Danish mic legends DPA take their considerable mic-designing experience to the stage — with impressive results.
During the pre-tour discussions with an artist I have worked with for a couple of years, the subject of vocal microphones came up. Neither myself, nor the singer, had really found a microphone that we were totally happy with — we had been down all the usual routes and still not found the one that suited. I had seen the DPA D:Facto II at a few trade shows and knew they were willing to let people try them out, so I contacted my PA supplier who arranged a loan mic to be sent to rehearsals. With nothing to lose I swapped out our existing mic and left it with the band.
The singer uses in-ear monitors, so was easily able to judge any changes in sound and quality, and after about half an hour there was no going back: the microphone was acclaimed as revolutionary and amazing. Now, I am too old and cynical to not understand the appeal of the new, and waited to reserve judgement until we had actually done some shows. I write this a week into the tour and most of the enthusiasm remains. We have done a selection of shows, from small clubs to bigger venues, in some reasonably challenging environments, and the mic really is showing it's class. So what makes this microphone stand out?
DPA have a very strong heritage in high-quality condenser microphones, particularly with miniature and subminiature capsules. They have a well-earned reputation, especially in the classical field, where they are the microphone of choice for many engineers, and their acoustic-instrument microphones and practical mounting clips for most string instruments have done a lot to make amplified string sections audible in even the harshest of environments. So why are they now trying to conquer the handheld vocal mic, one of the hardest areas for a new microphone to succeed?
There are quite a few handheld condensers on the market, and some of these, such as the Neumann KMS 104 and 105, have established themselves as viable on-stage microphones. Condensers have been used handheld for many years, but the problem of handling noise and susceptibility to wind noise have always been a problem. Durability is also an issue, especially for a touring mic, as these microphones are rarely cheap. So what have DPA done to overcome the problems of bringing a studio-quality condenser to the stage?
Unscrewing the pop shield reveals a familiar-looking pre-polarised DPA pressure-gradient capsule. The one in the D:Facto II has a supercardioid response to help reject background noise and reduce the chance of feedback on stage. DPA quote a nominal 20Hz-20kHz frequency range for the capsule, but interestingly provide a more qualified 100Hz-16khz (±2dB), with a 3dB soft boost at 12kHz and a third-order low-cut filter at 80Hz. This measurement is taken at 12cm (4.7in) from the mic. DPA also claim a dynamic range of 120dB and a very high SPL handling of 160dB before clipping, which should handle even the loudest singers. The microphone requires standard 48V phantom power.
The published response charts show a very uniform response, and the cardioid pick up seems to be maintained at most frequencies. The gentle rise at 12kHz is quite evident and lends a nice hi-fi feel to the sound. It is the off-axis frequency response, however, that sets this microphone apart from its rivals. The charts show a very smooth response at all frequencies off axis, which should mean that any spill that the microphone hears is at least pleasant and musical. On speaking to Christian Poulsen from DPA, whose project this very much is, he emphasised that making the microphone sound good both on and off axis was very important. In early listening tests they began to notice how often singers can sing 'around' the mic, and it is very true in my experience that vocalists will work off axis, sometimes to make the sound softer, and sometimes just through a lack of technique. Poulsen stressed that they spent considerable time tailoring the capsule to suit vocals, particularly for stage use.
I was struck first by the feel and size of the microphone. If you take a Shure SM58 as the standard for vocal microphones, then the D:Facto II is slightly larger. It has a bigger windshield and feels slightly larger in the hand. It also a nice weight — not too heavy, but sufficiently weighty to make you believe it is well constructed. The finish has a soft touch reminiscent of the Electro-Voice N/DYM series, which it resembles slightly. The windshield unscrews to reveal a fine internal mesh system that protects the small capsule, which is screwed onto the beautifully machined mounting. Everything about the construction speaks of quality Danish engineering.
The whole upper part of the capsule is also available as a radio microphone add-on, and can be fitted to standard bodies of most major manufacturers. Whilst reviewing the mic I also got a chance to try the microphone on a Shure radio system, and it performed as expected, with no unusually high drain on battery life, or problems with gain structure.
On first listening the mic sounded as I would hope a quality condenser would. There was slightly less low end than I'd expect from a large-diaphragm mic, such as an AKG C414, but with a similar level of detail and precision of sound. The D:Facto II's low cut certainly helps cut out handling noise, and also tapers the low end of the vocal away nicely. I wouldn't describe the sound as crisp, as this would imply some presence peak that the microphone doesn't have. Rather, it is detailed, with a clarity in the upper mids that seems uncoloured. It doesn't seem particularly susceptible to proximity effect and remains reasonably controlled wether the singer is working close or further away from the mic. The same was true of both the male and female singers using the mics on the tour. It was able to handle the full vocal range comfortably.
The handling of dynamics was equally impressive, capturing a quietly sung falsetto at distance as well as loud vocals at close range. Although the microphone received a reasonably diverse range of vocal styles it was not subjected to too much shouting — but then I don't think that is its true vocation. Certainly, everything we threw at it, it handled comfortably.
My main worry when using more sensitive microphones is that they are very good at capturing stage noise. This, for me, has been the downfall of many a condenser microphone when placed in the middle of a stage with a singer. They sound great when they are being sung into but as soon as the singer moves away the spill can destroy a mix. For me, this consideration is crucial: it is all very well having a great vocal sound, but not at the expense of the rest of the mix. In all the venues stage volume was an issue. We toured a selection of small halls, clubs and theatres with six musicians on stage and, with the drummer never more than six feet behind the DPA, spill was going to be an issue with any microphone. I can say that the microphone did indeed pick up a reasonable amount of the on-stage sound, but what made the difference for me was that it wasn't an unpleasant noise. The D:Facto II's uniform frequency response meant that the spill was not overbearingly toppy, and fitted in well with the overall mix. The radio-mic version was used at different points on the stage, as you can imagine, and it faired equally well in this regard.
The price is going to put a lot of people off, as this is an expensive microphone — but when I told the singer it cost seven times more than the microphone he was currently using, his response was that it sounded it! I think this is a very important point. The D:Facto II is a studio-quality microphone for the stage. Its response and construction are top notch, and that costs. However, this is also a microphone that you can take home and use as your primary recording mic in a home studio session. I would be happy to use this in the studio, maybe not as an alternative to a U87, but certainly against a medium-priced condenser. So will I buy one? Well, the band in question are ordering one at the moment, and possibly the radio mic version as well... .
There's now a wide range of handheld vocal capacitor mics to choose from, with the Earthworks SR40V coming closest to the DPA in terms of price, and the Neumann KMS104/5, Shure KSM9 and Sennheiser e965 costing slightly less.
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