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Comparing Tech. Specs. – Condenser mics vs Interface Pre-amp

Discussion in 'Microphones' started by JohnnyRazz, Apr 13, 2011.

  1. JohnnyRazz

    JohnnyRazz Active Member

    This is more a mic question than a preamp question so I thought it was more suitable in this forum.

    My son has been writing beats and recording rap/hiphop songs with a basic mic and mixer board into the analog line-in to his iMac. He is looking to step things up a bit, so he's looking for a reasonable entry level interface and mic combination, predominantly for recording vocals (rap/hiphop) – and maybe some acoustic guitar. But, as your typical newbee, I would like these components to be as versatile as possible (it never hurts to ask right) since I expect he will eventually expand into other genre's.

    For interfaces I have narrowed it down to the M Audio Fast Track Ultra and the Presonus Firestudio Mobile. I appreciate that the Presonus is probably a higher quality product/spec. and that firewire input has clear advantages over USB but would prefer to go with the Fast Track Ultra because it seems that firewire is disappearing. Since simultaneous multichannel input is not an important requirement the USB2 input should perform adequately, and the Fast Track Ultra boasts a host of versatile features for the price.

    For mics I have been comparing several in the $250 - $350 range. I have read great reviews about both the SE2200a and the AT4040. However from a technical perspective they seem at opposite ends of the spectrum and I am wondering how they will perform with the interface I am considering.

    Here are the details (pardon me if the units are not correctly stated - the values should be comparable):

    Sensitivity: 14.1mV/Pa
    Max SPL: 125dB
    Noise: 17dB
    Max Output = -4dBu (from lookup table - based on Sensitivity Vs. Max SPL)
    Output Noise= -112dBu (from lookup table - based on Sensitivity Vs. Noise)

    Sensitivity: 25.1mV/Pa
    Max SPL: 145dB
    Noise: 12dB
    Max Output = +22dBu (from lookup table - based on Sensitivity Vs. Max SPL)
    Output Noise= -112dBu (from lookup table - based on Sensitivity Vs. Noise)

    Fast track Ultra:
    PreAmp Gain: 60dbu
    PreAmp Max Input: +21

    My son says the AT4040 has received good reviews from forums related to Rap/hiphop, and I have read a lot of good general reviews as well, but the max output of this mic is right at the limit of the Fast Tracks max input – so I am concerned about headroom. Could the mic output typically overdrive this preamp distorting the output? The salesperson says it will not be too loud for this preamp. Would it be better to look at a mic with a lower max output that will provide more headroom (ex. AKG perception 420, max output= 12dBu, output noise=-107)? The RODE NT1 is also well reviewed in this category and has a middle of the road max output and low output noise - but he has access to his friends so would like to add a different flavour.

    I also really like the reviews on the SE2200a, it seems to have won a lot of awards (if that means anything), seems to have been accepted as a plausible studio option and is offered at an excellent pricepoint. But the max output (-4dBu) seems really low and I’m concerned that the interface preamp will not adequately drive this mic – requiring more gain and consequently more preamp noise in the output. Is this not as much of an issue with digital recording? What about monitor levels – would they end up being to low, even if recording level input was adequate?
    The concern with this option is that it will be too quiet.

    I would be interested in any comments or direction regarding these two questions.
    Let me know if there are any important details I left out.
  2. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    Nowhere do you mention what sort of room acoustic he will be recording in, as this will form a critical part of the vocal sound you will get through the microphone. Condenser mics like the ones you mentioned can be particuarly sensitive to acoustic environment. I'm not a fan of the sE2200A with its hyped bump around 12KHz, and the AT4040 would be a better choice of those two. However, in an unfavourable acoustic environment, I think you would be better off with a good-quality dynamic mic such as the EV RE20 for this type of work.

