Pushing My Own Envelope and Experiencing a Revelation
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I’ve always seemed to be a bit of an outsider, a guy who takes "that other" path, someone who just might not be a lemming. It is true in my taste for music and art and even my choice of guitar and recording gear. But in looking over my recording moves of late I’ve wondered if I’m still out there taking enough chances and growing. In my work as a producer/engineer, when the sessions get serious, there often isn’t a lot of time for experimentation and learning by mistakes. As a result, I tend to go with tried and true gear and techniques so that the artist’s time and money isn’t wasted. It’s a funny constraint that home recordists may not suffer. But interestingly enough, at the end of a long week of recording, when it is time to make my own recordings at home, what do I tend to do but run back to my successful gear and techniques from my client work to save time and effort. Obviously, I'm putting myself in a box of my own making.
But recently I’ve wanted to break out of my rut and try some new recording at home. To help in that venture I’ve been looking for a large-diaphragm condenser mic (LDC) on a home budget to add to my little home kit. I've wanted a mic that would allow a little more flexibility than my nice AKG small-diaphragm condensers and my scruffy lot of dynamics can offer. I’ve tried several at work and idly searched options on the web but just never got around to throwing down the coin and jumping in. Part of the problem was I preferred a dual-diaphragm over a single-diaphragm condenser as well. However an Acoustic Guitar Forum contributor named “rockabilly69” recently posted that he had found a good deal on an LDC that really impressed him. His post piqued my interest and set me off tilting at windmills once again on another one of my crazy tone quests. This time the question was, “Is there really a moderately-priced LDC that sounds pleasing enough for me to work with it?” Let’s be honest: with the collection of mics around me at work, the only benefit for me to own my own is to allow me to work at home on the spur of the moment. At the same time, the biggest deterrent to my working at home is the amount of hassle it takes to get a sound at the same quality level as I get at the studio. Marginal or annoying gear just won’t encourage me to start.
So, why a dual-diaphragm condenser? One thing that I’ve noticed in my work is that I tend to prefer the high-frequency sound of dual-diaphragm condensers over single-diaphragm ones. I don’t know exactly why, but there it is. Whenever a manufacturer makes a dual-diaphragm condenser and then comes out with a single-diaphragm brother, the high end just seems to sound, um… less refined. And that’s where this item comes in: rockabilly69 pointed to an inexpensive dual-diaphragm condenser mic that seemed to sound pretty darned good in some of the demos I heard. But there were challenges. Challenge number one: the mic is built by what has typically been thought of as a low-mid-level manufacturer – let’s just say that they don’t have a lot of “reputation points” in the professional community. I really would have to take this mic on its merits and banish snob appeal entirely. Challenge number two: there was no opportunity for me to test this mic before I bought it. I'd have to go entirely on test clips and YouTube performances until I had it in my hands. Challenge number three: for hygenic reasons, mics aren't returnable if you don’t like them. But here is also where rockabilly69 brought news that was pertinent to the whole deliberation: at the time of his post, a particular dealer was selling these mics for less than 1/3 of MSR and less than 1/2 of the typical street price - a killer deal. While still a good chunk of coin in my world, that price reduced the risk enough to get me off the dime. And so, after doing some more research, snooping out some more reviews and YouTube demos, and mulling a bit, I took the chance and ordered the mic from the other side of the country. What mic are we talking about? It is the MXL Revelation from Marshall Electronics.
THE BASIC FACTS
The MXL Revelation is a general-purpose, continuously-variable, multi-pattern, dual-diaphragm, transformer-balanced, tube condenser mic. Try saying that out loud three times. The mic was premiered by MXL at Winter NAMM 2010 as a follow-up to their popular Genesis tube mic. Tell me you get the Biblical references. Let's just say that MXL wants to provide for your needs, cover to cover. The Revelation is currently advertised as the brand’s flagship all purpose studio-series microphone, featuring ”superior quality and detail.” The capsule is MXL’s take on the Neumann K67 capsule, first used in its U67 mic, featuring two 6-micron, gold-sputtered diaphragms that are 32mm in diameter. The electronics are based around an Electro-Harmonix EF86 pentode tube, a tube type designed for low noise and low microphonics. The tube sits inverted in a ceramic base below the capsule and is shock-mounted within a silicone-lined clamp. The rest of the mic’s electronics including the balancing transformer live on two integrated circuit boards within the body. The microphone’s body measures 2 ½ by 7 ½ inches with a large, domed grille area shaped very much like that of a Neumann U-47. Taking a cue from the mic modding community, MXL equipped the Revelation with a spacious, single layer grille designed to reduce head shell resonances and interference for flatter response. There is a -10db pad switch centered on the back of the body directly below the headcage's chrome trim band. MXL builds their mics in China and then tests them and burns them in here in the U.S. The mic is warrantied for three years with the exception of the EF86 tube, which carries a ninety-day warranty. Click the image below for a very nice larger look inside, courtesy of recordinghacks.com.
