After my recent disappointing experiences with faulty Blue Snowball iCE and M-Audio Producer USB mics, I found myself in a bit of a tight spot the other week, when I needed to make some audio examples to accompany a vocal recording article. Having returned both the faulty mics to the retailers on the Friday and with the copy deadline for the article on the following Tuesday, I needed a replacement mic, and fast!
A quick Google search for ‘best USB mic under £150’ returned a swathe of glowing reports and reviews about a mic I’d never heard of before – the Editors Keys SL300 Studio Series USB Condenser Mic. Looking exactly like a scaled-down Neumann U87, it came with shockmount, carrying case and USB cable for £98 inc VAT. Suitably impressed, I rang the UK distributor, Inta Audio of Coventry, at 4.30pm to see whether there was any chance that they could get one to me in time. The guy on the phone listened to my problem, was extremely helpful and arranged next-day delivery for an extra 8 quid, even though that day’s dispatch truck was about to leave the building. Sure enough, at 9.05am the following morning, the package was on my doorstep as promised. Now that’s service!
The case that the mic comes in is moulded from tough black plastic and contains a solid foam insert with voids for the mic itself, the shockmount and the included heavy-duty USB cable. It offers a high degree of protection for your mic when not in use or when transporting it from place to place. In the metal, the solid brass, die-cast mic looks and feels very well put together, with a good heft to it. This 2011 model has been redesigned substantially from the first version, and really does resemble a slimmed-down U87. The shockmount completes the illusion, its harness eschewing the two clipped belts of the more expensive mic for a more economical, but no less effective sprung cylinder affair. After a few initial misgivings about the mic possibly slipping out while in use, particularly when mounted upside-down above my desk for voiceover work, the mount ultimately proved its worth by holding the mic firmly in a secure position for days at a time. The connector fits a standard mic stand attachment and offers a generous angle of adjustment, with no discernible ‘sag’ when subjected to the mic’s weight, but it should be noted that you’ll need to mate the SL300 with a stand of your own or buy one separately, since there’s no stand included in the package.
The mic has two switches located on the front of the housing just below the capsule. One is a 10db pad to control high sound pressure levels and prevent distortion, the other is a low-cut filter that can be used to reduce excess low frequencies (-6dB @ 50Hz). Features of this type are unusual for a mic in this price bracket, but on the other side of the coin, you’re limited to a single, cardioid pickup pattern. This should be suitable for most applications though.
The SL300 is compatible with all computers equipped with a USB port and requires no drivers, so connection is easy. With one end of the supplied USB cable plugged into the socket at the base of the mic and the other connected to the computer, the mic confirms its powered-on status by means of a classy blue LED projected from the bottom of capsule upwards across the large, 34mm diaphragm, which is a very nice touch. Setup is a cinch, entailing merely the selection of the mic in the Sound > Input pane of System Preferences on a Mac, while PC users face a similarly easy task courtesy of the Hardware and Sound Control Panel. There’s no onboard monitoring of the kind you get with some USB mics, so you need to monitor through your DAW software, which, depending on your I/O buffer settings, can introduce a little latency, but never enough, I found, to cause any major problems with recording.
Having been a pro recording engineer for over 20 years now, and having specialised in vocal recording for nearly half that period, I’ve heard enough microphones to be able to tell good from bad. From first plugging in the SL300, a smile spread across my face as I realised that I had stumbled across a gem of a mic. For a sub-£100 mic with no external pre-amp, I was amazed at the warmth, richness and clarity of sound this thing produces. Every lip-smacking detail is reproduced with full low end, crisp mids and sizzling highs. You really have to hear this mic’s output to believe the quality. Although I have yet to subject it to a real battering, I’m confident that, with a stated maximum SPL of 140dB, this mic will handle the kind of high volumes that its predecessors struggled with, and I can’t wait to use it on a proper vocal session. Suffice to say my initial impressions are that it’s an outstanding mic for the money. I highly recommend it, and it has restored my faith in USB mics just when I was about to throw in the towel and invest heavily in a decent conventional condenser mic and preamp combo.
So a big thanks to Editors Keys and Inta Audio for saving my bacon. The SL300 (and also the cheaper, £79 SL150 model) is available from them on 02476 369898, or online at http://www.inta-audio.com.