    When it comes to interfaces, the M-Audio Fast Track Ultra is not renowned for its sonic quality or its handling of large dynamic range signals, and you may well find that it does not have the guts you need for this type of work. The Presonus should be a little better in this regard, but there are other makes you should be looking at such as TC Electronic and Edirol in this end of the market.
  3. JohnnyRazz

    JohnnyRazz Active Member

    Boswell - thanks for the quick reply and feedback.
    He records in our basement which is a large asymetric space, carpeted floors, textured ceiling, filled with various furniture, sofas, chairs, etc. I can't speak technically to the specific acoustic properties, but my sense is that it's not to bad, and certainly could be enhanced with perhaps some drapes and other dampening. Also - I am considering whipping up a small insulated vocal booth to further control that aspect if necessary. So I understand some of the issues and the importance of a good recording environment, and he will need to invest some time understanding more technical mic.ing technics and room treatments once he has a far more sensitive mic than he is currently using.
    I have read that a good quality dynamic mic can produce great results - the sm57 keeps coming up as a great all purpose industry standard and it seems like a good standby to keep once he collects higher preformance input equipment (dedicated preamps, etc.) I think he is going for a specific sound quality that he feels he will get with a condenser mic. but I will continue to keep an open mind about the option to go dynamic.
    Your comment about the Fast Track is interesting - with this product M Audio has packed a lot of features for the price, and my impression is that they have a good bit of brand strength so it seems like a product that would be attractive to someone like myself without a ton (or any) practical experience. Looking at the specs and reading about Presonus's reputation in the industry I agree that it would preform better sonically. The big limiting factor is the firewire input - it is available on very few current laptop models and even Apple has dropped it on their entry level models - is it not reasonable to assume it will be almost gone in a few years? Also, the max. input on the firestudio mobile is only +14dB - quite a bit below the max output of the AT4040 - again the salesperson says it's ok, but I worry about mic/pream compatibility, headroom and distortion.
    with respect to dynamic range, so far most of the interfaces I've looked at in this price range seem to have similar overall specs., but I will certainly investigate TC Electronic and Edirol products further.
    I am not at all familiar with pro audio equipement - if anyone has other recommendations for brands that are considered the mainstay in the industry I it would help me identify which products to consider more seriously (there are so many out there).
    This setup will be a stepping stone for him, I just don't want him to make the investment in products that are clearly not well matched and consequently will perform poorly together. At this pricepoint he will certainly have to compromise on something - I'm not sure which features/specs to place greater importance on that will provide reasonable compatibility and performance now and allow for some expandability down the road. For example - if he picks up a good dedicated pre-amp later on, I don't want the interface to end up being the link that defines/inhibits the acoustic quality - or if it does, there should at least be a reasonable improvement in quality over the units built in pre-amps).
    again, thanks for the input.
  4. TheJackAttack

    TheJackAttack Distinguished Member

    The Shure SM7 and the EV RE20 are more often used for hip hop than a condenser mic. If your son is trying to emulate a particular artist he probably needs to not look at the publicity photos as often the mic shown in them isn't the mic used. They want bling for photos and the recording engineer wants results for the recording. I have purposely put up two or three vocal mics for an "artist" and not even turned two of them on so I can get what I need rather than the eye candy the "artist" wanted.

    Stay away from the M-Audio stuff. They don't handle extremes well and are buggy. They will work if you baby them but that isn't what you want. As to the features, if they don't work or don't work the way you think they should then are they features or redirections? Emu, TC Electronics, RME, MoTU, Presonus, some of the Edirol stuff.....that's where you want to be. These will all hold their resale value too. If you are looking to get a band into the live venues then you can't go wrong with the Studio Live mixer/interface. It's more money but will be more versatile.
  5. JohnnyRazz

    JohnnyRazz Active Member

    Thanks - I will look into all of these options tonight.
    do you think that firewire platform interfaces are still worth considering more seriously and will hold their value as well? Even if this connection standard slowly disappears over the next few years?
  6. TheJackAttack

    TheJackAttack Distinguished Member

    There are no future generation interfaces at this time. Firewire 400 outlasted Firewire 800 and 1600 as well as USB3. Everyone has been waiting for the new Thunderbolt technology but there are no interfaces with that yet and there will be firewire and usb adapters available when it does arrive.
  7. JohnnyRazz

    JohnnyRazz Active Member

    We have decided on the SM7B. Along with consistently good reviews, a friend of ours produces rock bands and spends a lot of time in the studio. when I gave him my picks (se2200, at4040, ev re20 and sm7b) he didn't hesitate to jump straight to the sm7b. He was actually in the studio when he called me back and polled three of the engineers that were there with him - they all agreed that the sm7b was a great choice for my sons application (vocals and even guitar). Interestingly the at4040 was also a top pick. In the end though, considering the uncertainty with the quality of the recording environment in our basement and my sons relative inexperience, it seems like a "Shure" thing to go with the dynamic option. A quick check on ebay showed that this model holds it's value very well.

