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Thursday, September 15th, 2005

drum overhead mic shootout and review: Oktava MK-012, AKG C1000S, EV 635a

During my recording session last Fall, I used a pair of AKG C1000S mics as drum overheads. I bought them on the recommendation of some website or other, several years ago, and always believed them to be great without having any basis for judgement (or, perhaps more to the point, any budget for an upgrade).

Subsequent reading, especially on the old Tape Op message boards (R.I.P.!), revealed a mass of bad will toward this mic. Here’s a representative review of the C1000S: “I keep them around in case I ever need to loan a microphone to someone I don’t like.

While upgrading my studio this year, I replaced the C1000S mics with a pair of (genuine Russian) JSC Oktava MK-012s, based again on web reviews, although in this case a lot more of them. When I first wired up the MK-012s, I was playing and monitoring through headphones. I was so shocked I stopped playing — compared to my memory of the C1000S, the Oktavas sounded like I’d removed three sheets of tissue from the mic capsules. The presence and transparency of the Oktavas blew me away. Suddenly all those mean reviews of the C1000S seemed justified. Suddenly, I felt I was really hearing my own drum kit.

I finally took the time to put together a couple simple comparisons of the MK-012 and the C1000S. Just for fun, I included a 3rd pair of mics too. The two sound samples below include 4 bars of each of the following mic pairs, in this order:

  • JSC Oktava MK-012 condenser, cardioid cap, hand-matched by Oktava USA. The supplied -10dB pad was not installed. Pair cost: $345.
  • AKG C1000S condenser, non-matched pair. Neither the “presence boost adapter” nor the hypercardioid adapters were installed. Pair cost: $270.
  • EV 635A, omnidirectional dynamic, extremely non-matched (purchased used via Ebay; the mics appear to be of wildly different vintages, if not generations). Pair cost: $110. Disclaimer: mint 635a’s may well sound different than my antique specimens.
  • notable!Drum Overhead Mic Test 1 (MP3)
    notable!Drum Overhead Mic Test 2 (MP3)

    I recorded these tracks in separate passes, about a minute of each pattern for each mic pair. From each pass I selected a 4-bar pattern with no unusual transients. I normalized the excerpts, then combined them in Pro Tools, exported as AIFF, and converted to high-quality VBR MP3 via lame.

    In all cases I used the Focusrite [Update: Focusrite designed the mic pres in the Mbox, but not the ones in the Digi 002.] mic pres built into my Digi-002 Rack. I used no EQ or compression, which would have masked the differences in the signals. The only change to the signal path between each of these tests was the amount of gain applied via the mic pre: the Oktavas need no gain; in fact, I can clip them with a rimshot when the gain knob is zeroed. The C1000S needs several dB of gain. The 635a needs a whole lot more than that. No, these aren’t scientific measurements — it’s probably sufficient to say that, if anything, the MK-012 is relatively hot (which is why they supply a -10dB pad), but all three mics are well within the range of a typical mic pre’s gain stage.

    Coming into the test with the burden of my bias, I expected the C1000S to sound like an AM radio compared to the Oktavas. These expectations were not justified. The Oktava is superior, but the C1000S isn’t the dogmeat mic some folks say. But it would take a more skilled engineer to make it sound good, and it might never sound as good as the Oktava.

    Here are my impressions: the MK-012 (the first third of each of these two clips) is brighter, with smoother high-end response and a wider dynamic range, than the C1000S. The C1000S has a colored top end; I don’t like what it does to cymbals — they sound distant and pangy. The MK-012 has a more appealing, more transparent sound. The EV 635a doesn’t really belong in this test. This mic doesn’t have near as much range as either of the condensers. The lack of high end response is obvious here.

    I can hear that the C1000S is more directional than the MK-012. All three mic pairs were set up in the same position, yet the drum kit seems to change size over the course of each clip. Curiously, even though the stereo field in the C1000S samples is wider, I prefer the Oktava’s imaging. The Oktava samples sound more natural. This may be a side-effect of what I perceive as very rough high-end on the C1000S, though.

    It’s instructional to listen to short excerpts of the second clip, from the last, then middle, then first third. The 635a has a nice lo-fi thump on the toms. The C1000S, in contrast, brings in an appealing high-end slap (plus about 20dB of cymbal). Then, changing to the first third of the clip, what I primarily hear is a whole load of low end — the kick and toms suddenly have body. Also the hi-hats sound less brittle in the MK-012 track.

    Repeating this reverse-order test with the first clip, I hear less-pronounced differences. The kit sounds far away and muffled in the last third of the clip, due to the omnidirectional pattern of the 635a. In the middle third, I hear a top-endy sound; the drums have snap but no body. In the first third, the kick drum has a full, round thump, perhaps surprising for an overhead track. The snare is brighter, poppier, more present than on the C1000S track.

    Overall, I’m happy to say I can hear why engineers have been raving about the MK-012 for years. These Oktavas are great-sounding mics: they deliver a full, balanced kit sound with no EQ.

    adapted Recorderman overhead positionA final note on these tests: all mic pairs were placed in the “recorderman” position. It’s possible that other positions might be more suitable for some of these mics. For example, the 635a’s would have sounded much better had they been placed inside the foam-lined mic case, with no cables attached. Heh.

    Tags: oktava, akg, mk012, c1000s, 635
    posted to channel: Music
    updated: 2008-03-12 19:34:06

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