Check out the video for The Bottom Line in a Brooklyn Minute, and the recording samples at the bottom of the page to hear for yourself.
Ah, the venerable valve mic. The great-grandaddy of modern condensor microphones. Along with the legendary RCA ribbon designs of the 1940s, Georg Neumann’s Telefunken U-47 valve microphone is, to this day, considered to be one of the greatest microphones ever made. Vintage U-47s in pristine condition can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the open market. Heck, working original VF-14 tubes alone are worth thousands of dollars. For all intents and purposes, the U-47 is arguably the single most important microphone in history. Nearly every Beatles album featured it extensively, as did many of the defining recordings of the 50s and 60s, and Frank Sinatra reportedly refused to sing without his. Its warmth, lush mid-range boost, and unprecedented detail retrieval set the standard for tube mics (if not studio mics as a whole) to come.
Half a century later, it seems like every company is making a tube mic. Some are trying to emulate or reproduce the U-47, with many offerings even including the number 47 in the name somewhere. Others trace their lineage to the AKG C12 (probably the second most famous tube mic in history), and others still are trying to craft a tone and heritage of their own. The Genesis is gaining a reputation for being in the first camp: a bright, rich, flagship vocal microphone in the style of the U-47. So how does the Genesis stack up? Well, while I’m not lucky enough to have a vintage U-47 to compare it to directly, I do have a rebuilt U-47 that I’ve been working on for the past few years, using all original vintage parts except for the case, parts of the power supply, and the tube. I’m also going to shoot it out against the M-Audio Sputnik, a comparably priced modern tube mic with a very different character, and one of my own personal go-to microphones for vocals. Let’s get to it then!
Sound Quality and Tone
It’s important to note before we begin that this is not a mic for all occasions. The Genesis is definitely of the bright, bold, U-47 mold: not quite as dark or warm as many other modern tube mics I’ve heard, though certainly much richer than your average solid-state condensor. Even on vocals – the ideal source for this mic as far as I’m concerned – it’s not for everyone, or even every song. There may well be times when you want a darker, deeper sound (which the Sputnik provides in spades I might add), or for that matter a more neutral, even sound (for which there are dozens of excellent solid-state condensors). That being said, for what it is, and what it’s supposed to do, the MXL Genesis sounds unbelievably good. I was absolutely blown away by what this did to my voice; for my personal preferences, it was scarily close to perfect.
First off, the detail retrieval is stunning. I think of the Sputnik as having excellent detail retrieval, and this is in another realm entirely. Fine consonants and inflections sound clear as day on vocals, and subtle overtones and oscillations translate pristinely on the guitar. All the little nuances that are crucial to convey subtlety of emotion on a vocal take are right there, and I can’t stress enough how important that is. If the tone is right for your singer, this is a real show-stopper.
Tone, of course, is the most important part here, given that this is a valve mic after all. It is definitely a bright mic: not quite so round and mellow a mid-range or low end, but a gorgeous sheen and top end sparkle, and a very tight, well-defined bass (if perhaps a little lean at times). Some EQing is often necessary regardless of the mic you’re using, especially for vocal takes, but you still want to shoot for a microphone that gives you as close to the “right” sound as possible straight out of the box. For my own vocals, this is clearly that sound, and off the top of my head, I can think of about a dozen singers I know personally for whom this would sound ideal as well. Especially for rock vocals, this is in fact and indeed the tone you’re looking for. Something that will shimmer and shine and effortlessly slice through a mix like a stiletto without sounding grating or harsh. On the right source, I can’t imagine there are all that many mics that sound much better than this.
