The Acoustic Guitar Single Mic Mono Test

I got a few mics in my mic locker now so I thought I’d pitch them against eachother in a quick test. This test features the following mics on acoustic guitar:

  • Milab DC-96B
  • Røde NT1-A
  • Røde NT5
  • sE Electronics GM10
  • Sennheiser e935
  • Sennheiser MK8
  • Shure KSM 141

I’ve tested one mic at a time.

Method

I put up each mic in front of the soundhole with a vocal screen behind it to reduce bad room noise. The distance from mic to guitar was about ~35 centimeters. I recorded each mic with both steel string and nylon string acoustics, playing something with both picking and strumming.

I’m a sloppy player and I wasn’t really going for a polished performance, so sorry about that beforehand. Anyways, it’s good enough for a sound comparison.

Download the whole shebang

If you want, you can download the recordings and listen on your favorite mp3 player. I’ve cleverly given the files non-descriptive filenames so you won’t know which recording is which mic until you check the included text file.

This way, you can make an unbiased opinion.

Category : Nylon string guitar

My guitar is a Merida Extrema. Here are the recordings. The guitar is not as loud as the steel string and I didn’t bother adjusting level when switching guitars, so I had to up volume more on these files compared to the steel string in order to get similar volume.

Milab DC-96B (LDC, cardioid)

Røde NT1-A (LDC, cardioid)

Røde NT5 (SDC, cardioid)

sE Electronics GM10 (SDC, cardioid)

Sennheiser e935 (Dynamic, cardioid)

Sennheiser MK8 (LDC, in cardioid pattern)

Shure KMS 141 (SDC, cardioid pattern)

Shure KMS 141 (SDC, omni pattern)

So which one do you prefer? I definitely have my favorite, but I think I’ll wait a bit before I tell. Perhaps you wanna make up your mind before you read on. Oh, the suspense!

Category : Steel string guitar

My guitar here is a Seagull S6 Cedar. Great projection, slightly boomy and there’s some harsh tinnyness that might be better tamed. How do the mics respond to the challenge?

Milab DC-96B (LDC, cardioid)

Røde NT1-A (LDC, cardioid)

Røde NT5 (SDC, cardioid)

sE Electronics GM10 (SDC, cardioid)

Sennheiser e935 (Dynamic, cardioid)

Sennheiser MK8 (LDC, in cardioid pattern)

Shure KMS 141 (SDC, cardioid pattern)

Shure KMS 141 (SDC, omni pattern)

Let me know if you have a favorite.

Results

When something is different, it’s often hard to decide if that means it’s better. However, after a quick listen-through, I do have some thoughts on the mics.

Blind test update: I believe it’s easy to kid oneself with preconceived notions and so I tried listening again a day after writing to all takes while taking notes on the sound. I’ve added my blind test notes under each mic.

Milab DC-96B

Milab DC-96B, the perfect match to a nylon string guitar?
Milab DC-96B, the perfect match to a nylon string guitar?

For some reason, this mic just works with my nylon guitar. I don’t know about you, but to me, it is clearly ahead of the competition. It’s like it mellows out what could be harsh, but without muddying it. It seems to accentuate the sound of the strings while masking all the other nasty sounds / mistakes I make. Very nice!

It’s also nice on steel string. Is it the nicest? Not sure, but probably in the top two or three.

Blind test notes

  • Nylon – rounded, pleasant, suitably punchy strumming
  • Steel – soft, pleasant pickings, full and warm strumming sound

Røde NT1-A

The Røde NT1-A is nice on the wallet, but how does it compare here?
The Røde NT1-A is nicely priced, but how does it compare here?

I hope my opinion is not colored by the price of this mic (relatively cheap which is great for the budget-minded home studio owner), but I do feel it is outclassed. However, less so on the nylon string guitar where it does a decent job. On steel strings, there is some nice definition and clearness going on in the picking patterns. However, I feel like I’m hearing some unflattering harshness.

