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Sunday, December 21, 2008

MXL 603s

These small diaphragm condenser mics can be the freaks in the mic cabinet for those on a budget

I purchased my first MXL 603s small condenser microphone after hearing some positive feedback about the 603s on the web. Harvey Gerst of Indian Trail Studios compared the mic favorably to the Oktava MC012, one of my favorites small condenser mics.

Actually, I just did not get one but I got a pair. After owning and using a pair for almost two years now, I think of them as "audio marvels" and "freaks of nature." Yes, these are my little freaks.

The MXL 603s is a condenser pressure gradient mic with a six micron, 20mm gold diaphragm. The 603s is internally wired with high quality Mogami cable but you won't find much in the way of fancy components and electronics upon opening one up. Any of your friends who know a thing or two about electronics might snicker at some of what's inside a 603s. One of my friends proudly pointed out all the electolytic capacitors. All of this is irrelevant when you plug this audio freak in and point it at an acoustic guitar.

Initially, I was surprised and impressed at how much the MXL 603s indeed does sound like an Oktava MC012. After a lot of use, I got over this first impression. In a nutshell, you're not going to get a lot of bass out of these mics. It is slightly brighter than most small diaphragm condensers on the market including the MC012 with a similar sounding top end to the Neumann 184. Please note I said similar and not identical. I think of the MXL 603s as possessing a pronounced top end with plenty of shine and glitter, rock solid mids, but somewhat shy on bass.

If for no other reason, you should have this mic if you record accoustic guitar of any sort. It's that good, and it's that useful of a tone. I find I get the best results backing it up several inches more than I would most other mics. Move it around slightly untill you find the sweetspot, and there you go. The sound is rich, well balanced, and articulate. As an added bonus, an accoustic track mic'ed with a 603s will more than hold it's own in a busy mix. The bright character that I mentioned earlier helps it cut right through, without ever sounding harsh, even as multiple tracks are layered. "Shiny" and "jangly" are the obvious adjectives that come to mind.

My only warning is that this mic is definitely not the ticket if raw, lo-fi, or aggressive are on the menu. I had a client come in a few weeks ago who was looking for just that. His guitar looked like something you'd find at a garage sale for $10. Out of sheer habbit, stupid me threw up the 603s as usual. Upon playback, it just wasn't happening. "It sounds too damn pretty," he said. And, he was right. Even that $10 rummage sale special with old, dirty strings sounded "pretty" with the 603s. It really is a freak of nature.

As much as I like the freak on accoustic guitar, I'd have to strongly warn against using the mic in a lot of overhead mic'ing situations. The 603s is great on snare. It's got more slap, snap, and pop than you can handle, so that's not the issue. Where it really disappoints is in the way it reacts to cymbals. Place a cymbal anywhere in it's vicinity, and it's like the freak is a hungry kid at fat camp, and the cymbal is a candy bar. What can we do? The freak has a cymbal fetish. Do not use in the presence of loud, bright, cymbals unless you want them to dominate your mix.

Good news is there are ways around this, and that is to use darker cymbals placed somewhat out of the freak's radar. This is no joke, but I have gotten some of the most glorious overhead tracks placing the freak in such a fashion, and using Zildjian Custom K Darks with Paiste Dark & Crisps. Expensive cymbals, yes, but dark. They are a good pairing for the freak. I've also had drummers come in with old, dull cymbals with years of dirt and crud on them, and like magic, the freak was able to breathe an ouce of shimmer back in to them, if only for one session.

Quite simply, I don't think there are many mics, regardless of price range, that can touch the 603s on mandolin. I strongly urge you to try it for yourself before you doubt this. You heard it here: The freak really likes the mandolin.

On choral groups, the 603s is not ideal. Vocal groups are a challenging task, even for most expensive condenser mics. Still, I find the 603s to be surprisingly crisp, airy, open, and accurate in this application. Mind you, this is one of those situations where I would still rent high end mics. If this is not in your cards, then don't stress over using the freak in their place. It'll do just fine if nothing else is available to you.

In summary, the MXL603s is a professional sounding budget-priced small diaphragm condenser microphone. I found it to be an amazing value. In fact it does the sparkly and jangly thing so well, it offers a useful color option even if you've got similar mics going for 10 times its street price. But overall, I can't imagine anyone not being able to find at least one mic'ing situation that strongly endears you to the freak.

The Bottom Line: The MXL 603s is suitable for a variety of situations. Avoid using it with bright cymbals or where you need to get the low end to tape. The MXL 603s is a useful color for its price point. Be wary of similar looking mics from other companies as they are not the same.

--Keith Ricker



oren said...

Thanks for your informative expose on these mics. I recently invested in a pair based on numerous good reviews such as yours, but I have not been able to reproduce the same kind of 'sparkling' results. Unlike your experience, my results have been very bassy recordings, anything but bright...they are positioned in xy configuration, at various distances from the guitar, aimed at the 10th fret, I've moved them from about 4 inches away to about 8 inches away, and still the same super-bassy results, if I get further, the nearly-omni pickup pattern ends up picking up the room more than the guitar. I am playing a Martin OM-1, a dark-sounding guitar for sure

Chris said...

These mics have a cardioid pickup pattern, so placing them in xy may cause them to cancel each other out. May I suggest recording in mono and adding stereo reverb in the mixdown (or live mix if it's live).