Big Mick Hughes wanted to use this mic on the Metallica tour recently but James Hetfield chose another one based on looks alone… so we thought we’d review it.
Review: Mark Woods
I’ve become quite a fan of Audio-Technica mics, especially for live use. It started with the company’s release of a range of instrument/drum mics that impressed with their sound quality, good value and solid reliability, but it wasn’t until I started using the AE5400 handheld condenser that I really embraced the brand for live vocals. Dynamic mics are cheaper and slightly easier to use on stage but the accuracy and detail available from condenser designs generally makes them a better choice for all but the crudest performances, and the AE5400 has gained a reputation for being one the best around.
SINGERS WITH A LARGE DIAPHRAGM
Most of the current-breed vocal condensers are based on small-diaphragm designs with bodies modified for handheld use. The Audio-Technica AE5400 is different to this design approach in that it – perhaps somewhat surprisingly – uses the same large-diaphragm capsule as the company’s AT4050 side-address studio mic. It looks purposeful rather than flashy but the body feels strong and, like so many Collingwood supporters, it has a tough head. At 330 grams it’s a pleasing weight and I like the flat section that runs down the body, housing sunken switches that activate the 10dB pad and 80Hz HPF. Microphones from other manufacturers typically have these functions too of course, but the switches are often hidden under or around the head, so it’s not obvious they possess them at all, and this then makes them fiddly to use.
The polar pattern of the AE5400 is cardioid, the frequency response is quoted at 20Hz – 20kHz and its self-noise is a respectable 14dB. The maximum input level before distortion is a whopping 157dB with the pad engaged so it’s not going to overload unless cannons or planes are part of the show. The frequency response plot gives a clue to the AE5400’s sonic character: essentially flat up to 2kHz before a mild presence peak rises between 2kHz and 4kHz. From there it’s back down a couple of dB at 6kHz before rising again to a peak of around +4dB at 10kHz.
In use the AE5400 is immediately rewarding, especially if you replace a normal high-quality dynamic with it. It’s output level is about 10dB higher than the ubiquitous SM58, so if you’re performing this switcheroo on stage with an open foldback system it’s necessary to engage the pad first or you could get a face full of feedback that will almost certainly detract from your initial impression. If the swap over is uneventful the improvement in sound quality is quite dramatic. The clarity and detail in the high frequency range of the AE5400 make a 58 sound like it has a blanket over it, while the shaped high-frequency response gives presence and air but avoids emphasising sibilance. The mids are accurate and natural, the low end is smooth and the proximity effect, plosives and boominess are well controlled, especially with the HPF engaged.
Moving across the head of the mic shows the frequency response to be commendably even until halfway down the side of the head where there are deep null points. Sound entering from the rear is well attenuated in volume also, especially in the mid-high frequencies, but not unpleasantly so. Handling noise is low and not noticeable in use. Exploring high monitor volumes with condenser mics will always expose a greater tendency to feedback than good dynamic mics, but unless volume is the only important criteria the improvement in quality more than compensates. The AE5400 is as resistant to feedback as a condenser can be and when it does become unstable it does so quite evenly from low to high without any one frequency sticking out unduly.
From front-of-house the AE5400 works beautifully on good voices of either gender with a rich quality to the bottom end, a complete lack of harshness across the mids and high-mids and a nice amount of airy top end. It’s much brighter than a 58 but not strident, pulling the voice forward with its clear and accurate presence. I use it regularly at gigs and apart from a HPF I haven’t found the need for any EQ. It won’t polish ‘proverbials’, however – I had a recent case where it was sounding just right to me in the monitors but crap when the singer sang. I kept walking up to the stage and checking the mic, feeling sure there must be something wrong with it, but it always sounded fine when I spoke into it. Eventually I swapped it for a 58 but the problem persisted… it was the singer.
INTRUMENTAL TO SUCCESS
The other important strength of the AE5400 for me is its ability as an instrument mic. Stringed instruments generally sound much better through a condenser mic than a dynamic or a DI, but often they require lots of gain, making them susceptible to feedback. The AE5400 meanwhile captures the detailed transients and wide dynamic range of acoustic instruments while simultaneously allowing as much level as possible. It won’t replace a DI for loud bands using acoustic guitars, or performers who insist on running around the stage while playing, but for acts looking for the highest quality real instrument sounds the AE5400 will work well. For the commonest of gigs – the solo performer who sings and play acoustic guitar – the AE5400’s tight pickup pattern and good off-axis response may allow these types of performers to enjoy the benefits of a more natural sound without undesirable amounts of vocal bleed into the guitar mic. These acts often use a DI for precisely this reason – often to the detriment of the guitar sound – but provided they’re not on the move, the AE5400 can provide a great alternative.
The Audio-Technica AE5400 is also a handy studio mic. It’s become my favourite for guide vocals in the control room or recordings where the vocals are done live in the studio with the band. Guide vocals sometimes get used as keepers if the singer can’t do it better as an overdub, or just really likes their performance on the guide track, and even though the AE5400 is not as good as some of my dedicated studio vocal mics it’s good enough to allow the track be used if needed. In the case of the singer performing in the studio with the band my regular recording mics pick up too much of the room sound but the AE5400 gives me enough separation to allow the vocal to be placed high in the mix without the spill having an adverse affect on the band’s sound.
I’m not the only one who likes these mics. There’s a long list of big name artists covering styles from heavy rock to opera currently using them, and I know why. They may not be the best looking mics out there but they offer great sound quality and will do well in any comparison with competing products, including price. I own several Audio-Technica mics, including a couple of dynamics I’ve had since the mid ’80s that I still use on toms occasionally, and I’ve never had any reliability or build-quality issues – I recommended them highly.