Saturday, January 23, 2010

Shure KSM44 Microphone Review

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

(NOTE: This is a review moved from the Wirebender Audio Systems site. The product may have changed from the hardware I tested in 2006. Musictech College is now the McNally Smith College of Music.)

Back in 2005, I had the opportunity to experiment with the KSM44. The Shure folks loaned Musictech College a pair of KSM44s, probably with the expectation that they would get them back in a reasonable period of time. Our definition of "reasonable" is probably different than theirs. I have no idea when we're planning on returning the 44s. (NOTE: We eventually bought a pair for the school's microphone inventory.)

The list price on this mic is about $1300, but street price is nearly half that price point. At this price point, the KSM44 is a fairly expensive microphone in the current market. So the question is, is it worth it?

Shure says, "the KSM44/SL is a multiple pattern (cardioid, omnidirectional, bidirectional), externally biased, dual large diaphragm condenser microphone with extremely low self-noise (7dB)."

The KSM44's features include dual 1-inch 24-karat gold-layered diaphragms and a discrete class-A transformerless preamplifier, which provides a low self-noise factor rated at 7dBA. The 44 has a subsonic filter (17Hz), a three-position LF filter, a 15dB pre-attenuator, and gold plated connectors. Shure sells the KSM44 in a "matched pair" set, including a case, shock mounts, storage bags, and miscellaneous hardware. However, "matching" is something the Shure engineers say is unnecessary with this product, since their quality control is tight enough that all of their high-end products could be called matched sets simply by model numbers. I found that these two mics, placed 4' from a grand piano and summed out-of-phase into a pair of Trident preamplifiers, matched each other at least as well as the two preamps with a single source. That's the second time a pair of Shure mics has successfully passed this test (the KSM141s were the first) and I think that's a pretty good indication of Shure's repeatability.

One downside to the KSM44 is that it isn't much of a distance mic. One of the Shure engineers warned me that programmable polarity microphones are inclined to lose their directivity after 2-3' and that is certainly the case with the KSM44. However, several of the microphones we used in comparison were less inclined to exhibit this tendency at normal studio distances than the KSM44. For example, Studio Projects' B3 hung on to it's cardioid characteristics at almost double the KSM44's mic'ing distance. The same was true for the bidirectional pattern. AKG's 414 and the Neumann U87 were also slightly more directional at distance than the 44s.

Several Musictech staff members used the KSM44s and we all had good experiences on male and female voices and a range of acoustic instruments from drum kit overheads to grand piano to tuba (seriously). If I had to put words to a description of the sound of a KSM44, I'd describe the mic as being "full." Sometimes the KSM44 is full to a fault, making it hard to find room for a vocal in a mix without some EQ'ing to compensate for the muted upper midrange. In a direction comparison, on female vocals, with the Studio Projects B3, the Rode NTK, and the AKG 414 ULS, the KSM44 was more natural sounding than 414 and U87 and warmer sounding than the B3. One of Musictech's golden ears thought the KSM44 was perfect as it stood without any EQ, which is unusual for that engineer. In several head-to-head solo comparisons, my students and I consistently picked the KSM44 as the "best sounding" mic but the Rode NTK often won the shootout with the same vocals in a mix. We usually pulled out a little bottom end and bumped the upper mid-range on the 44's recordings to find real estate for the vocal, once the voice was blended into a mix. The same held true for the U87. In our comparisons, the 414 and B3 recordings didn't hold up well enough to be considered in the final mix. That's saying something because the B3 has been a studio favorite in many of our classroom shootouts.

One of the weirdest experiments to which I subjected the KSM44 was jazz tuba. That extended, warm bottom end placed the tuba exactly where I wanted it to be in the mix without a breath of EQ. The same was true for acoustic bass, where I convinced an experienced studio bassist that this mic combined with a KSM141 near the neck was a dramatically better recording system than his expensive built-in bass pickup. The low end of the KSM44 is incredibly detailed and full, making it a likely candidate for any instrument that produces lots of bottom end.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.