A hand-held condenser that’s comparable in price to a standard dynamic? Now you’re talking.
Text: Mark Woods
Hand-held condenser mics have never been more popular for live vocals. Generally speaking, they sound better than dynamic microphones; they have thinner diaphragms for better transient response and display less sonic colouration. Their use on stage as a hand-held vocal mic is a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s only been since modern designs addressed their sensitivity to handling noise, susceptibility to feedback, relatively high cost and delicate construction that condensers have been of any practical use in the live arena. How times have changed.
These days, live condensers are made by all the big-name manufacturers and generally they sound great. Unfortunately, most of them are still very expensive when compared to your classic dynamic standards. Apart from the worry about these $600+ condensers getting dropped (or stolen) during the course of a gig, they’re simply beyond the budget of many musicians, vocalists and small PA owners.
ENTER STAGE RIGHT
With a street price under $200, the Røde M2 solves this problem. The M2 is a budget-priced hand-held condenser microphone specifically designed for live vocal use, although it’s also – as I discovered during the review – no slouch in the studio. Designed and manufactured in Australia, the M2 looks good in its dark grey regalia and feels solid thanks to its all-metal body. It’s priced to directly compete with the world of dynamic microphones and makes the choice between the two styles more about sound quality than cost.
The M2 comes supplied with an embossed soft case and mic clip, and while this modest package is more than ample, given its equally modest asking price, the clip seems a little fiddly when you’re wrangling the mic into position. Having said that, it certainly holds the mic securely enough. Unscrewing the top of the M2 reveals a small diaphragm suspended between two plastic legs by strands of relatively thin rubber. Whether this mechanical suspension will prove robust enough to endure the rigours of the road, Røde’s 10-year warranty would suggest at least the manufacturer is confident. Suffice it to say, I didn’t attempt to break it by intentionally sending it to the deck, but like all hand-held condensers, I suspect dropping it wouldn’t do it too many favours. Generally speaking, hand-held condensers aren’t the toughest vocal mics ever built, so if you’re a vocalist who likes to fling your mic down before diving into the crowd, perhaps a dynamic is more your bag.
IS THIS THING ON?
Turning my attention to the mic itself, the first thing I noted was the presence of an on-off switch that was apparently lockable. The lock is mentioned in the manual’s list of features but there’s no description of its location or operation. I eventually found the lock; it’s a small plastic slot embedded in the bottom of the slider mechanism, which, when turned clockwise 90º, prevents the mic from being switched to the ‘off’ position. Nevertheless, I must confess, I’ve always been wary of mics with on-off switches. The switch on the M2 is there to provide singers working with self-operated sound systems the ability to cut the mic when it’s not in use, in the absence of a dedicated sound mixer. But being a dedicated sound mixer myself, I’ve found it doesn’t matter how often you turn them on, mics with on-off switches have an uncanny knack of getting switched back to their ‘off’ position, particularly at sound checks, and this can lead to the sound mixer standing around scratching his head wondering why the mic is not working. And nobody wants that. Having said that, a singer with the self-operated sound system is part of the market Rode is catering to with the M2, and if there is a demand for such a switch, then this is probably the way to go about it.
It’s interesting to note that singers carrying their own mics to gigs is becoming more and more commonplace as mics become more affordable, and that’s okay, I’d carry my own mic too if I was a singer! The downside is that mics often have different output levels and frequency responses to the settings of the system they’re plugging into. Sometimes it’s not practical to re-tune the system to these mics, so it’s helpful when the new mic is roughly compatible with the existing settings. Many PAs and foldback systems are tuned around the standard Shure vocal mics (inevitably) and plugging the M2 into a system tuned for these mics revealed a relatively dark sound, with none of the usual presence peak, and a slight tendency to feedback at around 400Hz. It also has a hotter than average output – not a problem if you’ve set your system to suit, but if it replaces another vocal mic, the level could be too high and may cause feedback, particularly if the system is being operated at normal rock level (full).
Tuning the system to suit the M2 resulted in a fairly flat tuning, with about 6dB of cut at 400Hz and around 3dB at 100Hz being all that was required to optimise the sound. The frequency response was very flat across the midrange, with full low-mids and a smooth top end. The M2 displayed a strong proximity effect when used up close and this was easily controlled when required using low EQ or preferably a variable high-pass filter.
Handling noise was about the same level as a good dynamic mic and not noticeable in normal use. One of the best features of modern vocal condensers is their ability to handle plosives and pops, and the M2 controls these with aplomb. At the other end of the frequency spectrum there was also good handling of sibilance, often exaggerated by dynamic mics sporting presence peaks. Overall, the M2 produces a nice, smooth sound that may need to be sharpened up to cut through a mix but is very resistant to feedback in the usual 2 – 4kHz region.
AS A STUDIO CONDENSER…
In the studio, surrounded by a wide range of both studio and live mics, the M2 held its ground well. This is not a bright microphone but it nevertheless has an appealing, open sound on recorded vocals. It sounds fine without EQ and could be used on home recordings with good results. The pickup pattern is wide and fairly smooth until around 60-degrees off-axis, where the highs and mids disappear quickly. There is still a noticeable amount of low stuff getting into the mic from behind but no more than most condensers. The M2 would also be handy as a general-purpose instrument recording mic. It was very good on guitar cabinets; thick and not too harsh, and although untested, I suspect it would also have worked well with brass instruments.
A competent and good-value live vocal mic, the M2 will appeal to a wide range of singers with its smooth sound and ease of use. Some of them will also be happy to use the same mic for recording at home, which is a bonus. PA owners and operators will find them useful as a general-purpose vocal/instrument mic at an appealing price. A version of the same mic offered without an on/off switch would widen its appeal even further.