Raise the bar and lower the price—now try to sing in that position—MXL can!
By Darius Van Rhuehl
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
I’ve heard a number of poetic analogies regarding the importance of microphones: they’re like the brushes an artist uses to apply colors to a canvas; a wizard’s wand that engineers use to capture the magic, and so on. I don’t disagree, but to me, a mic is also like a Geiger counter. It has to be sensitive enough to tell me where the hotspots are and accurate enough to capture them. After all, our recording lives depend on it, especially if we want our music to be “radio-active.” Making things disappear is not the kind of magic I look for in a mic. If this hasn’t already told you that I’m an overly picky mic snob, then let me tell you straight out; I’m an overly picky mic snob (and then some). If I have a choice between a $10,000 handmade mic and a budget mic, guess which one I’ll select? Wrong. It depends entirely on the sound source. I don’t rule out anything based on price alone. The important thing is the sound. So here’s my question: Would a professional find the MXL 990 useful regardless of its price, country of origin, and religious preference? Let’s find out.
The MXL 990 comes in a number of configurations including straight up condenser and XY stereo. There are also USB versions of both. I had one of each to play with. Starting with the construction, build quality is excellent and the mic has a solid and substantial feel. The electronics feature an FET preamp and transformerless design that, according to MXL, is loosely based on the circuitry found in the early British recording consoles. The advantages of this design are lower self-noise and expanded dynamic range. The 990s have a smaller housing than your typical large-diaphragm condenser and based on look and feel alone, I would not be embarrassed to put this mic up in front of a high-profile client. Now let’s move on to sound quality.
Marshalling our forces
Let me state first that this mic is indeed quiet, and that I do like the sound of it. It’s smooth but with a bit of edge, and it’s got enough in the mids to give you plenty to work with in a mix. That’s where some of the budget mics fall down. They have the capsule with the smiley face EQ curve that sounds great on its own but dies in a mix, or they sound like expensive German mics until the singer belts, then they break up and distort. Not so with the 990.
Generally speaking, I particularly liked the sound of the 990 when combined with a tube preamp. On vocals it provided depth without sounding boxy or harsh and the high-frequency presence bump (starting at 5kHz and peaking at 14kHz) was good for bringing out detail. I found that it allowed my vocals to come forward in the mix without having to EQ highs (always a plus). Keep in mind that I have a soft, clear voice, so I need all the presence and extra push I can get. Therein lies the secret of this mic—choosing the appropriate sound source. In keeping with the budget conscious among us, I also got excellent results combining it with a Summit 2BA-221 and a Joemeek VC1Q. Also, taking a line out of the VC1Q into an A Designs REDDI yielded a sound I would use on a record any day.
USB Stereo Condenser
I found the XY 990 to be perfectly fine for acoustic guitar and grand piano. It gave me a nice balance throughout the spectrum and plenty of attack information. I give it a thumbs-up for recording steel-string, fingerstyle acoustic guitar. I would definitely use this mic to record rock or blues piano, where attack information and the ability to cut through a mix are essential. I also got good results using it for drum overheads. The nice thing about using an XY mic is you only need to place one mic over the kit. Plus you don’t need to worry about the snare shifting its phantom image to one side of the soundfield as you do with A/B miking.
Attack of the pod . . . people . . . casters
They say that talk is cheap, but in the case of the USB-powered 990, I’d say it’s simply inexpensive. If you’re a podcaster or voiceover artist, an MXL 990 USB and a good laptop are pretty much all you’ll need. Almost tube-like in quality, its unprocessed sound is smooth, and “speaks” with authority and clarity. For those who wish to play about in GarageBand or a similar PC-based program, you should have no problem getting a very decent sound for voice or acoustic instruments, provided you keep the mic pretty close to the source. You’ll want to place the stereo USB mic a bit farther back, however, but not too far away. You’ll need to keep your signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible. Keep in mind that you are limited to 16-bit/48kHz, so if 24-bit, high-resolution recording is your goal, you’d best stick with the XLR versions.
USB setup is quick and painless. My Mac recognized it immediately, and on a PC, the setup wizard walks you through it without issue. MXL also offers a free software download from their site that gives you a virtual preamp with volume control and a level meter.
I’m always adding mics to my collection because you never know when a mic you wouldn’t expect to will capture lightning in a bottle. I believe the MXL 990 to be just such a mic. Between its stupid-low price and exemplary performance, it’s just plain silly not to have one. If you don’t have a good FET condenser that can bring out detail or add a little sizzle to voices and acoustic instruments, the MXL 990 makes an excellent and easily affordable addition to any mic cabinet. And, if you’d like to add the depth and dimension to your recording that only stereo miking can offer, the XY-pattern 990 Stereo makes it easy in terms of both setup and affordability. As I said, considering the price to performance ratio of the MXL 990 family, it doesn’t make sense not to have at least one.
Features & Specs
MXL 990 Features:
- Legendary MXL sonic characteristics
- FET preamp with balanced output
- 20mm gold-sputtered, 6-micron diaphragm
- 30Hz-20kHz frequency response
- Vintage body style and champagne finish
- Includes custom shock mount, mic stand adapter, and case
MXL 990 Stereo Features:
- 2 class-A FET preamps
- High SPL handling
- Internally wired with Mogami cable
- Twin large 20mm gold-sputtered diaphragms
- Polar Pattern: 90-degree X/Y stereo
- Frequency Range: 20Hz-20kHz
- Mic stand adapter
- 10' - 5-pin to dual XLR stereo cable
- Leather pouch
MXL 990-USB & 990-USB Stereo Features:
- Connects directly into a computer’s USB port
- Plug-and-play for Mac/PC
- Eliminates need for mic preamps and mixers
- Ideal for location recording
- 90-degree X/Y pattern (990 USB Stereo)
- 3-position pad (990 USB Stereo)
- LED indicator aids in mic placement (990 USB Stereo)
- Travel case, desktop stand, mic clip, mic stand adapter, 10' USB cable, and applications guide
- 16-bit Delta Sigma converter
- Sampling rates: 44.1/48kHz
- USB 1.1 & 2.0