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Can you use the classic AKG C451 on snare drum?

Ask any two engineers which mics they prefer for any instrument and you will soon be witness to a heated argument. But sometimes there might be a very good reason why a mic doesn't work.


I was profitably using wasting some time lately on Twitter when I noticed a tweet saying that the tweeter preferred a certain microphone to the AKG C451 on snare drum. I would have said who the tweeter was and which microphone he preferred, but unfortunately I've forgotten and I can't find the tweet again. Anyone, that's not really the point of what I have to say - it just sparked me off.

The AKG C451 is about as classic a mic as you can get, dating back to 1969 and still available now. Of course it has changed over the years and you can expect the modern version to be a technical improvement, and AKG officially states that the new version has, "Identical acoustics to legendary CK 1" ('CK-1' being a short-hand for saying 'C 451 EB with the CK-1 cardioid capsule'). As a small-diaphragm capacitor mic, the C451 has great accuracy, albeit with a bias towards high frequencies. Some might say that its sound is a bit on the thin side. But that is not the mic's fault, it is a comparison with other mics that fatten the sound up and are actually less accurate.

Way back around 1980, with a version of the C451 that would have dated from around 1973 or so, I tried it out myself as a snare drum mic. It's natural to want to try out different mics, even when your preferences are quite settled. You never know what joys may occur by chance.

But I hated it. On snare, the 1970s example of the C451 couldn't hack it. Hit the drum hard and the distortion was very noticeable. In those days however, the C451 had a detachable capsule and several accessories. So I was able to insert an attenuator between the capsule and the amplifier section. The sound was undistorted but, as I said earlier, a bit thin. So I ended up not using it.

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The distortion of course is what you would expect from a capacitor mic. Put any capacitor microphone in front of a loud sound source and the capsule may produce such a strong signal that the amplifier clips. That's why many capacitor mics have a switchable pad to cut down the signal level from the capsule before any distortion can occur.

The modern version of the C451 can, with the aid of the now-switchable pad presumably, handle up to 155 dB SPL. That is a heck of a sound level and you don't want to be anywhere near it yourself.

If there is a moral in this story, it is that capacitor microphones are always prone to distortion on loud sound sources - even the human voice close-to. So a wise engineer will always listen carefully for any hint of harshness and be prepared to click in the pad, which will almost always cure it completely.

By the way, the vintage AKG C451 had a nemesis in the form of the Neumann KM84. Those engineers were arguing even back then!

By David Mellor Wednesday March 27, 2013