As you may have gathered by now, a jack-of-all-trades the Genesis is not. It does sound quite natural on more sources than many tube mics I’ve worked with, but then again, I usually don’t think of tube mics as being superbly versatile in the first place. It’s also a fixed cardiod pattern, which does narrow its focus somewhat (if you’ll pardon a rather amusing pun). This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re looking for a single microphone that will work for a wide variety of instruments and sounds there are better choices out there, but odds are, if you’re not looking to build a pretty substantial collection of mics in the first place, you’re looking for one or two that work especially well for what you do. Most “versatile” mics sound pretty good on most things, and those kinds of workhorse mics are essential to have for any complete collection. But my guess is, especially if you’re a singer, you don’t really want your primary mic to sound “pretty good.” You want it to sound frackin’ sweet, and that is exactly what the Genesis will do on most voices. It also sounds really excellent on acoustic guitar and guitar cabinets, and you may well end up finding that it has the right sound for a number of percussive instruments as well. The trick here, as with most colorful mics, is to be willing to experiment a bit. Get a feel for its sound, and try it out on sources that you think that sound might work for. Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t. You’ll know when it does.
Design and Build Quality
Before I even touch on the equally colorful aesthetics of this mic, I should start by mentioning that the Genesis is very well put together. It’s a solid, heavy microphone that really feels well built. While I’m not keen on the fact that they only give you a hard wood case for the microphone itself (most other tube mics have cases that accommodate the accessories and dedicated power supply that tube mics need as well), the accessories themselves are of equally high quality. The power supply feels as sturdy as the mic, the shock mount attaches firmly and seems to provide good protection, and the included XLR 7-pin cable (a necessity for tube mics to carry power from the dedicated PSU) is Mogami cable, which should pretty much speak for itself. My favorite extra though is custom-fit metal pop-filter, which matches the gold tone of the microphone grill and can be fastened directly onto the main capsule body. It fits like a glove and it works (and looks) a heck of a lot better than your standard cheap cloth ones.
As for the design aesthetics, well, it’s definitely distinctive. It’s a huge microphone, the body and the power supply are both a bright, brick red and both the grill and the accessories sport a gold finish. It’s honestly up to you whether you find this tacky or sexy. I personally think it looks pretty fancy.
There are cheaper microphones out there that will invariably sound better on certain sources. That’s pretty much always the case. There are also cheaper mics that will sound good on the same sources that the Genesis sounds good on. The Genesis is not a “cheap” mic. What it is, however, is a $500 dollar microphone that easily competes with $5000 microphones of a similar character. Understanding that it is, for all intents and purposes, a “boutique” grade investment that needs to be used for the right applications, I’m frankly floored by how good the Genesis sounds, and not just for its price. Keeping in mind that there are other excellent tube mics out there with a very different feel, for the kind of sound the Genesis gives you, the closest competition I can think of off the top of my head is the $1300 Peluso 2247, a phenomenal and extremely faithful reproduction of the original U-47. I’d have to listen to the Peluso again to make a good comparative judgment, and that alone is high praise.
The Final Verdict
The Genesis is a stunning microphone. You will have to play around with it to find what it shines the brightest on, but singer/songwriters take note: this is your big label sound on your GB gig budget. The level of sheen, detail, brilliance and shimmer you can get out of the Genesis is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard south of a $1000. In spite of the fact that I own several excellent tube mics, most costing several times what the Genesis costs, the good folks at Pro Audio Star are not getting this back. I can’t think of a more stirring endorsement than that.
About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record three different takes of the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and in this case using the same Onyx Blackjack preamps and converters attenuated to the same gain, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.
All pads and high pass filters were disabled for all three microphones, and the Sputnik’s and rebuilt U-47’s pickup patterns were set to cardiod to match the fixed cardiod pickup of the Genesis.
Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack recording interface. All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, the amplifier’s gain was attenuated at 75%, and the Onyx preamp gain was attenuated at line level. Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.
Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.
Male Vocals and Spoken Word: Using the same Blackjack interface (with preamp gain set to 30) and Mogami Gold XLR, I sang a clip from Lost Under the Sun, the opening track on my upcoming album, Tears of Men, and spoke a short introduction to the microphone tests.
Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com