    I am now considering either the Presonus Firestudio Mobile or the digidesign(Avid) MBox.
    I investigated all of the brands suggested above. EMU, TC Electronics, Edirol(Roland) all make interfaces in the price category I'm looking for however other than offering a higher sampling rate option (192khz) none of them show specs. that surpass the firestudio Mobile (unless I'm interpreting the specs wrong). Motu makes a very ***y piece of equipment, but it's outside my price range and they provide no detailed preamp specs which I always find suspicious.

    The other option that I'm now considering is the MBox (which is a USB2 device). Spec wise it is pretty comparable, although I still think the presonus is on top. The single biggest difference is the max. input: firestudio is +14dBu while the MBox shows +24dBu with the 20db pad on (+4 with the pad off) - I assume the benefit is that it will handle a wider range of mic outputs (for example the max output on the at4040 is 22dBu - which is substantially above the max input on the firestudio). The other spec. I'm not sure of is the Mic preamp Gain: firestudio says -10db to 70db (does that make a gain of 80?) whereas Mbox says 54db with pad off and 74db with pad on. Which one is better? Will one perform better with the sm7b - which I am told is a quiet mic and that I will need to keep the gain set pretty high? do these interface preamps have the necessary gain to properly drive this dynamic mic?

    Both options seem to be designed to integrate seemlessly with protools 9 (which is also on my son's list), and they should also work with Logic pro (which he is currently using) - so no limitations there.

    firewire vs usb2 - initially I favored usb2 because it seemed to leave the door open in the future if firewire goes the way of the dinosaur, but now I'm getting the sense that the firewire platform will be more efficient and stable and that USB2 might be less reliable and pose potential compatiblity/driver issues - not to mention it will not handle the signal data as efficiently. Since my son is using a Mac anyway and has no intentions of going mobile in the near future, I think firewire is the better choice. However, the fact that more new interface device releases are moving to or accomodating USB2 still causes me questions about the demise of the firewire platform - or it could be that they are just trying to capture more PC market share.

    during my general review of forum topics I got a sense of overall satisfaction by posters regarding presonus products, and maybe it's just their marketing but I have a genuine sense of confidence with the overall quality of their product and their preamp technology.
    Likewise I recall generally more negative feedback regarding Mbox products. They claim that their preamp technology is born from the protools HD plateform that still seems to be the industry standard?
    From a user perspective do the digidesign products or Mbox specifically have a reputation of product issues, glitchy preformance, stability issues, software compatibility problems, difficulty contacting customer support, etc?

    If anyone has further specific or general feedback I would be interested to know.
  8. TheJackAttack

    TheJackAttack Distinguished Member

    The MBox is decidedly an unspectacular piece of gear. Very ho hum. I don't know the bottom Presonus units but generally Presonus units have superior analog circuitry to the Avid/Digi boxes. I think your SM7 is a good choice. The AT4040 (and all the AT 4000 series microphones) are a great value so don't rule those out in the future.

    USB is not as desirable as firewire. I would have to disagree with your assessment that there are more new USB devices than 1394. I don't see that at all and in fact, consistently the USB "equivalents" within a given manufacturer have less I/O and options than their 1394 counterparts. USB just can't compete with the bidirectional 1394. If there existed a USB3 interface that might be different but as of today none exist. The majority of solid and reliable external interfaces are firewire. Internal is the most stable with PCI/PCIe card based offerings but they would seem out of your willing price range.

