Over the years certain microphones have become known for doing some particular thing very well. There’s the SM57 (snare drums and guitar amps), MD 421 (toms and kick drum), U87 (vocals and anything else) and so on. In the world of classical recording we have similar iconic tools. The DPA 4006, Schoeps CMC 6, and Sennheiser MKH 20 are all something of a standard for orchestral and chamber music. Paired with a good preamp like a Forsell, Buzz Audio, or GML, and you’re talking classical recording heaven.
So if it ain’t broke, then…
Hold up. As you might expect, all those fancy names come at a VERY fancy price. In fact, if you’re trying to recreate the sound of the standard Decca Tree (a famous 3-mic orchestral technique) you’d need the unique polar pattern/frequency response of not one but three Neumann M50s – which would set you back a total of about $15,000. There aren’t many universities, regional symphonies or community theaters that can justify that. If you’re a little guy (like a state university) trying to sound like Abbey Road, you have to do it some other way. No, cheaping out is not the answer. Quality still costs, but it doesn’t have to cost $2-5K per microphone.
Enter the sE Electronics RN17 small diaphragm condenser, one of 3 flagship products in the sE lineup co-designed by Rupert Neve. The RN17s are the most flexible of the group thanks to swappable cardioid/omni capsules (omnis sold separately). Here are some of the cool things about the RN17 the company points out on their webpage: it has the world’s smallest production (15mm) gold-sputtered diaphragm, a monstrous Rupert Neve designed transformer, and a wide and even frequency response (down deep into the lowest lows) that’s never before been achieved in small diaphragm condenser design.
That sounds fantastic. But at about $999 per mic (only a couple hundred shy of the Sennheiser MKH 50) does it offer any real threat to the well-known class of iconic classical music tools? You bet. The most obvious advantage is the swappable capsule. It is a few hundred bucks more, but with it you essentially have two mics: omni or cardioid (for about $1350). That’s $750 cheaper than buying both patterns in the MKH line. Keep in mind most serious classical recordings involve more than a stereo pair, so this isn’t just a “times two” factor in savings. It’s x3 for a decca tree; x5 for a decca tree with outriggers. More with spot mics.
But is it worth it? These mics would have to seriously outperform the dozens of options at the $500 pricepoint. Heck, they’d have to outperform the Neumann KM series, which is not exactly a budget option. In fact, the RN17s would need to give the MKHs, DPAs and Schoeps ALL a serious run for their money. And they do. Tonally, financially… they really do.
If you compare the RN17 to a KM-184, the obvious difference is extended low end and a smoother top. As drum overheads, the RN17s are gorgeous. Cymbals sound three-dimensional and just …pretty. Cymbals. Pretty. Yeah, I said it. In front of a string section it’s the same thing. Perhaps if you wanted an in-your-face bluegrass fiddle scorcher sound, you’d go for the KM-184. But for a classical string section? Mr. Neve, please. Even the AKG C414 XLS large diaphragm (in omni) doesn’t extend down as well the RN17s. And though it goes against all expectations, the RN17s are more silky on top than the LDC 414, too.
It’s the transformer. You can get the different capsules/patterns, which is awesome, but really it’s the transformer. Even without a great preamp there is some Neve mojo coming right out of the mic itself. But let’s say you DO have a great preamp. That’s when your game is really elevated. I’ve used the RN17s with a Millennia HV-3D and a Buzz Audio SSA 1.1. The sound is impressive with stock interface preamps, but it is strikingly impressive with a nice stand-alone pre. Neve gear is not known for its transparency, so maybe the biggest critique of the RN17s (in the classical genre) is just that: “they’re not as transparent as the DPA 4006.” That’s probably right. But in my opinion, the subtle flattery of that Neve “color” is far more likely to help a collegiate choir or orchestra than hurt it. Unless John Williams has been beating down the door to record in the performance space available at the local university, it probably isn’t that fantastic of a recording space. Mics known for having a certain character exist for this purpose: you deploy them because they hide a problem, or because they fix a problem. They make something sound better than it did in the room. The Neumann U87 does this, and it is arguably the most popular microphone ever. The RN17s do it, too, but oh so subtlely. Unlike the U87, it’s not a little goosing of the high mids that sells it. It’s the Neve transformer and the attractive round sound it imparts.
Of course, the RN17s are great for a million things. I already mentioned drum overheads. Acoustic guitar, piano, solo instruments… for the studio that already has a pair of KM-184s, the RN17s would provide an entirely different character for the same sorts of sources. Options are always nice! Honestly, if I had to give up one or the other, I’d give up my KM-184s. They do not get as much use as they once did. I’m also on the fence about getting a second AKG C414 or a third (or fourth) RN17. I can see using the RN17s in more situations. I just like to have an even number of like microphones! Anywhere you would use Earthworks or DPA or Neumann SDCs (or even some LDCs) the sE’s will shine. I bet in the right acoustic space you could cut some killer vocals with the omni caps!
So are these things DPA killers? It depends. If you already have 8 DPA 4006s, probably not. If you will most likely never be able to drop over $2000 per single-pattern microphone, then yes. The RN17s are top-shelf small diaphragm condensers. They are not cheap, but they have much more in common sonically with the most iconic “classical music” SDCs than they do the budget options flooding the market for home and project studios. If I can get 90% of the way to DPA sound for 50% of the cost, count me in …especially if the last 10% difference is Rupert Neve character!