As with most tube mics, a separate, dedicated power supply is furnished with the kit. The front panel features a switchable 12db-per-octave high-pass filter with its turn frequency fixed at 125hz, a ground-lift switch, a phase reversal switch, the continuously-variable pattern selector control, a power-on LED, and connectors for the seven-pin mic cable and the XLR output cable. The back panel features an illuminated power switch, a line voltage selector switch (110 and 220), and an IEC C-14 power cord socket with integrated fuse holder.
The Revelation’s pattern is continuously variable from omnidirectional through cardioid to figure-eight. You won’t want to change the pattern in the middle of a recording, though. As other reviewers have noted, turning the pattern selector clockwise causes little disruption but turning the control more than a tiny bit counter-clockwise temporarily mutes the mic while the capsule charges back up. I observed no static while rotating the control, though others have reported some. For a tube design the Revelation is really relatively quiet. The Revelation’s sensitivity of 40dB (ref 1V/Pa) alongside its equivalent noise of 18dB (A-weighted IEC 651) means that it isn’t the quietest or most sensitive mic in the closet but its S/N ratio is still a very reasonable 76db. That’s plenty of operating room for just about any close-mic’ing application in music or voice-over recording. Room and overhead mic’ing for most loud musical sources like drums are also well within its range. With a maximum SPL of 138db at .5 % THD and with the mic’s -10db pad, there are few sources too loud for it, either.
Response and polar plots for the Revelation from the MXL site
No larger version available
If you use a lightweight tripod boom stand you’ll want to pay attention to your boom placement because, weighing in at two pounds, the mic is heavy enough to easily tip over the stand. Be prepared to keep the mic inboard near the stand’s upright column rather than out at extension. It will help to rotate one of the legs of the tripod to line up with the mic as well. You could also hang a sandbag off the back side of the boom to counter-balance the mic or place a couple of sandbags on the off-side stand legs to weigh them down. Of course, a heavier studio-style stand will take care of this problem completely.
Document package containing the owner's manual, an application guide, a warranty card with serial number listed, an MXL catalog, an MXL sticker, and a red attention card containing a strong suggestion that you use a pop screen to protect the capsule from humidity
Note the white PVC ring designed to protect the domed headcage in transit.
Upon visual inspection, everything appears heavily built and nicely finished. There’s no “empty tin” or “mic furniture” here. The mic alone weighs in at over two pounds. It has "heft" and feels solid. This is an item that actually looks and feels better and more substantial in person than it does in the promo photographs. The headcage and accents are heavily chromed and the body is finished dark violet. It really looks like MXL is trying to move into the professional market with this mic. Interestly, the MXL logo is nowhere visible on the mic's body. The carry case is sturdy, has plenty of space, and offers nicely apportioned cut-outs for each of the oddly-shaped bits and bobs. There is a protective "skin" over the cutout padding to protect it from fraying at the edges. The Mogami cables are neatly bundled and the mic and power supply are wrapped in plastic. The birdcage shock mount is heavily built for strength and screws smoothly and securely onto the threaded bottom flange of the mic. The kit comes with an extra set of elastic cords for the shock mount. My only discomfort with the mount is that you really have to tighten down on the tilt lock for it to hold position, but it seems quite sturdy once you do so. The package arrived in the nadir of a February cold wave so I had to let it warm up to room temperature before I took the items out of their plastic bags, plugged everything up, and turned it on.
My first listening impressions are that this mic is impressive. The aural impression is of a smooth response across the spectrum and yet a sound that is gently on the flattering side to most anything that is placed before it. The Revelation has a full bottom that keeps on going very far into the low frequencies with a little pitch up at around 40-50hz. It also has a nice, airy high end that is smooth and moderate rather than sharp. The upper-end curve looks a little like that of the Neumann U-47 with a little peak centered around 8khz. Basic function tests with my voice at about five inches sounded great – with the interesting twist that I didn’t have much of that “ugg, my voice sounds thin” feeling. Perhaps that is a testament to the reach of the mic’s bottom end. The last time I experienced that was coincidentally with a Neumann U-47, a mic which is known for its strong, extended bottom end.
I tried it on my most delicate six-string steel guitar, a Taylor K-14c, and it seemed to just love that guitar. The sweet, delicate high-end of the guitar was reproduced with detail but remained sweet rather than jangly. With the cardioid pattern selected and the mic set out twenty inches from the neck joint the pattern was tight enough that there was little room noise from my bedroom studio. The result was just lovely, pretty, and mellow.
TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Next I took the Revelation into the recording studio where I work and tried it out against a Neumann TLM-170 large-diaphragm condenser, which is a $3000 microphone. I read voiceovers and played a Taylor 314kce (sitka/koa) guitar to test them out. For these comparisons I set up the pair of mics side-by-side, selected cardioid patterns on each, and addressed them at the same time while running them through a pair of Avalon VT737 tube preamps that were set identically. I placed myself between the two mics to record voiceovers and aimed the space between the two mics at the neck joint of the guitar. As a result, the two sets of recordings were aligned in my DAW's timeline, allowing me to jump back and forth between them during playback to compare the results. Before tweaking, the output difference between the two amounted to about 1db.
