‘Intrigued onlookers aren’t the only thing you’ll attract when the Sputnik’s orbiting the scene. It’s a valve condenser with ‘gravitas’.
Text: Mark Woods
The M-Audio Sputnik is a multi-pattern valve large diaphragm condenser with a difference. It’s a reasonably priced microphone that arrives in a solid carry case with power supply, shockmount, leads and an amusing manual. Looking more like the chrome bumper off a Cadillac, the Sputnik’s nickel-coated, hand-polished body makes a striking first impression.
The Sputnik arrived on my doorstep just in time for what has become my favorite event of the year, the annual Guildford Banjo Jamboree. Held in the small town of Guildford, 10km south of Castlemaine, the event attracts around 500 people each year (and they don’t want any more) for a weekend of traditional string band music. The performers don’t really like amplification but it’s essential for the concerts in the town hall – a necessary evil, they’d call it. I supply and operate the PA in the hall, and its main charter is to provide clean amplification of the instruments on stage – without effects – so that their sound fills the room.
I decided to use the Sputnik onstage (which was a fairly radical notion, especially given its startling looks). I began cautiously by using the Sputnik as a spot mic on banjo and guitar and was immediately impressed by the sound – rich and detailed with plenty of gain before feedback… and it looked fantastic under lights!
Some of the later acts wanted to perform in the traditional bluegrass manner: with players moving towards (and away from) a single, centrally positioned microphone to change the balance of the instruments. PA tuning and microphone choice are everything for this technique to work and I was confident the Sputnik would do the trick. One of the bands actually bought their own microphone for this purpose; an entry-level ADK studio condenser. I showed them the Sputnik and declared in a Crocodile Dundee-like manner, “That’s not a microphone… this is a microphone!” The ADK was put back in its case without question… the power of looks again. The sound from the Sputnik was very good, and after their set the band wanted to know all the mic’s details – as did lots of people from the audience throughout the course of the weekend.
The main act on Sunday afternoon again performed around the mic, but this time they really ‘worked it’, moving in and out for intros, solos and vocals. In this setup the Sputnik performed beautifully. I could hear the whole band clearly and had no trouble getting them as loud as I wanted through the PA. I was particularly impressed with the vocal sound even when the singers were a fair way from the mic (30cm or more).
BACK TO EARTH
A couple of days later, with banjos still plunking inside my head, I set the Sputnik up in my home studio along with some of my regular mics to give it my usual first test: turn the mics on, put headphones on and go “Check 1, 2” a few times. (Note: this test may only be performed by live sound engineers!). Through the headphones the Sputnik’s tone was thick, rich and even. Although I can’t sing to save myself, I sang a Leonard Cohen song: “Like a bird, on a wire…” The mic (I stress) sounded beautiful.
The next test was of a real recording. Local singer/songwriter/guitar maker, Paddy Barr, recorded a song, accompanied by one of his own instruments. First up, I miked up the guitar using a mid/side technique with the Sputnik in the figure-eight position pointing towards the sides at a right angle to the guitar, with an ADK A-51 (cardioid) facing forwards. The Sputnik was not as bright as I would have liked, but used as one side of a stereo pair the overall result was okay. For the vocal, we started with a mic I know well, an SE Electronics Z3300A, and recorded a take. The Sputnik was next and as soon as Paddy heard himself speak, he thought it sounded dull. He sang a take and listening back confirmed this impression. The Sputnik was quite dark with a slightly fuzzy quality, the SE sounded superior for his fairly high, wispy voice.
I had high expectations for the Sputnik on Paddy’s voice so I was a little disappointed with the result. I wanted to like it, but realising that mics need to be matched to voices I called another singer, John Trager, and repeated the test. John has a deeper voice and the Sputnik’s strong low-mids shone through the moment he opened his mouth, giving it the edge over the SE, which sounded too bright and sibilant on his voice.
For Johnny Cash-type deep male vocals I’d reach straight for the Sputnik. We also overdubbed an electric guitar and a violin on the day and were very happy with the results. The violin in particular sounded warm and true and not at all scratchy.
WHAT A SPUTNIK!
The Sputnik is a very attractive microphone with a distinctive tonal character. I wouldn’t recommend it as the only mic in a home studio, but if you’re looking for a mic with a real valve sound to add to your collection, then the Sputnik will do nicely. Live use is not mentioned in the manual, apart from a recommendation not to use it outdoors, but it worked for me. If I don’t buy one myself I know I’m going to miss it at the Harrietville Bluegrass Convention later this year.