Blind test notes

  • Nylon – Defined/clear, boxy vibe, non-flattering, not good
  • Steel – Defined, a bit harsh, tinny strange top end

Røde NT5

Røde's reasonably priced NT5 is transparently honest about my performance
Røde’s reasonably priced NT5 is transparently honest about my performance

The Røde is a smaller, cheaper SDC and so ends up in the same class of mic as the GM10 and the KSM 141s. It has a reputation for being somewhat somewhat bright and so may be better at distance micing.

On nylon guitar, I think it sounds okay on the picking pattern, but on the strumming part, I think the difference in quality between this and f.ex the shure KSM 141 becomes evident.

On steel strings, there’s something I don’t quite like in the top strings of the picking pattern, kinda boxy sounding. It’s slightly harsh and accentuates my flaws, but sounds better when strumming. Possibly it outperforms the GM10 on nylon, but not on steel string. The KSM 141 in cardioid sounds better on both guitars to my ears.

Blind test notes

  • Nylon – defined, but less flattering (comparing to DC-96B)
  • Steel – snappy pickings, nice and clear strumming, but accentuates my bad playing. Good if I could get a perfect take?

Se Electronics GM10

The GM10 prefers steel to nylon
The GM10 prefers steel to nylon

I think this mic hates my nylon guitar. Eyuuch .. Or is it just me?

But I actually quite like it on steel strings. It’s a bit bright and perhaps ever so slightly tinny, but I like the clearness and definition. For me, it works. Whether it works in a mix, I am a little unsure.

Blind test notes

  • Nylon – careful, cautious, distant, but pleasant.
  • Steel – Thorough clarity and not in a bad way

It seems I was less damning about its performance on the nylon the second time during the blind test.

Sennheiser e935

The Sennheiser e935 has a good reputation on vocals
The Sennheiser e935 has a good reputation on vocals

It’s a dynamic! What’s it doing here? Sticks out with some meaty proximity effect (big lows) and a bit thin highs, but it’s a sound that can work. It sounds big, but I think I made the mistake of micing this closer than the other mics as I had forgotten about it and had to re-setup everything to get it after I’d done the other recordings.

The picking pattern on the nylon guitar sound particularly meaty here. I’m surprised at how much I like it. However, I don’t think it’s a good match with my steel string guitar.

Blind test notes

  • Nylon – defined pickings, meaty strummings, quite nice
  • Steel – defined, clear, slightly harsh

Sennheiser MK8

The versatile MK8 reminds me of the turrets from Portal
The versatile MK8 reminds me of the turrets from Portal

I think I generally like this, both on the nylon and the acoustic guitar. I got the levels a bit low and had to up master a bit to match the others, so bit of a mistake there. It sounds fairly transparent to my ears which may not be the best sound in any situation, but there’s also some pleasantness going on – a few magic sprinkles.

On steel strings, I think this may be the best strumming sound I got. However, there’s something a little off with the highest note of the picking pattern. Possibly a different polar pattern next time?

Blind test notes

  • Nylon – Nice pickings and well defined strumming, but not the most flattering of the bunch
  • Steel – Better than 1 [refers to Røde NT1-A], full sounding and pretty nice strumming

Shure KSM 141

You can switch between cardioid and omni on the Shure KSM 141
You can switch between cardioid and omni patterns on the Shure KSM 141

In cardioid, this mic tames the high end a bit in the arpeggios. Check out the difference between this and the sE Electronics GM10. It evens out the guitar a bit, perhaps. In omni, it sounds a little brighter and more open. According to my blind test, it seems I prefer the cardioid sound at this setup.

The KSM 141 is possibly my second favorite on nylon after the DC-96B.

Blind test notes on cardioid

  • Nylon – rounded, adequately deep and detailed. Nice.
  • Steel – snappy pickings, pleasant, fairly flattering strumming without enhancing my mistakes too much

Blind test notes on omni

  • Nylon – defined, enhances mistakes [compared to DC-96B]
  • Steel – Somewhat tamed top, roomy strumming

Final words

At this point, I am suffering so much from listening fatigue that I can no longer judge what sounds good and what doesn’t. My ears are spent. I’ll probably listen some more in the future and edit this post.

I am also aware that this test will favour certain mics. Some probably don’t like to be pointed at the sound hole and would rather point at the neck joint or somewhere else. However, I can say that I am generally pleased with the Milab DC-96B which I feel gives the most impressive performance allround, particularly on nylon string guitar where it simply reigns supreme to my ears. It’s also good on steel strings.

