Friday, August 9, 2013

Audio-Technica AT5040 Quad Diaphragm Cardioid Condenser Studio Mic


Four capsules are visible
inside the two-layer grill
For years, Audio-Technica has brought solid, economical workhorse mics to market for broadcast, video/film and recording. If they have any cross to bear, it's that they frequently have stayed away from the spotlight. Yes, they get street, live and studio cred for many of their mics as solid performers; just not a lot of of icing on the cake. I think those days are over.

The new Audio-Technica 5000 Series has begun. First out of the chute is the AT5040 electret cardioid condenser mic and accompanying AT8480 mic clip. It's an electret. If that makes you wince, it might help you to know that on several occasions over the years, I was assured by people who had been making top-shelf mics for major companies, that there was no reason that electret mics couldn't be made as good as externally polarized condenser mics.


QUICK NOTES: Application: Studio and booth recording Features: Exceptionally quiet and extremely sensitive Electret Cardioid with four rectangular diaphragms Price: $2,995.00 with custom suspension mount

FEATURES

Designed with the aid of two anechoic chambers, one at AT Japan and one at AT US, the AT5040 has a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Partially because it has no output transformer, response rises gently a few dB below 80 Hz. There’s also a gentle presence boost of 2dB that begins to rise at 1 kHz, achieves 2 dB about 3 kHz to 4.5 kHz and dips back to zero at 5 kHz. There’s a slight wiggle and then a short 1dB plateau between 9 kHz and 11 kHz. By 20 kHz the frequency 
response is down 2 dB. This curve works 
very well on male and female voice, among other things.

Open circuit sensitivity is a walloping -25 dB (56.2 mV) re 1V @ 1Pa. Audio-Technica makes the point that because they were after “sonic purity” before anything, including manufacture cost, there are no switches, pots or transformers to degrade the output.


Rectangular diaphragms have been used in other microphones; notably Sanken, Pearl and Milab, so this is not a first. The combined area of the four diaphragms is the theoretical equivalent of a round diaphragm of about an inch and a half in diameter.

Audio-Technica AT5040 from the inside

A single round diaphragm 1.5 inches in diameter would be problematic because of size and mass. If you could make a usable round diaphragm that big, there could be two benefits; low selfnoise and high sensitivity. The selfnoise of the AT5040 is 5 dB-A. That makes it one of the quietest mics on the planet. The increased diaphragm size also makes it one of, if not THE most sensitive mic on the market, requiring less preamp gain than probably every other mic out there. It's 9 dB more sensitive than a Neumann TLM 103 and just as quiet. 

Where would you use that extra sensitivity? Where the source and ambient sound are very quiet, this mic will shine. Also, because the AT5040 has no output transformer, the output has a wider bandwidth. I could see the low frequency components on the waveform when I zoomed in on the timeline that I have never seen with any other microphone. 
AT8480 Mic Clip

The mic clip for the AT5040 is the AT8480. By itself it's a work of art that one might find in MOMA. It holds the mic gently but firmly, while allowing the mic to be turned for positioning. 

IN USE
Let’s look at the AT5040 as a booth mic. Even though the AT5040 is as flat as it is, there's enough sparkle to do very nice things for male and female voice. The AT5040 has a rich clarity on male voice with no harsh edge and a slight, chesty thickness that reminds me of days when I used to smoke half a pack a day (or more). It has sort of a ribbon mic quality on the low end,  while remaining smooth and bright on the top end. Here's my first recording of the AT5040 into a Sound Devices 744T recorder, recorded in my living room.

I work regularly with VO talent Molly Moores (www.mollymoores.com). I record her for a flight of radio and TV VOs every month. Molly has a great voice, but with the wrong mic, her sibilance can peek out a bit too much, especially when rushing to get all the copy in and compressing/limiting to increase the punch. We tried the AT5040 on her as well and found that we didn’t have to use any EQ. I might have nudged 125Hz up slightly, but the AT5040 was very complimentary to her chest tone and again, no edginess. Listen to a raw Molly Moores voice track with no EQ on SoundCloud.

I was concerned that off-axis sound across diaphragms this large would result in scattering and messy phase response. I worked the mic from each side, top and bottom in search of some sort of smeariness or beaminess, but found none. There is a fairly narrow angle of acceptance for high frequency response. Anything more than 20 degrees either side of the centerline and the high frequencies begin to roll off. The rolloff is well-behaved.

Depending on the abilities of you VO talent, you may not need a pop filter, but it’s not a bad idea to have one for talent who haven’t learned how not to pop a mic. Also because this mic actually hears some very low frequencies, it might catch some breath eddies. The AT8480 shock mount is exceptional in design. It gives the mounted mic a very finished look as well as being highly functional and very easy to use. The non-reflective finish of both the mic and suspension mount would make the pair a likely candidate for the desk on some upscale TV talk show.


Drummer Mark Ayers and Bassist Al Page
Next I tried the AT5040 with a Greg Hanks BA-660 tube mic preamp on a kick drum during a music recording session. I was concerned that the AT5040 diaphragms might be damaged, but got the go ahead from Audio-Technica to use it on kick. 

Drummer Mark Ayers plays with both heads on his 20" Dominion Duo Fade ddrum with Evans EMAD beater head and doesn't care for "click" on the kick, so, as shown in the picture I tried setting the mic up aimed across the hole in the front head. We cut a track and Mark liked what he heard. We moved on. Bassist Al Page plays a 1966 Gibson EB2.

Here's Russ Beaumont, guitarist for the above group on a Les Paul > Fender Amp > Audio-Technica AT5040 > Greg Hanks BA-660 preamp > RME ADI-8 DS > Protools.


SUMMARY
It's very difficult to improve on the best existing microphone designs. While most mics on the market these days are the result of a mad rush to be insanely affordable, having the vision to innovate a top-shelf mic that is unique as well as outstanding takes a lot of guts. 

Combining four rectangular diaphragms effectively is a major feat of engineering. The AT5040 is the first in Audio-Technica's 5000 Series. It will be very interesting to watch what they do with this grand new effort. At $2999, the cardioid-only AT5040 will be out of reach for some buyers, but so are Volvo, BMW and Mercedes Benz. The AT5040 makes a statement and repositions Audio-Technica as a high-end mic manufacturer. As people find out more about what the AT5040 brings to the party, I expect it will gain even wider acceptance. 

Ty Ford has been reviewing professional audio gear for over 20 years. Find out more about him at www.tyford.com.

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