With a ten-year history of bringing some of the best and brightest
in classical music to the radio, National Public Radio's
Performance Today boasts a listenership just under two million
and a carriage list of over 250 stations. It is the most listened-to
classical show on public radio and broadcasts two hours per day, seven
days a week. Two to three live performances air in a typical month,
with a scope ranging from solo piano to chamber orchestra.
In an ongoing effort to raise its level of quality, Performance
Today borrowed two of Neumann's new M150 Tube microphones during a
week of intensive live on-air performances. Engineers ran the M150
Tubes against NPR's collection of vintage and new microphones on piano,
strings, guitar, and an eccentric quartet.
Three to four “Artist in Residency” features per year
bring in a selected artist for two weeks. During the second week, the
artist performs live either solo or with accompaniment for one hour
every day. Station personnel capitalize on the unusually high number of
live performances during the second week to try new equipment and new
techniques. The acquisition of the new microphone coincided with just
such a week.
The Neumann M150 Tube inherits much of its design from the Neumann
M50, a microphone that has earned the respect of classical recording
engineers for its exceptional rendering of strings and orchestras. Both
microphones feature a unique polar pattern. At low frequencies, the
mics have an omnidirectional pattern. The directionality increases with
higher frequencies. Both microphones possess a sound that engineers
describe as clear and free of mud, smear, and haze. The M150 Tube
departs from the older M50 with the incorporation of a titanium
capsule, a sophisticated power supply, lower self-noise and a
transformerless tube amplifier. The titanium capsule owes its existence
to recent advances in materials procurement and machining.
Regular use of the Neumann website pinboard alerted one NPR engineer
to the release of the new microphone. Familiar with the reputation of
the M50, acquisitions producer Steve Zakar worked out an arrangement
with Neumann to borrow the M150 microphones for Performance
The pure sound
To put the trial into context, one must realize that the
Performance Today staff is forever fighting the acoustical
space within which they work. As home to other NPR programs, including
NPR news, studio 4A was constructed and treated for multi-purpose use.
The 1,800-square-foot, two-story studio has hosted everything from
election night coverage to town hall meetings to orchestras. Balancing
all of these uses requires compromises, chief among them ambiance. The
space is, in a word, very dead.
Musicians seldom love the space, but they do get enough of a bounce
to hear themselves and one another. The Performance Today
production staff gives musicians enough time to acclimate and to
balance themselves. Unlike jazz sessions broadcast from the studio,
engineers treat classical sessions with generous amounts of artificial
reverb from a Lexicon 480 or a TC Electronic 6000.
The microphone placement used with a
The artist in residence during the trial was pianist Jeremy Denk.
During the week, he performed solo on Monday and Wednesday. A violinist
accompanied him on Tuesday, and a string quartet joined him on Thursday
and Friday. Additionally, Performance Today taped a session with
legendary classical guitarist Pepe Romero on Friday. The following
Monday saw Quartetto Gelato in the studio for another opportunity to
try out the M150 Tubes.
Every microphone used in the comparisons went through Millennia
Media preamplifiers for the utmost in signal quality. A Studer 950-S
digital board using stock converters performed any necessary mixing and
sent the resultant audio out for satellite uplink. Additionally,
Performance Today archived the sessions to 16-bit DAT at both 48kHz and
44.1kHz. Artists received a courtesy CD.
The Neumann M150 Tubes ran against a well-respected assemblage of
contemporary and vintage microphones including Sennheiser MKH20,
Neumann KM63, and Neumann KM86. The KM86s were turbo charged by
microphone modifier Klaus Heyne. Each of the microphones had a unique
sound with a high degree of definition, clarity, and space. One could
imagine specific contexts in which any one of them would have served
the situation best. Engineers left all of the microphones up during the
week and made comparisons with every new instrument, player, and style.
They made the latter comparisons on the theory that repertoire makes a
difference and that different styles often call for different
The house piano is a Steinway B. Small elevators and windows dashed
aspirations to employ a full-sized Concert D years ago, and Performance
Today has been attempting to make the B sound like a Concert D ever
since. Nevertheless, the instrument is in excellent condition and has
been played by such luminaries as Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Leif Ove
Location, location, location
The Performance Today engineers positioned the M150 Tubes one foot
apart and seven feet back from the piano. To insure high-fidelity
mono-compatibility, they aimed the microphones straight ahead. They
report that the microphones conveyed a spectacular sense of space and
were amazingly transparent. They credit that transparency with
improving the sound with the Lexicon 480 reverberation. Overall, the
piano sounded rich, large, and sonically full-bodied.
Zakar noted that studio 4A is notoriously unflattering for violins.
In Performance Today's estimation, the lack of reverberation hits the
violin the hardest, as so much of what we expect from a violin is
attributable to room sound. Ambiance contributes particularly to the
mellowing of highs and the deepening of lows. Without it, the violin
sounds flat and screechy.
In the case of violins, the M150 Tube merely captured the
problematic screechiness in intricate detail. Consequently, for both
the violin accompaniment on Tuesday and for the string quartet on
Thursday and Friday, Performance Today used the mellower Sennheiser
MKH20s for broadcast because of their subdued high end, slightly
exaggerated low end and overall fidelity.
The guitar recording session on Friday allowed the staff to break
from their Neumann M269c habit. Popular for use on vocals, the cardioid
M269c is well liked with guitars. However, the engineers were eager to
try an omni with Pepe Romero and quickly decided that the Neumann M150
Tube outperformed the M269c in the given context.
Compared to other mics in its class, the M150 Tube produced better
results at a more distant placement. After much experimentation, the
M150 Tubes ended up six feet away from the guitar. Again, in the
interest of mono-compatibility, the microphones sat parallel to each
other, one foot apart. The clarity and detail they conveyed revealed
all the colors of Romero's fine instrument and captured his fingering
and nuance dynamics. Additionally, the considerable distance between
the microphones and the guitar mitigated the irritating finger squeak
that is so often accentuated by close micing techniques.
As evidenced by its name, the Quartetto Gelato (Ice Cream Quartet)
has a unique take on classical music. The four musicians frequently
switch between such instruments as guitar, accordion, oboe, English
horn, cello and voice in addition to the traditional quartet strings.
The group has gained widespread popularity adapting popular music (such
as traditional Italian love songs) to fit their more classical
instrumentation and attitude.
Consequently, Performance Today was free to experiment with
non-standard classical sounds and opted for a drier studio sound in
lieu of the usual concert hall target. Engineers erected a stereo pair
as before and allowed the seasoned musicians to balance themselves. The
result was an attractive studio sound that was uncompromised by
NPR's Performance Today covers a broad spectrum of styles and
instruments, and a diverse microphone arsenal allows the show to
capture the best performances possible.
Toni Flosi is president of AAdvert International, Glenview, IL,
a PR agency specializing in professional audio.