Written By Mark Merlino, Musician's Friend Staff Writer
Navigating through a sea of studio microphones can seem a bit daunting, especially if you're someone who is new to recording. Luckily there's one brand that understands the importance of delivering a comprehensive collection of microphones at a reasonable price. The new lineup of Sterling Audio studio condenser microphones offers something for everyone, and for just about every situation you'll encounter in the studio.
I tested three of the new mics from the series: the Sterling ST170 Active Ribbon, the ST169 Tube Condenser and the ST155 FET Condenser. We recorded a female vocalist, a male voice-over artist, a nylon-string guitar and a trumpet through each of the three microphones, using a fairly modest mobile recording rig consisting of a Focusrite 2i2 audio interface and a MacBook Pro running the most current version of Pro Tools.
Sterling Audio ST170 Active Ribbon Microphone
The ST170 ribbon microphone was perfect for each of the four sources we recorded. It blends the rich, smooth tonal qualities of a ribbon with a modern voicing that will excel in many situations. It features a standard figure-8 pickup pattern that’s remarkably versatile, delivering a full frequency response from 20 Hz to 20 kHz with extremely high volume handling rated up to 132 dB max SPL. The active design requires 48V phantom power to deliver your signal at the ideal level, resulting in a rich bottom end with an incredibly detailed presence. Even without any EQ or processing, the ST170 is capable of delivering a mix-ready sound. As with all three mics we tried out, the ST170 has a rock-steady chassis with a stunning blue finish that gives it a very professional aesthetic.
Sterling Audio ST169 Multi-Pattern Tube Condenser Microphone
In terms of professional tone and advanced recording versatility, the ST169 earns its place as Sterling's flagship model. Featuring a highly adaptable multi-pattern capsule, the ST169 can cover just about anything. The ST169 can handle anything from delicate levels, up to high volumes rated at 142 dB max SPL. I found the ST169 to be the most sensitive of the three mics we tested, which could be great for capturing some of the natural sound of the space you're recording in. Besides its three selectable patterns, the ST169 also features a high-pass filter and a -10 dB attenuation pad, which we engaged when recording the trumpet. No phantom power is required for the ST169, as it comes with its own power supply. The ST169 looks as good as the rest of the line, with the same incredible blue finish and a sleek metal bracing with the Sterling text logo branded down the sides.
ST155 Large-Diaphragm FET Condenser
The ST155 sounded precise on all the sources we recorded. It's definitely an all-around workhorse that can cover just about any recording scenario. The ST155's 1 in. large-diaphragm capsule features a cardioid pattern that's perfect for isolating your source and rejecting unwanted ambient sounds. Its custom-wound transformer, Class-A circuit and hand-assembled design all add up to a rich, eloquent sound that's perfect for vocal, instrument and speech applications. The ST155 also features a switchable high-pass filter and -10 dB pad, and can handle extremely high volume, up to 144 dB max SPL. Just like the ST170 and ST169, the ST155 comes in a rugged, padded flight case and has the same stunning good looks as the rest of the line.
The Sound of Sterling Microphones
Recording a Male Voiceover
The ST155 was the best representation of the voiceover recording, delivering a clear sound across the widest range of frequencies with just the right blend of source and the room. I'm not sure you'd even have much to do in your post mix here, just some compression and you'd be good to go. The ST170 and ST169 were also good, with the ST170 losing some of the higher end delivering a slightly darker tone, and the ST169 delivering slightly more room than probably desired when recording a voiceover.
Recording Female Vocals
Tracking vocals can be tricky. Even in professional recording environments, with the most expensive mic collections, you really need to try out different mics for different singers. For our application, the ST170 yielded the best results. It was warm and added a nice body to her voice that would work nicely to fill out a mix. The ST155 and ST169 had a boost around 10 kHz that seemed to enhance the sibilance, but this could easily be overcome with some post processing. However, given a different singer in different room, these results could easily vary.
The trumpet sounded good on all three mics. I did have to engage the -10 dB pad on both the ST169 and the ST155 to handle the input, but the ST170 was able to handle the high levels with no issues. I noticed a pronounced bump in the high mids on the ST169 that was a little bright for my taste in this particular application, but the ST170 seemed to grab the trumpet's sweet spot at around 2.5 kHz delivering a warm, rounded tone. The ST155 sat pretty flat, which leaves a really good foundation for post-processing in your mix.
Recording a Nylon-String Guitar
My favorite for the guitar was the ST169. Here the sensitivity of the mic helped capture a little more openness and added a bit of air that the other two didn't quite capture. However, it’s a very subtle difference and I think the ST170 and ST155 results could easily be used as well. It's important to note that we didn't have the time to do the normal preparations that you should do when recording any acoustic instrument, like putting on a new set of strings, and finding a room with a good natural sound, which would give you much better results for any microphone you use.
I was equally impressed with all three of these microphones. They each have their own unique set of properties that I can see useful in a variety of situations. And not only do they sound great, they look impressive too. That elegant blue finish sits proudly in its premium metal shockmount, and those rugged flight cases are the perfect packaging. So, if you're looking for a go-to set of mics with enhanced versatility and advanced components, it'll be hard to match the sound of these mics for the price.