As most of you know, besides my duties here at Sweetwater (my number one priority, of course), I also write for some music industry magazines. Right now I'm at work on a comprehensive comparison of microphones, from the low end “bargain” brands up to megabuck tube mics that make every engineer get slightly dizzy with desire.

Tackling something like this is a long term project, as you can well imagine. You can’t just set up a dozen mics and record something with each and hope to do a fair comparison. Experience tells us that just because a certain mic isn’t great for one thing (let’s say vocal), that doesn’t mean it won’t be perfect for something else (miking up a bass cabinet or sticking it inside a kick drum). However, as you might also expect, your high priced mics will, in general, record more things well (vocals, instruments, sound effects, etc.) than those at the lower end.

One thing that surprised me, though, was the overall timbral differences between mics whose designs are very much alike (large diaphragm condensers, as one example). As part of my testing regimen, I would record an acoustic guitar using a pair of similar mics set side-by-side, then A/B the left/right tracks to hear the differences. Now I was prepared for subtle variations between each pair, but the wide contrasts were somewhat unexpected, particularly when I’m looking at two graphs that display the frequency response of each mic and they look remarkably alike.

As I listened to the left side of the track (Mic “A”), I was pleased by the open quality and richness of the overall sound. Meanwhile, when I switched to the right side (Mic “B”), I was smitten by the sense of sparkling overtones and crisp detail. Which did I like best? Well, at first listening I might have preferred Mic A, but then after a second listen, Mic B might have struke me as the better-sounding.

What does all this prove - if anything? My take is that our ears are incredibly sensitive, even to tiny peaks and dips of only a decibel or so over the full frequency range, making the phrase “a nearly ruler-flat frequency response” well, sort of invalid. I’m also convinced that our ears (or at least mine) can change depending upon variables like the time of day, how fatigued I am, my overall mood, etc. Going back to my Mic A vs. Mic B comparison, I flip-flopped several times on which sound I liked better before deciding it was futile to even attempt such a judgement call.

Finally, there’s also this simple fact to consider: What I like and what you like may well be different. Your ideal vocal mic might be bright and detailed, while mine might be warm and rich-sounding (and what do those terms mean?). But whatever your preference may be, I can say after listening to a whole lot of mics that the selection, quality and overall affordability has never been better.

Through all this, one mic that consistently grabbed my attention during my listening tests was the Audio Technica AT4060, which the company calls “the tube mic with attitude.” At $1695 list, it’s not a mic that you’re likely to buy in bulk, but it has so much going for it that I think you’ll want to own at least one.

First of all, it’s a tube (or, as some folks prefer, “valve”) mic, and as everyone knows, tube mics are hot (no pun intended) right now. There’s a particular richness and spaciousness to the sound that is buttery smooth and just plain addictive. Guitarists can relate: It’s like hearing your guitar through the best darn vintage tube amp you can find. But though it’s a tube mic, it can handle the high SPLs normally associated with dynamic mics without flinching, so you can use it on everything from your softest vocals, right up to a full Marshall stack. And thanks to its low self noise, it can handle such hard to record instruments as nylon guitar and solo strings and winds.

My favorite applications, however, were on a Martin acoustic guitar played with fingerpicks and on solo saxophone - in this particular case a glorious-sounding old pre-war Selmer soprano. In these recordings, the AT4060 always lived up to Audio Technica’s ad campaign catch phrase (which you’ve seen in all the magazines recently), “warm, not fuzzy.” Another thing I liked was the overall feel of the mic: It just seems so rock-solid that you don’t feel you have to treat it with kid gloves. Not that I’d recommend tossing it around the room, but at least you know you can take it with you to sessions without first calling your insurance agent (though I know he or she would love to hear from you).

Now I’m still working on this feature, and will be for a while, but I thought I’d share my impressions of this exceptional mic with you, just in case you were in the market for that one great mic every musician needs in his studio. If you’re looking to spend less, there’s good news, too. Through all my listening tests, I didn’t come across any mic that came close to being a stinker - even some of the least expensive condensers in the $200 range. Sound quality and construction, even here, are the best they’ve ever been.

Hey, this truly is a great time to be a musician, isn’t it?