Adventures in Microphone Land, Part II
This article continues the story of my pursuit of the best possible sound that can be achieved in recording classical guitar at home. Like the last time, I've also made a comparison video.
Quick recap: In the first part of the story, Microphones for Guitar (link), I compared different types of microphones ranging from several condenser mics to an active ribbon microphone. I arrived at the conclusion that a ribbon mic was clearly the best for my purposes, and very probably worth looking into, if you're recording your classical guitar at home. You should check that first article out, if you haven't already—at least see the videos!
But there were some questions left over for this second part:
- As good as my sE Electronics VR2 Voodoo ribbon microphone is, maybe there is something better for me out there?
- Is quality dependent on price in ribbon microphones? Can a relatively cheap ribbon mic be any good?
- How could I gain the ability to record in stereo—I was not ready to pay the new asking price for another sE VR2 (900€) just to be able to record in stereo.
Maybe I could get another, cheaper ribbon microphone to complement the one I already had?
The Newcomer: Samson VR88 Velocity Ribbon Microphone
Recently, I happened to notice that Thomann music shop is selling the Samson VR88 Velocity Ribbon microphone at a very good discount (it costs about 200€ at the time of writing) compared to the original street price of about 500-600€. I know that the Samson brand is not held in high respect by the experts, but according to online reviews, this particular product seemed to be all right. And I'm not after bragging rights, anyway! Sound is all that matters.
Thomann's excellent return policy meant that I could try out the Samson without any risk. I took the plunge and ordered a VR88.
(Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with Thomann in any way, but I feel it's only proper to mention them here. They have given me lots of good service over the years.)
Here's the first video with Samson VR88 and sE VR2:
Samson VR88 is a so-called active ribbon microphone, just like my sE Electronics VR2, which means that they both have a small preamplifier built into the mic body. This is actually very important: all the vintage, classic ribbon mics and a lot of the current ones are passive designs and don't have that built-in preamplifier. That makes them more difficult to work with, especially with a quiet sound source such as classical guitar. An active ribbon mic is a much more convenient microphone to use than a passive ribbon.
My Samson VR88 arrived very well packaged. A sturdy cardboard box contained a nice, well-made carrying case. Unfortunately, as is usual, you have to separate the microphone from the shock mount to put them in the case. There's no sense in that at all, but the case makers never can understand that. It's almost as foolish as if you had to remove the strings from a guitar to put it in the case!
The microphone itself seems to be very well-built. It's heavy and solid, with nice fit and finish, and quite good-looking too, but I suspect the last point rather splits the opinion. I like it's looks well enough anyway. The shock mount is handsome as well, and well made. In fact I'd bet that the mount alone would cost much more than this microphone and shock mount put together, if it had 'Neumann' written on it!
All in all, I'm very pleased with the apparent build quality of the Samson.
Two Ribbon Microphones in Comparison
Samson VR88 costs about 200€, while the sE VR2 costs about 900€—quite a big difference in price! Does the large price gap cause a big difference in sound quality, too?
Surprisingly, sound quality between these two microphones is astonishingly similar. My surprise may be explained by the fact that I've never before compared two ribbon mics; differences between completely different types of microphones, like in my last mic article, are naturally greater, but I have to admit I didn't expect this.
That's not to say that there are no audible differences between the Samson VR88 and the sE VR2. There are. One difference can be seen in the graph above: where the sE VR2 is supposed to be linear from 20Hz to 20kHz, the Samson VR88 drops off at about 8kHz. While this seems to be a major difference, it's actually not extremely important with classical guitar. Classical guitar does not have much output at those high frequencies, and in fact response like the Samson VR88 has can help tame the harshness of sound resulting from bad acoustics and short distance to the microphone, both characteristics of home recordings.
Here's the second video comparing the microphones:
You can, of course, draw your own conclusions from listening to my videos, but my impression is this: both mics sound very warm and relatively natural, with no over the top coloration—at least no objectionable coloration. But where the sE VR2 to me sounds very, very neutral and clean, the Samson VR88 is a little less realistic, a little more processed sounding, even a bit boxy at times.
Now, I'm not saying that the latter is necessarily worse. In fact I quite like the sound of the Samson, especially since it seems even better than the sE VR2 at downplaying the harsh 'click' of a fingernail hitting the string, which always is the most unpleasant part of recorded classical guitar sound, and which seems to always be picked up and even emphasized by condenser microphones. So that's a big plus in my book! sE VR2 sounds open, Samson VR88 sounds gentle—but it's not a big difference. And as you can hear is the videos, any processing (such as adding reverb) really diminishes any differences even further.
If you'd like to know more about my test procedure, you can read about it in the first mic comparison article I wrote (here).
There is one very important caveat to take into account about the Samson VR88: I read a rumor on some website (that I unfortunately can't find anymore) that Samson initially built the VR88 ribbon microphone to very high standards: so high that they lost money on every mic they sold, despite the high original selling price of these microphones. The rumor goes on to say that at some point the build quality was drastically lowered to cut costs. I don't know if it's true or not, but at least my Samson VR88 seems to be everything I could hope for, especially at the low price it's sold for now! But maybe it's safest to buy from a seller with a good return policy...
What Now, Then?
Well, I'm not returning my Samson VR88! No, it's a keeper. It's worth it's price, no question. In the above picture you see my new dynamic duo! (Pun intended, ribbon mics are a kind of dynamic microphone.)
But... is there still left a hankering for an even better mousetrap? Some curiosity about the high-end alternatives? Because there certainly are much, much more expensive ribbon mics out there, with better pedigrees and more notoriety. Even my sE VR2 costs many times more than my new Samson VR88. There's a special romantic glow about the names of some manufacturers, like Coles, Royer, and AEA... and I do feel the allure of them, I do.
But at the same time, I'm pretty certain that going that way would be playing the game of diminishing returns: maybe I'd gain something, but perhaps lose something else—at least a lot of money! Good enough is good enough, I think: as usual, the big gains are really to be had by learning how to better use the equipment I already have.
Now I'll just have to keep reminding myself of that, when I see there's a nice Coles 4038 for sale somewhere...
Perhaps with the zealousness of a new convert, I have to wonder why anyone would use a condenser microphone to record classical guitar. It's hard to imagine I would ever turn away from my ribbons again.
Of course, there's a vast world of audio equipment out there and an ocean of knowledge and experience that I just don't have. I may be mistaken. And of course we have to remember that I'm recording at home: recording in a hall with great acoustics is a different ballgame, no doubt.
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