MXL Mics offer "sound" choices for audio applications
By Jim Bray
USB microphones are a dime a dozen these days, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for more, especially if they offer higher quality than you can get from the more generic products.
Okay, a fine microphone isn't going to be high on the list of priorities for a lot of people, but that still leaves a large potential market, from folks mounting meetings to the home office denizen who does radio or podcasts in his jammies.
That is undoubtedly why MXL has a wide selection available for a variety of tasks, and it's also why I sampled a trio of their products to see how they'd work under such different conditions.
The three were the $80 Tempo, the $100 AC-404, and the $600 USB.009. As you can see from their various prices, they really do run a gamut and, while they aren't necessarily the cheapest mics you can buy, they're very good ones just the same.
The Tempo and the USB.009 are the best if you're planning to record audio digitally, whether for podcast, music recording or whatever. I used them the most – switching back and forth between the two from time to time – for some of my radio appearances as well as some other recording I did.
For radio, I do a bi-weekly car Q&A column on an FM station in Ottawa, Canada, Skypeing in and using the freestanding mic and my set of Bowers and Wilkins P5 headphones. When I close my office door, it sounds very much as if I'm in the studio with the questioners, which is exactly as it should be. Of course it doesn't hurt that I've set up some acoustic panels to help deaden the sound, but it's still a rather live room that tends to amplify any sonic issues.
Reaction was that the USB.009 was the better of the two, which should come as a surprise to no one considering its comparatively stratospheric price. But there were no complaints about the Tempo, either, and I feel no qualms about using it as well. I just like the 009 better cause it's more flexible and, for more serious studio use, it's a better unit.
Speaking of Skype, the little AC-404 turned out to be nigh on perfect for our Christmas Skype visits with family members. We usually huddle around my netbook computer so the innocent victims at the other end of the call can see us, but in years past the audio from the dinky little mics built into the PC left a bit to be desired.
So, obviously, we tried the AC-404, which parks nicely on the table in front of the netbook (or whatever other flat surface you want it put it on) and offered far better audio quality than we'd had before. If only it would have also raised the quality of the conversation…
A hundred bucks may seem like a bit of a steep price if such a purpose is all you're going to use it for, but the mic should also work well in a conference room environment. I didn't try it there (having an aversion of offices that aren't in my home), but have used similar products in the past when I was slumming in the corporate world and have no doubt that it would do a fine job. It's smaller than some of the units I've used, too, which is nice, and its reasonably omnidirectional pickup should be ideal for picking up the voices of all the folks huddled around the big table, trying not to be noticed.
Oh, and if you need to plug a set of headphones into the thing, there's a standard jack mounted on the unit for just such emergencies.
Here's another potential use. I'm not much of a gamer, and avoid multiplayer and online gaming like the plague (because I suck at it!), but I could see the AC-404 as being a pretty good addition there, too, if you have a bunch of nerds in the same room and none of you want to be tied to a headset.
The Tempo is a pretty good unit as well, though like its big brother the USB.009, it's a heckuva lot more intrusive on the desktop. That's because you stand it there, via its own little tripod, and if it's between you and your monitor you may have to peek around it.
That's what happened with me, so I set it just beside the monitor instead and it still worked fine, with no complaints from those at the other end of the line. And, for once, they couldn't accuse me of talking out of both sides of my mouth!
In fact, it was actually better than just getting no complaints; when I tried A/B'ing the Tempo with the mic I'd been using previously for my radio appearances, the radio station at the other end noticed an audible drop in noise level compared to the old mic – and that old mic was no slouch in its own right (in fact, it retailed for half again what the Tempo costs).
The Tempo is obviously a more serious mic than the AC-404 and because of that lends itself better to such tasks as recording vocals for the tunes you're creating digitally as well, or for podcasting.
The Tempo's little tripod stand is lightweight, but plenty strong enough for a desktop-type application.
I also tried the Tempo with an Apple adapter that let me record sound onto my iPad, which was particularly handy when I was covering outside events – though my iPad is bottom of the line and there isn't enough room for big or numerous audio files. But it worked fine in my tests. The only drawback is that you have to haul a bigger mic around, but if sound quality is paramount to you (or even warner brothers), it's worth the hauling.
As with the other mics under discussion here, the Tempo comes with a stereo headphone jack though, like the AC-404 (and unlike the USB.009), it doesn't offer a volume control for it.
The USB.009 is claimed by the company to be the first USB microphone to record at 24-bit/96kHz without having to use other expensive equipment. I don't know about that, but this is definitely a sweet unit – as you'd expect for its price – so much so that it even comes in its own metal case, making it suitable for taking on location with you as long as you don't need to pack it in your carry-on luggage (you might have to leave your toiletries at home otherwise). But if you have the room, the mic has the inclination.
The USB.009 features a large diaphragm, making it suitable for birth control applications as well as audio ones. MXL says its 32 mm capsule is similar to those on "the world's best analog microphones," and I liked the rotary knobs you can use to control your volume as well as that of the headphones. A third pot controls the mix between recording and playback.
Besides radio use, I fired up the USB.009 to record my voice as I did a singing anniversary thingy for my wife in honor of our 39th year of "bliss and hiss." I used Adobe apps to strip the lead vocals out of Queen's sci-fi epic "39" and then sang my own version talking about my dear wife and my life together.
Yeah, it sucked, but you can't blame the mic for that, much as I'd like to. Alas, my voice ain't what it used to be 40 years ago when I sang in bands and choirs But the USB.009 worked really well, considering what it had to work with. Unfortunately, that meant that every flaw in my delivery, every botched note, every screwup, came through loud and clear when I played back the recording.
The lesson here is that even a great mic isn't going to make you sing any better…
The USB.009 has a more substantial stand than the Tempo, though both stands work well. The USB.009's is heavier, however, and I use that fact to let me tilt the mic back horizontally, parallel to the desktop when I do my radio broadcasts. I can do that with the Tempo as well, but the USB.009 is more stable– and that means I can sit the mic between myself and the monitor, where it's low enough that it doesn't block my view of what's on the screen.
Is the USB.009 worth $600? That's a tough question and I'm probably not the best to answer it. The Tempo will probably be good enough for most of the applications it has in common with the USB.009, but if you're looking for higher quality recording, better features and a generally more substantial product (and of course the carrying case and accessories), it's probably easy to justify the extra cost – especially if you can write it off anyway.
All of which means it's definitely time to put my old USB mic out to pasture. It served me well, but it's tough to argue that MXL products aren't far superior.
Copyright 2013 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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