SE ELECTRONICS RN17 Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
Rupert Neve leaves his signature on these sE microphones in more ways than one.
Review: Brad Watts
There’d hardly be a single audio product manufacturer that wouldn’t knock back a collaboration with Sir Rupert Neve. Yes, I know Mr Neve hasn’t been knighted, but if Sir George Martin can be bestowed such royal privilege then Rupert certainly deserves the monarchial nod — the man is responsible for the recording industry’s sweetest tracking consoles dating back to the mid-1960s after all. Even Sir George Martin himself relied on Rupert’s Focusrite entity to create behemoth consoles for his Air Studios. The list of Rupert-driven manufacturing entities and collaborations is testament to the man’s insurmountable legacy: Neve, AMS Neve, Focusrite, Amek, Legendary Audio, Taylor Guitars, and most recently, sE Electronics with its ‘Rupert Neve Signature Series’ microphones.
Which brings me to the matched stereo pair of small diaphragm condenser mics I have perched in the studio today; the sE Electronics RN17. From the second I’d set eyes on this package I was unashamedly impressed. The microphone pair come in a superbly crafted timber case, which is in turn enclosed in a very pucker aluminium flight case — and not the standard Jaycar, made-in-a-hurry case either. This case has fancy catches and a big chunky handle too. In other words, this is a top-shelf product, with no economy spared. Upon opening said spiffy flight case, eyebrows were raised as I checked out the shiny metal screw-top canisters with tell-tale polar-pattern symbols embossed on top — ten of them in all, covering five polar-patterns. This was unfolding to be a splendid box of microphonic fabulousness.
Unfortunately I found these canisters empty as the mics ship with cardioid capsules only, with further supercardioid, omni, hypercardioid and figure-of-8 capsules available optionally. Despite my disappointment with the lack of polar-pattern options being supplied for review, I must say the canisters are a lovely touch — guaranteed to keep your additional capsules away from moisture and other travesties that may occur during use.
But again, all this goes to show the no holds barred approach to these mics, even the serial numbers are indicative of a matched stereo pair, (i.e. xxxxA and xxxxB) — and I’ve not even mentioned the brilliant shock mounts, which I’ll get to a little later.
SMALL DIAPHRAGM, HIGH BAR
The RN17 is essentially a small diaphragm condenser microphone, and consequently is aimed at all the tasks you’d associate a SDC mic with. Stereo recording situations, drum overheads, basically anything where you’re aiming to capture accuracy and fine transients, be that acoustic guitar (or similar) or even hi-hat and ride cymbals. But, as always, rules are meant to be broken and a SDC mic could well be the ideal option for a particular vocalist. Mileages vary.
So why is the RN17 any different to any other SDC mic? Well here’s the big calling card with the RN17. Unlike most SDC mics, the RN17 incorporates a large hand-wound, “ultra-high performance” transformer — hence the large protrusion at the connection end of the mic. I’d highly suspect this portion of the design is courtesy of Mr Neve. Why use a transformer? There’s a number of advantages to transformer-based designs, firstly that of a transformer’s ability to reduce noise, or increase the mic’s signal-to-noise ratio. Without going into the maths involved, a transformer should be matched to the preamp it’s married to, with an appropriate number of ‘windings’ to achieve the best balance. But aside from this technical advantage, transformers lend a particular ‘character’ to a signal path’s audio quality. The interaction of level and impedance result in a desirable sonic response. So with the RN17, sE Electronics claim to have created the world’s first transformer-based small diaphragm condenser microphone.
But enough of the chit-chat. The question is; how do these mics stack up. Well let me start with the fact these mics are a pleasure to set up, courtesy of the rather brilliant (and aforementioned) shock mounts. The mounts are a kind-of dual rubber-banded mounting system. With adjustment for distance between the two spiderweb sections. They’re like no shock-mount I’ve seen before and frankly, I’d like a pair. I did come into a little bit of strife with the design, however. Ideally it’d be great to mount the RN17s into their shockmounts with the ‘transformer bulge’ sitting between the two support frames of the shockmount — the mics physically ‘sit’ better in this position. Unfortunately with the overall length of the mics and the width of the supplied (and very nice I might add) stereo bar, it’s virtually impossible to set the pair into a standard X-Y stereo configuration. To achieve this configuration accurately the RN17s ‘transformer bulge’ needs to sit on the outside of the rear support frame. If the stereo bar was slightly wider this could be alleviated and the mics mounted with the tranny-bulge in the more stable centre position. The bulge also makes ORTF configurations fairly fiddly, risers would also be a helpful stereo bar update.
CUTTING THE UPPER CRUST
On first listen to the RN17 I was immediately convinced I had a pedigree microphone in my hands. My initial, somewhat ad-hoc, test of a mic is to listen to my own voice via the mic and headphones. It allows me to get the mic into ‘announcer gain mode’ and get a handle on how delicately the mic will perform with a source I’m intimately attuned to; my own voice. In this scenario these mics proved impressive. Very detailed and bolding wearing their transformer heart on their sonic sleeve. It was quite a revelation hearing the detail of a SDC combined with a transformer. Very nice indeed.
For a more realistic comparison I set the RN17s in X-Y fashion along with a pair of rather modified Oktava MK012s, and a pair of recently acquired Neumann KM184s. To be honest, after this first audition, I’d rather the RN17s over the KM184s. But my pockets aren’t that deep and the Neumanns were too good a price to pass up. Anyway, all three pairs were set in stereo X-Y and pointed toward my favourite spot in the room for acoustic guitar. Out came my trusty 1970s Sigma, six tracks were bumped into record, and some playing was had. Remember I’d only had access to the standard cardioid capsules and consequently used the same style capsules on the Oktavas, the KM184s are of course cardioid.
Upon playback, the most marked difference was the bass response attained via the RN17s. I’d almost reached for the high-pass filter when I realised this would require a different capsule. That said, the lows didn’t detract from or swamp any top end capture — the RN17s sounded smooth and remarkably realistic. Compared with the other contenders these were by far the superior choice, with the Oktavas sounding like their usual sparkly/pretty selves, and the Neumanns sounding almost bland by comparison. (I often have this feeling about KM184s but I know they work for so many sources when adding them to a mix). Where things got really interesting is when applying EQ to the three recordings. The Oktavas don’t really appreciate too much tweaking in this department — any extreme sculpting is usually met with resonant squawks and honking, and typically renders the recording difficult to sit into a mix. If it’s not right flat then it’ll never work with those mics. I find a similar issue with the KM184s, although you can achieve far more using EQ than with the Russian cheapies. Once you start EQing the RN17 recordings you can hear just how sublime these mics are. You can carve into the recording like there’s no tomorrow without the recording becoming brittle and unnatural. It’s this characteristic that makes the RN17 such a beautiful microphone. Fine detail and pure, neutral capture and the scope to be able to alter that signal without nasty degradation. Spec-wise the RN17 is closely matched with the KM184, however it will absorb a further 8dB of level before distortion at a whopping 150dB SPL.
So would I own the RN17s? Well, I think the answer to this is blatantly obvious; a resounding, “Hell yeah!” But alas, these are expensive pieces of audio capture equipment and I can’t justify the cost for myself, especially considering the cost of branching out into further capsules. However, if you’re after nigh-on-perfect small diaphragm condensers, I’d advise making sure you can afford these before auditioning a pair. You’ll simply not want to send them back.