The Shure KSM 141 also works well on both guitars, perhaps slightly more so on the nylon to my tastes, and I’m looking forward to stereo micing these.

Mics for nylon guitar

The Milab DC-96B is great here. I also like the Shure KMS 141 a lot. Surprisingly, the dynamic Sennheiser e935 also works well.

Mics for steel string guitar

I like the Milab DC-96B, the Sennheiser MK8, the sE Electronics GM10, the Shure KSM 141 in cardioid and the Røde NT5. It’s not entirely clear to me which is the better except I like the strumming on the MK8 and the picking patterns on the DC-96B. The KSM 141 seems to do everything well here, if not best at either picking or strumming.

What did you think? Leave a comment, dudes and dudettes.

New mics : Shure KSM 141 and Sennheiser MK8

 

Here’s a quick update to document my latest mic purchases. On sunday 26th, I got a couple of used Shure KSM 141s for 5500 NOK. These are small condenser mics with switchable omni / cardioid pattern and are quite reputable, especially for acoustic guitar. I’ve yet to test them, but from what I’ve read, they have accentuated, sweet mids and the highs are not harsh. I’m hoping they will be go-to SDCs for close-micing guitars while my NT5s (which I assume are brighter) will be used more for overhead and distance micing.

Shure KSM 141 in its case
Shure KSM 141 in its case

Yesterday, I got my new Sennheiser MK8 which is a sort of replacement for a defect Milab DC-96B which I recently purchased and sent back (bought two, so still have a working DC-96B). The Sennheiser MK8 is packed full of features that make it seem like it can do anything, a true workhorse. I got a shockmount with it, but was a little disappointed that I didn’t get a pop screen. I put the MK8 to a quick test on acoustic steel stringed and loved it there. I’m sure it also sounds great on vocals. On nylon, I preferred the DC-96B on nylon, but much more on that later.

Sennheiser MK8 on the MKS4 shockmount

The Torden Studio Mic Locker now looks like this:

  • 2 x Røde NT1-A (LDC)
  • 2 x Røde NT5 (SDC, matched pair)
  • 2 x Shure KSM 141 (SDC)
  • 1 x Sennheiser e935 (DYN)
  • 1 x Sennheiser MK8 (LDC)
  • 1 x Milab DC-96B (LDC)
  • 1 x sE Electronics GM10 (SDC)

I’ve yet to try the KSM 141s, but I have put the MK8 to a quick test and I liked it very much. However – more on that later as I will pitch these mics against eachother in various tests very soon.

Bought a broken Milab DC-96B

I read some good reviews about the Milab DC-96B and a used pair (not matched) from the late 90s were being sold on sound1.com (they sell both new and second-hand). After thinking about it and being in contact with their seller, I decided to buy. These are not cheap mics, but due to their age, I got them for half price.

This is how the mics were packed
This is how the mics were packed

When they finally arrived, I was a bit worried. The package contained a Milab case and the above picture shows what was inside. There was little padding around the milab case (only on one side) and the mics themselves were not protected inside the milab case.

Sure enough, further inspection showed the mesh on one of the mics to be dented.

Milab DC-9B mesh
The mesh on the left side of this Milab DC-96B is dented

A damaged mesh can hurt sound quality, but it can also be an indication of more serious problems. I connected both mics to my Roland UA1610 soundcard and ran the auto sense which is a feature that automatically sets the sensitivity for mics. Right away, I could see the dented mic acting weird. It seemed like it was much less sensitive than the other. At equal preamp levels, while the signal was bouncing happily on one mic, the other seemed almost dead. Almost, but not quite.

I put on my headphone monitors and listened to the damaged mic. Immediately apparent was some oscillating self-noise, much too loud for the mic to be of any use. I changed the preamp and the cable and while the self-noise changed, it was still there. I recorded both preamps and cables and made an MP3 of it.

The mic is clearly broken and I was very disappointed.