    Don't get bogged down in advertising campaign. If Avid can claim PT to be the industry standard then that is not the MBox or 00* units. At the least that would be the HD equipment and really they have the most arguable claim with TDM. Neither HD nor TDM is anything like an MBox. Pure BS marketing.
  9. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    +1 on Jack's comments. The Mbox sold because it was one of the necessary dongles for ProTools LE and not because of its lacklustre audio performance.

    On a separate point, don't get hung up about the maximum levels at the microphone XLR inputs. Even with a high-output condenser microphone placed in front of a guitar amp or over a drum kit or (worse) 20ft away from a set of Scottish bagpipes you are not going to hit an overload on these inputs. A more significant point is that the rear-panel line inputs on the Presonus FireStudio have a FS level of only +10dBu, and that is really low. It may not affect you at the outset, but if you expand and start to connect other gear, you may well run into trouble there.
  10. JohnnyRazz

    JohnnyRazz Active Member

    Thanks guys, your guidance has been extremely helpful - I am starting to see the light. Firewire - YES, MBox - NO. so Firestudio mobile it is.

    I don't completely understand the practical ramifications of the low dbFS value but I get the sense that it will limit the signal of any analog input to 10db before clipping it or digital signal degradation occurs (a limit on the A to D converter perhaps?). What would be a typical example of something I would want to plug into these inputs that could cause issues?
    Never the less this interface is an entry level device, and with the lower price tag I guess I have to accept some compromises. I am pretty confident the balance of features and specs. will more than meet my sons requirements.

    you have dismissed my concerns about max input/output disparity between the mic and preamp - thanks for that input.

    One last question about the mic - after finishing my post last night I searched around for more forum info on the sm7b. I found several reviews/forum posts warning that it is a very low output mic that will require LOTS of preamp gain. My friend even qualified his recommendation by saying the he needs to keep his dials on the high side to get reasonable levels from this mic. - and many forum posts support this.
    I have to keep in mind as I read reviews and posts and ask for input from professionals that they are providing feedback from a pro audio perspective and would be using the mic with a capable preamp, etc.
    So the last question I need to ask myself is whether or not this entry level interface/preamp has the necessary gain to capture the low level mic signal without adding substantial device noise? any thoughts?

    I think I will ask Presonus this question (and the low dbFS one too, and see how good their customer support service is).

    As well, I think we will pick up the interface first and my son can test it with his friends Rode NT1 to see what kind of results he is able to achieve with that and get some practical sense of the limiting nature of the room characteristics with a condenser mic that seems to be in the class we are looking at.

    One last note regarding my last post. You editted the adjective I used to describe the Motu products. I wanted to clarify that it was intended as a positive descriptor/comment, not a negative one (the way it's editted makes it ambiguous to readers). These Motu interfaces look very impressive and versatile, but are currently out of my price range, and it would be nice if they provided more detailed component specs.
  11. TheJackAttack

    TheJackAttack Distinguished Member

    The edit was forum software generated. A Triton Fethead or Cloudlifter can help with low outout ribbons or other dynamics like the SM7.
  12. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    You are right to query whether the available gain on the FireStudio is enough for the SM7B, as I think the answer is that 50dB is not enough for many sound sources. Having to run with the gain control at or very near fully up is not a recipe for low-noise recordings.

    See what Presonus says about this, although I think this particular issue is more a matter for the sales department than for technical support. You could be in for another round of interface hunting.

    Regarding adjective editing, there's no-one sitting there approving every post as it comes in - it's the site that does it. You should try living in Es*** or S****horpe.
  13. JohnnyRazz

    JohnnyRazz Active Member

    I think I will stick with the Firestudio - I don't think I'll find anything that will handle low input signals any better at this pricepoint.
    just out of interest - you indicate the gain is 50dB, but the mic preamp specs a gain control range of: -10db to +70db - doesn't that make for a total gain of 80db?

    I have posed these questions to Presonus - customer service can direct it to anyone they want, but I have yet to find a sales person who can thoroughly answer a technical question - without first asking the technical person for the answer.
    I'll let you know what they say.

    We will test the interface with the Rode NT1 condenser and if that works well then we will bring the AT4040 back to the table - there is certainly no low output issues with that one!

