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MXL Desktop Recording Kit ReviewAn all-in-one mic solution for voice actors, audio engineers, hobbyists, and Podcasters.
I've been a big fan of Marshall Electronics MXL microphones for some time. They make affordable, exceptional quality, and great-sounding large and small diaphragm condenser microphones ideal for studios, big and bedroom. I record a lot of voice-overs, and I know the value of matching the right microphone to a particular voice. Thanks to MXL, you are no longer forced to compromise because now you can afford to have numerous different models, each one well-suited to a specific task.
Also as a rule, taking expensive large diaphragm condensers into the field or on the road is something most of us avoid. Thanks to their low prices, you can put MXL mics to work in a greater variety of scenarios. If one gets damaged, the dollars lost won't make you sob. The major drawback to taking condenser mics on the road is that they require 48 volts of phantom power to operate. This power can come from a mixer, dedicated preamp, and occasionally a soundcard. But what if you don't want to lug around extra gear?
Enter the Desktop Recording Kit or DRK, for short. MXL's latest offering is a battery-powered large diaphragm condenser perfect for plugging right into a laptop/desktop soundcard and recording your next project. With a street price of just under $100, the DRK is quite the bargain. And this isn't a stripped down, no-frills mic, either. The DRK comes in a locking, molded plastic case with ample foam custom-cut to fit the package contents. Look at all that's included:
- MXL DRK large diaphragm condenser microphone, bright white and obviously styled for the I-Pod generation
- 9v battery (yes, the battery is included)
- Tripod desktop stand with non-slip rubber feet
- Standard mic clip for attaching the DRK to the stand (or any other mic stand for that matter)
- XLR cable (six feet, and also bright white)
- XLR to 1/8" mini adapter cable
- 1/8" mini to 1/4" adapter plug
Pressing the DRK into service is easy. Pop in the battery, mount the mic to the stand, connect it to your soundcard using the supplied cables, turn on the mic, set your levels, and record away. MXL thoughtfully includes enough connection options for nearly any situation. Use the XLR cable with professional gear and the 1/8" (or 1/4") for consumer soundcard connections. You could even connect the mic to a mini-DV video camera.
For the squeamish, the package also contains a Microphone Users Manual that tells how to unpack, setup, and connect your microphone. You have to unscrew the body to put the battery in, and the instructions are clear and well-illustrated. A nice touch is the included Getting the Best Results with Your MXL Microphone booklet which contains tips for placing and using microphones in several situations such as with vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, and such. There is also a bright neon pink card with a cautionary tale of condenser mics and moisture. The can't-miss-it reminder urges you to use a pop filter or foam windscreen to protect the capsule from mouth and other moisture. Heed the advice and keep your DRK dry. I pack mine away in the plastic bag in which it shipped along with its moisture absorbing silica pack.
The DRK mic is a side-address cardioid design, far more sensitive to the front and sides than its rear. Novices should look for the upside-down heart-shaped icon to find the correct pick-up side. Curiously, this information is missing from the manual which is an oversight in a mic package obviously marketed to up-and-coming sound engineers, budding voice talent, week-end hobbyists, and would-be Podcasters.
According to MXL, the microphone capsule is based on their ever-popular 990 design, which they've been selling quite briskly, in part to its under $70 price. The electronics are based on the MXL 603 small diaphragm "pencil" mic, a personal favorite of mine for acoustic guitar recording. Of course, a battery-powered condenser mic needs more juice than a 9v battery can provide, so there are DC amplifiers onboard to boost the battery voltage.
One nice touch is being able to bypass the portable power entirely and use phantom power without having to remove the battery (turn the mic off, though). In the studio, go phantom if you have it, but otherwise or when on location, use the battery. As to be expected, the mic is slightly more sensitive and somewhat less noisy when connected to a standard 48v phantom power source instead of the battery. Still, I felt that under battery power, the mic's gain was acceptable and its self-noise was remarkably quiet. You're bound to find far more noise in the next stages of the recording chain anyway -- in the mic preamp. Also, I feel that the mic sounds thinner and slightly duller, especially on material with sufficient bass content or quick transients, when battery powered. The mic sounded fuller and punchier to my ears when under full 48v power, though.
I gave the DRK quite a workout using it on many sessions, both in the studio and on location over a few weeks. Overall, the mic performed exceptionally well, and I liked what I heard on playback. This is not a toy microphone. The DRK can play with the big boys. When you consider this is only a $100 package, the results you can achieve with this package are even more amazing.
This mic is a good choice for recording voice-overs (VOs). On male spoken voice, the mic sounded warm and detailed with a satisfying presence. It's not quite the Hollywood-movie trailer sound, but certainly pleasant for long-form narration and some commercial spots. For a male singer, I was surprised how smooth and round its sound was. When I'm searching for the right mic for a particular singer/song, you can bet that this one will be a contender. Test it yourself and evaluate the results before you discount it.
Female spoken word also sounded especially round and tight, without the excessive sibilance that some mics produce. I was able to push levels on a soft-spoken female without risking the sizzling harshness that some other mics accentuate. It wasn't bad on sung female vocals of the country ballad vein, but didn't work for me for a female rocker (and this particular song). I also recorded my nine-year-old son as a further test and felt the result was accurate.
On acoustic guitar and some hand percussion, the mic sounded great. The DRK captured transients and tone of all the instruments faithfully. It wasn't excessively boomy or too open, either. The tracks felt tight and upfront -- ready for mixing. I did feel the guitar was more resonant under phantom power and thinner with the battery powering the mic, though. Bamboo flute sounded only OK, so the DRK wouldn't be my first choice for that instrument.
I took the DRK on location to record sound effects, too, placing a hefty foam windscreen over the mic to protect the capsule outdoors. Being able to plug the battery-powered mic into my laptop and record into Sony Sound Forge 8 was very slick. For as long as my laptop battery held out, I could record anything, anywhere. Generally, the mic presented a detailed, accurate, and tight picture of the various environmental sounds I encountered. Its cardioid design rejected a lot of background noise allowing me to capture sounds clearly and cleanly, exactly what I like when recording sound effects. This mic will be a permanent resident of my field recording kit.
Honestly, I wasn't surprised by the quality of this mic, or its versatility, as all my previous experiences with the MXL line have been good. If you're presently using a crummy mic and need to step up, or if you need a battery powered mic for more flexible recording, and even if you're looking to augment your current mic collection, do yourself a favor and consider the MXL DRK.
Marshall MXL Desktop Recording Kit, $149.95 list, $99.95 street
Jeffrey P. Fisher is a Sony Vegas Certified Trainer and he co-hosts the Sony Acid, Sony Sound Forge, and Sony Vegas forums on Digital Media Net (www.dmnforums.com). For more information visit his Web site at www.jeffreypfisher.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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