Pop screens looking like goggles
While recording voiceovers using the cardioid pattern the mics sounded remarkably similar. At a distance of two hand-widths, the Revelation had a slightly more present high-end and a marginal low-end bump but the rest of the spectrum seemed remarkably matched between the two mics. When I moved in to one hand-width and spoke more quietly to bring out the bass in my voice via the proximity effect, the bass tilted-up less on the Revelation than on the TLM-170 making them nearly equal. In this application the slight treble presence of the Revelation also helped balanced out its low-end bloom a bit.
For the guitar, the mics were placed about twenty inches away from the neck joint. In this test you could hear more of a difference between the two mics with the Revelation's more airy high-end coming through. The effect was that Revelation just seemed to sound a tad more "open" on the guitar and the TLM-170 a tad more "round." Perhaps part of that could be attributed to the slightly more outboard mic position of the Revelation, but certainly not all.
To get a little outside perspective I leveled the clips and played them back blindly for a panel of five of my recording engineer colleagues at a staff meeting, switching back and forth between them at will. None of the engineers could tell which mic was which. They could hear the slight differences but weren’t able to nail down an identity and didn’t express a preference. When I identified the two mics and their prices they were impressed with how sonically well-matched they were and how similar their quality was.
* Mic identities are revealed at the end of this article.
So, what have I learned? Well, I guess you could say I had my own little revelation and in the process found the answer to my question. There are, indeed, large diaphragm condenser mics in a moderate price range that are quite pleasing to my ear and useful for my purposes. I’m really impressed with the physical and aural quality of the MXL Revelation and very pleased at how well it compares to much more expensive mics. Frankly, this mic kind of "blew up" my expectations of the moderately-priced mic world. Perhaps the best way to put it is that the gap between less-expensove and more expensive LDCs appears to be narrowing. In my opinion the Revelation is an excellent choice for voice, instrument, and general-purpose mic'ing chores. And yes, MXL has really upped their game with this entry in the mic world. The Revelation is also an amazing value given current street prices.
Here’s one of the YouTube performances that helped me make my decision to dive in. It rather prominently features the Revelation being used to mic a female vocalist who has a lovely voice:
Update 02/23/2017 - Another Mic Comparison
Today I was able to compare the MXL Revelation microphone to a really brilliant example of a 1950s Neumann U47 that we have at the studio. I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome to say the least. There are physical differences between the two: The U47 mic itself is far lighter than the Revelation. The U47 shock mount features a band and latch system for the mic versus the flange mount of the Revelation. I much prefer the Revelation's flange mount because simply mounting and unmounting don't eventually mar the finish as the bands do over time. Of course, we've had sixty years to improve on that, haven't we? Same with the cabling system: Everything about the connector and cabling of the U47 is massive where the XLR-based seven-pin mic cable for the Revelation seems dainty by comparison. Nevertheless the Revelation's system gets the job done and the cables are easier to coil at the end of the session. An interesting feature of the U47 mount is its pivot point system. I think I adjusted the friction screw for the mic sometime in the last century and haven't touched it since. You just move the mic where you wish and the friction holds it. Nice. By contrast you have to loosen and tighten the friction lock for the Revelation for each adjustment. Of course to be fair, the Revelation feels about twice as heavy as the U47.
Click to embiggen
The voice recordings were conducted concurrently with me standing first at one hand-width from the place between the two mics and then at two hand-widths. The guitar recordings were also conducted concurrently with the mics at about twenty inches from the neck joint. The U47's output was about 4db hotter than that of the Revelation before I normalized the clips. For a mic that is about as old as myself, I'm pleased to say that the veteran U47 is probably still my own choice of the two for voiceover work and possibly also for guitar. There are differences in sound that you will be able to discern. You'll probably have your own favorite. It is just nice to realize that these mics are close enough that some judicious EQ'ing could draw them up to where most people couldn't tell them apart. And considering that the Neumann is valuated at about ten times the street price of the Revelation, I think you can understand if I say that I'm impressed once again by the Revelation. See what you think!
The Second Group of Test Clips: Neumann U47 and MXL Revelation
* First Comparison: So..... Which mic was which? Mic one was the Neumann TLM-170 and Mic two was the MXL Revelation. A Note: On the clips you may notice that the TLM-170 has more background noise than the Revelation. When I started recording the opposite was true. By two hours later when these clips were generated the low frequency noise you hear had all but disappeared from the Revelation but had ramped up on the TLM-170. That leads me to believe we might be hearing more of the self-noise from the Avalon tube preamps than from the mics.
** Second Comparison: Once again the more expensive mic, the Neumann U47, takes pride of place as number one and the Revelation is number two.