    Thanks again for the feedback and quick replys to my queries.
  14. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    Ahah! The latest FireStudio Mobile manual that eventually loads from the Presonus website has the gain range to +70dB, as you say. The older copy I had gave the spec as only +50dB.

    Although the range of the control (as given in the latest manual) is 80dB, the first 10dB of that is attenuation, so the maximum gain available is +70dB. This version of the spec also implies that the maximum input level at the XLR input is +24dBu, i.e. +14dBu at unity gain plus another 10dB of attenuation on the gain control. The rear-panel line level input specs are unchanged at +10dBuFS.

    I think you would find that the FireStudio Mobile with this latest spec will work OK with the SM7B.
  15. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Guest

    And I didn't even get a chance to recommend the SM58 or SM 7b. Yup, good choice. And even also tell your kid that Quincy Jones & Bruce Swedien used the SM 7 to record Michael Jackson's vocals, for all of his hits.

    You're not going to have any problem with output level from these microphones. He's not going to be standing 10 feet away from the microphone so you don't have to worry. I can assure you that, Inexpensive $5.00 5534 IC chips can make a perfectly wonderful working microphone preamp without fear of failure. It's all in how you set it. That's what really matters. Most all entry-level professional gear has a headroom of 18 DB over its nominal operating level. High-end professional gear goes up another 8-12 DB beyond that for an extra $600, per stage or so. But then most entry level professional inputs can't handle much input level beyond +20. So what good does it do you if you have +24 to +30 headroom if the input gear to your converter is going to be whistling Dixie at +20? You know, you could even go for the Shure Beta 58. Hey if an SM58 is good enough for Bono & Steve Tyler in the studio, then the Beta 58 is good enough for your kid.

    Don't turn down the wrong Rode.
    Mx. Remy Ann David
  16. JohnnyRazz

    JohnnyRazz Active Member

    Update - for anyone interested.
    OK - so we picked up a firestudio mobile (local shop just happened to have one on the shelf).
    First thing I did when we got it home was whip up a batch of Kurt Bueche's (PreSonus COO) top secret recipe for Jambalaya - PreSonus includes a copy of the recipe on the back cover of the user manual (and again on the back of the quick setup guide). I thought this recipe must be pretty good because that's some pretty valuable marketing real estate... anyhow, it was Delicious - now lets hope the interface is as spicy!

    Well we got it all set up and Max's friend brought over his NT1 on Sunday to spend the day experimenting (with the mic that is). Sure enough they found the mic performed horribly in the open room. They proceeded to try all sorts of variations and even resorted fully drapeing blankets over the foosball table to create a makeshift soundbooth underneath - I wish I had pictures to post! In the end they found that slipping a sock over the mic (hopefully a clean one) did a pretty good job to make a huge improvement.

    So I'm wondering whats the sense of spending $400 on a precision instrument if they need to temper the sensitivity with a sock? perhaps the SM7B won't pose the same challenges (with room acoustics), but maybe he can get a sound out of the SM58 or Beta 58 that is indestiguishable from the SM7B. Remy's post got me thinking this, so I did a bit more searching since I have, until now, dismissed less expensive options (just assuming they would have limited applications specifically for vocals - which is what he is after).
    I found a really great post where someone actually compares these two mics side by side with the same input audio - very cool idea if you haven't seen/heard this check it out, download the two samples and see if you can tell which is which?

    Shure SM7B vs SM58 (With Audio!) | Home Studio Corner

    I can't tell - but I don't proclaim to have the best ear for detail.

    Maybe the sm58 is the way to go,for now. It's sure to be a huge improvement from his current mic and seems like one that he will find many applications for down the road. I'll mention to him that Bono and Tyler used it in the studio -that might carry some weight with him.
    I'm still undecided, I will have to think of more friends/acquaintences who might have mics we can borrow to test?
  17. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Guest

    One extra option to utilize with the SM58 is an additional external foam pop filter. I love the SM58 but even with its internal pop filter, it can still pop & blast. The additional external foam pop filter will not only help to prevent that, it also provides a silly little additional distance from the capsule which can make a huge difference in the overall sound quality.

    Pops been dead for many years now
    Mx. Remy Ann David

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