I contacted sound1.com about it and they refused to replace a used DC-96B with a new one (or the DC-96C or the DC196). However, after a bit of haggling, they agreed to replace the broken mic with a Sennheiser MK8 with a MKS4 shock mount, but I also have to pay them a little extra (1990 NOK). Of course, I’d much rather have two working Milab DC-96Bs for the price I’d already paid, but it’ll be interesting to see what I can do with the MK8.

I’m wondering if the working DC-96B (which sounds pretty sweet through my headphone monitors) could be an interesting match with the MK8 for side micing. Next sound test, I’ll probably try this out along with various other arrangements.

Adding alarm to Reaper’s JS Channel Phase Meter

I recently wrote a post about phasing problems; why they occur, what they do, how to avoid them and how to spot them visually in your DAW. Since then, I’ve found another simple way for Reaper users to detect if there are any phasing problems in their mix – by using a modified version of JS Channel Phase Meter which comes packed with reaper. I imagine this method is most useful for projects with a lot of audio, such as those mixing sound for movies (which Reaper now is useful for) and the like.

JS Channel Phase Meter is a simple plugin by Michael Gruhn that lets you monitor mono / stereo channels to check for out-of phasedness. It’s made so you can sit and watch it as you play back and see if your “in phase” becomes “out of phase”. But what if your mix only was out of phase for a short while and you missed it? In this post, user Tale on the Cockos Confederated Forums has a simple solution on how to add an alarm to JS Channel Phase Meter. I’ll explain his solution here which is about adding some simple code to the plugin.

DISCLAIMER: This could screw up JS Channel Phase Meter. You’ve been warned.

1. Load up JS Channel Phase Meter

Load up FX on a track that receives the sound you want to scan for phase problems, for example a folder track that contains your recordings. Then click FX and load JS Channel Phase Meter. It comes packaged with Reaper.

2. Modify JS Channel Phase Meter

After you’ve loaded it up, take a look at it and click edit.

channel phase meter

This will let you look at and modify the plugin’s code. This is where you make Tale’s modifications.

First, find the list of sliders (slider1, slider2, slider3, etc) and add a new line containing the following code:

slider5:0<0,1,1{Never,At Least Once}>Out Of Phase

Then we’re gonna replace a few lines. Find the following code:

phase > 0 ? slider3=1:slider3=0;

Replace it with this:

phase > 0 ? slider3=1:(slider3=0;slider5=1);

Then find the following code:

sliderchange(1+2+4);

And replace it with this:

sliderchange(1+2+4+16);

After that, you should have gotten a new drop-down menu in your plugin that’ll say if the plugin has detected phase cancellation at least once.

3. Put it to work

Once the new code is up and running, simply play your sound. You don’t have to pay attention – once JS Channel Phase Meter has noticed something is amiss, the bottom drop-down menu will say so. Below, I’ve triggered an alarm simply by reversing phase on one of the mics in my stereo-mic setup.

The drop-down at the bottom indicated there's been a phasing problem at least once
The drop-down at the bottom indicated there’s been a phasing problem at least once

So there you go. Thanks to Michael Gruhn for the plugin and user Tale from the Cockos forum for this simple solution.

Tune in to my latest test

While listening through some shabby recordings made with a mobile phone during band rehearsals last year, I thought the lo-fi sound added some charm to one of our latest songs. I thought the song might sound good with a Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here style intro (where a guy plays along to a radio). I just wanted to try it out – sketch the idea out, basically – so I made one with the help of a free Radio FX VST (downloadable from VST 4 FREE).

The way I did it was to record an acoustic guitar intro, render that to wav, load it back in the Radio FX VST and record that as a pre-FX on a track. Then I EQed it, removing most of about ~200 and below and 5k and up. I ran the radio FXed track next to just a wav, so that I could adjust the wet/dry radio effect by adjusting the volume on the two tracks.

The guitar was recorded using the mic setup featured in my previous post about phase cancellation.

As the intro hits the first refrain, the radio sound is gone and I added some flute from Orange Tree Samples’ Passion Flute which I just bought and also some cello from Session Strings that I got when I recently purchased Komplete 10.

Check it out, yo!

A quick peek at phasing problems

I’ve been aware that there is such a thing as phasing problems and that they can arise when recording with more than one mic. Phasing problems are so that the more mics you use, the more aware you need to be. In my recordings, the number of mics has increased over time so it was time for a quick peek at this potential obstacle.

