It's not often that we get to revisit an established classic, but this month we test drive the AT4050ST, which is a recently-released stereo version of Audio-Technica's ubiquitous AT4050 condenser microphone.
The AT4050 is one of those rare microphones that simultaneously helped launch and fuel the home/project studio revolution of the mid-'90s, and it was one the first high-quality large-diaphragm alternatives to both the Neumann U87 and AKG C414 for the professional studio. (This was before untold multitudes of cheap large-diaphragm condensers started arriving on boats from Asia.)
The AT4050 was and is a large-diaphragm condenser microphone, capable of three patterns, cardioid/figure-8/omni. It has a 20 Hz to 18 kHz frequency response with a slightly boosted low end between 20 and 80 Hz and the now-familiar 5 kHz and 10 kHz upper-frequency peaks, followed by a rolloff approaching 18 kHz. This means: modern-sounding yet solid and punchy, with a full low end and just enough high-end to sound natural and open, but not enough to sound cheap and crispy.
The AT4050 was and is one of those rare mics where you could cut an entire professional album with just this one microphone, from drum overheads to electric guitars, acoustic instruments to vocals and beyond... and many small studios did just this.
Two in one
The new AT4050ST uses a slightly larger body than the original. It is 7.6" tall and 2.1" at its widest diameter. It's done up in A-T's black color scheme and well built. On its rear is a lowcut switch (12 dB/octave, 80 Hz corner) as well as a 10 dB pad, and on its front is a switch to select one of three stereo modes controlled by an internal matrix in the microphone.
Behind the grille the AT4050ST houses two complete dual-diaphragm capsules that are mounted at a perfect 90 degree angle. Essentially the AT4050ST specs out equal to the original, with slight variations for the different stereo modes (see Audio-Technica's website for tech specs); the center capsule can be used as a single cardioid-only version of the AT4050, and I can attest that it sounds indistinguishable from the original.
It comes with a standard AT-foam-lined vinyl box with one of A-T's proprietary new shock mounts, cloth mic bag, and a specialized 5-meter stereo breakout cable.
The AT4050ST has three stereo modes. The first mode sets the imaging to a perfect 90 degree width. This mode is the tightest/narrowest. The second mode widens the stereo field to 127 degrees and is more suited to sources and movement farther away from the microphone.
The last mode offers full Mid-Side capability by turning the off-axis microphone into a figure-8 pattern. With this last one you will need a dual-channel preamp with M-S decoding, or you will need to set your DAW up to do it.
It's simple: just track the figure-8 capsule onto two tracks at once, flip the polarity of one of them, pan them hard left and hard right, and those become your perfectly in-phase Side mics, while the other capsule gives you your fixed center mono (Mid) channel. Adjusting the stereo mics volume up or down will appear to widen and narrow the stereo field. (For more on Mid-Side recording, see our November 2011 issue.)
As mentioned, for the most part, this mic sounds exactly like a phase-accurate pair of classic AT4050s. I use the caveat "for the most part" since it sounds like a good stereo pair of AT4050s at a distance. Rarely will you get right up on a stereo microphone to take advantage of its proximity effect as you do a mono mic... unless you are doing an exaggerated, self panning "Now it's in this ear! Now it's in that ear!" type of recording, which can be fun. (Heck, Esquivel made a career of stuff like that.)
Also, if you are used to recording stereo with spaced pairs, a single-point stereo mic will take a bit of adjustment as it can never be as wide or exaggerated. But the set-it-and-forget-it ease of a perfectly in-phase stereo microphone completely makes up for that.
Of the two standard stereo modes the 90 degree, tighter pattern worked best for close up/individual instrument miking such as acoustic guitar, violin, hand percussion, piano and such. By close-miking, in this case I mean 2 to 3 feet. This is also my preferred setting for small-group vocal ensembles.
The 127 degree setting works better for room mic duties, drum overheads and large choirs, or wherever a bit more depth is warranted.
M-S mode is perhaps the most fun, and having it built into one mic rather than wrestling with setting up multiple mics on multiple stands and fussing with accurate angles is a real blessing.
I tend to use M-S recording in similar situations to the 90 degree setting, such as single instruments like acoustic guitar and hand percussion, plus it can be quite fun on guitar amps. Due to its perfectly phase coherent nature, M-S is especially handy when tracking sources that may actually get collapsed to mono, as in radio playback.
It's hard to argue with the sound of a modern legend, and now you can have that sound in stereo -- which is just awesome, and for slightly less than the cost of two mono 4050s.
For some folks stereo mics fall into the "novel but not necessary" camp, and so they tend to get overlooked; but if you do anything with stereo -- and we all do sometimes -- then it can quickly become a great and unique tool.
Price: $1625 ($1299 street)
More from: Audio-Technica, www.audio-technica.com