Microphone Review (with audio): MXL 990

I’ve been wanting to add another condenser microphone to my cabinet, but I wasn’t excited about spending the amount of money that is generally required for such a purchase. In my research, I’d been (skeptically) reading a lot of positive things about how the MXL 990 handles voice. It retails for about $100 at a large retail chain. When I found a used one for $30, I thought I’d be silly not to give it a go. If nothing else, I could learn to avoid cheap microphones if it didn’t work well for my purposes.

The last time I bought a new microphone, I decided to have some fun with testing it out. As I documented here, I decided to write a parody of a popular lawn care ad and read it with a Scottish accent. Since I enjoyed that so much (and really, isn’t that the measure of whether or not something is worth doing?), I figured I’d do something similar to test on my MXL 990. Don’t worry — no Scottish accents this time. The Scotts are getting enough abuse on the internet these days so I figured I’d leave them alone.

Instead, I had John Corbett on the brain.

The Script

I was in high school when Northern Exposure first aired on CBS. I quickly became a fan of the off-beat characters in the charming middle-of-nowhere town of Cicely, Alaska. (See how I didn’t use the word “quirky”?) Like many, I found an affinity for Corbett’s character Chris Stevens, the local ex-con-turned-post-beatnik-radio deejay who served as the de facto narrator to the town’s events and personalities while waxing poetic about the human condition and quoting Thoreau and Whitman in between spinning songs.

These days, Corbett is the voice of Walgreens. He’s the “at the corner of Happy and Healthy” guy. The spots are playing on radio and TV all over the place. In fact, if you hear the beginning bass notes to Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner” (the hippy-rock classic is the music bed to each of the Walgreens ads) these days, there’s a good chance you are now conditioned to expect Corbett’s voiceover. To me, though, there’s still a disconnect. As counter culture of a figure that Chris Stevens was, it’s a little bit of a shock to hear him tell me about this week’s great deals at a major drug store chain.

So, that got me wondering: What if Chris Stevens actually were the voice of Walgreens? I decided to write a script from this angle for my microphone test.

The microphone

MXL 990 with shockmountThe MXL 990 is a stout, cardioid patterned condenser microphone that comes in champagne color. It sells with a shock mount. It has a FET preamp and you need to make sure you’re using phantom power. It’s marketed as a large diaphragm microphone, but others consider it a small diaphragm mic. I’ve read reports that it’s pretty sturdy, but I haven’t tested out its durability, and don’t plan to. Most seem to agree that the microphone is first and foremost a vocal microphone, and that it provides a clean, neutral response to voice — especially voice that isn’t particularly bass-y (my voice is anything but). Some are reporting good response to acoustic instruments with the MXL 990.

The test

I ran the 990 through a Mackie soundboard, and ran that through a PowerWave unit, which fed into my laptop. The mic sat in a shock mount and I used a pop filter. I was surprised how much signal I was getting with the gain straight up at 0 dB. The signal looked and sounded compressed until I dialed the gain back a bit. I didn’t fiddle too much with EQ — I kept the settings that I had used the last time I had recorded with a dynamic mic. As for the read itself, well, I listened to a few of the Walgreens commercials and revisited some of Chris Stevens’ metaphysical observations, and tried to meet the two somewhere.

The Results

The first thing I noticed was that, as advertised, the MXL 990 did a really nice job of handling my voice. There’s enough warmth in there for my liking, and the upper end is crisp without be sibilant.

The second thing I noticed was the mic picked up more room noise than I’m used to. In fact, the only difficult aspect of editing this read was noise removal. I think part of that can be fixed in tweaking the trim on the Mackie and the input level on my laptop.

The last thing of note here is that I had no problems at all with plosives. The mic played really well with the pop screen.

So what would it sound like if Chris in the Morning did a Walgreens commercial? Perhaps something like this:

The Verdict

In the end, I was pleased. You’re not going to mistake this microphone for a Neumann U 87. But what the MXL 990 does well is what I need it to do — it reproduces my voice cleanly and adds a little crisp warmth at the top. The result was the best I could hope for out of a microphone this side of $100, and especially for the $30 I dropped for it.

If you’re skeptical, I get it. But don’t let the inexpensive cost keep you from trying the MXL 990 if you’re thinking about it. If it makes you feel better, you can probably talk your seller into bringing the price up a little bit.

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