!

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