SOS puts LD's new tube and capacitor mics to the test.
Southend-based Adam Hall started out as a music hardware company that was best known for their cabinet parts and flightcases, but they have broadened their scope in recent years and have added a range of studio mics, badged under their own LD brand name, to their catalogue. I decided to take a look at the top and middle models in this range, the D1120 and D1121.
The less costly of the two, the D1121, is a switchable-pattern capacitor mic with discrete solid-state electronics and a transformer output stage. As you'd expect from a mic in this sector of the market, it is built in China.
The D1121 is based around a dual-element, 1.07-inch-diameter capsule, using six-micron, gold-spattered mylar for the membrane material. Pattern switching is achieved by combining the outputs from the two pressure-gradient capsule elements in different ways, which is usually how this kind of mic works. Mechanically, it is a surprisingly solid microphone, with its capsule protected by a robust, dual-layer steel mesh. Separate slide switches below the basket set the pattern to omni, cardioid or figure-of-eight and bring in a low-cut filter at 100Hz. As the with other conventional capacitor microphones, the D1121 requires standard 48V phantom power and connection is via the usual XLR socket in the base.
It isn't unusual for Chinese-built mics to come bundled with useful accessories, and this model comes complete with a sturdy metal shockmount and a nice aluminium flightcase, with a form-fitting foam lining. On paper there's little that's unusual about the specifications of this microphone, though my experience suggests that the sound of a mic often has little to do with the spec sheet. A frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz is quoted, though it is unclear by how many dBs it has dropped off at 20kHz. The frequency response curve is slightly more informative, and shows two modest presence humps, one around 8kHz and the other at between 12 and 15kHz. Below that, the response is generally flat until it starts to roll off below 40Hz or so.
The mic's sensitivity of 16mV/Pa is comparable with similar models, and its Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) figure of 17dB (A-Wtd) is similarly typical. There's no pad on this mic, so the maximum SPL is 125dB, which is still louder than most environments in which a mic is likely to find itself — other than, possibly, jammed down the horn of a trumpet or inside a kick drum close to the beater! However, as this mic is predominantly intended for vocal recording, excessive levels shouldn't really be an issue.
The D1120 is more expensive because it is a tube microphone and, consequently, it has its own power supply and slightly more complicated internal electronics. One thing that initially worried me about the power supply on the review model (and it is a trend that seems to be repeated on some other Chinese mics I've seen recently) was that the power supply connector feeding the mic had exposed pins, some of which carried the high voltage supply for the valve. If, for any reason, I had powered up the PSU without the mic attached, and then stuck my fingers in the connector, I would have got a very nasty shock! I referred this concern to Adam Hall, who sensibly had the production models changed to the opposite sex of connector so as to avoid the problem, so my initial safety concerns are no longer an issue.
In most respects, the PSU is quite conventional. Mains power comes in via an IEC socket, with an adjacent illuminated power switch, but there are no pad or roll-off switches (either on the mic or the PSU). It incorporates a stepped rotary switch to select the mic pattern as omni, figure-of-eight or cardioid, with two interim settings between each offering a choice of cardioid widths. An eight-pin connector hooks up the included mic cable and a conventional three-pin XLR carries the output.
As with the D1121, there's a substantial metal shockmount, and the whole kit comes in a large camera-style case with combination locks and sculpted foam interior. Unusually, you also get a long XLR cable, which is a welcome addition to the normal mic/PSU connection cable.
The mic itself is a chunky and impressive-looking cylindrical affair. Again, this is fitted with a dual-diaphragm, centre-terminated, 1.07-inch-diameter capsule. Looking inside the microphone body reveals that the circuitry is all tube (a dual triode), with a transformer output stage. Most of the components are mounted on one glass-fibre circuit board, the only exception being the tube, which has its own small board to carry the porcelain tube base. A silicon rubber restraining band holds the tube in place, and the large-diameter, dual-layer basket grille leaves plenty of space around the capsule. Both mics can be accessed by unscrewing the machined circular retaining ring at the base of the body and then sliding off the outer cover.
Other than a slightly increased maximum SPL of 128dB, the spec of the D1120 is very similar to that of its solid state sibling, though the sensitivity is a little lower, at 12.5mV/Pa (which would account for the extra SPL handling). There's more of a presence peak than with the D1121, but this is broad and gentle and affects mainly frequencies around 10kHz and above.
There is plenty of competition in this category. For the LD 1121, something like the Audio-Technica 4040 or Rode NT2A would be a viable alternative. As an 1120 alternative, you can look at tube models such as the AKG Solid Tube, the Rode NTK and the SE Z5600A.
Checking the solid state D1121 first, this has a well focused vocal sound with a useful amount of presence that should help to keep the vocal at the forefront of the mix. The presence peak seems to provide 'air' without allowing the sound to get harsh or brittle. The D1121 doesn't sound quite as sweet or as polished as the tube D1120 (which I'll come to later), but it does a good job, and should suit a broad spectrum of vocal types. In cardioid mode, it excludes most of the rearward and sideward room sound and the tonality remains reasonably consistent between patterns, with the omni mode, predictably, sounding the most open and natural.
Though there's nothing exceptional about the sound of this mic within its price range, it is nonetheless capable of very good results. As always, if you're picking the mic with a specific vocalist in mind, you should try mics with different characters. In my view this model would most benefit those singers who need a little help with projection, and it is probably least well suited to those with harsh or strident voices. As with most large diaphragm mics, though, there are also lots of potential secondary applications in instrument miking, where the D1121's switchable patterns add to its versatility.
The D1120 is also primarily a vocal microphone and, like the D1121, is flexible enough to double up on a number of other jobs, including acoustic guitar, hand percussion, electric guitar cabinets and so on. As a vocal mic, it projects a solid, confident sound without too much in the way of obvious coloration, and it has a gentle, airy top end that pulls out detail without sounding too obvious about it. Overall, the sound is rich, smooth and even, without ever seeming dull — and this is, in my view, what tube mic warmth is really all about. In omni mode, the sound isn't accurate at all angles, which is to be expected from a design where the basket side supports clearly obstruct the soundfield at 90 degrees to either side, but the pick-up from the rear of the basket also sounded slightly less bright to me than the pick-up from the front. Nevertheless, the omni sound does have that 'open' character that cardioid mics sometimes lack, so it just means that whatever you're recording still needs to be at the front of the mic for best results.
Neither of these models have ultra-low noise figures, and they probably won't be first choice for recording choral soloists at 50 paces. However, the noise figures are not untypical for large-diaphragm models of this type, and are perfectly acceptable for just about any close-miked situation or for loud sound sources.
Obviously there's a lot of competition between 'made in China' mic brands, some of which appear to be very similar. However, it would be wrong to assume that all these microphones sound the same, and you ideally need to match the sonic character of the microphone to that of the vocalist with which it will be used.
Both these mics and their included accessories are solidly built and seem to be made with decent-quality components. Of the two, the D1120 tube mic is my personal favourite because of its smooth, yet detailed sound and its open, airy top end. However, I have no worries over the ability of either to cope with life in the studio. These mics sound good, look good and are realistically priced — and they are also both capable of fine recordings.