by Justin Patton
I have a microphone addiction. But it isn’t your standard “Large Diaphragm Tube Vocal Mic” addiction. That would be more understandable – everyone wants a beautiful LDC with which to impress their clients. But me? Well, I actually gravitate toward the small diaphragm condensers. About 20 years ago I borrowed a Neumann KM-184 that I used on every acoustic source for my final college project. Even vocals. It was far and away the best mic at my disposal, and it worked great. Years later I got into modded MXL pencil mics, worked two pairs of Shure SM-81s to death, bought 4 Avenson STO-2 omni SDCs, and eventually a matched pair of KM-184s. A LDC definitely makes for a better photo, but it sure seemed to me that I actually NEEDED more small diaphragm mics.
When it recently came time to get another pair of low noise SDCs I had a tough decision to make. I really didn’t want to drop $3K or $4K. That ruled out the Schoeps and DPA pairs. And I wanted mics that would be more forgiving in less than ideal acoustical environments – and maybe even add some subtle flattery. That’s a tall order in a category of mics that is known for pinpoint accuracy. It’s those fancy tube vocal mics that people talk about being “forgiving” and “flattering.” But if any SDC could do it, I figured it would be one with an obscenely large Rupert Neve transformer bulging out of the body. I decided to roll the dice based on my fondness for other Neve gear; my Sweetwater rep had the sE RN17s shipped to me pronto.
The first thing I used the RN17s on was an orchestra. Being accustomed to the sound of the KM-184s, I noticed almost exactly what I had imagined a Neve transformer would do for the sound. It was a little rounder, a little softer, but still with all the SDC definition I wanted. It was so close to my sonic ideal that I decided to forgo EQ or other post-production plugin tricks so as to retain the natural character of the mics. I suspect that anyone recording in a space that doesn’t quite measure up to the Berliner Philharmonie would appreciate the gentle “nudge toward Neve” provided by the RN17s!
As drum overheads the RN17s did so many nice things. It seemed like the whole kit image was more usefully represented in the overheads than with any of my other SDCs. Again, this is not unlike some of the sonic voodoo that can be anticipated when running a signal through a Neve preamp. I’m not saying it’s exactly the same thing, but it’s similar. Cymbals were nudged toward smoothness and toms and kick trended a little warmer. There’s a reason people like signal chains that add a little color, and for someone like me who is often using ultra-clean transformer-less preamps, some subtle color starting at the source can save the day.
I suspect you can see the pattern. Whatever I used the RN17s on (guitar, violin, brass), they retained all the great sonic traits inherent in any SDC mic – great accuracy, detail, solid imaging – while avoiding the common pitfall of other SDCs: harshness/flatness that seems to get even worse when routed straight to digital.
At $2000 per pair, the RN17s definitely aren’t cheap. But they do exactly what other great, sought-after gear does. They provide a quiet, clean, professional signal and then add a pinch of flavor that moves ever so gently in the direction of flattery for the vast majority of sources that would see use with a SDC. A little flavor goes a long way, and the sE RN17s have just enough color to make them my favorite SDCs to run straight into my DAW without any extra hardware mojo in the line to dress the signal up.
Besides all that, the RN17s come with great shock mounts, a stereo bar, and the option to buy different capsules so you can break out of the stock cardioid pattern and go omni, figure-8, hyper-cardioid, et cetera. Tough to imagine that the other big names in the SDC world really sound $2K better!
Justin Patton messed around with music technology in high school, researched music technology in college, and currently works as the recording engineer for the Department of Music at Murray State University. He also teaches the Recording Techniques course for students in the Music Business program, using kindred spirit Mike Senior’s book: “Recording Secrets for the Small Studio.”