Earthworks Z30X & TC30K Microphones Tested!
Since my handlers attempt to keep sharp objects or toys with inhalable parts out of my grasp, I was shocked and delighted to receive two pairs of high-end recording mikes to review, slipped silently under my thick door by fearful men with cattle prods. “Bongo likes to play with shiny toys, and make loud noise and hit things!”
Earthworks, a New Hampshire company that every drummer should know about, makes these cool, tapered-shape microphones – a small consensus of trusted friends classified them as either resembling tools used in your favorite alien autopsy fantasy or some kind of futuristic drug-delivery syringe for titanium-skinned flesh eaters. Weird shape or not, Earthworks mikes should make your life much easier if you are recording drums, and even playing live.
The two pairs I received were the TC30K omnidirectionals and the Z30X enhanced cardioids. Initial impressions were positive. Both mike pairs come in beautifully hand-tooled, velvet-lined cherry wood boxes that have routed spaces for the dual pairs and the stand adapters. The one-piece mike bodies seem to be machined down from a single chunk of stainless steel, and the capsules at the elongated tapered tips are the smallest you will encounter in a drum mike, or any other full-size mike, for that matter. The length across the capsule is smaller than the head of a cigarette. Earthworks recommends that mike users should refrain from touching the screen across the capsule, as it is so small that errant finger-born debris might impact accuracy.
An E.T. Recording Session. The first thing I did to get a sense of the sound of these mikes was to enlist the help of some high-paid ears: I took the mikes over to Avast Recording, a Seattle studio conglomerate and audiophile rental company owned by longtime friend Stu Hallerman (he may deny this to keep his family safe). Avast is one of the best-kept secrets in the Northwest; you can’t swing a laminated hand puppet over there without annoying one of Seattle’s rock illuminati. Stu is an avid mike collector, and has accumulated one of the best mike collections in the Northwest. Since Avast Recording had never tried out Earthworks mikes, I thought this would be a great chance – or at least a way to get someone else to do my evil bidding.
First to try them was Avast engineer Kevin Suggs, who put them up as overheads and on snare and bass drums at the Avast-owned John and Stu’s Recording (once called Reciprocal Recording, where Nirvana and Soundgarden recorded earlier records). Kevin and the other staff of Avast engineers are incredibly spoiled by using the coolest audio gear ever made, and routinely snicker at gear I meekly aspire to someday own.
Kevin’s verdict after a weekend of using the Earthworks mikes was that they were “a little bright” but “useful across the entire kit.” I was delighted – though his comments were somewhat barren (remember, these engineers think nothing of throwing a pair of revered AKG large capsule condensers or rare Sony mikes in front of a drum kit – mikes that cost more than my car). If the Earthworks mikes sucked, the Avast guys would have come up with new and improved ways of mocking them that would send PR guys into emergency meetings. So the fact that these under-$1,000 mikes were even used on a session at Avast is a testament to these project recording— priced microphones.
The second test I conducted was to use the mikes at a local open mike event at the Ballard Odd Fellows Hall, just outside of Seattle. Though everything about these mikes seems to point at leaving them in your studio, I needed to know just how useful they were live. I tried them out at an event called “Oddstock” – surely a true test of the all-around usefulness of the Earthworks mikes. Oddstock featured schizophrenic Zippy-flavored singing jugglers, impromptu comedy, and a bunch of twisted folk artists singing songs about how much they hate Connecticut. Setting up both pairs of mikes at a variety of different places in the expansive hall, I was pleased to find that the TC30K omnis exhibited truly amazing realism and frightening accuracy. During sound check I put headphones on the show’s emcee, and instructed him to close his eyes as I walked between the wide-arrayed pairs. He practically freaked out and screamed, “It’s like your are walking around in my head between my ears!”