What’s a phasing problem?

I only know about these problems in theory, which (in naive, simple terms) is that a sound can be described as a wave with a top and a bottom. A single wave can’t have a phasing problem with itself, but lets say you get the same exact sound from two sources; the waves from each source could meet. What happens when they meet?

If the two sound waves are perfectly aligned (tops align with tops, bottoms with bottoms), then the sound would be amplified. If the sound waves are perfectly out of sync (tops align with bottoms), the waves would cancel eachother out.

Such cancellation has its uses, for example in quieting headphones which cancel out background noise from the room. They do so by listening to incoming background noise and then playing the same sound with inverted phase, thus cancelling it out. Phase cancellation has also been used to generate karaoke tracks, by “phasing out” the vocals on a recording.

Talking mics

For microphones, you can think of it like this: A condenser microphone has a diaphragm which moves back and forth when hit by sound. If you have two microphones, you wanna make sure that the diaphragm moves similarly for both mics. If the backwards movements of the diaphragm of one mic coincide with the forwards movements on another mic, playing back the sound of each mic together would likely cause some phasing cancellation or phasing problems. We don’t want that.

Prevention

There are some basic tips on how to avoid phasing problems. The most basic ones seem to be these:

  • Reduce the number of mics
  • Make sure the distance from mic to source is the same for all mics
  • OR – 3:1 ratio mic distance. If mic 1 has distance A from the source, you can place mic 2 at a distance of 3 x A away from mic 1 and it should be okay (unsure of how relevant this is for guitar recording, but I guess one mic pointed at the sound hole and another off the side in the neck area)
  • When screening for phasing (monitoring through headphones f.ex), listen to the sound in mono (stereo alleviates phasing problems).
  • If two sources are perfectly out of phase, the problem can be perfectly remedied by inverting the phase of one of the sources. Sometimes there will be a button or switch to do this on a mic and you can often do it in your DAW.

Discovering phasing problems

Phasing problems cause reductions in volume. When listening to stereo, phasing problems tend to remove sounds centered towards the middle of the stereo image. Sometimes, reverbs or delays can also cause phasing problems, for example that the sound of a guitar gets cancelled out so you mostly just hear the reverb.

But how about more subtle phasing problems that are hard to hear? Is there a way to find these?

I made an attempt at this and it seems quite simple to visually screen for phasing problems if you use a digital audio workstation (DAW). I use Reaper and after recording a single open A string on my guitar with several mics, I could check the wave files in the software and look for any out-of-syncedness that might have occurred.

I had made a new, simple mic rig with two stereo setups. At the bottom, closest to the guitar, I had a couple of Røde NT1-As set up as a stereo-pair. At the top, I had a matched pair of Røde NT5s. The rig pretty much satisfies the recommended 3:1 ratio where the distance between the NT5 pair and the NT1-A pair is about three times that of the distance between the NT1-As and the guitar.

phasing-rig

BUT, I also threw my GM10 in there for a 5 mic total. The GM10 was rigged at relative close proximity from the strings and was my main suspect for phasing problems.

In reaper, the sound of my guitar’s A string looked like this:

phase problem 1

When looking at the above image, see the first red line. It overlays wave tops on all the top four mics (NT1-As and NT5), but not the bottom one (GM10). As suspected, the GM10 is out of phase. Not completely, but still.

Is it audible? I don’t even know, but I wanted to try and fix the problem. I simply repositioned the GM10 back a little, maybe a couple of centimetres or so. Then I recorded an open A again and the problem seems to have improved quite a bit.

phase problem 2

Did it matter much? Unfortunately, I don’t know, because right after this, my daughter’s full diaper demanded my attention and that was the end of my phasing experiment. However, I discovered the following:

  • The NT1-A and NT5 mics are well aligned in my rig
  • It was easy to screen for the problem visually using Reaper
  • The phasing problem behaved predictably; I thought it would be the GM10 – and it was

To be on the safe side, I’ll probably do this in the future.

Perhaps someone out there knows how big a deal a phasing problem like what I first had with my GM10 is? Feel free to leave me a comment.